Can Competitors Hurt Your Rankings With Bad Links?

Can inbound links get my site penalized?

This is a typical question found across SEO forums and I always find mixed results. Some say that “bad” links won’t hurt your site, that links can only be positive or neutral. Others argue that links from questionable websites in can actually be detrimental for your rankings.

Although we can never be entirely sure of the truth, the JC Penney story gives us a glimpse of a possible black hat scenario.

Regardless if they were the ones responsible for putting up the links, they were still penalized for having those links pointing to their site.

Let’s think logically, if a competitor or someone who just plain hates you decide they want to frame you:

  • They could pay shady link brokers to put up thousands of links
  • They could also specify anchor text (adult terms will usually signal a red flag)
  • They can then file an anonymous spam report through Google to report your activity in hopes of getting you penalized
Yep, scary. UPDATED PROOF: (DEC 1 2011) Please take a minute to look at this Webmaster world thread

Now, this post is not a how-to-screw-someone-over, rather I want to show you how you what actions you can take to remedy the situation.

Here’s where this post becomes useful, see below for section titles:

 

 

Pro-active doesn’t work, so set up monitoring and be quick to react.

There are so many free tools that will run a link report on your website, here’s what I use:

Now that you’ve got your list, you’ll need to run through it all - manually. Get to the website and find your link - Check the source code to make sure the link is still there before anything else.

10 signs that you might have a  link from a “bad website”

  1. Bad grammar, missing elements, signs of abandonment
  2. Hidden text, keyword stuffing, overwhelming amount of links on page
  3. Your link anchor text has nothing to do with your website (or possibly adult anchor text)
  4. Ads, Adsense, Affiliate links everywhere
  5. The website isn’t cached or indexed by Google
  6. No clear contact details to be found anywhere
  7. Linking to other sites of the same nature (signs of content farms)
  8. Hidden links appear when you disable Javascript/CSS
  9. The site is offering to sell links
  10. Your link appears in the header, footer, sidebar amongst other unrelated links

 

Report them to Google/Bing/Yahoo

Ask the webmaster of the offending site to take it down

You may be able to pursue this legally, do your homework (Good place to start)

 

Remember the second immediate action from above? Good. Let’s contact the webmaster, so where do we start...

1) Contacting them directly

Search the site, look for the contact page, email addresses, namess, addresses or phone numbers. If you were lucky enough to find it on the first go, congratulations.

Remember to have Google handy at every moment in your quest, use Google to search for every bit of information that you find. Off to step 2...

 

2) Find their network of sites (basic)

  • Google search for the domain name, or try the link:www.example.com operator to find related linking websites
  • Do a back link analysis on them, see what other websites link to them. Try to find the relationship
  • Look for a link that credits the web development company- try contacting them
  • Look for footer links to other websites that have common elements
No luck? I’m guessing all of these sites are starting to look identical. Go to the next step.

 

3) Find their network of sites (advanced)

SpyonWeb

This tool will help you find other websites that share the same Google Analytics/Adsense codes as well as other websites on the same IP. Careful though, just because there are other websites on the same IP it doesn’t necessarily mean they are connected. Your best bet is finding other websites that share Analytics/Adsense accounts as they are probably affiliated. Still no fruit? Keep going...

 

4) Find the domain registration details

Head to http://whois.domaintools.com and type in the website address. You’ll get a free report with some basic information of who owns the domain. Contact details should be listed here, although it may not be the person who runs the website currently, they may be able to point you in the right direction. What if the information is false? Move to next step....

 

5) Look for real people on Twitter

http://search.twitter.com/

http://backtweets.com/

Look for mentions of the domain name, or any other information you found along the way. Find who’s talking about it and invite them over for a friendly dinner. By this point you might be stark raving mad, but remember you still need to ask politely! Can’t find any real people? Look further...

 

6) Find their hosting company

Use http://www.whoishostingthis.com to find their hosting company.

Give them a call and let them know what’s going on, maybe they can put you in touch with someone...

 

 

Unfortunately, we can’t make anyone take a link down.

So you’re down and out, you’re worried that you’ll get the Google smackdown in the near future if these links aren’t pulled down soon.

So, let’s kick and scream like a baby... You wouldn’t leave a crying baby alone would you?

  • Get on the Google Webmaster forums, and talk to the SEO community and voice your story.
  • If you’re using Chrome, download the spam report plug in and do your part against the fight against dodgy websites - Find out more about how Google uses these results.
  • Remember to keep notes of everything you found/did, in case you need to file a reinclusion request to Google.

Final Note

Is the link just a low level link, or are there enough to actually cause a concern? If it’s just a low level link, your best course of action is to build (keep building) better links to your website to outweight the low quality links. If the links resemble what JC Penney had pointing to it - get off the couch and do something about it! *Hint* On the other hand, you may realize this might be a way of getting a link as well!

