During a recent conference call, I made one of those bold statements that was half for effect, and half in hopes of quieting an “online strategist” that was also on the call. In my deepest voice, I proclaimed:

“In the same way the engines can evaluate the links pointing at your site and rank you in the top ten, they can also evaluate the links pointing at your site and determine you are link spamming and not rank your site anywhere”

I was challenged on that statement, but I stood by it.

The online strategist who challenged it said the engines couldn’t and shouldn’t penalize a site since a site does not have 100% control over who links to it. What if the “link spamming” was being done by a third party as part of a link sabotage effort?

Anyone can join a link network without proving who they are or what site they work for. Anyone can fire up social spam software and pretend to be from a competitor site. What if someone less than ethical owned a network of 500 weak content sites that collectively contain 25,000 pages of content and then accepted a fee to insert links to some other site on all 25,000 pages? No engine can divine intent, thus no engine can fairly penalize for what looks like an unnatural linking pattern.

Following this, I continued…

So if someone working for Nike.com pretends they are working for Reebok.com (and are stupid) and execute a bunch of link spam tactics, Reebok.com’s rankings could be affected without Reebok having done anything wrong. But not to Nike and Reebok. This could never happen to a large brand site with hundreds of thousands of links because any link spamming effort would be a mere drop in the ocean.

It could work on smaller niche sites, like one regional accounting firm website against another regional accounting firm website, where each site only has a few hundred links to begin with, and thus, a few thousand new links from an obvious link network would be easier to spot. And given this, isn’t it unlikely any search engine could penalize or lower a site’s rank based on this, since there are millions of small, niche sites and hundreds of millions of links to account for?

Exactly. Maybe. No, not at all. It’s not that simple.

My belief is that lowered rankings are wrongly interpreted as a penalty when what’s really happening is a devaluation of an inbound link portfolio. I conduct link portfolio evaluation and improvement as part of my client work, and if you think back a few years to when directory links were devalued, that’s all you need to understand the devaluation process.  What once had value no longer does. It’s not a penalty, it’s the process of an engine getting smarter.

If 90% of your inbound link portfolio was low hanging link targets anyone can get, you shouldn’t be surprised. The irony is that sites that suffer through a devaluation are almost always the same sites that were overly dependent on non-merit based link building tactics in the first place. Easy come, easy go. The solution is pretty simple. Stop going after the easy stuff and go get merit based links. Of course, that’s easier said than done without some help.

Back to the question at hand. Aside from devaluation, can an engine evaluate the links pointing at your site and determine you are link spamming and not rank your site anywhere?

I say yes.

Certain types of inbound link profiles could never happen without active participation by the site’s owners.

Help me out. Am I right, wrong, or somewhere in-between?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column

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About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Winooski

    “Certain types of inbound link profiles could never happen without active participation by the site’s owners.”

    Care to share, or do we have to hire you as a consultant first? [:-)]

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    I think you are 100% correct! Participation of a site owner is needed for any good quality, relevant links…I guess if some one is going to try to sabotage another site they will not be good quality relevant links but as you mentioned “low hanging” poor quality links…

  • http://www.VerticalMeasures.com Arnie K

    “My belief is that lowered rankings are wrongly interpreted as a penalty when what’s really happening is a devaluation of an inbound link portfolio.”

    Totally agree with you on this one Eric.

  • http://www.searchkingdom.co.uk RobAndrews

    I agree entirely that penalties are a lot less common than a devaluation of some previously weight-giving inbound links.

    However, my guess is that Google will trust a site less (whether this is a penalty or not is open to question) and subsequently drop rank for that site if it finds positive proof that the site has been engaging in ‘gaming Google’ link building. The main one of these is some (most) link buying techniques. There are others too which are less of a hot button to them.

    The link farm, swap links, stuff? Well, it is just ‘noise’ in my opinion. It neither counts for the good or the bad. It takes about the same amount of time (and authority) for someone to (think) they are doing this for the good of their site as it does for someone to try to do this to a site’s detriment. I think Google would ignore known ‘easy to do’ link farming for this reason.

    However, there are still a lot of links out there that take authority, money and effort to place. The ones of these that Google puts in the ‘gaming’ category or the ‘spam’ category will hurt your authority/trust score/link profile and ultimately some of your ranking.

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    My hunch is 99% of the links on the web are useless from an algorithmic standpoint, and the engines can identify and damper about 90% of that 99%. And I bet significant resources are spent to spot the junk among that remaining %9 that is driving rank, when it shouldn’t be, especially in darker verticals. Hey, new article idea “The %9 Solution” :)

 

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