Over the last year there were approximately 665,495 company incorporations set up as per Gov.uk. Starting a business is tough, and undoubtedly, you’ll experience several hurdles along the way until you reach that coveted point of success you’ve long been yearning for.
But, sometimes it’s not as easy as keeping your finger on the pulse. It could be that industry economics as well as wider economic issues impact your business to a point of near defeat. Not to mention, it can also be tough to compete with established businesses, especially if your business has a limited marketing budget. Consequently, competition from other brands in your niche may cause some to act unethically, and consider sabotaging a competitor.
What does it mean to sabotage a business?
Acts of online sabotage involve harming a business’s reputation. For example, discrediting their products/service with negative (and often completely fake) reviews are a couple of ways businesses may damage a competitor’s online presence. Online sabotage isn't about GAINING access to sensitive information, it's about how individuals then use it. Other methods include running a spam link campaign to bring on/cause a google penalty, or even hacking a website.
Individuals who have strong SEO knowledge may be more able to utilise negative SEO tactics. At the core of most businesses marketing strategies is an investment in SEO services to increase organic traffic sent to the brand's website. Negative SEO involves executing bad SEO practices using “black hat” or unethical techniques to negatively impact a competitor’s search engine rankings.
How can we define negative SEO?
As explored in our previous study, due to a lack of awareness of its legality, negative SEO doesn’t have a formalised definition. Instead, the SEO team at Reboot have defined it as:
The legality is an interesting topic and fuelled Reboot a few years back to consult some of the most respected internet law specialists in the UK and US to assess how difficult it can be to prove if negative SEO or online sabotage has been used.
Although the legality is hard to prove or track back, it seems it hasn’t stopped individuals from googling the term ‘negative seo’. We looked at the average monthly search volumes and several related keywords. Collectively across the US and UK, there are 1,640 searches made every month for 'negative seo'. Likewise, the cost per click (CPC) is a staggering $7.73 demonstrating just how competitive the term is.
If you’re keen to learn more, you may be interested to read our in depth study and interview with leading specialists about the legality of negative SEO.
In light of just how sinister the nature of sabotaging a competitor’s online business and reputation can be, Reboot Digital surveyed 1,672 business owners to expose just how many businesses would consider sabotaging a competitor if they THOUGHT THEY WOULD get away with.
We looked at the reasons they may choose to sabotage an online competitor’s business, as well as the techniques used. We also sought to highlight out of those who would consider sabotaging a competitor, which industries appeared to be MORE culpable.
The main findings
Our survey can reveal that 18.3% WOULD consider sabotaging/damaging a competitor’s online business if they knew they would get away with it.
Encouragingly, 81.7% of business owners wouldn’t consider it at all even if they knew they could get away with it.
99.7% of those surveyed haven’t sabotaged a competitor, whilst just a tiny 0.3% admitted they have damaged the online reputation of another business they compete with.
The business sectors that would sabotage a competitor’s online business
Out of the business owners who answered that they would consider sabotaging/damaging a competitor’s online business if they got away with it, Reboot was able to find out the business sectors they were from.
Recruitment and HR ranked first with 25%, whilst Advertising/Marketing/PR came second with 22%.
Reasons for businesses to damage a competitor’s online reputation
18.3% of businesses that would consider compromising their competitor’s online business/reputation, were then asked what the reasons would be (on the premise they got away with it).
The top 3 results included:
Interestingly, just 9% of businesses cited that having a lack of website traffic was enough of a reason that they would consider sabotaging a competitor for.
‘I have a personal grudge against a business owner’ warranted just 7% of business owners to consider unethical tactics.
Techniques used by businesses to damage a competitor’s online reputation
Fortunately, there’s a big difference between saying you’ll damage a competitor’s online business and reputation and knowing how you’d do it.
There are several methods, some more straight forward than others which companies use to threaten or weaken another business’s online website. Therefore, we wanted to discover the techniques business owners would use should they consider harming the success of another business.
Four techniques used to sabotage a competitor’s online business:
What to look out for if your business is targeted by a competitor
There are multiple tactics to damage a business’s online reputation, but it can be difficult to identify when this has happened; until it’s potentially too late. In a bid to help, we have put together some useful pointers to help you diagnose if you’ve been a victim of online sabotage.
Look for fake reviews
Fake reviews can be damaging to the extreme. They can quickly shatter perceptions of trust, making it difficult to re-build a brand that customers will visit.
Worth noting that fake reviews are illegal, and if you’re caught in the act, you could face criminal or civil enforcement action. However, like other methods of online sabotage, it is problematic (although not usually impossible) to trace back to the culprit.
Fortunately, there are ways you can identify if your business has been the target of fake online reviews.
- If the review has very little or even no detail whatsoever. This can ring alarm bells, as someone who is genuinely reviewing your product/service will be more than willing to expand on reasons for their negative review.
- If you notice multiple negative reviews that are the same as others. You may also spot the same fake reviews on other business’ sites, not just your own.
- If you notice the use of superlatives, adverbs, and pronouns, then the chances are it’s a fake review/post. Research by Cornell University adds that the reason for using ‘I’ and ‘me’ is to add credibility, whereas if it were a genuine negative review, the reviewer would use nouns.
- If you find the reviewers details don’t match customer records. This is an easy way to spot fake reviews, as if the reviewer has never purchased your goods/and or service, the likelihood it’s fake.
- If there’s a sudden spike in negative reviews but you haven’t been warned by customers or employees of any genuine issues or cause for concern. Check the date and time stamp too.
- If you find the reviewer has a photo-less profile or uses generic first and second names.
- If you notice spelling and grammatical errors. Fake reviews tend to be outsourced to content farms who are there to deliberately generate large chunks of text.
Lastly, you may find it beneficial to reach out to the reviewer. You’ll know almost immediately if they’re fake if they don’t respond or your email bounces back.
