Links: the good, the bad, and the ugly—Part 2 (SEM 101)

In the previous blog post, Links: the good, the bad, and the ugly—Part 1, I discussed that links are de facto endorsements of the site linked to, that the relevance of the linked to page to the one linking to it is critical for determining the value of the link, and how the quantity vs. quality argument shapes up regarding links. I also defined what is good and bad about each. So let’s pick up where I left off last time in our discussion of the good and bad of linking, and touch on when things can turn ugly.

Neighborhoods

Search engines do recognize “bad neighborhoods” on the Web. These are places (such as dedicated domains or even IP ranges) that do nothing but set up meaningless link exchanges. Bad neighborhood sites often “sell” you, the webmaster, the opportunity to have them link dozens, hundreds, sometimes even more, of their sites to yours, all based on the assertion that this will boost your page rank in search. However, those referrer sites are usually nothing more than junk pages, consisting of endless lists of outbound links to any subject under the sun, void of any meaningful content. To make matters worse, many of the customers of such services tend to be shady enterprises, such as those associated with adult entertainment, counterfeit goods, gambling, fake pharmaceuticals, and pirated software. That’s bad from the perspective of search engines.

Search engines can identify these link exchange sites for what they are – fraudulent attempts to elevate the ranking status of sites they link to. Actively associating with these bad neighborhood characters, who are notoriously untrustworthy resources, reflects badly upon your site. These are the folks who, once discovered for who they are, are typically penalized or even banned from search engine indexes. I said they were bad!

Luckily, search engines can also identify worthy sites as well, and as a result, they can distinguish between endorsements by thugs versus trusted friends. These trusted sites are identified by features such as:

  • The quality and quantity of their inbound and outbound links (especially those built over time to other, similarly respected sites)
  • The quality and quantity of their original content, as well as its consistency over time
  • The relative content refresh rate and the age of the site (older sites are considered more reliable because they have a history of consistent performance over time)

Search engines deem the best of these as authority sites, and the valued reputation they earn over time is reflected outward with their outbound links. You need good inbound links to set your site apart as a trusted, authority site. And by linking to other, relevant authority sites, you are sharing that goodness with others. It’s a virtuous circle. Again, when sites provide value to the customer, it’s good.

Legit vs. illegit

It’s clear that links to and from other trusted sites for the benefit of the customer are legitimate and good.

Unfortunately, some sites try to game the system by playing with how their inbound links are achieved. Some opt to use a lot of reciprocal links back and forth between sites, but if they aren’t relevant, they aren’t of much value (unless the inbound link is from an authority site, which carries the influential weight of that site to yours. But then again, most authority sites don’t indiscriminately exchange reciprocal links; that’s not how they became authority sites in the first place).

Some link exchanges try to mask their manipulation techniques by using link triangulation, where site A links to site B, which in turn links to site C, who links back to site A. They don’t appear to be reciprocal, but in fact they are. Search engines see this. And if these links are not relevant or from authority sites, they are low value links for page rank consideration.

Other unsuccessful techniques are used by owners of multiple domains using outbound links from multiple junk domains to boost the status of his or her primary domain. Search engines are smart enough to recognize this behavior, and its effect is discounted when identified.

Worst of all is a lame, old trick. Some webmasters think they can get more link credit by adding many more links to their pages, but to get around the fact that they are irrelevant to the theme of their page and thus useless to their customers, they hide them with invisible text (rendered the same color as the background). This is quickly detected by search engines for what it is: badness.

Sabotage?

You control the outbound links from your site, but what about inbound links? They are, by their nature, supposed to be out of your control. We often get questions in our forums from webmasters asking how bad inbound links affect ranking. Invariably, the conversation steers to the same theoretical question, “What if my competitor tries to affect my rank by aiming bad inbound links to my site?”

The truth is that getting bad links happens to great sites. We know this happens. In fact, we’ve never seen a decently ranking site that doesn’t have a few (or more) bad inbound links. We take the approach that bad inbound links won’t adversely affect your site ranking unless most or all of your inbound links are from bad sites.

Consider this as well: perhaps the reputation of the site linking to you is bad, but the content on the actual linking page is relevant to the page on your site. This could possibly be a decent inbound link—not as good as one from an authority site, but it might give you a little link goodness.

When it comes to inbound links, just remember this: zero inbound links are better than all bad inbound links. But if you have many good, relevant inbound links from respected sites, a few bad links won’t count against you (but they won’t help you, either).

Repercussions

Things can get ugly when illegitimate linking schemes are used in a attempt to fraudulently promote a site higher up in page rank. Search engines detect this behavior and will, at best, ignore the attempt to manipulate the ranking. If the effort is seriously bad, penalties can ensue, demoting a site below its natural page rank position. If the effort is especially egregious, the site can be banned outright from the search engine index. And given that all of this misguided effort was made in a attempt to get more users to find a site through search, this is a terrible, although not surprising, result.

You can always ask the webmaster of a bad site linking to you to remove their links to you, and if you do participate in link exchanges, you can always remove yourself. If you stay relevant, work on higher quality links, and avoid bad neighborhood, your efforts will pay off. To try to game the system is to risk achieving the exact opposite of your goal, and that can be bad, or even downright ugly.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post them in our SEM forum. Look for another article soon!

— Rick DeJarnette, Bing Webmaster Center

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