The ‘Bad Links Can Hurt You’ Myth Just Won’t Die

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Earlier today, an article I wrote for Search Engine Journal titled “Let’s Kill the Bad Inbound Links Can Get Your Site Penalized Myth” received a less than complimentary response from Michael Gray, a well-known member of the SEO community that I have had the pleasure of listenting to at a couple of conferences over the years. I so enjoy Mr. Gray’s work that I have – and I just counted – 4 different blog posts he has written bookmarked and filed under “SEO Tips.” He’s on my SEO faves list on Twitter. I’ve recommended him to clients who need more than I can provide.

Without an ounce of sarcasm, I say that the guy is a fantastic SEO. If I someday acquire half of his knowledge and skill, I’ll be lucky.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when Mr. Gray dropped the following tweets in response to my article:

I call BS on this article narrow minded BS http://ow.ly/1wst3T…If you don’t believe there are poison link networks you are a naive idiot and should step away from the keyboard … NOW

Ouch, right? He’s referring to me when he says “naive idiot.” My problem is, I just don’t get it.

UPDATE: James Carson, an SEO in the UK, wrote up a blog post about Mr. Gray’s response to my article. He’s said that he doesn’t agree with me (fair enough), but I think he’s done a good job of giving an outside point of view, so feel free to check it out.

I fail to see how a “poison link network” could cause any sort of damage for any period of time. If a network of spammy sites all link to this website, for example, it’s possible that Google could roll SporkMarketing.com in with the network of spam and penalize my site…yet this assumes that the link network would have enough weight to counter all the “good” links my site has already acquired. SporkMarketing.com doesn’t have a massive link profile, but I’ve worked hard to acquire a variety of links over the years and I think that counts for something. This little site does get some search traffic, which I think could be an indicator that it’s developed some trust that would be hard to mistake for spam later. Seems like an improbable scenario that a bunch of links all of the sudden could undue years of work.

Perhaps this is why Mr. Gray offered this caveat on Twitter:

U can never kill a site like CNN with bad link but 50,000 links from a .ru hacker network at mom&pop and watch what happens

So maybe bad links can hurt you, but only if your a ‘mom&pop’ site with few links.

For the record, I’m sure that getting 50k links from a .ru hacker network could result in a Google penalty for a small site with no real link profile. But by definition, this type of small site has very little to lose to begin with…based on my interpretation of the meaning of ‘mom&pop’, it sounds like they weren’t really ranking for anything anyways, right?

It’s sort of like saying you can keep me from joining the NBA by spreading rumors about my bad feet, never mind the fact that I’m in no danger of playing the NBA because I have no talent!

But let’s assume that Mr. Gray is right and that a poison link network could hurt SporkMarketing.com. For how long? I think it’s safe to assume that a poison link network is really only worth building if you can use it more than once, which means that the network of sites is going to go after a few targets over time…raising the likelihood of discovery. At what point does Google detect this network and devalue it? This blog post at GoogleCache makes it sound as if detecting undetectable link networks is relatively easy.

I asked Mr. Gray on Twitter if he might tell me how to find a poison link network – of if he could point to a site that had been hurt by one – to which he responded that asking where to find a poison link network is like “asking for drugs in public.” When I pressed, he told me that he wasn’t going to tell me because I’d just “out” the network.

SO let’s summarize what Mr. Gray has said so far:

  • Poison link networks exist, but he can’t tell me how to find one, nor can he share an example of a site that’s been hurt by one
  • Bad links can’t hurt trusted sites, but they could hurt ‘mom&pop’ sites, which I assume are small sites that probably weren’t ranking anyways

Is it just me, or is that the definition of a circular argument? Poison link networks exist, but no one can tell me how to find one, nor can anyone show me an example of one in action. What’s more, poison link networks only work in situations where the target is small.

Google’s Matt Cutts wrote a post back in 2005 about how Google handles paid links (Mr. Gray commented on that post, in fact, with a comment that essentially argues in favor of paid links), and in that post Matt Cutts talks about the fact that paid links aren’t counted in a site’s link profile as soon as they’re discovered. Google’s guidelines on link schemes say that penalties can occur, and then offers the following examples of situations that might result in a penalty:

link schemes can include:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web [emphasis on to was added]
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank

While these are just examples, it seems that Google understands the difference between links from a bad neighborhood and links to one.

