Think you’ve got an untouchable online reputation with a swathe of positive reviews? Your organic rankings could still be under threat if you’re the target of a negative SEO campaign, warns Irene Castañeda of The Media Image.
When Google’s webmaster trends analyst John Mueller was asked recently how a business should respond to negative SEO, his response was that it was keeping the business’ competitors “busy while you get to move forward”.
This advice may feel like cold comfort, however, if you find yourself a victim of a negative SEO campaign.
What is negative SEO?
Simply put, negative SEO is a tactic often explored by online businesses that aims to devalue a competitor’s organic performance through lowering their organic rankings.
This strategy is largely executed as an attempt to rule out competition in especially competitive niches, to improve the competitor’s positioning in Google’s rankings.
Negative SEO can be achieved in multiple ways, but for the purposes of this article we’ll focus on one of the tactics available at present, ‘influencer reviews’.
Some time ago it was enough just to point thousands of spammy links at a competitor’s website and that would form the basis of an effective negative SEO campaign.
But today, negative SEO requires more thought and strategic planning. In the first part of a three-part series, we’ll be taking a closer look at the use of influencer reviews as a negative SEO tactic.
Often initiated as part of an offsite SEO strategy, influencer reviews contribute to improving a business’s reputation online and boost credibility.
However, they can also be used by black hat SEO specialists in a more negative way as part of a negative SEO campaign.
How important are reviews?
- Econsultancy has quoted research stating that 61% of consumers read reviews before making a purchase decision
- TripAdvisor identified that 77% of holidaymakers would not proceed with booking a hotel without reading its reviews first
- 90% of consumers read reviews before visiting a business
- 31% of consumers are likely to spend more on a business with excellent reviews
- 72% of consumers will take action only after reading a positive review
The research clearly illustrates that reviews are very important for online reputation management and increase the probability of a consumer converting on a site that they’ve shown interest in.
This might be why black hat SEO specialists have focused on them for more negative SEO purposes.
A difficulty exists in separating authentic reviews from the spammy inauthentic reviews, which is why they are often used for negative SEO purposes.
As intelligent and advanced as Google’s algorithm might be, there are still many black hat SEO specialists that are successfully getting away with creating fake reviews as part of their negative SEO campaigns, with the intent of harming their competitors’ reputation.
Using social media for fake influencer reviews
Did you know that your competitors can now use social media to manipulate a real user’s attitude towards a specific company, brand or a product in autopilot?
Here's how it works.
Black hat SEO specialists will set up a negative campaign using “popular bot” for example, a social plugin from the famous black hat SEO tool provider Xrumer.
The Free SocPlugin, as Xrumer developer Botmasterlabs describes it, is allowed in four social networks “Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, Mamba and Facebook, to post messages, comment on photos and videos…” and automatically bypasses the protections from bots, including captchas.
SEO specialists will contact thousands of people on social media networks with annoying, intrusive, frustrating sales messages, which will include a victim’s website address.
SocPlugin can bypass modern protections and can decode most modern captchas, making it difficult for social networks to stop the bot and if they manage to stop it, the botmaster team (i.e, Xrumer’s developers) will work really hard to include new captcha decoding in a new release.
“The program during the registration and submitting process can decode and bypass more than 500 types of popular graphical captcha like ReCaptcha, Facebook and VKontakte captchas, etc,” says Botmasterlabs.
These bots can contact the same users repeatedly from different fake social media accounts with the same or slightly modified message.
The final phase entails the bot contacting the same users, again, thanking them for using the service/ buying the product and asking them to leave a review on Google or on any other review site.
This stage is the most important part of the campaign, as frustrated, annoyed people will often leave a negative reply, expressing all the frustrations experienced from previous communications with the bot.
These reviews are very strong signals and while a third party might have triggered or led to the negative feedback, the reviews were essentially still created by genuine users and their behaviour will not trigger the review websites’ spam alert.
Many individuals are confident they will never confirm a stranger’s friendship request on Facebook, and for this reason believe that they will not be susceptible to bots or spam.
This can be true, but it’s important to be aware that SocPlugin, the black hat SEO tool, can send invites, comments and messages from multiple accounts; provides automatic support of dialogue; and allows automatic access to account content, photo likes, shares and much more.
This just demonstrates that you can never be entirely sure whether you’re friends with a spam robot or not.
How expensive is it to set up a campaign like this?
- Access to Xrumer with the free SocPlugin licence fee is $240
- Abuse-free VPS has an estimated cost of $250 per month
- Negative SEO rates vary depending on the country the SEO specialist is working from and it is possible to hire someone from Russia for as little as $500 per month
In the greater spectrum of things, the total budget of a negative SEO campaign like this could be as little as $990, but the impact it could yield is staggering for online businesses.
How can you stop it?
Unfortunately, not much can be done to completely stop these negative SEO tactics as there are no definitive tools available to completely remove the negative feedback spread.
However, you can minimise the damage and safeguard your business to a degree, by constantly monitoring your online reviews to identify early if you have been attacked by a negative SEO tactic.
There are many tools you can use, but the below are some of the best options to have in place.
- Google Alerts: You can setup Google Alerts to inform you about any mentions of your company, brand or product. The set-up is quite simple and there are no advanced features, but the service is completely free.
- Reputology: Reputology is a dedicated service which manages online reviews with analytics and automatic feedback collection and it’s priced reasonably, from $29.00.
- Reputation.com: Reputation is an online review tracking service, with a single dashboard to monitor reviews from multiple sources.
What if you’ve been hit?
Most website review platforms do not allow business owners to delete negative reviews. In most cases they can delete a negative review only if it violates their terms and conditions.
Reputation management experts have recommended that the best way to counteract negative reviews is by replying to negative feedback.
If a review has been triggered by spam, making it null and void or fake, you can always provide clarity to your audience by replying and explaining the real reason for the negative feedback.
Furthermore, the option also exists to flag it up with Google.
The relatively little that you can do to erase the effects of a negative SEO campaign is a bitter pill to swallow for many online businesses. If a review matches the review websites’ T&C’s, in most cases it will prove problematic to remove.
It’s highly probable that your legal team won’t really be able to help either, even if you receive hundreds of negative reviews from different users.
We recommend minimising damage from negative and unauthentic reviews by responding to any negative review in a professional way, and by motivating your happy clients to leave you positive reviews on as many review sites as they can.
When deletion is not an option, the quantity and quality of reviews counts. It would be wise to ensure that you sign up to the online reputation management tools mentioned in the article, just to ensure that you’re always aware of what’s being said about your business.
While it’s easy to recover from a negative review here and there, an onslaught of negative feedback, which is often made possible through negative SEO, will be much more difficult to recover from.
They say prevention is better than cure and we encourage you to be on guard against negative SEO tactics.
Irene Castañeda is an SEO executive at the Media Image, where she specialises in optimising rankings, providing data-driven results and contracting negative SEO tactics.