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

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.

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.

Check out the SEO Tools guide at Search Engine Journal.

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



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