Let’s Kill the “Bad Inbound Links Can Get Your Site Penalized” Myth

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The Loch Ness monster is a myth. Despite concerted and scientific efforts, the only signs of Nessie are a few grainy photographs…yet the myth continues. In the SEO community, we have a similar mythical monster lurking, and it’s called “inbound links from bad sites can earn your site a Google penalty.”

Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all.

Let’s assume that an evil webmaster – defined as someone who engages in all sorts of black hat behavior specifically designed to manipulate Google search results – comes along and links to our site. Because this person is evil, they will at some point earn a penalty from Google. So the question is, when the penalty comes, will it also affect our site?

The answer: Of course not, because we have no relationship with the linking party. We can’t control who links to us, so we can’t be penalized when someone who links to us does something evil.

This ought to be enough to put the myth to rest. Yet some junior SEO rangers are getting ready to unload in the comments section, saying that they’ve actually seen this happen to a site they manage or control. Baloney. What they’ve seen is a loss of ranking brought on by a loss of link value.

Evil webmasters, you see, are often times brilliant. They find methods of abusing Google’s system, and for a time these methods help their websites achieve powerful rankings. When an evil website links to you, it’s likely that their link will carry some weight and help your site.

Yet that also means that when Google penalizes the evil site, your website loses a valuable inbound link, which can impact rankings. But let’s not mistake that loss of rankings for a penalty.

Penalties can only occur when there is an obvious relationship – Google has to be 100% certain that you and your website were somehow involved with the evil party in order for you to be penalized. This relationship is demonstrated when you link to bad neighborhoods. See Google’s Webmaster Guidelines:

“…some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.”

The key word here is exchange. If evil doers link to your site, that’s one thing. But if you link back? Your odds of being penalized are much, much higher. Links are votes, so be careful who you link to. If you can’t vouch for the quality of a specific link (say a link provided in a comment signature), then use the rel=nofollow attribute.

If, despite my explanation, you still believe that a link from an evil webmaster could earn your site a penalty, consider this: If it was indeed possible to hurt a website by linking to it, what would stop a competitor from buying a bunch of links and pointing them your way?

This is precisely why inbound links can’t hurt your site, regardless of where they come from. Google and Bing know that if their algorithms penalized sites for poor quality inbound links, it wouldn’t be long before SEOs added sabotage to their list of services.

There are few certainties in SEO, but you can stamp this one in steel: An inbound link from an evil or spammy website cannot hurt you, unless you’re dumb enough to link back.

SEO industry veteran and linking guru, Michael Gray, has put together a followup rebuttal to this post entitled “Understanding Your Backlink Profile

Search Engine Journal highly suggests that the incredibly passionate SEO’s in this thread read this post and also contribute your thoughts. Thank you, the SEJ Team 🙂


UPDATE: After careful consideration of disagreeing comments – some of which have come from SEO industry heavyweights – I’d like to adjust my conclusion. It appears that Google may automatically penalize sites that receive bad links without regard for relationship, However, no one can explain how or when this occurs with any sort of confidence, nor can they explain how long a penalty will last.
Furthermore, there are no concrete examples of this occurring being offered, and all of the practitioners of so-called “negative SEO” refuse to elaborate on the how or why of their service in all but the most general terms. Rishi Lakhani, who took the time to talk to me at length about his experience with bad links hurting sites, indicated that this type of situation is not common. I would agree with that assessment, perhaps even going as far as to say “extremely rare.” Yet, “not common” or “extremely rare” is proof that I am indeed wrong. 
Further proof that I am wrong can be found in Google’s form letter to webmasters suspected of link manipulation. In the closing paragraph, Google refers to the possibility that bad links were directed at your site without your knowledge. Therefore, I must humbly admit an error on my part. I shouldn’t have said bad links can’t hurt you – only that bad links can’t hurt you in all but rare occasions.
Personally, I’m not going to lose a minute of sleep over bad links pointing to my site, and I don’t think anyone else should either. I’d also like to say that this article should in no way be viewed as encouragement to go out and buy spammy links. Finally I’d also like to apologize for calling detractors “junior SEO rangers.” That was uncalled for.
Jason Lancaster

Jason Lancaster

Jason Lancaster is President of Spork Marketing, a Denver Internet marketing company specializing in search engine optimization, marketing, and web design.
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  • http://www.sjaakhummel.nl Sjaak Hummel

    Interesting theory, but Rishi Lakhani says different in his post about JC Penney: http://goo.gl/6s8vh

    He states:

    “For years google says that Spammy links cannot hurt your site. Anyone who believes this must be insane. How does google determine via the algo WHO placed the Spammy link?”

    I tend to concur with Rishi Lakhani, because it sounds more logical.

  • Jonathon

    …. What if, say, 80% of your one-way, inbound links were from “evil sites” originating from a few “bad neighbourhoods”.

    Whether they were there through no fault of your own or you had implemented / paid for them, if the majority of your one-way, inbound links are blatant spam and utilise so called black hat techniques, as long as you don’t link back one would not be penalised in the slightest?

