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