Much of the world of search engine optimization (SEO) is about making your website move up in the rankings. However, your ranking does not just depend on your own site; it also depends on the other sites you’re competing against. Yes, just like in law school, search engines grade on a curve.
This raises the possibility of winning the SEO game not by raising your own site’s rankings, but by making all of the other sites drop. This is negative SEO. It’s a black hat SEO technique that used to be done quite often, typically by planting backlinks to a competitor’s site in nefarious places on the internet to trigger a Google Penguin Penalty.
There are lots of search engine penalties, though, and negative SEO can work by using any one of them against you competitors. However, negative SEO is not something for amateurs, as it can backfire if done poorly. One minor politician in Connecticut has discovered this the hard way after trying to cover up a scandal by using Google’s Pirate Penalty to take down sites that tarnished his reputation.
CT Town Commissioner Threatens to Abuse Power
The political scandal started, as scandals now often do, on social media.
Ken Haas, an appointed Conservation Commissioner in New Britain, Connecticut, got into a political argument on Facebook. Haas, however, took things to the next level by threatening his critic by posting, “You do know I have access to ALL city records, including criminal and civil, right???”
A local activist and law student, Robert Berriault, saw the threatened abuse of power and called Haas out on it. Berriault created a petition on Change.org, calling for Haas’ removal, wrote an opinion piece about it in a local online newspaper, and then announced his own candidacy for election to the New Britain City Council.
Rather than go quietly, though, Mr. Haas tried to cover up a scandal… with a bigger scandal.
He called the dean of the law school that Berriault attended, to “alert him of [Berriault’s] actions,” and then went to the local police to file a complaint for harassment.
When the police refused to help the politician quell the dissenting view, Haas turned to negative SEO techniques to minimize the damage, but completely boggled the execution.
Politician Forges Court Order in Attempted Negative SEO Maneuver
Haas forged a court order for a libel suit – one that claimed Berriault had to “remove and retract statements made referencing Plaintiff Haas,” while also misspelling the word “State” – and sent it to Google in an attempt to get the Change.org petition and newspaper article removed from the search engine’s listings.
His efforts, however, only attracted more attention. Eugene Volokh, of The Washington Post, broke news of the story to the nation and thoroughly debunked the legitimacy of Haas’ court order.
Not to be deterred, Haas turned to the more traditional method of negative SEO: Using a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request to get Volokh’s article, and a similar one posted on Techdirt, removed from Google’s listings.
Perhaps because of the attention his earlier attempt had caused, though, the black hat SEO move failed: All of the articles Haas targeted are, as of this writing, still at the top of the Google results in a search for “Ken Haas New Britain.”
The Holding: Negative SEO is Not Something to Play With
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Mr. Haas’ escapade into the world of negative SEO.
The ones that we want to focus on, though, are that DMCA requests can be used in negative SEO maneuvers, but that they can be costly to your law firm’s reputation if you take a swing, and miss.