Can bad links hurt your rankings?
It has long been debated whether poor quality or spammy links could actually damage a website’s rankings in Google.
I read yesterday that over the last few months, Google has been sending out emails to website owners warning them about artificial or unnatural looking links. I’ve seen examples online today of two almost identical emails from Google to the webmasters in question. They both warn about contravening Google’s guidelines but one email warned about links on the website in question which links out to other websites and the other warned about back links or inbound links. Just to clarify for the benefit of any non-SEO’s, back links or inbound links refer to links on other websites which when clicked take the reader to your website.
Google’s email about back links
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.example.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.
Google Search Quality Team
Links intended to manipulate rankings
Since links to and from other websites are a key determinant in how highly your website ranks, link building has been one of the most abused aspects of website promotion. A huge industry has evolved to allow marketers to buy and sell links designed to manipulate rankings. Links bought and sold for the sole purpose of manipulating rankings are in contravention of Google’s guidelines and Google is constantly looking for new ways to combat link spam to preserve the integrity and quality of its search results. Defining a paid link in itself is not easy for example many business directories require payment for your business to be reviewed and accepted but these are not what is meant by paid links.
The toughest nut for Google to crack has been the issue of spammy back links and the reason for that is because website owners are not in control of who points links to their website. If Google penalised your website because of its back links then your competitors could sink you in a trice by pointing a tonne of bad links at your site and pretty much every website would follow yours down into the abyss.
Google’s approach to this in the past seems to have centred around devaluing low quality links so that they become ineffective by being neutralised. However, so long as there has been no real risk of a penalty and a chance that some of these links hold some benefit for ranking purposes, no matter how small, there remains an incentive to acquire them and this sometimes happens on a vast scale (thousands or even hundreds of thousands).
Penalties for bad links
In some cases I read, the site owners claim they have been penalised so it may be the case that these emails are associated with a penalty which will be reconsidered by Google only if the site owner can demonstrate good reasons. Given this ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach, I can only assume that Google has developed some pretty robust techniques for identifying back link profiles which are not only artificial but which also provide strong signals about ‘owner responsibility’.
When asked in the past whether it is possible for a competitor to damage your rankings, Google’s response has ranged from “almost impossible” to “probably possible”. Google has stated that it is almost impossible to sway their opinion (this is all ‘algorithmic opinion’ of course) of a site by pointing bad links at it. That may be enough comfort for businesses that have had websites for a long time. However, new sites may not be so immune from such attacks because they have not had time to establish authority and trust. Indeed, I have read accounts from more than one person claiming that they have succeeded in getting a new site penalised by pointing spammy links at it.
Should you be worried about bad back links?
Our view is that this is not something for most established businesses to feel worried about unless, of course, they are actively infringing Google’s Guidelines. Businesses using SEO companies might ask their providers for a report on their back links or better still for instructions on how they can check their back links for themselves.
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