Some time ago one of my work colleagues left in order to go to another, much bigger Online Marketing company and at one point when we met up we started talking about how things are working for her at her new employer. And what she told me left me speechless. At my current company, we pride ourselves in being an online marketing firm which, apart from working according to white-hat SEO practices, abides by ethical and moral rules when it comes to providing services to our clients. So when I've heard that my colleague's new company was buying links by the dozens, not to their clients' websites, but to their clients' competitors' sites, I was astonished.
This is a big online marketing company I'm speaking of. So this shows you two things: 1. That you have to be very careful of what online marketing company you choose to work with, because if they have absolutely no problem in doing this, who knows what they are able to do to your own website and 2. That even if you work hard in building up your site and everything you do is 100% according to Google's Quality Guidelines, if your competitor buys tons of questionable links to your site, you can still get hurt.
Before Google Penguin people didn't really talk about negative SEO. Of course, buying links was a black-hat practice long before, but I don't believe websites were negatively influenced by these sort of practices, not in the way they are currently anyway. If you still don't quite believe in negative SEO, you should definitely check out this experiment from Tasty Placement, which shows the impact of low quality links on rankings. It will make a believer out of you.
So what is there to be done in order to prevent competitors to buy links to your website? Well, you can't really do much to prevent it, but what you can do is to implement a process through which you can catch such a practice on time and do what you can in order to fix it. Below is a short guideline in order to help you get started (please use this before crying out for your MAA' :).
1. Monitor. In order to catch such practices you have to monitor your link profile. You could start implementing the following steps only when you notice something odd going on with you rankings or organic traffic and so on, but you should do it constantly. In any case, as you might know, there are a couple of great tools, which can help you in doing so. The main one is Google Webmaster Tools. So after you have logged on to GWT and go to the Search Traffic section to the Links to your site area, click on More to see the whole list of Who links the most. Here you will find the Download latest links button with which...you guessed it! You can download the latest links to your website :)
Now, depending on the amount of links you receive in a given time frame, you should do this periodically and not only with the sole purpose of preventing competitors in harming your website.
An additional tool you can use is Open Site Explorer. Even though you can download a similar report containing inbound links as from GWT, I like to use the Anchor Text report (unfortunately you do need a paid Moz account to have access to the complete list) and I'll tell you how I actually use it in a minute. What is important to note is that you should download this report often, as you will need a previous Anchor Text report to do the necessary comparisons later.
2. Analyze. All the tools in the world cannot help you if you don't analyze your data properly. So, the first step would be to analyze the Anchor Text report from OSE (don't worry if you don't have this one, you can still figure things out, but it could take more time than with this particular report). So if you do have the Anchor Text report you should compare it to the previous one you downloaded (this is why you have to download this report often). You should be looking for abnormal increases in a particular anchor text. Why? you ask. Because when competitors buy links they buy a bunch and I don't believe that they will take the time to "diversify" the anchor text the links will have. That way, apart from pointing paid links to your site they will also create an unbalance in your anchor text profile, which can likewise gain the disapproval of the Mighty Google.
The reason I said having the Anchor Text report might save you time, because it is much easier to spot if something odd is going on with your anchor text profile, than going directly to the next step.
So if something is not quite right with your Anchor Text report you have to take the link report you have downloaded from Google Webmaster Tools and identify any spammy links that started pointing recently to your website. Again you can use a couple of tools for this. What we have recently tried is Link Detective, which you can use to take a look at the domain and page authority of the links you uploaded, together with their type. If you notice a bunch of low authority sites (an authority under 30 for example) pointing to your site and you are more or less sure that you or your team didn't build those links, then you might have gotten a nasty present from one of your competitors.What is there to do next?
3. Act. Be prepared because a lot of work awaits you. There have been many articles on how to clean up your link profile, which are perfectly viable in this case as well, so I will not get into more details here. But, an additional thing you can do is try to identify the service which was used by your competitor. Try searching for clues on the pages you are getting harmful link juice from, for example. If you are able to identify the company, you should contact them and try to get those particular links removed.
There it is. MAA coming to the rescue when your competitor is bullying you :) Have you ever thought that your competitor could be buying paid links to your website? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.