Should Reputation Management Use Negative SEO?
Search engine optimization is one of the tools that reputation managers turn to when rebuilding or shaping a client’s online visibility.
By promoting helpful, informative content in the search results, a reputation manager improves the client’s ability to attract and engage with public interest in a non-confrontational way.
Unlike paid advertising, there are few laws or regulations that apply to search engine optimization. Legal barriers against false advertising don’t apply on the Web.
A client may be able to allege intellectual property right infringement or libel, but Web hosting companies and search engines insist that restrictive takedown procedures be followed.
A successful takedown request may result in content being removed from a platform, but it could be months or years before the desired removal occurs.
And then search engines may leave deleted articles in their results for months.
Social media optimization is much more reactive to positive press and public support. Although negative, embarrassing, or hostile content may remain in social media archives for years, as public sentiment changes so the current results for social media searches change.
But that doesn’t happen on the Web.
When clients see how long search engine optimization may need to push helpful, factual, informative content to the top of search results, they may become frustrated and start asking how the hostile content can be removed.
Sooner or later they may ask about so-called negative SEO.
Here’s what you should tell them:
What Is Negative SEO? (Does It Work?)
Search engine optimization is intended to help a Website appear higher in search results.
Search engine representatives speak of rewarding Websites for good content or of recognizing the votes that other sites give to good content.
The very nature of search engine marketing is positive and constructive.
The negative approach is thus thought to be the opposite: to cause a search engine to punish a Website, or to withhold recognition of the votes that other sites give to it.
These votes are expressed in editorially given links. When a news reporter or blogger links to a Website in an article, that link may be counted as a vote by a search engine algorithm.
Google’s PageRank algorithm is the most famous of link-counting systems. PageRank is a complex formula that decides how important a page is by looking at how important the pages linking to it are.
Because search engines may punish Websites for manipulating their search results with unnatural links (that is, links that are not bestowed by genuine editorial choice), some marketers believe that a hostile party could hurt their Websites’ rankings by creating many bad links that point to their Websites.
Over the years Google has reassured people that negative SEO rarely works, if ever.
In this Google video from 2012, a Google employee explains that not only does negative SEO not work in most cases, but their disavow tool can also help defend against negative SEO.
As recently as May 2020, another Google employee said on Twitter that he “can’t recall a situation where a site ever needed to do a disavow for that.”
Although many people express concern over links they don’t understand, Google has provided ways to counteract these link attacks.
The Riskiest Part of Negative SEO Is That It May Backfire
As the video from 2012 mentions, if someone points many links at a Website, they could end up helping rather than hurting.
Although Google has algorithms that attempt to recognize and ignore non-editorial links, its engineers admit that these links may sometimes help.
It is for this reason that retaining someone to build spammy backlinks for hostile Websites is not a wise choice for reputation management.
Not only is there no guarantee the links will result in a penalty, but there’s also a real chance they may make it much harder to displace hostile content in search results.
And there is another way that negative SEO might backfire:
If the writer your client is concerned about is monitoring their backlink profile, they may recognize an attempt to push their site down with a spam link attack.
By drawing attention to your client’s campaign in this way, the hostile writer now has a reason to launch a new attack and further embarrass your client.
Other Types of Negative SEO
Negative search engine optimization also includes distorting or destroying another person’s reputation in the search results.
Some people call this reverse reputation management, hostile reputation management, or reputation attacks.
Regardless of how you label it, these strategies consist of the tactics that may be harming your clients: publishing articles or content on social media that attack a client’s credibility or calling attention to controversial information.
Attacking the character and reputation of another person or an organization does not in any way improve one’s own reputation. It is a reciprocal reaction that only sows more hostility and potentially creates sympathy for those who have attacked your client.
Publishing hostile content about the people publishing hostile content about your clients only makes things worse, especially if the hostile attacks can be traced back to your client.
The Only Negative SEO Strategy That Works (And It Only Works SOME of the Time)
If it can be shown that a coordinated disinformation campaign has been directed at your client, it may be possible to attract sufficient news media attention to expose the attack.
Most people and organizations who have been targeted for such abuse are unlikely to attract sufficient media interest to disarm the effectiveness of hostile propaganda. News organizations are more likely to unmask disinformation campaigns if they see a threat to the public interest, or substantial harm has been caused to innocent parties.
On rare occasions, celebrities and politicians – as well as private citizens and small organizations – have engendered sufficient public support when calling out disinformation campaigns to attract media attention.
These grass roots exposés rarely work for lack of visibility and compelling human interest. To reverse the momentum of a hostile campaign and turn the negative visibility against the attacker, one must respond with an impeccable defense of character and action.
Hostile Content May Accrue Under Your Client’s Search Results
Impassioned defenses against hostile attacks may be deemed relevant to a client’s search results. Whether protecting a personal name, brand name, or critical query, a reputation management specialist should be careful not to inject content into the search results that only highlights the original attacks.
Directly defending against false and misleading claims is usually acceptable. The public often expects to see an appropriate response to disinformation campaigns in search results. And in recent years search engines have improved their algorithms to reward debunking information.
These systems are not perfect.
And clients may see themselves as entitled or wronged even if their past actions merit some criticism. Publishing a direct response to criticism, rebuke, or complaint cannot change established facts of public record.
The best approach to dealing with negative search results is to promote positive, helpful information into those queries and provide a balanced, well-reasoned presentation that avoids controversy and hostility.
Negative SEO May Have Other Undesirable Consequences
In rare circumstances, search engines may take action against organizations and individuals who were exposed for buying or building manipulative links. These penalties may last only a short while, but the sudden loss of brand-value Websites from search results may only make the client’s pain worse.
Buying links or using other schemes for the purpose of unduly influencing search results violates the search engines’ guidelines. They reserve the right to take punitive action against corporations and individuals who blatantly disregard those guidelines.
A reputation management campaign that relies on link placement should be carefully planned and executed to encourage or attract as many editorially given links as possible. Months’ worth of work could be undone by a single attempt to trick search engines into punishing hostile content by purchasing spam links for that content.
As tempting as it may be for some clients to turn the tables on the other side, this is usually not the best way to handle a reputation management campaign.
If hostile content cannot be removed from the Web by legal, ethical means then the best defense is to publish positive, favorable content that outranks it in the search results.
As frustrating as the situation may be for the client, the reputation management specialist’s job is to improve the situation, not make it worse.
Using risky strategies that may cause more harm than good does not serve a client’s best interests, even though their emotions may be strong and powerful.
The PR specialist and legal representative is expected to be the voice of reason in planning and managing a reputation campaign. When your clients understand the risks of engaging in hostile activity on the Internet, they should be less likely to demand that inappropriate action be taken.
And there is also the question of how much risk your own agency should take on for a client.
Is it really a good idea to risk your own reputation on a strategy that has little chance of succeeding?