SEO: Can Bad or Paid Links Hurt Your Site?

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Can bad or paid links hurt your site ranking in Google?

The short answer to this is: yes, paid links or links from bad neighborhoods on the web can hurt your site’s rankings in Google. We have independent testing evidence, and Google themselves supporting this.

Whether paid links can hurt your rankings has been an ongoing question in the SEO world for years, regarding links from bad neighborhoods on the web, or paid links from those link farms. For a long time Google assured us that no, bad links from bad neighborhoods or links from paid directories won’t actively hurt your site — they just won’t help it in any way. But during that same time, many SEO researchers conducted tests that seemed to indicate that yes, having paid links, or certain kinds of paid links, or too many paid links compared to non-paid links, can and will devastate your site in Google’s rankings.

More recently Google has changed the language it uses when talking about this issue. Instead of simply assuring us that bad links won’t hurt our site in Google’s search results, they’re now telling us that it’s unlikely, and that they probably won’t.

Before we get into the actual Google quotes, let’s take a look at why the SEO industry is a little scared of the idea of bad links hurting your sites.

If I don’t pay for links, then I’m fine, right?

Nope, and that’s the heart of the concern.

Paying for links as an artificial way of boosting your Google search results is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. They want backlinks to reflect the internet’s opinion of your site content; they don’t want you to be able to shell out some cash to boost your organic rankings.

And to be fair, Google is very good at eliminating any benefit from those paid directories. Their algorithm is very sophisticated and constantly changing, and it can recognize paid link-farm directories — or even free non-industry directories — and completely devalue any links from those sites. So you could have 1 or 1 billion links from them, and it would still count as if you had zero.

But if their algorithm can recognize those paid directories, wouldn’t we want them to punish sites that are paying for links? They’re breaking the rules, after all!

Herein lies the danger. If Google punishes sites for having paid links pointing to them — actually lowers their ranking as a resultĀ  — then Blackhat SEOs who want to get to the top of the ranking won’t buy links for their site anymore… instead they’ll buy links for your site. They can pay for links to their competition’s site, and thereby get their competition blacklisted.

That’s the danger of punishing sites for bad links.

So does Google punish your site for having paid or bad links?

Here’s what Google has to say in their Webmaster Tools help:

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

Notice particularly the use of the word almost. This implies that in some situations there is something competitors can do to harm your rankings (or something you can do to harm them if you’re buying links yourself).

Their webmaster quality guidelines has this to say:

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

Here they’re pretty clearly saying that having links from “bad neighborhoods” can hurt your ranking. In this forum thread, Google’s John Mu gave us a more specific and more complete answer to the question of whether paid backlinks can hurt your ranking:

Theoretically, it’s probably possible (which is the reason for the “almost”), but in practice, we have a lot of safeguards that help our algorithms to evaluate sites in useful ways. Our algorithms are pretty complex, it takes more than a handful of bad links to sway their opinion of a website.

Personally, I read this as: yes, it’s possible, but in most cases if you aren’t doing anything wrong Google will not punish you for someone else’s wrongdoing on your behalf. And this sounds about right.

In those SEO research tests I referred to earlier, the testing was almost always done on a very new site with only a couple pages, a couple of quality backlinks, and then a bunch of paid backlinks. So in those situations, Google is seeing a site that gains almost all of it’s strength from the paid links, and as a result devalued the site far beyond just ignoring those links. But if you took a strong site with many quality backlinks and plenty of good content, then those same paid backlinks (or even a proportionally larger number) will just get ignored rather than hurting the site.

So do not pay for backlinks!

The conclusion here is that you should not pay for backlinks from directories or link farms that are not industry-specific directories for your industry (Ecreative’s research has shown that paid ads and paid listings in actual industry directories, with industry content, actually help your site’s authority substantially — Google can tell the difference).

If you go out and buy links just to get your site ranking higher, here are the possible results:

  • Best Case Scenario: the links are on clever sites that have found a loophole in the Google algorithm and it actually boosts your site’s rankings in Google search results … for a while. Every time a loophole is found, Google then modifies it’s algorithm to close it. Any boost you get will be lost in a few months, or even a few weeks.
  • Most Likely Scenario: even if the links you pay for are actually created (often the link farms are happy to just take your money and do nothing) you will get no benefit at all from them, as Google recognizes them as paid links. I worked with a company once that insisted on paying for thousands of backlinks, all from pagerank 3 – 4 directory sources. The links were gradually put up over a couple months and the sites containing the links were actually legitimately pagerank 3 – 4. The listings had zero impact on their rankings, but it cost them a pretty penny.
  • Worse Case Scenario: by paying for your links you manage to hit that magical point in Google’s algorithm where Google punishes you for the paid links, and your ranking in Google search results plummets, or you get blacklisted entirely.

So that’s the spread of results you can hope for. Do you think link-buying is worth the risks? I certainly do not.

*It’s worth reiterating that not all paid links are bad, and not all directories are bad. Google can recognize industry-specific directories that provide a legitimate service to users, and provide content beyond just a collection of links. Even paid ads and paid listings in these legitimate directories can have a very beneficial effect on your site’s strength and ability to rank well in Google.

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