While searching for some more examples of how Google treats so-called poison link networks, I stumbled upon a comment by Mr. Gray back in 2005 that seems to indicate he may have had some doubts about his theories in the past.

To make sure we all understand you’re saying, those purchased advertising links are being devalued and not helping the sites in question, they are not having a negative effect on them. To clarify why I’m asking there are number of rumors circulating that you can sabotage your competition if you purchase a large enough quantity of text link advertisements and point them at them.

While he may have been trying to get Matt Cutts to say something (sadly, Cutts never responded to Mr. Gray), I have a hard time with the fact that 6 years ago Mr. Gray seems to have had the same doubts I do about poison link networks. Either he’s learned something new about poison link networks, or he’s fallen into the same trap that ‘moon landing naysayers’ and ‘Elvis is still alive’ believers have fallen into: You can’t prove something doesn’t exist. You can only speculate.

So with all of that said, let this serve as public notice that I will gladly engage a poison link network to sabotage my own site to see if Mr. Gray is indeed correct. All I need is for someone (looking in your direction, Mr. Gray) to tell me who to talk to. I’ll sign an NDA, meet you in a dark alley, whatever – just tell me how to hire a poison link network and I’ll try to sabotage my own site.

UPDATE: Twitter user @Rishil (another UK SEO) told me that I should find a network of .RU hackers to build links for my site. If I did this, it would result in a penalty. The thing is, I think there’s a difference between a) hiring someone to hack websites and plant links and b) buying links on a so-called “poison network” someone has setup to sabotage other sites. Option A is criminal, but it’s also *not* a network…there’s a difference between selling you links on poison sites I own and hiring some evil people to hack websites illegally. The difference may be semantic to some, but it seems pretty big to me. Still, as Rishil says the links are poisonous. I’m afraid to try and confirm that, unfortunately, so this whole thing may die right here.

I’ve never been afraid to put my money where my mouth is. (UPDATE: Unless it involves a federal crime, then I’m out. Hiring hackers to break into other’s websites? Crime.)

FINAL UPDATE: While no one who argued with me on Twitter (or left a comment on SEJ) can convince me that bad links can hurt your site with any sort of frequency or certainty, it seems I am indeed wrong. The proof? Google sends out a letter to webmasters if/when they detect manipulative link patterns. In the last paragraph, the letter hints at the fact that sometimes sites are the target of a negative link attack, which in turn means that bad links could hurt you.

However, there’s nothing more than this reference and the word of a few senior (and respected) SEOs to cite as proof, so you’ll understand if I have my doubts. I think any rational person would. The takeaway here is that Google isn’t going to ding you for negative links in all but rare occasions…which means, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to worry about here.

