(Originally posted on LinkedIn)
This article is focused on a problem that the online business community is battling alone. Interested yet? Please read on.
The issue of business rivalries is nothing new, but the way that businesses are negatively competing against each other in the 21st century has me asking - where are all the lawyers?
I work with lawyers on their marketing strategies so I watch for changes in business to find signals of emerging issues where attorneys could be helpful. The issue of black hat SEO techniques is a new frontier for business and/or technology lawyers. At this point, internet business owners have little to no recourse for help as very few lawyers practice specifically in this area and even fewer law firms have experience in this type of law. By all accounts, it appears that the legal industry hasn't quite caught up with this part of the international e-commerce industry.
What is SEO?
There are many areas of marketing that have emerged to keep up with technology. Marketers are becoming experts in their niche including issues related to online searchability, such as SEO. Admittedly, I am not an SEO expert so I apologize in advance if I have not been as "techie" as I could be in this article with some of the definitions.
First things first, what is SEO? Search Engine Optimization (SEO) forms the basis of how your website communicates with the major online search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.). SEO determines your website's organic (non-paid) visibility online. Your website's SEO is supported through the architecture of your site and the content on your pages. Also feeding into your website's SEO is your user experience, or the bounce rate - analytics that determine whether or not your website is useful to your users through the length of time people spend on only one page. Likewise, SEO for your website is reinforced by your company's online activities (i.e. which websites link back to your site as an authority and your company's social media presence).
WHAT IS NEGATIVE SEO?
Negative SEO is a technique used by companies to sabotage their competition's website. It is also referred to as a "black hat" technique because of the bad, malicious, and criminal nature of the activity (think good guy wears the white hat, bad guy wears the black hat). A negative SEO campaign can lower the rankings of a business' website slowly over time or even worse, overnight. Negative SEO is performed in a handful of ways but the unethical spamming of a website through adding junk backlinks is common practice.
ATTACKED OVERNIGHT, A CASE STUDY
Adventure Tours Costa Rica is an online travel agency that has operated tours out of Jaco, Costa Rica for the last ten years. Most of this American owned business' leads come from online traffic and its naturally high Google ranking. Since its inception, Adventure Tours Costa Rica has had to push back hard against black hat tactics meant to affect its placement on the first page of a Google search.
Competition in the online international arena is fierce, especially when it comes to tourism. The tourism industry is highly profitable - worth $2.6 billion per year in revenue in Costa Rica alone. For Adventure Tours Costa Rica, having a high ranking website has been the cornerstone of its online business model. The company's competitors know this and have used any technique possible to usurp its top spot on Google for industry specific keywords. The opposing tour companies, owned by people from all over the world, have been on attack mode against Adventure Tours Costa Rica's website for years.
This being said, it is difficult for small companies like Adventure Tours Costa Rica to keep up. The American owner of the company explained, "The first day of high season, I checked my analytics and overnight, I had 7,000 junk links attached to my website. These black hat techniques attempted to take my site off the first page of Google which would have had an immediate financial consequence to the profitability of my business and the livelihood of the twenty people that I employ."
Following this attack on the website, this business owner has spent countless hours trying to revive his rankings, pouring over backlinks one by one to determine which are legit and which are not. He then had to report back to Google on his findings to have the spam links removed.
It is not unheard of for an e-commerce company making $200,000 per month in revenue to drop to $0 per month because of a tanked Google ranking following a black hat attack.
This process of cleaning up the negative SEO attack is time-consuming, stressful and frustrating but absolutely necessary. In situations like this, the financial consequences are extreme for businesses operating only through an online presence.
THIS IS A NEW PRACTICE AREA - WHERE ARE ALL THE LAWYERS?
The World Wide Web was born over 20 years ago and in many respects the internet has remained the Wild West without a comprehensive policing infrastructure to protect its users. Many businesses, law firms included, run entirely on their online presence. A competitor's negative SEO campaign can immediately affect a business' bottom-line by pushing down their Google ranking and removing them from a first page search result.
Negative SEO tactics are clearly wrong and clearly unethical. Oftentimes they span multiple borders with many different laws at play, as is in the case of the American owned company Adventure Tours Costa Rica. Yet, for all the potential damage that they do, negative SEO campaigns are surprisingly inexpensive to initiate. I performed a cursory search this morning and found a hacker willing to perform a megablast of 999,9999 spam backlinks for only $50. Without any threat of criminal or civil recourse, it is easy to see why these hackers are openly advertising and also, making a ton of money.
Currently, the victim of a negative SEO attack is left holding the ball. There are a few lawyers in the world that have the technical know-how to investigate this issue thoroughly enough to file a successful lawsuit. There are many responsible parties including the webmaster that launches a black hat campaign and also the competitor's business that pays the webmaster to do so. This type of fraudulent activity, is a clear violation of Google's Terms and Conditions.
In most cases, the victim of negative SEO knows exactly who has attacked their business but has no legal ability to fight back.
All online activity leaves a digital footprint, it would just take investigation to prove who is responsible. The e-commerce, online, and internet business industry is worth trillions (yes, with a "t"). Lawyers in any size of law firm, would be helpful in this situation. Pretty immediately, they could level the playing field and protect online business owners against negative SEO campaigns and other black hat techniques.
This is clearly an emerging practice area for the legal industry, so again I ask, where are all the lawyers?