Can you get penalized for external links? The debate gets covered on just about every marketing and SEO forum on the planet; so, what’s the verdict? In some cases, yes, but most of the time, no? Confused much? I sometimes feel as such so I’ve been slowly collecting links of interesting threads, discussions and informational tid-bits on the subject over the past 6 months. I thought it would make a good post and allow people to add to it via the comments. I’ll add the good stuff into this post as time goes on.
Our team has been getting more and more interesting emails from people suspecting that links were causing them issues. While it’s easy to think that right away, we do have to consider other factors that can come into play. There are hundreds of Google algorithm tweaks a year, your competitor’s own efforts, brand clout, user engagement, social media influence and who know what else. There is, however, a great deal of “cases” that have come up online that might suggest links are a potential threat.
The first obvious read? Our post on 10 big brands that Google has penalized for links in the past. These were all paid link penalties, I might add, and being high profile, they simply could not resist the PR stunt at their fingertips. In the end, all companies have come back out on top without a care in the world. There is also a large number of threads with people getting noticed in Webmaster tools right down to the “epic/mythic? -50 over optimization penalty”. For those who didn’t read about it or get one in their Webmaster Tools, here is the message:
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.domain.com/,
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Sincerely, Google Search Quality Team
This is something we’ve encountered a lot more as of late and it definitely has been a case of bad links 100% of the time. The usual suspects of mass forum and social 2.0 profile links, paid blog posts, link wheels and spammy article marketing efforts are almost always a factor. Heavy focus on a few anchor text phrases was also pretty typical, something a lot of people have speculated as a problem child. Regardless of what we think, let this serve as an educational reference for those pondering the same thing.
Public Cases Of GWT Unnatural Link Notices
We’ll start with this as it’s the most recent and public attempt at devaluing your link building efforts. What we’ve seen in cases where this notice pops up is that you’re most likely doing some really low quality link building. While a lot of people argue that you cannot be harmed by links, this is now a pretty good argument against that. The other argument made is that competitors could just knock you out of the SERPs with a Xrumer/Scrapebox/spam-tool-of-choice blast. We’ll take a look at that next, but for now we’ll pile on the public cases for this message.
Keep in mind I’m talking about the message for external link violations, not the one for selling links. The selling links message, however, does make the odd appearance on Google’s Webmaster Help Central, most notably this thread involving Forbes.com. The reason I don’t think we’re seeing too many public cases is because this doesn’t get served all that often. There must be certain factors at play that are determining that this website is in fact taking part in a scheme, and it’s not a competitor doing it. This is where having Majestic SEO in your tool shed comes in handy as you can see any correlation of link spikes to penalties. Ignore that piece of content that went viral and more so look for abusive link exchanges, paid footer/sidebar links and your 10,000 forum profile links.
Click on the above image to take you to that Google result for a more up-to-date look, but here are some of the most interesting cases I’ve read.
- Case involving an over link exchanged hotel http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=7f9f90e1b2f54284&hl=en
- Case involving way too many blog network and directory links going after one lucrative keyword/anchor text http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=167e3f0bd50c5c49&hl=en
- Site owner claims she didn’t do the links but got the notice anyway http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=765df36e791ece35&hl=en
- affiliate site getting stomped on..my guess is someone from Warrior Forum (lol) http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=1ee9981bddf6820a&hl=en
- 100% “pure whitehat” site gets the notice…problem is a lot of people have no idea the link spamming is against TOS http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=6f6d791f9fcfaf58&hl=en
- Another one bites the dust with too many targeted link exchanges http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=2c8812b664c37544&hl=en
If you use that search query or Google discussions, you’ll find a lot of other people in SEO/Webmaster forums posting about it. Some threads to specifically go through is this Warrior Forum one, this v7n post and why not throw in a Digital Point thread while I’m at it. These forums are ripe with link spammers promoting their lame affiliate sites that pollute the search results.
Can Competitors Knock You Down With Bad Links?
From time to time I’ll get an email or read a thread where someone claims that this is happening. I mean, if I were building junk links to my affiliate site and got caught, I’d claim it was a competitor as well. Since it’s out of your control, it is thought that it shouldn’t be a problem or something to worry about. For the most part, I’d agree with that statement. There are a few great threads out there on forums where people are having heating debates over the topic, but I got a couple of quotes that will refute anyone’s claim if it being impossible.
First up let’s see what Google employee John Mu has to say about this;
But in practice, we have a lot of safeguards that help our algorithms to evaluate sites in useful ways. Our algorithms are pretty complex, it takes more than a handful of bad links to sway their opinion of a website. Even if Webmaster Tools shows a million links, then that’s not going to change things if those links are all ignored for ranking purposes.
