The topic of negative SEO is a contentious one. Already, camps are forming. When experienced veterans like Danny Sullivan, John Andrews, and Aaron Wall debate hotly in threads like this one, you know it's a subject that requires some attention.
One thing is clear: the recent changes at Google have yet again raised the bar for SEO.
SEO's Flight to Quality
David Brooks of the New York Times recently opined that online courses are poised to shake up higher education, largely due to the keen interest elite schools are taking in the medium. David correctly perceives that,
"The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you’re seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online."
As Google continually raises the standards and expectations of websites, we will surely see a flight to quality in SEO, too. In fact, we already are due in large part to quality changes forced by Panda.
SEO should be invisible is a mantra I've repeated many times, and with good reason. How transparent, how obvious, is a webmaster's naïve manipulation of links in an anchor text distribution like this one? How glaring an attempt at SEO?
Anchor text distributions this spammy resemble PPC ad groups, not natural links.
No wonder there's so much blood in the water. Unfortunately, that blood is primarily from small- and mid-sized companies that were desperate to compete without the tailwind of a meaningful brand, value proposition, or budget. Their lack of strategic breadth and depth, their lack of investing in sustainable SEO techniques, and their greater exposure to risk put them on the chopping block.
The combination of Panda, Penguin, losing query data to "not provided," and the greatly increased cost to entry for SEO has indeed pressured sites into a flight for quality. And that, in my opinion, is a very good thing.
Penguin's Unforeseen Consequences
It was a year ago I wrote about The Coming Tide of SEO Tattletales and, at the time, my concern about webmaster's using a type of competitive sabotage to "out" others in order to take their marketshare in organic search. That has now come to pass, but in a more sinister fashion. Negative SEO indeed is a very real threat to certain types of websites, specifically sites without significant authority, trust validation, and online presence. This translates to websites with less quantity and quality of links, with less of a footprint. Unfortunately, these types of sites are exactly the same small- to mid-sized companies already suffering from Google's Penguin update.
It's a double-whammy for small sites in competitive niches:
- First, in order to compete, some took the shortcut and easy path and bought links with manipulative anchor text. Those are now stripped, causing a significant loss in ROI for the sites that secured them. In fact, it's a negative ROI: the sites are not only stripped of receiving benefit from those links, the links are even contributing to their penalties.
- Second, sites in competitive niches have fierce competitors, some of which are vile and will do anything to win, including engage in negative SEO. Here's an example.
What Google's Penguin update has done, is to invert the implicit and expected value of manipulative links and anchors. Rather than simply strip value from these links and filter them accordingly, Penguin proactively penalizes them. This creates an imbalance towards low-quality linking signals and gives them a new kind of power. Competing sites can use this new power imbalance to take each other out. While we have yet to see negative SEO impact any large, reputable site, I have seen several examples of small sites clobbered in this manner, and many more examples are public. For sites that aren't yet victimized but feel vulnerable, they would be wise to begin protecting themselves, if it's at all possible.
What Does This Mean?
Google will need to take action against the impending tide of negative SEO. How this is accomplished is very complex, because simply filtering manipulative links seems to contradict the results Penguin is after: the aggressive handicapping of sites engaged in the practice.
I will tell you one thing, however self-serving it may appear. Practicing sustainable, long-term SEO for our clients has insulated them from the teeth of every recent algorithmic change, including Penguin. I guess quality really is the only sustainable SEO strategy after all.
Google organic share post-Penguin for RKG clients.
Panda vs. Penguin
The Panda update puts a premium on original, high-quality content and clean, canonical sites. Duplicate content can be a bigger problem now than it was before the update hit. The rule of the day post-Panda is a 'less is more' strategy and a focus on user engagement. Now Penguin puts a premium on natural links and anchor text. In early 2011 we preached that SEOs should quit obsessing on anchor text. For those who followed my advice back then, congratulations. You're well positioned to take marketshare from those who may have taken shortcuts in the meantime.
No, it's not that simple. In fact, it's quite complex. But when complexity and confusion rear their heads, it's helpful to distill the problem to its simplest possible essence. In this case, it is just this: focus on quality and focus on your users. Focus on marketing beyond search engines. Build your audience. Make Google need you for their relevance more than you need them for your traffic. And let the algorithm updates come and go.