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      That’s my opinion. Only some senior SEOs with more experience than myself disagree…

      • http://www.ObsidianEdge.com Scott Polk

        It is your opinion yes, but you are simply incorrect Jason … Personally, spreading myths such as this do more damage – it gives business owners a false sense of security when it comes to link profiles.

        Link Profiles are one of the most important (and overlooked by 99% of SEOs) areas of an Advanced SEO Strategy.

        .. and that’s my opinion!

        Scott Polk

      • Jonathon

        If I knew somebody more senior and knowledgeable disagreed with me, I’d be inclined to investigate my current beliefs further.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/white-hat-link-building Nick Stamoulis

    The only time I would start worrying about what kind of inbound links a site has is when the majority of them are coming from these “bad sites.” Having no real, valuable links leaves you vulnerable. Like you said, when Google punishes those sites, you lose link value. One or two aren’t going to destroy your site, but you never want them to make up the bulk of your link portfolio!

  • http://www.searchrocket.co.uk/ James Holden

    Thank goodness for a bit of common sense here.

    I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had this argument, usually against somebody who backs up their argument with voodoo hand-waving or claims of insider information.

  • Jonathon

    Taken from: http://goo.gl/JUJnM

    “If you want to make sure Google knows about these links and is valuing them appropriately, feel free to bring them to our attention using either our spam report or our paid links report.”

    I’d read the entire article as don’t worry about it for too long, especially if you can’t do anything about it.

    The post does go on to suggest you obtain some high quality links in to your site, showing you are legitimate?

    Personally, as long as I’m marketing a site ethically, I couldn’t care less about any part of a link profile I haven’t played a part in – paid / sponsored links aside.

    The main takeaway should be that YOU shouldn’t be building low-quality links in to your own site, not to worry about every single link pointing at it out of your control.

  • Shawn

    You nailed it on the head, Jason. If Google can’t figure out who placed/purchased “manipulative” links, then there’s no way they can take action. Worst case scenario they’ll devalue it. But here’s something else to consider – Say a website is engaging in manipulative link practices, but that website just happens to be 100% relevant for the keywords they rank for. Google isn’t going to compromise the quality of the search results because a website has a particular link.

    Of course this isn’t what Matt Cutts and other SEOs (::cough:: Rand Fishkin) want you to believe….

    • http://www.mangiamarketing.com Anthony Mangia

      Rand Fishkin regularly and frequently backs up the idea that links can’t hurt you. It’s literally all over SEOmoz. I think there are like 5 questions about it in their SEO Expert quiz.

      You might dislike SEOmoz fanboys and all of that rah rah white hat rah stuff, but you can’t knock the accuracy of Rand’s information.

      • Barry Adams

        Mwhahahaha hahahaha hahahahahahahahahaa!

        Oh, sorry, were you being serious?

        Rand is a great guy and a very knowledgeable SEO, no doubt about that, but the man does miss the mark occasionally – as do we all. PR Sculpting? LDA? And, most notoriously, his allergic stance towards anything that Google disapproves of?

        Dude, if you swallow everything the Mozombies throw at you uncritically, you need to rethink your approach.

  • Shawn

    Forgot to mention…With regards to JC Penny and other sites that were “penalized” for buying links. Of course Google is going to say they were penalized. They said they took manual action on JC Penny and as a result everyone saw their rankings drop. Ever think that the manual action was devaluing the links which then caused the rankings to plummet?

    Put yourself in the shoes of a search quality person at Google. If a very popular publication (NYT) pointed out a flaw in your algorithm then you’d claim the offending site was penalized to prevent others from doing it. Scare tactics….

    • http://www.clientsource.com Norm

      Highly doubtful. The results I saw being reported lead me to believe it was exactly what Google said it was.

  • http://www.learncomputer.com/ Michael

    I do plenty of article marketing (I write mostly about Android), and I frequently see my articles re-published by somewhat dubious sites (I cannot control who publishes my articles). I am yet to see any negative effects of having my links on any of these sites. So, I agree with you, there doesn’t appear to be any penalty.

  • http://www.searchenginechronicle.com/ Chris

    SEJ itself writes about the anchor text penalty on 10/20/08…..If that article is correct wouldn’t that make the statement of “This is precisely why inbound links can’t hurt your site” incorrect?

    • http://www.searchenginechronicle.com/ Chris

      Article for reference http://goo.gl/SKAFk

      • http://www.mangiamarketing.com Anthony Mangia

        Those are INTERNAL links, genius. 🙂

      • http://www.searchenginechronicle.com/ Chris

        Opps..just grabbed the first reference I found.you get the idea 🙂

  • http://www.blueglass.com Greg

    1. I’m not a junior SEO Ranger.

    2. There’s so much wrong with your post, it’s scary.

    • Shawn

      I’d love to see the evidence that proves this post is so wrong it’s scary.

