What negative SEO is and is not

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.

In our next article, we will delve into how to determine if you’ve been hit by negative SEO.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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