Google Clarifies the Futility of Negative SEO Tactics

3 min read

Google’s Gary Illyes addressed a query regarding negative SEO, offering valuable insights into the technical measures Google employs to prevent low-quality spam links from impacting regular websites.

This information was provided during an interview in May but has largely gone unnoticed until now.


Negative SEO


Negative SEO involves sabotaging a competitor by flooding their site with low-quality links. The intent is for Google to perceive the competitor as a spammer and penalize them by lowering their rank in the search engine results pages (SERPs). This tactic emerged in the online gambling industry, where the stakes for top rankings are exceptionally high, and competition is intense. I first encountered this concept around the mid-2000s, likely before 2010, when someone involved in the gambling sector introduced me.

It’s common for websites ranking for significant search queries to attract low-quality links, which has always been the case. However, negative SEO gained more attention following Google’s Penguin update, which heightened site owners’ awareness of their inbound link profiles.


Does Negative SEO Cause Harm?


During an interview, Gary Illyes was asked a question from the audience:

“Does negative SEO via spammy link building, a competitor throwing tens of thousands of links at another competitor, still harm websites, or has Google managed to mitigate this issue?”

Gary Illyes referenced the Penguin update, to which the interviewer confirmed her awareness. He then shared his experience reviewing examples of negative SEO that site owners and SEOs had sent him. Out of hundreds of cases he examined, only one might have been negative SEO, but even the web spam team needed to be more specific about it.


Gary explained:

“Around the time we released Penguin, there were tons of complaints about negative SEO, specifically link-based negative SEO. I requested examples to understand how it worked and verify its impact. I received hundreds of examples of alleged negative SEO, and all of them turned out not to be negative SEO. They were so far from it that I didn’t even bother looking further, except for one case that I sent to the web spam team for further investigation, and we still weren’t sure if it was negative SEO.

This led me to conclude that people fear negative SEO much more than they should. We disable an insane number of links…”

This was Gary’s experience with negative SEO. He further explained why “negative SEO links” have no effect, highlighting the robustness of Google’s defenses against such tactics.


Links From Irrelevant Topics Are Not Counted

Around the 30-minute mark of the interview, Gary Illyes shared a crucial insight about how Google evaluates links. He explained that Google has long examined the context of the linking site to ensure it matches the site being linked to. If they don’t align, Google doesn’t pass the PageRank signal from those links.


Gary elaborated:

“If you see links from completely irrelevant sites, whether p–n sites, pure spam sites, or anything similar, you can safely assume that we disabled the links from those sites. One of the things we do is match the target page’s topic with the linking site, and if they don’t match, why on Earth would we use those links?

For example, if someone is linking to your flower page from a Canadian casino that sells Viagra without a prescription, why would we trust that link?

I would say don’t worry about it. Find something else to worry about.”


Google Matches Topics From Page to Page

In the early days of SEO, thousands of links from non-matching topics could boost a site to the top of Google’s search results. Link builders would offer “free” traffic counter widgets to universities, which, when placed in the footer, would contain a link back to their client sites. These tactics used to work, but Google has since tightened up on such practices.

Gary Illyes’ remarks about the importance of link relevance align with what link builders have known for at least twenty years. The concept that off-topic links are not counted by Google was understood back in the days of reciprocal links. While I can’t recall everything every Googler has ever said about negative SEO, this instance stands out as one of the rare occasions a Googler has provided a detailed explanation of why negative SEO doesn’t work.

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Shilpi Mathur
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