      • http://explicitly.me rishil

        Shawn – 9/10 times I would take Greg Boser seriously. The whole premise of your post is “Dot worry about bad inbound links – they cant hurt you”.

        They can, and I have seen it quite a few times – despite whoever tells you what from the search engines.

        It doesnt happen all the time, and not always – but you CAN hurt your competitors by buying links.

      • http://twitter.com/kevinmspence Kevin

        A friend did a rather…aggressive linkbuilding campaign for one of his competitors. The logic was that if it worked he could just do it again for his own site, and if it didn’t…well…it didn’t.

        Long story short: their site dropped off the planet for a period of time, before stabilizing in lower positions than it used to occupy.

        This is not a difficult thing to test.

      • http://twitter.com/#!/RexSFO Anthony

        The problem with this post, aside from it’s bold assertion with absolutely no supporting evidence, is that a sizable number of inbound links from malware, porn and other malicious sites won’t damage the target site. A few bad links won’t make a difference but a concerted blackhat effort with a few thousand links including anchor text can and will hurt the targeted website. I work in the lead gen space and have seen this happen first hand. Someone in this thread also mentioned paid links… Google doesn’t know WHO paid for the links but will penalize you nonetheless especially if the links are on a known paid link site. Sorry, my friend but I completely disagree you and this is just more noise in an already crap-filled marketplace of bad SEO ideas and advice.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      So when a heavyweight weighs in – like Greg Boser or Michael Gray – and calls me out, doubts creep in.

      I just had a nice long twitter convo with Rishil, and I’m officially ready to change my summary to read:

      Bad links could hurt you, but only if they’re executed by someone who really knows what they’re doing, and only if Google can somehow be convinced you created these links yourself. In very rare situations, when the stars align, bad links can hurt you. But no one can tell me how much they can hurt you, or for how long, and no one can give me specific examples of this happening, sites that were hurt, etc.

      Frankly, with no disrespect to you or Rishil or Mr. Gray or any other senior SEOs who think I’m dead wrong, this whole thing sounds like a bedtime story. Maybe you’re right, but show me. Show any of us. Don’t resort to vague notes…put something in print.

      While I’m at it…

      I also think it’s disgusting that most of the “negative SEO” practitioners make all their clients sign NDAs the specifically keep them from talking about results. While there are some people out there who know some things that I don’t, I fail to see how anyone would be wise to invest in negative SEO under these conditions.

      Buying negative SEO sounds a lot like buying snake oil from a traveling medicine man. No one can tell you how or why it works, but dammit it works!

  • http://www.ticobooking.com/ Luca

    But buying links can harm a site? Or does it? I understand your point but than everybody would just say that it wasn’t them who bought the links, or it wasn’t them that comment spam 10.000 blogs. The problem with this myth is that I don’t know who to believe, while I agree that it doesn’t make sense cause anybody could buy some links to their competitor and than report them, it is also clear that google penalizes sites that do buy links. Or what happened with JC Penny? So at the end I would like to believe your theory but I simply can’t be sure if you are correct and it is better to be safe than sorry… I’m sure that if I bought 10.000 forum profile links to Matt Cutts blog nothing will happen cause he already has a large number of “quality” incoming links, but what happens if you do the same to a new site? Don’t you think it would harm them?

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Luca – JC Penney was manually penalized (or at least that’s my read), so I’m pretty sure that they’re the exception to the rule.

      Google’s stated policy on paid links is that they are devalued. This is ideal for Google because it’s very hard for people to figure out which links are helping. If you buy a link for $500 a month and it doesn’t help you rank – and you don’t know that – you’re wasting $500 a month. That’s how Google penalizes paid links in almost all cases.

      If you bought 10k spammy links for a brand new site, you won’t get hurt…they just won’t help you. If you’re lucky, you see a temporary increase in rankings (“temporary” is a bit vague) followed by a drop off as Google devalues all your paid links. That’s not a penalty, however – that’s a devaluation.

      • Greg


        With all due respect, you are so completely out of touch with Google’s ability to auto-filter/penalize based on linking patterns, that you really are putting people at risk. The idea behind the concept “It won’t hurt, it just won’t help” hasn’t been close to accurate for quite awhile. (definitely since caffeine)

        As far as those that disagree being the ones that should prove it, I’ll disagree with that as well. As the one making the bold claims, I would think you should be the one to prove your claims. But if you would like to put up the 10k budget and give me the green light to build links to your site, I’m confident, I could prove the flaws in your line of thought rather quickly. 🙂

      • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

        Greg if I could afford that lesson I’d buy it in a heartbeat. I’m humbled by the fact that you’ve read my post and, while I’ve clearly not endeared myself to you, please know that I have the upmost respect for what you do.

        However, look at this from my perspective. I know that you know what you’re doing – I know that Rishi and Michael know what they’re doing too – but there’s this whole “cloud of secrecy” around all of this work that it strikes me as BS. No examples, no articles, no proof, no logical explanations, no definitive answers on how long the penalty will last, etc. Nothing other than “I’ve seen it happen, and if you pay me I’ll prove it.”