9 Comments Responses to The ‘Bad Links Can Hurt You’ Myth Just Won’t Die
Ron Proto2012-05-26 16:27:42Reply
I'm just browsing through your site trying to learn about SEOs when I came across G and Blackhats, and poison link networks. What the heck I'm i getting myself into with SEO? Yes, what happened to manners? Social networks allow jerks (oops, I misplaced my manners) to say what they will because they have an audience, but most importantly, they don't have to look you in the eye when the say nasty things about you. A real brave heart Mr. Gray is. I'd drop him from my fav list asap.
Denver Online Marketing Tips2011-09-19 05:52:38Reply
I have heared that poison link networks exist, but never seen any and no one told me where to find too .. :D
Scott Polk2011-09-07 11:21:03Reply
Jason - no problem ... hope to see you around!
Scott Polk2011-09-07 08:25:16Reply
@Jason you will not see public records of this happening (not that I am aware of anyway), nor will I violate any of my clients relationship to publish findings of this sort. To publish cases of this nature helps G and Blackhats ... neither of which I will do. The cases I am referencing are in Travel, Finance, Pharma and Gaming ... two are definitely on the edge with their own efforts, but two were not and harmed by blackhat SEOs via a competitor. I see efforts like this all the time with clients - this is why knowing your Link Profile inside and out is paramount. You can develop strategies to combat this type of tactic and honestly is something you should always have in your tool chest of SEO strategies. To evangelize that bad links/negative SEO cannot harm your site and is not important for a business owner or SEO to think about, because it happens 'rarely' does not mitigate the fact it is a risk and CAN happen. I will say it again ... the principle here is have a strong understanding of your Link Profile, so you can identify and combat such a tactic that may harm your site. "Overall" implies that you need to not be bothered by any 'negative SEO' - when in fact you do need to be concerned with it. So this is where I still disagree with your post. There are just some tactics you will have to experience yourself - attempting to do this in a bubble will not show you real world results. Best Scott Polk
admin2011-09-07 10:57:02Reply
Scott - Fair enough. I appreciate you taking the time to comment here and look forward to following your work more closely. If and when I discover a successful campaign to harm a site, I will be sure to publish the findings. I think the benefits of publishing the 'how' outweigh the potential damage, at least in the long term. If Google can be tricked into removing an otherwise legitimate site from a hard-earned placement, the public needs to know.
Scott Polk2011-09-07 07:26:22Reply
@jason (sorry I am late to the party)... from all that I read of your posts on this topic - it still appears that you are struggling with the basic concept that bad links can and will harm a site. I have personal experience in getting sites back in the black that were attacked by competitors and poison networks. Links like this can & do harm sites and quite easily at times ... not just Mom & Pops either .. any highly competitive industry where sites push the edge with SEO - this is possible. One of the most important parts of an Advanced SEO Strategy is to have a complete understanding of your (and your competitors) Link Profile. Now if you are working with CNN or a mega site, then you need to worry about this less and less, but seriously I cannot stress enough how important this is. This should be SEO 101 stuff honestly .. but it isn't regarded as so mainly because SEOs do not believe that someone can hurt you with bad links because of some extremely vague comment that Matt Cutts state or wrote (they are vague on purpose). Think about it ... if you can hurt yourself with links, then someone else can as well. I will agree its not common, but it happen way more that you can imagine. I would be more than happy to talk to you about specifics if you are interested ... simply email me. Thanks Scott Polk
admin2011-09-07 07:52:28Reply
Scott - Thanks very much for commenting. I definitely don't have your experience, so of course I listen carefully to your opinion. As I wrote in my update to the SEJ post, my absolute pronouncement was incorrect. Bad links can possibly hurt a site...but as to the where, when, and how, no one seems to offer anything concrete. No offense, but your comment is like a dozen other comments that all say it's possible, but don't bother to point me (or anyone else reading) in the direction of an example. Perhaps it's because you've done some of this work yourself, or perhaps its because you're not allowed to discuss it publicly, but I still see this as a red flag. If I discovered a site in the results that had been hurt by a negative link strategy, publicizing the identity of that site and evaluating the link profile would be interesting news that would certainly command interest. So you see, while I recognize my absolute statement was wrong, I don't see how the net result has changed. At best, negative SEO is uncertain and limited in terms of scope and capabilities...at worst, it's worked here and there but overall been completely ineffective. I'm not a beginner in this industry, and I've evaluated my share of back links in fairly competitive verticals, and I have yet to see this tactic pay off. I've certainly seen bad links pointing at good sites, but it doesn't seem that Google has done anything more than devalue them. Is there a public record of this sort of thing happening? Greg Boser and Michael Gray and Rishi Lakhani and yourself have all seen it happen, but no one has written up a blog post to explain what happened and try to expose the people who attacked their clients? Seems a little hard to believe. To me, fretting over bad links is a distraction from the real goal: great content that gets links.
admin2011-09-01 08:57:37Reply
Thanks Steve. Gray isn't bad, he's just rough around the edges...and probably wrong too. LOL.
Steve2011-08-31 19:27:55Reply
hmmmm I wonder whatever happened to good old fashioned manners? Sadly, Gray loses all credibility the instant he starts in with the ad hominem attacks.
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