Even people knowledgeable about SEO often react to any discussion of negative SEO with scorn, but they shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss every application of a simple tactic. Reputation management is an important area of digital marketing in which negative SEO is an important part.
Understanding Reputation Management in its proper context
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?
Something that you would never share with a stranger.
Something that, when it comes to mind, makes your cheeks burn with shame in spite of being ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.
Maybe it was something you said.
Whatever it was, you likely didn’t need anyone to tell you that you were in the wrong. You knew you screwed up.
Yes, you were wrong and you would be the first to admit as much. But do you deserve to have documentation of that moment shown to every person you might meet for the rest of your life?
Your parents would see it.
Potential romantic partners.
I think you would agree that it would be pretty horrible to be defined by the worst moment of your past for your entire future.
Meet Justine Sacco. She was not a celebrity or public figure of any kind. Her Twitter account had 170 followers.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Justine made a horrible, racist joke that cost her her job. Okay, fair enough. That was just the beginning of what would happen to Justine though.
The journalist Ron Johnson profiled Justine in his book So You Have Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he goes into excruciating detail about #HasJustineLandedYet becoming the top trending hashtag in the world (Johnson’s excerpt in the NYT) because she was asleep on an intercontinental flight while her joke was going viral.
The peanut gallery on Twitter was in such anticipation of what would happen when her flight landed and she turned on her phone, that it dispatched an emissary to her arrival airport to stealthily snap a picture of Sacco.
In less than 12 hours, she went from nobody to global sensation. Then, just a few weeks later, nearly forgotten.
But the google algorithm doesn’t forget very easily.
Put yourself in the position of Google. When someone, somewhere on the planet googles the name “Justine Sacco,” what information do you think they are most likely looking for?
Well, 0.0000000001% of the estimated 14,800 monthly search queries for her name MIGHT be doing background research on her for a job interview or a date.
Statistically, it’s FAR more likely that a given googler is looking for the story of the lady that lost her job while she was asleep on a flight while keyboard warriors around the world followed her flight tracking in real time.
Designed to relentlessly improve users’ search results for relevancy, the Google algorithm continuously evaluates websites for relevancy based on a number of factors including how often a certain website is linked to from other websites as well as a website’s credibility (domain authority). Local newspaper articles that mention humanitarian awards she has won or other good things about her, would be buried underneath New York Times, Washington Post, and Buzzfeed articles about the worst moment of her life every time a potential employer runs a search for her name.
This is why Justine is STILL paying for her bad joke, and likely will for the rest of her life.
Link Building and negative SEO
“Reputation management” firms aim to help people like Justine. While their methods are wrapped in secrecy, it is fair to assume that they use a mix of positive and negative SEO techniques to push search engine results for her name off of the top google search results page.
You see, typical SEO involves a practice called link building. Your google rank for a certain keyword that you want people to find your website with (like “emergency locksmith Tampa”) doesn’t only depend on the technical details of your own website (known as ‘on-page SEO’). It also depends heavily on which sites link TO you.
A link to your Tampa locksmith company from a Washington Post article increases the authority of your website in the eyes of Google a great deal. If the article is very relevant to the keyword like if it was about the popularity of locksmithing as a hobby with Tampa, it would give your site way more of a boost than if it was for an unrelated article. This boost, which can be relatively large or small, is sometimes called ‘google juice’ or ‘link juice.’
One way an SEO professional can help your locksmithing company’s website is by reaching out to various websites and blogs that contain information on locksmithing, tell them that the site they are currently linking to is outdated, and suggest that their readers might appreciate the recent article on YOUR site more. This is “link building” and it is a commonly accepted white hat SEO tactic.
There are far too many SEO tactics to catalogue here, but the main distinguisher between what makes something ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ is whether you are trying to increase or decrease a site’s rankings.
Negative SEO does not involve any intrusive hacks or anything like that; rather, they intentionally employ outdated tactics known to incur penalties from the google algorithm.
In concrete terms, this could mean intentionally adding links from cheap, overseas private blog networks (PBNs), with domain names made up of random strings of letters or misspelled words rather than trying to score links from highly reputable websites. Google long ago identified this as a common tactic shady marketers were using to game the algorithm and get spammy websites ranked high in the search results.
That’s why these tactics will now get your site ‘punished,’ by the algorithm. Your google juice can be taken away in equally large or small amounts, depending on your infraction.
How many years of regular blogging would it take Justine Sacco to overtake the New York Times in the search result for her own name?
Doesn’t she deserve a voice in what information is presented to the world about her? That’s why she might choose to hire a negative SEO specialist: to try and get her name (and life) back.
(Note: For the record, this is an entirely theoretical example. I have no idea whether or not Sacco hired anyone to do Negative SEO for her. My hunch is that she did not)
Sounds innocuous enough, right? But what about when UC Berkeley hires the same kind of firm to suppress information on the infamous pepper spray incident?
Or a local politician that employs it to suppress negative news coverage?
How about a chiropractor that moved into a new town and is using negative SEO to cut into the business of the clinic down the street that’s been there for years?
Can a single tactic be branded as ‘black hat’ if it is not illegal? Or is it the motivation that makes it black hat?
I don’t have the answers to these questions but I fully agree that a line does need to be drawn.
In an ideal world, people would have enough empathy for each other to recognize that we’ve all made mistakes. There’s a good chance that you and I have done or said something much worse than Justine, but were just lucky that it wasn’t overheard, documented, and spread around the world by the next time we checked our phone.
The problem as I see it is that human evolution hasn’t even caught up with the technology of the motor vehicle yet, much less the smartphones incessantly pinging for our attention.
Most likely, your deepest darkest secrets are safe. For now. But the next time you voyeuristically watch a breakup happening live in the comments of a Facebook post, consider that your skeletons may be next to be dragged out of the closet, photographed, tweeted, and put on the front page of Reddit.