Can You Get Penalized for Inbound Links to Your Site?

The specifications of Google’s filter inspire a lot of heated discussion among webmasters. Lately, many have wondered whether Google penalizes for inbound links to a website coming from a bad neighborhood. Can your competitors sabotage you with a slew of inbound links and cause your SERP to drop? Hugo Guzman takes a skeptical view, and explains why.

“Uh oh. My visual PR on the toolbar is 0! I’ve disappeared from the SERPs…Googlebot hasn’t stopped by in while…

“What happened?! Did one of my inbound links cause this?”

Lately, there seems to have been a lot of heated discussion regarding whether or not it is feasible for inbound links to have a negative impact on SERPs (Search Engine Ranking Position). Many reputable members of the SEO community have chimed in, and it seems as if folks are landing on both sides of the fence on this one. I happen to think this phenomenon is highly unlikely, and in this article I will explain why. However, as with all SEO assertions, you can take my opinion with a grain of salt. Unless you are tight with the majority owners of Google, chances are that you will not get a definitive answer on this one.

Before getting into the specific details regarding why I don’t believe that inbound links alone can get your site penalized, let’s spend some time going over the basic nature of Google’s search engine.

The Google search engine’s main organizing feature is PageRank. Keep in mind that I am not referring to the little green bar on your toolbar (what is commonly referred to as “visual” or “toolbar” PR). I am referring to the internal calculation that is an integral part of Google’s ranking algorithm. The founders of Google created a citation (link) graph of their search engine’s index, which allowed for quick and accurate calculations of a particular Web page’s importance, both in terms of objective citation importance and subjective “human” importance.

For more detailed information please check out “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” at: http://web.archive.org/web/19980502040509/google.stanford.edu/
~backrub/google.html
. Article 2.1 explains PageRank.

I know I know…this technical mumbo jumbo ain’t explaining why your site’s “visual” PR disappeared or why you are nowhere to be found in the SERPs. Bare with me though. Eventually, I will make some sort of point here.

The point is that the Google search engine relies heavily on the interlinking nature of websites within their index. In fact, it can be said that their ranking also factors in linking more than any other search engine in existence. This is why “on-page” optimization (metatags, etc…) factors are nowhere near as influential on Google SERPs as they are on some of the other engines.

Since links are so influential, and since many unscrupulous webmasters will attempt to sabotage their competitor’s SERPs by any means necessary, it is of utmost importance that search engines create controls that will limit or eliminate this possibility. The easiest way to directly influence the SERPs position of a specific URL is to point links (commonly referred to as “inbound links” or “backlinks”) at it. Most of us already know this, and that is why we spend countless hours trying to “acquire” quality backlinks for our sites. The plot thickens when we consider the possibility that, just as a “good” backlink can improve our SERPs, a “bad” link could potentially worsen our SERPs, or even get a URL or an entire domain banned!

In my opinion, allowing inbound links to adversely affect SERPs would open a virtual “Pandora’s box.” Every unscrupulous spammer and their momma would begin setting up bogus “bad neighborhood” URLs specifically for the purpose of pointing links at their competitors. These “bad neighborhood” links would allow spammers to gain top rankings for their target search terms through the process of attrition. If all of your competitors are being adversely affected by “bad” inbound links, then it should be an easy ride to the top for the spammer. This would have a severely adverse affect on the relevance, quality, and objectiveness of overall search results.

A popular counter argument to this stance is the “text link ad” angle. One might say, “what if Google is only penalizing inbound links that are obviously from text link ads? They could look for a link on the footer of a site, or links that are bunched close together to one another, or exist on totally unrelated sites.” There’s a big problem with this assertion. Once again, it would be incredibly easy for an unscrupulous webmaster to create a site that mimics these features in order to purposely sabotage their competitors.

Here are some other interesting points and counter points to ponder:

  • Nothing that is beyond the webmaster’s control can harm rankings. Inbound links are beyond the webmaster’s control.

  • From Google’s webmaster FAQ: “There is almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. Your rank and your inclusion are dependent on factors under your control as a webmaster, including content choices and site design.”

    According to a prominent member of the SEO community, the phrase “almost nothing” was a recent modification. I have no way of verifying this though.

  • It is possible that an inbound link (from a “bad neighborhood”) that is part of a reciprocal link exchange may indirectly harm your site. By indirectly, I mean that although the inbound link, in and of itself, will not harm your site if you reciprocate the link (point a link back at the “bad neighborhood” site), the resulting association of your site and the “bad neighborhood” site may cause adverse affects.

  • Theoretically, there may be glitches in Google’s system that cause URLs or entire domains to be “accidentally” penalized for inbound links.

  • A real world example of why inbound links most likely do not cause any negative or adverse effects is the following:

    Most sites get unsolicited link exchange requests from questionable sites that would be considered “bad neighborhoods.” Many of the requestors of these exchanges have already placed a link on their site. These “bad neighborhood” requests are usually not reciprocated, but the “bad neighborhood” webmasters rarely bother to remove the link from their link directory. So in effect, most sites have one or more existing “bad neighborhood” sites pointing to them, but suffer no ill effects from these inbound links.

I am of the opinion that while Google may not allow inbound links to negatively impact a site, they definitely have filters in place the “lessen” the positive impact of an inbound link. Some examples are:

  1. Sitewide or “run-of-site” text link advertisements. Google may have taken steps to minimize the affects of the backlinks that are acquired via these types of ads. For example, they may only factor in the PR and SERPs boost of the backlink coming from the homepage, but “block” or “dampen” the boost that would come from all of the interior pages of that site.

  2. Links from unrelated sites. Google may “block” or “dampen” the PR or SERPs boost of backlinks that are not semantically related to the site in question.

  3. Reciprocal links. Google may “block” or “dampen” the PR or SERPs boost of backlinks that are reciprocated by the site in question.

Please keep in mind that these are just theoretical examples! None of these assertions are based on confirmed factual information.

Expressed in pseudo mathematical terms, Google applies positive (+) credit of varying degrees or neutral (0) credit, but does not apply negative (-) credit to backlinks.

In closing, there are some aspects of this topic that are still fairly “shady” in that there is very little conclusive evidence or documented discussion to fall back on. For example, there is the subject of redirect links. Could an unscrupulous webmaster purposely set up malicious redirects pointing to their competitor(s) in an effort to get them banned for violating Google’s terms of service? I have only done a cursory amount of research on this topic, so I do not feel qualified to offer any definitive assertions. However, based on the prevailing thought that Google does not want webmasters sabotaging other webmaster’s websites, I tend to believe that this technique (malicious third party redirection) would not work either.

Contrary to the countless sentiments that are expressed in the various SEO forums on the net, Google’s main priority is the relevance and objectiveness of its organic search. Because of this overarching priority, they will always take steps to ensure that individuals cannot artificially manipulate SERPs in a manner that would damage the relevancy, quality, and objectiveness of their search engine. Penalizing sites, by applying a negative impact on SERPs or by outright removal from the index based on inbound links would definitely conflict with their main priority regarding organic search.

So if you ask me, “Could they penalize me for an inbound link?” I would say yes. I’m sure that they have the technical capability for such an undertaking.

But if you ask me “Would they?” I would say no. It is not in their best interests.

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