One day, Simon Mackay's business website was ranking on the front page of Google. The next, the listing had disappeared completely, which saw a drop of several thousand dollars in lost revenue.
A quick Google search uncovered the awful truth. It was as if his business had never existed.
The general manager of Sydney's Web Marketing Experts was hit by a competitor who had purposefully attacked his website ranking to prevent anyone searching for the business online from finding the website.
“We operate in a really aggressive space and we've got some major competitors, so I almost half expected it. There is no doubt that it has cost us several thousand dollars in lost revenue, but it could have cost us a lot more,” Mackay says.
Negative search engine optimisation (SEO) attacks like this are increasingly common among Australian small businesses. Businesses are waging SEO campaigns against competitors to inflate their own ranking and in turn, deflate competing sites, with paralysing results.
Mackay counts himself fortunate, given he works in such a tough digital marketing space.
“We have about seven million records across our 3000 customers so we can see changes quickly – whether it's algorithm changes or negative SEO,” Mackay says.
“Not everyone would be so fortunate. It's important that SEO companies such as ours react quickly to this type of issue, as it can have a knock-on effect.”
Negative SEO is easy to achieve by those in the know. A few dodgy backlinks to your site will see Google penalise your ranking, pushing your listing down. Worse still, your listing could disappear altogether. And it's almost impossible to find out who has attacked your ranking.
Mackay says that negative SEO can be dire for a business. He started building a brand online for a client recently, which was ranking well on Google, when suddenly the ranking plunged.
“We discovered we were working with a recycled domain name, which our client had unknowingly purchased.
“The domain name has been penalised in a previous life by Google, which meant this business had to start all over again. It's so important to start a new business with a virgin domain name.”
Louder Online general manager Aaron Agius says that the way the Google algorithm currently operates leaves businesses open to negative SEO attacks from competitors and ruthless online marketers looking to take out potential competitors.
Agius recently helped a Sydney copywriter rebuild her ranking after a suspected negative SEO campaign hurt her business significantly. Often, the only clue that something's up is to Google your business name to see if you still hold the same ranking.
“There are lots of places out there where you can buy 10,000 dodgy links for as little as $5. It can be really bad and potentially get any website penalised by Google if someone puts in enough effort,” Agius, based in Sydney, says.
It's believed that Expedia may have been hit by a negative SEO campaign that hammered the travel website's rankings on Google searches.
Expedia's website lost 25 per cent of its visibility in Google between January 12 and 19, after Google clamped down on efforts to boost its online traffic through paid links from other sites, according to third-party search analytics firm Searchmetrics.
Expedia's shares fell on concern about the impact of its business, and deeper analysis by Searchmetrics founder Marcus Tober suggested in the media that a competitor could have built artificial links to hurt Expedia's ranking, which he says has become more common in recent years.
Expedia didn't comment publicly, though rankings in important travel-related search results were hit hard. A Google search for "hotels" didn't bring up Expedia's website on the first few pages of results during the attack. In the past, expedia.com would have appeared on the first page, according to Tober.
SEO is needed to get your business on the front page of Google. You can do it yourself, but it's a complicated and competitive space.
Big Australian brands can spend upwards of $20,000 a month on SEO. Earning natural links from creating and marketing good quality content such as white papers, blogs, guides and articles can help lift your ranking organically, according to Agius.
If you've been penalised by Google after being attacked by negative SEO, a Google AdWords campaign can help reduce your immediate traffic losses, but it won't do anything to fix the penalty and loss of free organic Google traffic, Agius says.
“If you're selling bathrooms and try to get around a negative SEO campaign by buying your way out, you'll just be throwing money away, because it won't undo the damage.”
James Dixon, general manager of SEO firm, ATOMICSearch says the worst-case scenario is that Google removes your site from its index.
“You would know this has happened if you type the business name into Google and it doesn't show on the first page of results,” Dixon says.
A business can evaluate the value of SEO by understanding the benefit it brings, he says.
“For example, a plumber in Sydney can use the free Google keyword tool to research the volume of searches made by Sydney residents for their service. If the tool reports 5000 searches per month, apply a benchmark 5 per cent of the searches coming through your site. This exercise would project 25 site visits per month and if 10 per cent of them organise a service, the value of the SEO traffic would be established. Obviously, you pay less than the value returned.”