78% of SMBs would use 'dirty tricks' to disadvantage rivals

Many did not hesitate to try and hamstring rivals
Many did not hesitate to try and hamstring rivals

UK businesses might be far more willing to use the dark edges of the internet than we might expect - or accept. That's if marketing company, Reboot's new report is anything to go by.

This report reveals a troubling willingness among UK companies to resort to morally shaky, if not outright illegal tactics to gain increased visibility on the web. 

According to Reboot, over 78 percent of businesses surveyed were happy to employ such tactics to gain an advantage over competitors.

To test the waters, Reboot sent out a phoney email to 84 SMBs, offering those companies a chance to hamstring their rivals with 'negative SEO' and push them down the search rankings.

The phoney email read, “I am able to offer you a service that will make (your competitors) sites disappear from the first page of Google results for  a period of at least six months resulting in your site being bumped up accordingly in the Google rankings. In some cases, your competitors' sites will not return at all and in most cases they will disappear for much longer than three months.”

Of the 61 respondents to that email, 48 outright accepted or at the very least showed interest pending more information. Only a minor 21 percent turned it down.

From the outside, an SEO ranking might seem a trivial thing. But in reality, the placement of company's page on a simple Google search can mean profit or penury. Shai Aharony, managing director of Reboot told SCMagazineUK.com that “the difference between number four on Google and number one is very substantial - sometimes up to 8 times more traffic! - and can mean massive e-commerce and traffic advantages.”

To that end, companies might employ less than legitimate, but perhaps not quite illegitimate, means to cling on to those ever-fickle search rankings. It's not hard to find a service that will attempt to punish your competitors in search rankings, and many such services advertise openly.

The mechanics of a negative SEO attack are not complex. While normal, if inelegant, SEO begins with spamming in an attempt to get as many eyes as possible on the desired website, negative SEO inverts that tactic.

It relies on tricking Google's algorithms and exploit its propensity to reward or punish people within search rankings, sometimes even eliminating from the search index entirely, for bad behaviour.

One method might be to copy the content of a competitor's website far and wide to fool Google into believing that your competitor is attempting to fraudulently up its search ranking. Google will thus penalise that website and degrade its ranking, possibly pushing yours up the page. 

One could also distribute thousands of links to a site using a phrase that one's competitor wants to rank, once again making Google believe the competitor is trying to fraudulently optimise the site and once again resulting in punishing the site by pushing it down the rankings.

Furthermore, Reboot thinks that such attacks are on the rise. The company noted in a statement, “We have seen clear cut cases of five negative SEO attacks in the last six months. Previous to that, we did not see one.”

Negative SEO inhabits a strange grey area, legally if not morally speaking. The law concerning it is pretty much unarticulated in much the same way hacking was before our own Steve Gold (1956-2015) hacked into the personal voicemail of Prince Phillip and inspired the Computer Misuse Act 1990, the law which sends hackers to jail.

This might be what makes it so popular.  Aharony certainly thinks this is the case. He told SC, “The legality, grey area and lack of any strong law cases means that they feel more emboldened to carry out such attacks without the fear of repercussions.”

There's a stark contrast, added Aharony “with hacking attacks and other cyber security issues that are more widely recognised as illegal, and there are many cases of people being prosecuted and even jail time served.”

Reboot were inspired to investigate further after the company itself was subjected to a negative SEO attack.

Apparently a competitor had hired just such a negative SEO service to hit Reboot and two other rivals. Aharony told SC, “We were attacked via a massive wave of low quality links pointing to our site using our top phrases ‘seo company' ‘seo companies'. The idea is to make the site look over optimised in the eyes of Google and trip a manual or algorithmic penalty.”

After realising what was happening, the three affected parties got together to compare notes. But, “it was decided that it was best to leave it alone as, ironically, the guy initiating the attack was himself hit by an over optimisation penalty by Google so Karma took care of it on that occasion for us.”