Q: Can bad links hurt my site? A: Yes


This is one of those questions which comes up every now and again in the SEO community but tends to get skimmed over because there’s not a huge amount of conclusive information available on it.

“If a bad (spam) site links to me, will it damage my rankings by association?”

This naturally has to lead on to the more important question for SEO’s:

“If I buy bad links for my competitor will it damage their rankings and therefore help mine?”

I doubt many SEO’s haven’t ever though about ways to do a number on their competitors and mess up their rankings. As search results become more and more competitive, competitor sabotage is at some point going to become to the SEO world what click fraud is to paid search. Except with SEO you’ll have no Google account manager to run to when someones out to mess up your rankings. Let me start with a hypothesis:

Probably the fastest and easiest way to take down a site is by pointing spammy paid links at it.

There I said it.

This isn’t just speculation. I’m going to share with you a few examples of exactly how this could happen. In these examples I nobbled myself but I believe I could just as easily of nobbled a competitor with the exact same tactics. Hold tight as we cross over to the dark side people!

Look at the graph below. That sudden drop in Google traffic from January to February is where Google knocked this site for 6 after I pointed about 50 TNX links at it over 2 weeks.

Picture 4

That was January 09. Until last week when the site started ranking again for its main keyword (which incidentally was when I decided to look into this further) Google sent a total of about 5 visitors to the site in 18 months, and those were just me running site: commands.

Now for obvious reasons I’m not going to tell you the domain but for those who are interested

  • It was a pretty new site when I pointed the links at it.
  • Exact match domain for the main keyword on a .co.uk
  • Only a few pages, but all unique content, no outbound links
  • It had some OK quality links from other sites (which I own but on other servers) before I brought those spam links

Could be a one off right, after all its not the best site and probably doesn’t deserve to rank that well anyway.

Here’s another example, this one where I pointed 3 Inlinks at a different site for one month, then removed them.

Picture 5

Again its a new site. That peak is where the main keyword moved onto the first page of Google, the dip is where the paid links were removed. To this day the homepage of the site isn’t even indexed (although the other 15-20 pages are) and it gets no traffic from Google. The funny thing with this one is the site ranks #1 in yahoo and #5 in Bing for the main keyword.

According to Yahoo Site Explorer the site has 44 links from external domains, all of which were built at the same time as the Inlinks were added so the ratio of paid to non paid links was something like 1:10. A year later despite the site being 12 months old, with some non-paid, non-spammy links which haven’t changed since the site was first indexed- the homepage is well and truly planted on the infamous ‘Google blacklist’ because of 3 paid links which were removed about 11 months ago.

Now don’t get me wrong- these are pretty thin affiliate sites on new domains and I was playing around with some link networks. I deserved and expected the slap I got. However to me this stands as evidence that Google not only devalues spam links but actively penalises sites which get linked to by spammers or known link sellers. I don’t think the Inlinks would of been detected if I hadn’t removed them because the blogs they were on were fairly decent but some of the sites on the TNX network were shocking.

Google has to look at inbound links for spam detection

When you really think about it the idea that Google is able to ignore spammy paid links to good sites while being able to effectively punish link sellers, link buyers and link networks is just implausible. With inbound links being so important to improving your rankings, it stands to reason they can hurt your rankings as well- surely that’s just common sense.

An information vortex

Now I’m definitely not advocating the use of link spamming your competitors as part of an SEO campaign, I just think webmasters and SEO’s need to wise up and be aware of this stuff because in reality Google will never admit that they have no way of policing paid links and link spam without inadvertently making it possible to bring down good sites with links from bad sites. There’s no information I could find on webmaster central about this and the advice which comes from Google reps is inconclusive at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

If you scroll the video below with Maile Ohye from Google to about 6 minutes she gets asked a question on this subject which I think she probably misses the point of (we’ll forgive her, she’s pretty cute!)

SEOmoz Whiteboard Friday – Interview with Google’s Maile Ohye

Maile goes on to answer something like:

“Those are usually such low quality sites that we wouldn’t consider them to be something that you paid for”

That point immediately resonated with me. Pointing actual spam at your competitors probably won’t damage them but if you make the spam links look ‘like something that they paid for’ then you could cause all sorts of problems for your competitors. I would personally question where the distinction lies between ‘spam links’ from scraper sites and ‘paid links’ from spam networks like TNX but I guess the takeaway here is you don’t need to worry about really bad links, its the links which are bad but don’t look that bad which can hurt you.

The SEO industry and link sabotage

For such a vocal industry not many SEO’s talk about this kind of stuff either and when it does come up it tends to be approached with the same level of non-shalance that Google employ.

Take SEOMoz who are an easy target because they’re regarded by most as the centre of all SEO knowledge in the known universe. They put out a post talking about how buying links still works (not sure why they were so surprised as about 9 months ago their consulting page still listed link buying under their SEO services) but at the end of the post they add a warning:

Some friends of SEOmoz who run a fairly well-established site recently ran into a snag–they vanished from Google. They had ranked in the top two for many moons, raking in the lucrative spoils of their hard-won rankings. Then they got greedy; they thought a couple of paid links (four to be exact) could secure them the number one spot for all eternity. They wanted to be like the lone Highlander atop his mountain. They bought their links, and it worked for a minute. Then Google beheaded them (to continue the Highlander theme) by abso-friggin-lutely burying their site. Their links were discovered and now they can’t even rank for their business name or their full title tags. Suffice to say, this has made business a tad difficult.

Fair enough, this is useful information, if its true, but then the next week comes this post about how bad links can’t hurt your site which basically regurgitates Google’s advice on the subject to not worry about the bad links as long as you’ve got trust. So which is it? Did their friends knock themselves out with bad links, meaning their competitors could just as easily, or should we just chill out and let any old site leave footprints all over our link profiles hoping Google are smart enough to work out what links I’ve paid for and what links my competitors have brought on my behalf?

Real world applications of competitor link sabotage

Maybe normal webmasters don’t need to know this stuff but professional SEO’s should definitely be aware of it. Coming back to the examples above I brought down 2 of my own sites with less than $50 worth of link buying. Its an extreme example but its too easy to dismiss this as the backroom experiments of an SEO geek- put it into a real world situation for a minute and it becomes more of an issue. Lets role-play for a moment…

  • I open a brand new bed and breakfast in the village of Littlebottom
  • You live right across the street and run the only other B & B in Littlebottom
  • I launch my website but I know nothing about SEO, after all I’m the owner of a fictional B & B in a fictional village in the home counties, why would I!
  • You, happening to know a bit about SEO, see my new website go live and fire a couple of hundred cheap, dirty paid links at it.
  • New domain, 200 obviously paid links, no good links… An alarm goes off in Google HQ, Larry Page gets woken by a phone call in the middle of the night and my site gets blacklisted
  • I go about my business, don’t really think to ever Google my own website, don’t know anything about link building so I never pick up any other links apart from the ones courtesy of my friend across the road. My site might never reappear. In cyberspace you’ve still got the only bed and breakfast in Littlebottom.

Another extreme and unlikely example? Perhaps. But I can tell you right now if I dangled the option of competitor sabotage in front of some of the hoteliers I know they’d bite my hand off for it! Its no good sitting back and relying on the honesty of webmasters. If the short history of the web has taught us anything its that webmasters aren’t honest- they’ll buy links, sell links, steal links, cloak, comment spam, hack, spam report, leave fake reviews and then lie about doing any of it.

Ask me the question can bad links hurt a good site? I’ll tell you yes

Ask me what you can do about it? I’ll say I don’t know

Ask me whether you should be buying spam links for your competitors? I’ll tell you that’s up to your conscience!