If your online business, like thousands of others on the Web, relies on Google searches for traffic, then Brendon Scott is a good person to have on your side.
For a price, he can boost a site to the top of Google search results for lucrative search terms, attracting crowds of customers. And better to have Scott working for you than for your competitors. Because occasionally, Scott says, he takes a less friendly approach: reducing a competing site's visibility to searchers--or making it seem to disappear from search results altogether.
Scott offers what he and some other search marketers call "negative search engine optimization" or "negative SEO," a harmless-sounding term that amounts to sabotaging a Web site's ranking in search engine results. Sometimes negative SEO is performed for reputation management, tweaking online content so that it floats to the top of Google or Yahoo!results, thereby pushing a critic's negative comments to a lower ranking. But in rare cases, Scott says, negative SEO involves more nefarious means, convincing Google or Yahoo!'s search algorithms to bury a competitor's site deep within search results, where its traffic practically evaporates.
"I understand the rules of search," Scott says. "And once you understand the rules, you can use them not just constructively, but also destructively."
Those rules, at least for major search engines like Google and Yahoo!, are based largely on the number of links from other pages to a given site: The more links, the higher that site ranks in Google and Yahoo! results. But this system of link-based ranking invites cheating.
Search engine optimizers can use software that generates thousands of links to their site, pushing its ranking artificially high. In response, Google and Yahoo!'s search algorithms now automatically punish sites that game their algorithms by pushing the offending pages deep into the unseen layers of search results.
That filtering strategy keeps search results relevant to users despite the meddling of Web spammers. But Scott and other search marketers say it also makes possible a powerful form of negative SEO. Search marketers claim they can frame certain competitors as cheaters by posting thousands of links around the Web, making a competing site look like it's engaging in "link spamming," a tactic that draws the disfavor of major search engines. In SEO circles, this technique of setting up a competitor to be punished for link spamming is sometimes called "Google bowling."
"If a new site gains half a million links over the course of a weekend, it looks suspect from Google's point of view," Scott says. "So you make someone look naughty, and then get them caught."
Scott says that he's used Google bowling in the service of clients with travel Web sites and mobile phone sites, but he tries to avoid using the tactic frequently. It tests his ethical limits, he says, and its beneficial competitive effects don't usually last long. Google bowling, he says, occurs most often in already disreputable parts of the Web that hawk porn and pharmaceuticals.
When Scott has stooped to direct sabotage, he says he's signed nondisclosure agreements that prevent him from revealing details of the deal. Such secrecy means that claims of using Google bowling are difficult to verify. Jason Duke, another practitioner of negative SEO based in London, is similarly tight-lipped about his deals, as well as the specific methods he uses for reducing a site's ranking in search results. "We don't talk loudly about our clients," he says. "Especially the ones we do morally questionable things for."
Google and Yahoo! offer even fewer clues about the extent of negative SEO practices, leaving them a subject of speculation and doubt. Some search marketers question whether tactics like Google bowling even exist. Google's Webmaster Central site, designed to answer search marketers' queries, says merely, "There's almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index." But Duke, and many search marketers, take that "almost" as a concession from Google that negative SEO does occur.
Matt Cutts, a senior software engineer for Google, says that piling links onto a competitor's site to reduce its search rank isn't impossible, but it's extremely difficult. "We try to be mindful of when a technique can be abused and make our algorithm robust against it," he says. "I won't go out on a limb and say it's impossible. But Google bowling is much more inviting as an idea than it is in practice."
Cutts also points out that any potential for sabotage exists across all search engines. "It really should be called 'search engine bowling,' " he says.
Duke says that Google bowling--or search engine bowling, as the case may be--does work, and that he's "advised businesses both on undertaking it and recovering from it." He adds that one of his own sites, a financial services business, was hit with the tactic and lost an estimated 5 million unique visitors over the course of 10 days.
Neither Scott or Duke will say just how much they receive for their sabotage services, though Duke says his base rate is around 3,000 pounds (about $6,000) a day, with extra charges for especially labor-intensive jobs. He cites one assignment, reducing the search engine rankings of a film's negative reviews, which paid in the tens of thousands of pounds.
A less cryptic and less controversial purveyor of negative SEO is ReputationDefender, a company based in Louisville, Ky. ReputationDefender, which charges $10,000 per assignment for its SEO services and claims more than 25 clients, offers to hide unflattering comments about individuals or businesses on the Web by using what its founder, Michael Fertik, calls "Google Insulation." The company creates positive content about its clients and floats it to the top of Google or Yahoo! results, so that negative content is pushed to subsequent pages, where it's less visible.
Duke says he also performs this kind of less objectionable negative SEO when it suits his clients' needs. But he argues that it's a slippery slope from this more accepted tactic to less polite methods of search-rank sabotage.
"SEO can always be seen as good or bad, depending on which side of the fence you're sitting on," he says. "That's the reality of search. For every winner, there's also a loser."