        Should that convince me or anyone else?

        First, we have the logic of the whole thing. Google has to be careful with penalties or they risk killing the baby. Next, we have the fact that low quality links from low quality sites could have come from anywhere. Finally, we have the fact that even if these links were to hurt you, how long? When does Google say “OK they learned their lesson” or “maybe these spam links were planted by someone else”. Days? Weeks?

        Why the time limit? Could it be that these penalties have a short time span because they’re simply a result or recalcuation? A hiccup in a less developed part of the algo?

        I regret a couple of things in my post. The “junior SEO ranger” comment was uncalled for, and the absoluteness of my statement all but assured I would be called out. However, can you honestly say that anyone who is otherwise engaged in legitimate SEO should worry about bad links hurting their site?

        I’m not going to lose a minute of sleep over so-called ‘negative SEO’ attacks on my site (or client sites), and neither should anyone else. At best, these things hurt you on rare occasions. At worst, the same smart people are telling a handful of the same stories to one another and that is being purported as fact.

  • http://www.webdesignmu.com Mauritius Web design

    Totally Agree with you great article bookmarked and share

  • Jon

    Jason, I have to respectfully disagree to this article. I have seen first hand a pagerank 4 site that is over 6 years old that was ranked #1 get penalized by inbound links. The test was conducted by over 10k links a day over 30 days then stopped. 2 days after stopping the site dropped off across the board. The site has stayed in the 30’s and 40’s since(a month and a half). Link sabotage is alive and well after Panda. Sorry…. If you don’t believe me, then give me a site to test it out on 😉

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Hit me. SporkMarketing.com. I’m ready.

  • Jonathon

    I don’t think this situation is as black and white as the post makes out.

    In some more extreme circumstances I do believe this sort of thing can negatively affect a website, whether it is an automatic or manually applied penalty.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      That was the conclusion I came to after coming under fire by so many SEO wizards. However, I’m going to put emphasis on “extreme circumstances” and say that 99.9% of us never have to lose a minute of sleep.

      And in that .1% (or perhaps .01%), I’d say there are more important things to worry about.

  • http://www.onlyecommerce.net lee @ onlyecommerce.net

    excellent post, i’ve always been worried about competition spamming our site and receiving a penalty. I suppose the best thing is to test! thanks.

  • David

    So I have to respectfully disagree based on the fact that we’ve tried this experiment. We used Xrumer with varied adult anchor text, bought blogroll links and used other deceptive tactics such as hiding links in NOARCHIVE, and CSS display:none – we received a message and then dropped to the bottom of the index (but we were still in the index) – This test was done in 2009.

    I’m interested in your opinion, but can you please provide any proof to your claim?

    Because of an NDA I’m unable to, but this post confirms that WMT does send notices: http://goo.gl/7QPAm

    • Shawn

      Ever think that use of the NOARCHIVE and CSS display: none were the reasons you dropped? Those are 2 things that YOU, the site owner, has 100% control over. You have absolutely no control over the links pointing to your site.

      • David

        Links were pointed from sites that were using those tactics – the links pointing to the innocent domain were hidden using noarchive and display:none.

      • Jonathon

        “Absolutely no control over the links pointing to your site” is not a true statement, you have control over the links you build to a site.

        If a link profile appears to be a majority of links within a bad neighbourhood or low quality, presumeably a webmaster would have control over a proportion of links to a site if actively engaged in marketing it, why would that site not be penalised?

        Again, such a statement is far to black and white, blind, to be helpful or true.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      My proof is pure logic. If Google penalized every site with a paid link, it would turn the search engine on it’s ear.

      As I’ve said, enough smart people have called me out that I’m forced to say penalites could happen, but even the smart people who called me out can’t offer much in the way of proof, examples, etc., and they all seem to agree it’s rare and/or very difficult.

      So, maybe the Loch Ness monster is real too. I mean, we’ve got about the same amount of proof for the monster that we do for negative penalties. You yourself can’t tell us what happened because of an NDA…

      • http://twitter.com/kevinmspence Kevin

        Ok, so you’re talking about paid links. Nobody is going to buy links to drop their competitors out, it just doesn’t make sense.

        What does make sense are botnets and massive automated ‘blackhat’ link spamming campaigns. If I build 150k horribly crappy links to your site everyday for a month, do you really think that wouldn’t have an impact?

        Try this for yourself. It is not a hard thing to test.

  • https://plus.google.com/117527993105630377127/#117527993105630377127/posts Kieran

    Great article, but I have some bad experience in getting bad site-wide links from “evil competitors”. And I have to examples from my past.

    1. “If, despite my explanation, you still believe that a link from an evil webmaster could earn your site a penalty, consider this: If it was indeed possible to hurt a website by linking to it, what would stop a competitor from buying a bunch of links and pointing them your way?” – they just bought like 100k back links on the dirtiest and cheapest web sites and then, after one month they just removed them. At that moment I had like 10k back links and what Google saw on my site. First month – 10k, Second month – 110k, Third month – 10k. So it was a bad signal for Google and I’ve got -50 in SERP.

