In the first of a six-part series on neg­a­tive SEO and its effect on links, con­tent and user sig­nals, con­trib­u­tor Joe Sinkwitz sets the tone by dis­pelling myths and pro­vid­ing def­i­n­i­tions of key con­cepts.

Today we are start­ing a six-part series on Neg­a­tive SEO. The series will be bro­ken into three areas and will show how neg­a­tive search engine opti­miza­tion (SEO) has an effect on links, con­tent and user sig­nals.


Pos­i­tive SEO under this broad­er view would be any tac­tic per­formed with the intent to pos­i­tive­ly impact rank­ings for a uni­form resource loca­tor (URL), and pos­si­bly its host domain, by manip­u­lat­ing a vari­able with­in the links, con­tent or user sig­nals areas.

Neg­a­tive SEO would be any tac­tic per­formed with the intent to neg­a­tive­ly impact rank­ings for a URL, and pos­si­bly its host domain, by manip­u­lat­ing a vari­able with­in the links, con­tent or user sig­nal buck­ets.

But Google says negative SEO isn’t real

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Google isn’t being entire­ly hon­est here.

If you can acci­den­tal­ly hurt your rank­ings by shift­ing a vari­able, then it would log­i­cal­ly sug­gest that an exter­nal enti­ty shift­ing that same vari­able asso­ci­at­ed with your site could result in a rank­ing decrease or out­right dein­dex­a­tion.

Over time, Google does attempt to keep cer­tain tac­tics from caus­ing too much dam­age, but they are far from per­fect.

Here is what they say on neg­a­tive SEO:

Google works hard to pre­vent oth­er web­mas­ters from being able to harm your rank­ing or have your site removed from our index. If you’re con­cerned about anoth­er site link­ing to yours, we sug­gest con­tact­ing the web­mas­ter of the site in ques­tion. Google aggre­gates and orga­nizes infor­ma­tion pub­lished on the web; we don’t con­trol the con­tent of these pages.

Sounds as if they are try­ing to admit cer­tain tech­niques are, in fact, pos­si­ble.

I should men­tion as part of my back­ground, I’ve been involved with the four “P’s” of spam (porn, pills, pok­er and pay­day web­sites) either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly via client work, which makes for an inter­est­ing break from influ­encer mar­ket­ing and help­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists (VCs) with their port­fo­lio com­pa­nies.

Why does my expe­ri­ence mat­ter? The four “P’s” are wide­ly thought of as the most com­pet­i­tive indus­tries in search, and from my own expe­ri­ence, I’ve seen both attempt­ed, failed and suc­cess­ful neg­a­tive SEO cam­paigns on a near­ly dai­ly basis.

Not only is neg­a­tive SEO real, it is hap­pen­ing con­stant­ly. As oth­er plat­forms like Ama­zon have arisen, I’ve watched prod­uct opti­miz­ers deploy both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive cam­paigns there as well. Any plat­form that relies on neg­a­tive sig­nal­ing to ensure qual­i­ty is going to get manip­u­lat­ed.

While this can be seen in a vari­ety of Ama­zon cat­e­gories, this tends to occur more in areas with the intense com­pe­ti­tion where a sin­gle dom­i­nant brand doesn’t exist, from weight loss sup­ple­ments to noise-can­cel­ing earplugs.

Is negative SEO black hat?

If we’re answer­ing this ques­tion by ref­er­enc­ing Google’s terms of ser­vice on accept­able use, Google would almost cer­tain­ly con­sid­er most tac­tics employed to be black hat.

As a primer, I clas­si­fy a “white hat” as a user that fol­lows the writ­ten terms of ser­vice (TOS) pro­vid­ed by the search engines, where­as a “black hat” is a user that oper­ates based on expe­ri­ence, writ­ten or oth­er­wise.

If a TOS were to state you shouldn’t buy links, a white hat would endeav­or to nev­er buy links, where­as a black hat would make that deci­sion based on whether or not buy­ing links was effec­tive.