- quote from http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=199d578059c28ba3&hl=en
And from the wise and ever so handsome Matt Cutts;
piling links onto a competitor’s site to reduce its search rank isn’t impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. “We try to be mindful of when a technique can be abused and make our algorithm robust against it,” he says. “I won’t go out on a limb and say it’s impossible. But Google bowling is much more inviting as an idea than it is in practice.
- quote from http://www.forbes.com/2007/06/28/negative-search-google-tech-ebiz-cx_ag_0628seo.html
So it isn’t impossible after all! I, however, have never personally seen something like this actually happen to a website. Besides hearing rumors of services to knock down competitors, there are a lot of threads with people complaining about it happening. I personally think it’s just rogue outsourced SEO’s making them links they later discover to be absolute poison. We’ll just have what I found here on file for reference and personal education on the topic. Most of these topics will be from 2005 when this was a hot topic, so a lot of this is out of date.
- decent SEOmoz post with some good talk in the comments http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/help-ive-been-seo-sabotaged
- old WebProNews article on the problem of Google bowling http://www.webpronews.com/google-bowling-how-competitors-can-sabotage-you-what-google-should-do-about-it-2005-10
- spam links apparently cause this company to drop like a fly http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3964441.htm
- another WMW thread on the topic http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3677877.htm
- huge 10 page Warrior Forum argument turns into a link sabotage case study http://www.warriorforum.com/adsense-ppc-seo-discussion-forum/440854-google-flawed-you-can-influence-other-sites-rankings-backlinks.html
- SEO Round Table discussion on link sabotage http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/022654.html
- 500+ results of people complaining about SEO/Link sabotage on Google Webmaster Central http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=+site:google.com+seo+link+sabotage
- 1400 or so inquires about the apparent mythic -50 link penalty via Google Webmaster Central
- a slightly different result set for link penalty complaints found on Google Webmaster Central http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/search.py?hl=en&forum=1&query=link+penalty+more%3Aforum
- 4800 posts about link penalties on Webmaster World http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=ubuntu&channel=fs&biw=1366&bih=649&q=+site:webmasterworld.com+-50+link+penalty
- preventing link based penalites with Rand via Whiteboard Friday http://www.seomoz.org/blog/preventing-linkbased-penalties-whiteboard-friday
- high traffic site nailed by a -50 for link activity http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3375264.htm
- Great post and video with Chris Cemper talking about how to cure this nasty penalty http://www.cemper.com/seo-knowhow/google-minus-50-penalty-cure
- all the Blackhat World threads on the -50 penalty
I’m a pretty big proponent that anchor text over-optimisation is one of the biggest causes of a -50. Keep in mind, a lot of the “bionic posters” on Google’s Webmaster Central deny that any link penalties exist at all. They say that the links are only being devalued, which I totally agree with as well. There are just too many people getting dropped back 50 spots or so, and to me that’s a penalty. Even the definition of that word fits the bill:
A disadvantage or unpleasant experience suffered as the result of an action or circumstance.
Since a drop of 50 places in the SERPS is usually accompanied by this apparent penalty, we’ll take a look at some of the causes as well as examples in the wild. We have a client that is still not able to move past the fifth page for his desired keyword for nearly 2 years. This came from buying a few hundred blog posts all gaming one anchor text. These were done before we started and we’ve been trying to remove as many as possible over the years.
To me, this is a filter put in place and we’ve seen it get lifted after a certain period of time or when those offending links were changed/removed.
- Old but good article on even internal links causing an over optimization penalty http://www.searchenginejournal.com/keyword-rich-internal-anchor-text-how-much-is-too-much/8036/
- Warrior forum post about an affiliate getting spanked pretty good http://www.warriorforum.com/main-internet-marketing-discussion-forum/416353-google-over-optimisation-penalty.html
- great post via Onreact about this topic http://seo2.0.onreact.com/google-filters-exact-match-anchor-text-links-are-the-new-meta-keywords
- another WW thread with a some good talk about getting out of this filter http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/4303740.htm
- http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/4248479.htm chat on another person taking a hit
- a great 3 page discussion on WW http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3937683.htm
- bought links and trades cause keyword ranking filter http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3407625.htm
- another post from WW talking about getting out of the -50 filter http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3737327.htm
- great thread, again on WW, covering the problems with aggressive link building for a specific anchor text http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum30/29269.htm
What Type Of Links Cause Penalties/Rapid Devaluation
So let’s assume either penalty or devaluing of links when I talk about some of the link building methods below. If you were building links and noticed a 5 page drop, I’d consider that a penalty of sorts and be sad. Let’s see what we can find on the web regarding certain types of link building activity that may harm you efforts. I always read in between the lines of what Google says in its blog posts, comments and forum activities. The first example I’d love to bring up was inspired by a blog post on the Google blog on how they treat comment spam.
