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The legal and commercial consequences of SEO blackmail

In our series on the search engine optimisation (SEO) we have considered the legal issues surrounding SEO and so-called “negative SEO”. This article continues our SEO theme by looking at the legal and commercial consequences of negative SEO attacks and SEO blackmail on businesses.


What is search engine optimisation?

Search engine optimisation is the term used to describe a set of measures used to influence the ranking of a website on gratis search engines. The exact configuration of the ranking system is a strict trade secret, and is kept by search engines such as Google under lock and key. However, some aspects of the ranking system are well known.

Businesses can improve a website’s ranking by optimising content through the use of formatting, tags, link structures and specific key words.

Negative SEO is the practice of placing questionable content on a competitor’s website in order to downgrade its ranking and improve your own position. Negative SEO can have dramatic consequences on the ranking of online businesses which can have a direct effect on revenue.

Commercial consequences of SEO blackmail and negative SEO attacks

The online portal, Golem, reported the case of a toy shop owner specialising in wooden toys being threatened with a negative SEO attack and the resulting down-ranking of his website unless he paid €5,000.

After the shop owner refused to pay the sum, the blackmailer used technology to create more than 500 profiles linked a single domain and placed “bad links” predominantly on eastern European, Asian and Arabian forums. This led to the catastrophic consequences of the toy shop falling noticeably in Google’s ranking and to the loss of 75% of its revenue.

The fact that SEO blackmail can have such grave consequences for online businesses is reflected in the severity of the criminal and civil punishments which blackmailers can receive.

Threatening an SEO attack to gain financial benefit fulfils the requirements of blackmail under § 253 German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB). Blackmail is a serious offence and is punishable by fine or up to five years imprisonment. If the perpetrator is acting in commercial interests or in a gang, the law provides for a prison sentence of not less than one year.

In addition to criminal sanctions, a person who actually commits an SEO attack, as in the example above, could face civil claims for compensation. Negative SEO infringes a business’ right under the German Civil Code to freely operate an established trade (§ 823 sub-paragraph 1 Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB).

The perpetrator of an SEO attack is liable to compensate the business owner for all the damage resulting from the manipulation of its ranking. Where successful shops are targeted the compensation can quickly reach high sums as it encompasses loss of profit as well (§ 252 BGB).

A further problem is how to reinstate the business’ original ranking. Currently, Google does not have a ready solution and a business which falls victim to an SEO attack is reduced to using Google’s Webmaster Tool to search for each individual bad link and to report them as spam. It is however somewhat mollifying is that a perpetrator would be expected to compensate the business for instructing an expert to undertake this time-consuming task.

It is also reasonable to assume that in the case of such severe legal infringements, a victim of an SEO attack would seek legal advice. The fees and any resulting legal action costs would be carried by the SEO attacker.

Lastly the business would be entitled to seek an injunction to prevent the attacker from committing future SEO attacks or using SEO as a tool for blackmail.

Despite these legal possibilities, it remains doubtful whether a victim of SEO blackmail or an SEO attack will even have the opportunity to pursue legal action of any kind.

In the case of the toy shop, the perpetrator was never identified; and even if he had been identified, the trader would carry the burden of proving in court that the perpetrator was the person behind the numerous false names, e-mail addresses and forum profiles which the SEO blackmailer had created to place the bad links.

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