A brand’s online reputation is everything. How much more important is a personal reputation? One malicious article posted by a competitor or ex–or a fake negative review–can spread like wildfire, dragging a person’s or company’s hard-earned reputation through the mud. Just ask any job-seeker whose name brings up negative search results about their past, whether based in fact or fiction.

In this cutthroat online environment where companies pay millions to stay at the top of the search results, simply having a strong offense isn’t enough – you need an equally robust defense when something goes wrong. Enter negative SEO, a controversial but potent practice of deploying aggressive SEO tactics to bury negative content and regain control of your online narrative.

While frowned upon by SEO purists and search engines (as if the SERPs are based upon purely democratic measures of truth, fairness, and topical relevance), negative SEO is increasingly becoming a necessary strategy for businesses looking to protect their reputations from bad actors and others who are eager to do them harm.

The Prevalence of Bad Actors

The internet has given a powerful voice to the disgruntled and unscrupulous. Competitors can hire shady reputation management firms to launch smear campaigns through fake review spam and planted hit pieces on Google, Yelp, and social media sites like Facebook and Reddit, masquerading as legitimate content. Angry former employees can vent their grievances on complaint websites anonymously. Even honest critics sometimes go too far with their criticisms because they’re trying to sway others to feel angry or afraid. In this virtual minefield, negative SEO provides an important countermeasure.

How Negative SEO Works

Negative SEO aims to manipulate search rankings to drown out the negative content about your brand. Common tactics include overwhelming the negative pages with thousands of indexed links from low-quality sites, creating multiple duplicate copies to crowd out the originals, or flagging pages as spam directly with search engines. It’s an arms race of SEO sabotage between attackers and defenders.

The Effectiveness of Negative SEO: A Case Study

In 2023, a San Diego plastic surgeon was the victim of a malicious online attack from a former client who flooded the internet with over 100 fake negative reviews on sites like Yelp, Vitals, and HealthGrades. These negative listings quickly rose to the top of search results for the surgeon's name, obliterating her online reputation and medical practice in the process. After exhausting all remedies with the complaint websites, she hired an aggressive online reputation firm that deployed negative SEO counter-tactics. Within 5 months, they were able to relegate the fake reviews to the latter pages of search results by creating hundreds of new micro-sites and listing links that outranked the negative content. While the fake reviews were never fully removed, their impact became negligible as they disappeared from the critical first few pages of search results that the majority of people browse. The plastic surgeon was able to regain control over her online narrative and resume normal business at her medical center. 

The Ethics of Negative SEO

To some, negative SEO is seen as unethical Black Hat trickery that games the system in unintended ways. Search engines like Google have taken measures to detect and devalue these kinds of manipulative tactics. However, as this case study illustrates, negative SEO persists as one of the few effective strategies for combating malicious falsehoods on the internet. When your brand’s reputation and livelihood are under attack from real disinformation and smear campaigns, resorting to aggressive counter-tactics like negative SEO becomes a necessary act of self-defense in the online wilderness. The old adage of “don’t hit back” no longer applies when playing by the rules leaves you hopelessly defenseless.

At the end of the day, negative SEO may be a “gray” practice, but it provides a level of due protection for individuals and businesses that would otherwise have no other recourse against libelous falsehoods capable of destroying them online. In the arena of online reputation, it’s fight fire with fire or get burned.