    2. My friend accidentally got a big site-wide link from penalized website, he even didn’t know where did it come from. And after this he didn’t find half of his pages in Google Index.

    I don’t want to make any conclusions, but I’d like you to know about these cases.

  • http://samuelcrocker.com Sammy C

    I may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but I disagree with your evaluation. Whilst your logic makes perfect sense “if this worked what would stop competitors doing this and Google banning them” it doesn’t make it untrue that bad links can hurt your site.

    It may not cause whole sites to drop out of the index on their own but I have certainly seen sites benefit from removing rubbish links to their site (all other things equal) and suffer from adding a ton of rubbish links and pointing them at a page.

    The fact that this can (and has) been abused may mean that Google are trying to devalue links rather than penalise more these days but this myth is live and well in my book – it’s no Nessie.

  • http://explicitly.me rishil

    “If it was indeed possible to hurt a website by linking to it, what would stop a competitor from buying a bunch of links and pointing them your way?”

    Its does happen, and the best way to deal with it is to resubmit your site (reinclusion request) (even if its not affected) clearly outlining those links.

    the biggest worry is that spamming links could be a precursor or an indicator of your site being hacked… http://goo.gl/KJMR0

  • http://www.linkjuice.co.uk Kes Phelps

    I totally agree with the fact that “you can’t control who links to you” however hasn’t Matt Cutts been quoted as saying there is “almost” nothing anyone can do to hurt your website?

    Please can you confirm the original quote here so we can all be clear?

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Yes. I read that quote in a Forbes article, and it sounded to me like Cutts was going out of his way to say he couldn’t imagine a scenario where bad links could hurt a site.

      Conspiracy theorists will argue that Google is saying this to discourage negative SEO, but what he’s saying makes perfect sense. It’s very logical to assume buying links, bad link networks, etc. just result in the links being devalued.

  • http://www.seo-doctor.co.uk/ Gareth James

    Really, so why am I fixing this for a client ???

    Dear site owner or webmaster of ….

    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

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      How do you fix it? Did the site owner buy those links?

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Alas, this is not true. While a single link is extremely unlikely to earn you any kind of penalty, a large volume of ‘bad’ links can lead to a manual penalty being unleashed upon your website. I’ve seen it happen, multiple times, and I’ve seen those penalties lifted as well when the links were removed.

    • http://www.clientsource.com Norm

      Thanks Barry. I suppose one could argue the decline in SERP’s was Google devaluing the links and not a penalty, but that would seem to be debunked if you remove the suspicious links and you go back up in the SERPs.

      • Barry Adams

        Indeed. Also, I am slightly miffed at the insinuation by the author in his post that if you disagree with him, you’re a ‘junior SEO’. Exceptionally lame, and immediately puts his entire theory on very shaky grounds indeed. A callous disregard of opposing evidence is the hallmark of a weak argument.

      • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

        Barry – I’m regretting that “junior SEO ranger” comment. My apologies to you and anyone else who was offended.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ian_goodall Ian

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with this.

    For instance, if your link profile contains a tonne of site-wide side-bar links then that alone is enough information for Google to infer you are purchasing dodgy links and disregard them appropriately. You might not be penalised, i.e. see a significant drop in search ranking, but those links won’t count for anything at all and there is still a chance Google will decide that you have done this enough to warrant a manual penalty.

  • JasonD

    What a complete load of tosh.

    I am both very happy and extremely happy and distressed that you believe this.

    I am happy because ignorance like the above is brilliant if you are competing against me online. I don’t want my competition to be clever or great. I want idiots working for my competition. I hope you are working in similar industries to me

    I am also upset that ignorance like yours represents the industry. It is another sad day for SEO.

    Quite simply sir, you are wrong and obviously (if you truly believe your statements above) play in the kindergarten of competitiveness whereas real men work and deliver in the most competitive of competitive industries.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      I’m both glad I made you happy and sorry I distressed you.

  • Jason

    I STRONGLY AGREE with this article, although most of the big hitters in the industry disagree.

    Think about like this: If all it took was to send x amount of anchor text links to one site and that would result in the reduction of rankings for the site. Do you not think this would happen in nearly every niche?

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Ding ding ding. We have a winner. The proof it doesn’t work is the fact that it isn’t working. Search results are generally good in competitive verticals.

  • http://www.craigbradford.co.uk Craig

    Nice post Jason, completely agree, it’s about time someone made this clear. It’s a bad day when at the very least Google and other search engines are not capable of discounting links from bad neighbourhoods.

  • http://www.e-tail.be Dave

    Maybe 1 or a dozen links not but i saw many cases where a site was pushed back in the serps because a competitior was shooting a few thousand ‘bad’ links to another competitor. So i can’t say i agree with your statement at all 🙂

  • Tom Anthony

    An interesting post. You mention that other people’s experience with having seen this is “Baloney”, but don’t offer any evidence of any tests you’ve tried. Did you try some tests?

