Black hat SEO tends to be associated with the unscrupulous, yet proactive, tactics taken by a website to boost their position in SERPs. While many see black hat techniques simply as those methods designed to directly impact one’s own website; such as age old spammy techniques of keyword stuffing and linkspam, this isn’t the case. Sometimes the more nefarious aspects of SEO involve a website using ‘negative SEO’ to attack the position of their opponents in search rankings.

Early examples of this kind of combative SEO came in the form of so-called Google bombs (or Googlewashing). This involved getting sites to rank for irrelevant search terms by employing the traditional SEO tactic of link building. Much of the time, however, Google bombing was committed for (often political) humour purposes – as we can see with the famous Google bomb that saw former President George W. Bush sit at the top of the rankings for the search term “miserable failure”

This brings us to Google bowling. While similar to Google bombing in the way that it’s a form of ‘negative SEO’, the purpose of Google bowling tends to be more harmful. The practice is usually carried out with the intention to damage a website’s ranking in the SERPs, often causing a loss of business for the target while their competitors benefit.

What is Google bowling?

Sometimes referred to as ‘reverse SEO’, Google bowling is a very simple black hat tactic that your search competitors can use to cause your site to fall in the rankings.

Google bowling is a technique that involves the creation of multiple spammy links to a site with the aim of it netting a Google penalty. This technique took off following the 2012 Penguin update which saw Google penalising sites that were engaging in linkspam that violated their webmaster guidelines.

When your site accrues a penalty from Google, you will see a noticeable drop in your position in SERPs. Your ranking could fall by dozens of places, or even be de-indexed entirely – making Google bowling a very powerful weapon.

Building your own site’s backlink profile through link spam tends to do a lot more harm than good, as Google is usually quick to catch (and punish) any sites engaging in the practice. As such, when used by Google bowlers, it’s a very effective way to take down a competitor.

Google bowling is achieved by creating multiple links to a site either manually or through bots designed to spam forums and blogs or by building links in bad neighbourhoods. It’s also possible for spammers to pay for the victim’s site to join a link farm or link network, again contravening the webmaster guidelines and causing a drop in the site’s ranking.

Naturally, this can be very damaging to the success of a website, especially if the spammy links are originating on sites that Google associates with viruses. In this case, the site being attacked could be flagged as unsafe by Google or, in particularly bad cases, removed from Google’s index entirely.

Due to the simplicity with which Google bowling is performed – along with the easy to see results of the practice – it’s a common practice in the black hat SEO world. Whether a rival has paid for your site to be the subject of a linkfarm, or if they’ve done the dirty work themselves and programmed bots to drop spammy links to your sites, Google bowling can certainly harm your SERP rankings. So, how can you protect yourself?

How to protect yourself from Bowling

In short, you can’t. The best thing you can do is to make sure that you don’t annoy your competitors enough to give them a reason to use bowling tactics against you. If that doesn’t work, however, you’ll just have to take it in your stride.

That’s not a defeatist attitude, but simple fact – a malicious attack such as this can’t be prevented, but there are measures you can take to soften the blow. If you’re worried about Google bowling affecting your site, you need to ensure that you stay on top of your backlink profile. By making sure you know where the links to your site are coming from already, you’ll quickly be able to recognise any new – potentially harmful – inbound links.

Once you realise you’ve been affected by Google bowling, the key to recovery is to act quickly by cleaning up your backlink profile and removing any negative inbound links. Our glossary entry on the Google disavow tool goes into depth about the ways you can tidy up any inbound links. However, as a quick run through, when you identify bad links to any of your pages, you should start by contacting the webmaster of the site that the link is hosted on. Ask them to remove it either by commenting on the thread, emailing them or even reaching out to them on social media. If that doesn’t work, however, head to the Google search console and use the disavow tool. This tool can be used to request that Google discounts any links to your site from elsewhere that you don’t want.

Google’s response

Google is almost certainly aware of link building, however, there’s not much they can do about it. Ultimately, Google’s algorithms don’t like sites with bad backlink profiles and don’t want them to rank – whether they’ve built up the links themselves or if a competitor has done it is something that Google is unlikely to recognise. In the future Google will likely develop a way to easily identify bowlers and penalise them appropriately, but until then, you’ll just have to do your best to survive an attack.

As such, it’s important to follow what we have outlined above and stay on top of the inbound links to your site. The faster you recognise and deal with any problems, the better your site will perform in the search engine rankings. Don’t get too comfortable, always stay aware of who is linking to you and your site should make it through a Google bowling attack relatively unscathed.