A natural link profile looks void of schemes such as excessive link exchanges, 10 million anchor text blog comments, unrelated forum profiles, junk content marketing and all the other bad stuff. Your anchor text variation hopefully looks natural enough… I mean barely any site out there is 100% whitehat, so some manual link building is going to take place eventually. That’s why we don’t build that many targeted anchor text links and go for the more random linking approach. If your on-page SEO is sound, the links will do almost the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, there is still significant ranking power in those specific anchor text links.
Blog Comment Links – According to a Google Blog post you can can filtered/penalized for spammy, over-the-top comment abuse. I’ve never seen too much bad things happen, but if you’re only commenting with your desired anchor text and leaving a generic message, expect to take a dive one day. Affiliate marketer’s are the most notorious link abuser’s in the category thanks to software like SENuke, Scrapebox and XRumer. While I mentioned I liked to read between the lines of what Google says publicly, what do you get from this statement:
If you used this approach in the past and you want to solve this issue, you should have a look at your incoming links in Webmaster Tools. To do so, go to the Your site on the web section and click on Links to your site. If you see suspicious links coming from blogs or other platforms allowing comments, you should check these URLs. If you see a spammy link you created, try to delete it, else contact the webmaster to ask to remove the link. Once you’ve cleared the spammy inbound links you made, you can file a reconsideration request.
- SEOGadget post on how they got a page level penalty from spam comments left on his site http://seogadget.co.uk/google-page-penalty-for-comment-spam-rankings-and-traffic-drop/
- potential case of comment spam leading to keyword ranking filtering http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=0658efd70f48d677&hl=en
- another potential case for blog comments causing a -50 http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=0b754b012f15a162&hl=en
- discussion where a lot of blog comment spam links were targeted at a site in effort to take it down http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=78c716f27f683c7e&hl=en
- a post I commented on where the person had mostly spammed blog comment links that made up their link profile http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=4285d9646f96d16f&hl=en
- while seo101 again calls the -50 a myth, this person is there with tons of spam blog comments http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=2bdcf2fa9ac3d7d4&hl=en
- another company in the insurance space got nailed http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=6dcd2428eb4fc691&hl=en
Profile Links – one of the second most used spam tactic out there are profile links from social media sites/apps/networks/wikis and forum user accounts. While it’s still debated that links can’t hurt your site (lolz), let’s see what I can find in relation to over spamming links from certain types of profiles. This is extremely rampant and a toxic practice, and you’ll see it a lot of the affiliate space. Gotta make “dem monies”! I’m sure most of you remember the Acai berry diet crazy in the past couple of years. The ranking space for those keywords were a bloody battle ground and I found this as an example in one of the top ranking sites for “acai berry diet”:
This is why you don’t leave open Wiki’s on .edu’s!
One major important thing to keep in mind is that these profiles provide no value, so they most likely won’t stay indexed for very long. This and the fact Google can most likely tell when you’ve spiked thousands of profile links in few days could results in loss of rankings. It always tends to be banishment to the 5th page:
- Warrior Forum post which talks about the negative effect of profile links http://www.warriorforum.com/adsense-ppc-seo-discussion-forum/428022-google-penalizes-bad-backlinks.html
- a small thread on someone only having profile links done and feeling negative effects from it http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=35ef9ec63b73b3a2&hl=en
- more blackhat talk on WF about profile links http://www.warriorforum.com/adsense-ppc-seo-discussion-forum/334567-profile-backlinks-effective-search-engine-optimization.html
- Blackhat World thread on rapid devaluation of profile links http://www.blackhatworld.com/blackhat-seo/black-hat-seo/310245-google-penalizes-xrumer-warning-all-avoid-xrumer-blast-services.html
- http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=73d7c79b23ee3c1d&hl=en another one where I commented and get knocked on for saying he triggered a filter of sorts. They say that’s hogwash, I saw not because it is only effecting a couple keywords, and the rest stayed fine.
- this post is dismissed as thin affiliate, but the keyword it dropped for is his most linked anchor text…hrmmm http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=2c47db8499bfbb3c&hl=en
Let’s Hear YOUR Experience
While I’m not claiming proof of anything here, I want to open the discussion from webmasters, SEO’s and rands on what they’ve experienced. If you’re one of those claiming that external links cannot hurt your site, let’s hear a good argument. I hear this a lot onGoogle’s Webmaster Central from their top mods, yet they all think that if someone steals your content you can lose rankings for that. That backwards thinking bugs me the most because their argument is that the links are out of your control. Well, so is someone stealing your content.
We’ve personally seen rankings come back after link profiles were cleaned up after a lot of hard work. I personally believe that dropping to page 5 or worse for only a certain search term is a penalty. We’ve seen many people come to use stuck around then, not able to move until the algorithm determined it had cleaned itself up. I am open to it being one of the other hundreds of algorithm factors, but I see too much of the same going on when bad links are involved.
So my stance? Links can cause issues, some call them penalties and others call it devaluation. In the end you’re losing out on business, and that’s not a positive thing!