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Yes. Nothing I’m ready to publish, however.

      I’ve been told that hiring hackers will earn a penalty, but I’m not willing to go down that road as it is illegal.

  • http://www.seolatino.com Rafael Montilla

    Good one Jason!!

    “If it was indeed possible to hurt a website by linking to it, what would stop a competitor from buying a bunch of links and pointing them your way?” It would be too easy to kill competitors or vise versa…..

  • http://www.seolatino.com Rafael Montilla

    But I am not 100% agree with you.

  • Emily

    Jason – this is great to know. But what about a company who has been around for a dozen years and search results for the company name bring up all these bogus Blue Book, Yellow Page, Industry Index, Career sites that list their name and address on a page? Yeah the company name is coming up first, but it seems like a lot of junk the consumer has to parse through to figure out what the right link is. To be clear, these are not real affiliations of the company, nor did they request to be listed.

  • http://www.mangiamarketing.com Anthony Mangia

    Awesome, awesome post. This needed to be said, and you said it well.

  • Keenan Steel

    I’m going to have to disagree with you, Jason, despite your argument from intimidation suggesting that “junior SEOs” disagree.

    Nearly all of Google’s penalties are automatic, not manual. Link-based automatic penalties happen. Your argument falls apart in the case of a SUDDEN drop in rankings. Under your hypothesis (which you claim as fact, despite the lack of evidence) The only other explanation for a sudden drop in rankings

    A) a manual Google penalty to your site – not likely. For every reported case of losing rankings suddenly? Impossible.
    B) a penalty to all of your inbound links, all at once – even less likely.
    C) ?

    I suggest the following piece on the topic:

    Your hypothesis is flawed from the onset because it fails to address sudden, drastic drops in site-wide rankings.

    As for the old argument that “you can’t do this because then you could get other people penalized in Google!” Well, yeah, sorry. If your site is so desperately lacking in authoritative links that I can get it penalized with spammy links, no one’s going to notice that you’re missing from the long-tail terms you may have ranked for. Note that I have done this before.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Keenan – I could see an automated and sudden drop in rankings occur when your site reaches some sort of “tilt” point. If I were programming this tilt algo, I’d look for:

      – obviously paid links
      – a relationship between the site and the paid links

      While in my eyes the relationship would have to be stone-cold to generate a penalty (i.e. link exchange), I suppose it’s possible Google’s penalty algo could make a mistake and infer a relationship between a site owner and paid links where one doesn’t exist.

      But let’s assume you’re correct. Do you have an example of your own?

      Perhaps the fact that Google mentions links beyond your control in their webmaster letter is proof that it does happen…but it’s got to be exceedingly rare.

      That SEOMoz article was awesome, BTW. I read it a few weeks ago.

      • Keenan Steel

        Sure, let me just switch hats… this is what we call ass-hat SEO.

        I won’t give details, but I saw a new site I didn’t like go online. It started ranking for a few long-tail keywords, and I started building spammy links to it. They saw a rise, and then a fall. And then they fell out of the top 100 for everything I could imagine, except their domain name.

        They had almost no links, and were definitely not buying any. I’m sure he didn’t link to any of the linking domains I pushed. This was about 2 1/2 months ago. When I look at his site in OSE or Majestic, they’re all links that I built, save the same handful that I saw when I originally spotted the site.

        Basically I caused Google to hit someone with a link penalty.

      • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

        First of all, you should trademark ass-hat SEO. Funny.

        Next, what did your experiment prove, exactly? You knocked out a competitor who wasn’t actively competing…they weren’t building links or trying to rank for anything.

        I just had a foot race and beat you. You weren’t here, but still, I won…LOL.

      • Keenan Steel

        I’m not sure you understand, Jason. Someone’s site got knocked out with nothing inbound, spammy links. They weren’t paid, they weren’t reciprocal, they were just terrible in quality and probably had nothing but spam links pointing to their domains in return.

        He was complaining that people had stopped subscribing and commenting in a recent post. Poor bastard doesn’t even have analytics.

        The point remains: my experience shows a (generous) threshold in Google where the percentage of spam (probably similar to Brigg’s graphic) pointing to your site reaches a tipping point. This is why I find your conclusion hasty.

  • http://www.fazaonline.com Liam

    Youre only 50% right, Bad Inbound Links Will NOT Get Your Site Penalized but a Huge Amount in a Short Period Bad Inbound Links WILL Get Your Site Penalized, and this has been documented or painfully experienced by many webmasters, especially one that prefers backlink automation……not me off course

  • https://plus.google.com/116060438179787966184 Salvatore Surra

    That’s the way to put it to rest. RIP bad inbound link penalty! Your life was brief and uneventful.

  • http://twitter.com/Fearless_Shultz Mike

    J.C. Penney will be glad to hear that bad links can’t hurt you. Oh. wait…

  • MikeTek

    Interesting theory, Jason, and I’ve seen a lot of sites get away with some downright foul link profiles.