Look for fake social media account(s)
Fake social media profiles are becoming increasingly popular – perhaps due to the rise of influencer marketing. Luckily, there are many tell-tale signs that someone has created a fake social media account which threaten to weaken your online reputation and should you rcompany use social media marketing to monitor said tactics, it can be easier to control.
How to spot a fake social media profile
Like a fake negative review, if you find that the social media profile has little to no images of themselves and no bio, then this could be an immediate sign the account is fake.
- Check the account credentials – when was it set up? Is it set up under a name or brand? Can you see dated content that indicates the account is used regularly?
- Do they engage with others? you should be able to see a regular interaction/conversations with other users or brands.
- Does the account have contact information and are they well connected? Whether it be followers on Twitter, connections on LinkedIn, or friends on Facebook? If not, this could signal alarm bells.
- Perhaps the account has an extremely high follower count, but low engagement rate. It could be an immediate sign they have bought followers, as you’d expect for example an account with at least 1,000 followers to be receiving more than just a handful of likes.
Spam, toxic and/or what could be manipulative links
Google’s algorithms consider many external factors and signals to determine where to rank a page in their search results and one hugely important factor is the external links pointing to a website. If Google’s algorithms detect and believe that you are creating links pointing back to your website in an attempt to manipulate their search results (whether you have created these links yourself or someone trying to damage your online reputation has created them without your knowledge or consent), your website could see reduced organic visibility or even be removed completely from Google’s index as a result of a penalty and you may require a penalty recovery service.
Hacked and/or hijacked websites
Website hacking and/or hijacking is one of the most serious ways someone could potentially damage a competitor’s online reputation. Once a malicious third-party has gained access to a victim’s website, they can do several things to hurt that websites reputation. For example, they can take the website down completely, publish adult or offensive material, 301 redirect high-performing pages to their own website(s), add external links to their own online properties to benefit from the hacked websites authority and trust and/or steal sensitive company or customer data.
Experiment: Reboot sent out fake emails offering to sabotage online business competitors
Reboot were so intrigued by the results of the survey that we wanted to explore just how far businesses would go. So, we sent out a fake email to 87 local businesses offering to sabotage their competitor’s online reputations and the results were interesting.
Some of the responses include:
Oliver Sissons, SEO manager of Reboot has further commented on the findings and how to spot if your website has been under attack from negative SEO:
To effectively recover from someone trying to sabotage your website and/or businesses online reputation, you need to spot it early. By closely monitoring your online reputation and marketing efforts, you should be able to spot and respond to any potentially damaging activity that much faster.
Fortunately, there are a few strategies and tools that you can use to keep an eye on your online reputation. You can find some examples below and you should always be looking for new ways to monitor and analyse your brands online activity (whether that be through your own marketing efforts or another person’s/a competitors).
Link Tracking Tools
Several link tracking tools already exist which can help you quickly find other websites talking about and linking to your website. Tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush and Majestic SEO provide up-to-date reports on who is linking to your website and regularly auditing their reports will help you keep an eye on any potentially malicious activity. Google also provides an overview of who is linking to your website in Google Search Console. Your best bet is to use all/several of these tools to give you the most accurate information possible.
If you do find someone pointing toxic or spam links to your website, you should put together a disavow file and submit it to Google. This should help nullify any negative effects the links might have on your website.
Tracking Brand Mentions
Not everyone trying to hurt your business will link to your website. It is possible that a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee is leaving fake, damaging reviews and mentions of your brand online to scare off potential new customers. Using tools like Google Alerts, BuzzSumo and Hootsuite can help you find new mentions of your brand online and decide if they are legitimate or being created to hurt your marketing efforts.
Google Search Operators
If you know what to look for and how to look, you don't even need any paid tools to start finding out who is talking about your website or business online. By getting comfortable using Google search operators, you can search Googles database of billions of webpages to find ones talking about your business.
Which operators exist and how to use them is a topic best left for another dedicated article, but you can find a list of the ones you can use here.
Start playing around with them by switching the example text out with your businesses or website name and details. You might be surprised by what shows up.
Keep an Eye on Your Review Profiles
Hopefully, you are already responding to new positive and negative reviews left about your website or business. If not, doing so can help you combat fake or malicious reviews left by those looking to hurt your business. You should know about and have access to all review profiles about your business so you can dispute any fake ones which might be sent your way.
Keep Your Logins Safe
Unfortunately, hacks can happen to anyone. The best way to prevent or recover quickly from one is to keep any login or access details secure and safe. Also, it could be well worth familiarising yourself on who to contact if your website is ever hacked (likely your hosting provider and/or web development agency if you are using one).
Check for Duplicate Content
Sometimes spammers will take your content and publish it on other websites to lower the value of your websites content. Whilst search engines like Google are no doubt aware of this and have systems in place to limit the damage it can cause; it doesn't hurt to know how to check for this issue.
Every now and then you should take random strings and sentences from your key pages and search them in Google surrounded by quotation marks (e.g. search something like - "Search random strings from your website whilst checking for duplicate content issues.").
If any spammy websites are outranking your own content, you need to find out why. You could look at having the duplicated websites taken down for copyright reasons or might even have to update and improve your own content.
Our survey may have found that although numbers are low for businesses who have directly sabotaged an online competitor’s business and reputation, those who would consider sabotaging is a growing trend.
Online sabotage is a nasty tactic and unfortunately going to extreme lengths is something business owners need to be aware of. And although it can be hard to prove or track the perpetrator who has damaged your business’s online reputation, there are several ways to protect your site from being victimised.
The methods to sabotage can be easy to spot and rectify if you know what to look out for. Hopefully, your business will be able to identify if your website has been victim of any such unethical methods and how best to counteract them.