There is some wig­gle room to the answer, though, as some neg­a­tive SEO tac­tics aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly black-hat (e.g., request­ing web­mas­ters to change links ref­er­enc­ing an asset on your competitor’s site to your site, which has a more rel­e­vant asset worth link­ing to). In this exam­ple, your intent would be to neg­a­tive­ly impact your competitor’s rank­ings while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly improv­ing your own.

It is also impor­tant to note that most pos­i­tive SEO tac­tics become labeled as black-hat at an appro­pri­ate scale, and some tac­tics once thought of as sole­ly black-hat in nature, like cloak­ing, have since evolved into more accept­ed prac­tices under more benign names like inter­net pro­to­col (IP) deliv­ery.

Is negative SEO hacking?

It depends. I’ve seen it described that neg­a­tive SEO and hack­ing have an “are all rec­tan­gles squares” rela­tion­ship. In oth­er words, they can share char­ac­ter­is­tics, but they are not one and the same. Using Mer­ri­am-Web­ster, let’s use the def­i­n­i­tion of a per­son who ille­gal­ly gains access to and some­times tam­pers with infor­ma­tion in a com­put­er sys­tem as a hack­er.

Stick­ing with the geom­e­try theme, it might be more accu­rate to ask, “Are any two rec­tan­gles both squares?”

Inso­far as a tac­tic changes how a site looks or oper­ates, or gives you unau­tho­rized access, it may be con­sid­ered hack­ing depend­ing on one’s juris­dic­tion. Depend­ing upon one’s cul­ture and nation­al laws, the appli­ca­tion of the def­i­n­i­tion may vary con­sid­er­ably. For instance, some coun­tries may take a stricter approach to what con­sti­tutes unau­tho­rized access, and some may have a more lais­sez-faire atti­tude as it per­tains to infor­ma­tion tam­per­ing.

Let’s ref­er­ence my three buck­ets of SEO above and explore a few well-known neg­a­tive SEO tech­niques to see how they’d fare.


Send­ing tens of thou­sands of bad neigh­bor­hood links to a tar­get URL. This would almost cer­tain­ly not be con­sid­ered hack­ing by most def­i­n­i­tions.
Buy­ing links from burned/outed net­works with exact match anchors. Again, this is just get­ting links placed to a web­site, so it most like­ly wouldn’t be con­sid­ered hack­ing. A burned net­work is a group of web­sites that have all been assessed a man­u­al penal­ty; an out­ed net­work is a group of web­sites known to be relat­ed and pub­licly men­tioned. An out­ed net­work often evolves into a burned net­work.


Com­ment spam­ming with the intent to shift con­tent theme or on-page key­word usage. Inter­est­ing­ly, since this “key­word stuff­ing” tac­tic does change the look and feel of a web­site, even though it isn’t inject­ed con­tent, some would con­sid­er it hack­ing, espe­cial­ly if done at a large/automated scale. I do not con­sid­er it hack­ing, though, as the com­ments are left as an expect­ed behav­ior.
Index­ing URLs with bad con­tent due to a con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem (CMS) flaw. If the con­tent is tru­ly inject­ed into the CMS, yes, it is hack­ing. If the con­tent is just per­ceived to exist due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing of how Google reads the CMS but does not actu­al­ly exist, I would argue it is not hack­ing.
Hotlink­ing your competitor’s biggest images in an attempt to eat band­width, trig­ger band­width exceed­ed issue or oth­er­wise slow it down. Flip a coin on whether some­one would con­sid­er this hack­ing; under my def­i­n­i­tion, it is not, but most tac­tics at scale are mis­in­ter­pret­ed, and with mali­cious intent, some may con­sid­er it hack­ing.

User signals

Insert ran­dom dis­trib­uted reflec­tive denial-of-ser­vice attack of the day. It’s hard to not see this as being labeled as a hack, even though it is more of a take­down. I would not even think of doing this.
Is neg­a­tive SEO legal?
I’m not a lawyer, and in no way would I want to be per­ceived as giv­ing legal advice, but this does come up as a ques­tion to me fair­ly often. Neg­a­tive SEO extor­tion is not new, and the clos­er to hack­ing a tac­tic might be per­ceived, the less like­ly it is to be legal; thus, the far­ther away you should stay.