    However, this is ONLY theory and based on zero observation or data. Anecdotes and a few lines pulled from the ancient Webmaster Guidelines are not good enough.

    The onus isn’t on us to prove you wrong – you’ve got to prove your point with at least a smidgen of research.

    The only thing you’re “stamping in steel” here is this: don’t believe MOST of what you read on SEO blogs until you have some hard data to back it up.

  • Jason

    From the examples listed above where a site has been ‘penalised’ – IMO the site has been penalised not due to the spammy nature of the links but due to the fact that the site had been receiving 10K links a day for 30 days and then the links suddenly stopped.

    Google sees this as un-natural and will therefore ‘penalise’ you. I believe that if they carried on sending similar amounts of spammy links to the site every single day nothing would happen.

    • http://twitter.com/Fearless_Shultz Mike

      So if you sent lots of links daily for a short period of time and then stopped the site could be penalised? Regardless of whether it is down to the nature of the links or the velocity, does this not still mean that negative link building can harm a site?

      • Terri Wells

        What concerns me slightly more about this is that getting lots of links to a website over a short period of time, and then seeing it stop — especially if it’s to one particular page — is what you’d expect to see happen if you’ve just launched a successful piece of linkbait cued to current headlines. That’s a white hat practice. I’m guessing the link profile one gets from this is different enough from buying links that Google can tell which of these it is.

  • http://www.jonnyross.com Jonny ross

    This is a fabulous post…and as an SENIOR SEO 😉 it ticks one of the biggest boxes when blogging. Write something that’s engaging, interesting and if you can controversial. That’s exactly what this is it’s controversial and will get many comments, many shares and amazing link bait!!

    I would say that most people commenting have fallen for the biggest trick in the book! In fairness me included!! I admire the post for this reason however even though you may have a partial point I disagree with what your saying!

    As I said I love this post and congratulate you for the links and shares you will get for it! Ironically for the people that disagree with Jason this is the sign of a great SEO’er!! Wether it’s true or not (I believe not) I’d love someone like you to guest post on my site and give me the benefit of your out-of-the-box marketing skills, which fundamentally is really what offsite optimization should be about!

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Thanks, but you give me too much credit. I wrote this after some hack told a client of mine that he should hire him to do ‘negative SEO’, which consisted of forum spam and the like. I didn’t see how paying that guy $XXXX a month was going to benefit my client nearly as much as paying me (or someone like me) to do SEO the old fashioned way. And despite all the negative comments and my own decision to recant some of what I said, I still believe a dollar spent on negative SEO is a dollar wasted.

      However, I’m happy to write a post for you any time you like, and I’ll tap into my inner jerk to come up with something really polarizing…

  • http://twitter.com/#!/mikegracen Mike G

    “Google isn’t going to compromise the quality of the search results because a website has a particular link.”


    Keep your pages 100% relevant for the terms your are trying to rank for. Make sure you are not making Google look stupid, and just about anything goes these days…

  • http://www.linkbuildr.com Ryan Clark

    From http://goo.gl/QVVx

    Building links heavily gaming anchor text usually gets you with a -50 and we clean up this mess for clients at least a dozen times a year. Google does NOT want you manually building links, so it’s an interesting field to be in…but it says right here;

    “This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:”

  • http://www.blueglass.com Greg


    Let me be clear about the fact that I don’t think backlink sabotage is something that the average webmaster has to worry about. But what I do think is very important is for everyone to understand how much Google has improved their ability to make on-the-fly query-level decisions based in large part on backlink profiles.

    Their approach now in many ways is far less punitive because it is automated and typically only impacts the specific phrase you were stupid about. In many ways, it is a better system for most because it doesn’t kill your entire site the way a good old fashion hand job does, and it also will come back very quickly without any reconsideration nonsense if you can identify and fix the issue. (which usually involved getting links taken down)

    But the downside of a query-level automated system is that intent or proof of relationship isn’t nearly as high as it is when approached manually. In an automated approach, whether or not you paid for the 20k sitewide links that say “blue widgets” in the anchor text. What matters is that the existence of those links contributes to your bl profile matching that of spammer, so it might make sense to remove that site from consideration for that specific query.

    The final point I think is important to understand is that from an algorithmic perspective your backlinks are considered to be part of your site. So the “just keep your house clean and you’ll be good” thing doesn’t really work. Like it or not, they are making profile-based decisions on that data, and just like any other algo/filter they’ve rolled out in the past (Panda is a great example) they are more than willing to throw out some babies with the bathwater, if they feel a few less babies benefits the greater good.

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      So bad links CAN’T hurt your site…just results for a specific query.

      What you say makes sense to be sure, but I see lots of ways to overcome spammy backlinks that keep me ranking from my target term…good quality links from relevant sites should trump all, shouldn’t they? When I look at search results, they almost always seem to trump all.

      I completely understand your point that bad things can happen to good people, but this whole issue seems to boil down to “You probably don’t need to worry about it, but it’s possible Google could make a mistake and ding you for a term that you may or may not have actively been trying to work towards…presuming of course a competitor went above and beyond to try and sabotage you.”

      I don’t know what I’m guilty of here. Sounds like you’re arguing about the exception to the rule. Generally speaking (99%?) bad links can’t hurt you. Right? Or am I missing it?

  • http://paulgailey.com Paul Gailey

    hear me out: you craft your original content and publish, your site gets scraped by a sleuth, you have blog pingbacks enabled and approve them indiscriminately. OK so this is not a high volume scenario as discussed here but have you just shot yourself in the foot? are pingbacks worth the hassle anymore?

  • http://www.netrival.com Anand Kumar

    Well, As I think back-linking will be useless for search engines in recent future. Some where I read that google will not consider backlink for ranking. I google is willing to be more social and will show social results.

    • http://www.duran-seo.co.il Stav

      That is not so accurate anand.
      everybody in the SEO indusrty speaks of the day that googles main ranking algorithms will ne social, but for now it is light years away from that.

      despite all of the ranking factors that have been updated last year, including panda and algorithm changes that are made all the time the main thing is still inbound links.

      for now i don’t see how that is going to change radically.
      the way i see it is that the +1 button is likely to give more PR or TRUST to certain pages making links from these pages transfer more power.

  • http://www.carpetcleaningsingapore.com Patty brin

    So true. We cannot stop people from linking to us or preventing our competitors from sabotaging us by asking bad neighbors to link to us. I guess this is common sense that Google has thought of it long ago.

    Just focus on building good relevant quality links and you will do just fine.

  • Greg

    Hi Jason,

    While I see your logic and understand it, speaking from experience I built links to a new domain. Profile backlinks, automated blog comments and a paid text link on a site wide basis. After 1 month of this, Google dropped my site to well below page 10 after getting to the first page. I submitted a reconsideration request, explaining an SEO company I hired done the work. I also removed the paid link. Within a week I was back on page 1. From this you would deduce that that site I had the paid link was known as such. Not so, I also link on that site to another of my websites and it was not negatively impacted. So considering that all the profile backlinks and bog comments where paid for….what do you think?

    Oh and I would like to dispell a myth within SEO that site wide anchor text based links have no value. Tried and tested, they have a huge effect. Thats why so many people so them. Sorry for the hijack on this one!

  • greg

    You deleted my comment Jason. Not very good blog management now is it?!

  • http://www.cyberbeasts.com hugh williams

    if this was true then i could set up links to my competition and go up in the google search

  • http://wpromote.com Ryan Farrell

    I saw a four position drop happen recently after hitting a test site with x-rumer and blog comment spam…

    the site had very few links to speak of before we started the test….now it’s indexing just over a hundred of the close to 10,000 spam links we pointed at it

    whether this was as a result of a natural “google bounce” or directly related to the links I sent is still up in the air…but it was fascinating all the same.

    A minor drop after such a massive spike with such a small number of indexed links just tells me one thing…

    that I need to do more testing…

  • Loren Baker

    Good morning Search Engine Journal readers! SEO industry veteran and linking guru, Michael Gray, has put together a followup rebuttal to this post entitled “Understanding Your Backlink Profile”

    I highly suggest that the incredibly passionate SEO’s in this thread read this post and also contribute your thoughts : http://goo.gl/ej4ho

    Thanks! Loren Baker

  • http://www.click-finders.com/blog Mike Glover

    Don’t feel bad Jason. Based on Google’s published stance on this;

    “There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index.”

    I can see why you felt this way. I learned a few new things form this post as I am sure MANY did! You did an awesome job of getting a topic out there for discussion and then did the right thing pubishing an update to your original post! That is what blogging is all about and in my book and you are a class act for the way you handled it.

    BRAVO !

    • http://sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

      Thanks Mike. I don’t feel too bad…the idea that bad links can hurt you is every bit as mysterious now as it was before (no proof, no examples, etc). The only difference is, we have a lot of smart people and a note from Google all saying/suggesting that bad links can indeed hurt you…sometimes. Maybe. Depends.

      I think the bigger point – that the average webmaster doesn’t need to spend one second of time worrying about this – stands. I’ve invited numerous people to plant bad links and point them at my company website. We’ll see what happens.

  • http://www.yourmusicmuse.com/ James Spurgeon

    We just got google slapped. We had just made it to page 1 for online drum lessons and then overnight we were pushed to page 3! There was a website that was hacked with a ton of porn related links pointing directly at our home page. It happened 2-3 weeks before the google slap. I can’t see anything else that would have caused us to lose rank. You can check our links at http://www.backlinkwatch.com or opensiteexplorer.com. The links were from njunitedmma.com and the webmaster deleted them relatively quickly so they are all 404s now.

    I emailed him and he said they were hacked and all these links posted. I mean…what other purpose would there be for these garbage links and then we lose rank??? Doesn’t seem fair at all.