Hopefully this post has shed some light on this issue and you’ve found the answer you’re looking for. Thanks for your help Rob!

 

Dave Sottimano

Dave Sottimano

David Sottimano comes from a varied background in Corporate Marketing and Professional Sales. His love affair between the internet and marketing has finally found the perfect balance at Distilled, and continues to flourish each day. He graduated...   read more

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23 Comments

  1. Quite a good summary there. I think it is important for every biz to look into their backlink profiles and start pruning crappy links...

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  2. Good article and great timing putting something like this out there.

    Couple of personal notes. The ability to screw a competitor over with links is definitely a numbers game. The more links you have the harder you are going to be to take down. I can get a newish site banned with very little effort. Getting a big site like say ripoffreport.com banned or bounced down on the other hand is nearly impossible (I've tried... what can I say.. I hate those guys).

    To your notes above about tracking down the culprit. Depending on who's doing it this could be very very difficult.

    I have a network of close to 4500 domains (my goal is 10k domains by the end of 2012)

    I have 2000 class C ip blocks spread out over 26 datacenters in the U.S. and 4 more overseas. Every domain is registered private. I even use several different registrars just for grins and giggles. None of my sites use analytics (i use a 3rd party self hosted app for it to keep my footprint out of the spying eyes of google).

    I like to think Im a pretty smart cookie but Im sure I'm not the only one who's found great methods to make identifying their site network a real beast to find. Thats pretty much the starting point for any grey/blackhat who is even remotely serious about his craft.

    One of the best defenses you can have against malicious behaviour is just don't go pissing people off. This wont guard from everything but I imagine the bulk of the SEO public outings and malicious tactics that take place happen because someones toes got stepped on. I don't agree with the practice but Ive heard it bragged about in back channels.

    Just my 2 cents.

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  3. Oh... quick additional thought. Buying up sitewides from really large sites is VERY easy on text link brokers, text link ads et cetera...

    If you suddenly have an ass-ton of sitewides pointed at you.. a great place to start might be just calling up the guys that run those operations and asking them who they heck did it. They might not want to cop to the info.. but I'd be willing to bet if the activity was done through their site and you verified you were the owner of your domain.. they would probably push a button and put an end to it.

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  4. More to JCPenney story than publicly admitted I'd hazard...

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  5. David

    @Kris

    I think you've just written the anti-post here, but I appreciate it. You've demonstrated exactly how hard it can be to trace an owner down. So that brings me to my next question - If someone has made themselves invisible, what are the odds that they would even take down the links at your request?

    Ladies and gents - in this case, document as much as you possibly can, inform all of the search engines about your problems contacting the webmaster and start posting on Google webmaster forums.

    Following Kris' advice, try not to piss people off, and it shouldn't happen to you.

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  6. Actually, other than creating a fake profile, I don't think Google allow anonymous spam reports anymore.

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  7. @david

    Sorry wasn't my intention to write an anti-post. As far as the likelihood of someone undoing what they did if they were the type of person who covered their tracks like that... I would say if you actually did manage to blueprint their network.. and threatened to make public what sites where theirs.. they might play ball real quick!

    @kate

    True but it only takes like 3 minutes to create a google account.
    You can actually buy gmail addresses by the 1000 for about $6 on DP, wickedfire, et cetera....

    That said I think Google pays pretty much zero attention to spam reports filed via their form. If you want to get their attention you have to get someone top put out a blog post or news article. Google apparently hates mud on its face. Their social engineering weakness seems to be public manipulation.

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  8. "Regardless if they were the ones responsible for putting up the links, they were still penalized for having those links pointing to their site." - this is incorrect.

    They where not penalized... you can still find JCP in the SERPs. Those paid links where just devalued, so in return they were no longer getting keyword rankings manipulated by those paid anchor text links.

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  9. Rachelle Anderson

    Thank you for this very informative post, David. I've been wondering about this issue and it's great to finally get some clarification on this delicate SEO topic. I'm also checking my inbound links as we speak, just to be sure if my websites are indeed safe. I'm using the steps and resources you've provided and they're really helpful. Thanks again for sharing!

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  10. Tom

    Looking at JCPenny site, it seems to be quite un-optimized. I believe that it is more of a case where their backlinks were devalued hence causing their rankings to drop instead of a so-called "penalization"...

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  11. Dan

    I have been trying to research this topic for some time and have quite a bit to learn in regards to defending my website. Thank you for a concise and focused article that gives great pointers and explanation!

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  12. Great post and great summary of possibly bit more shadier techniques which DO take place.

    This is the reason why we setup "Link Alerts" for all our major clients to monitor what's actually coming in. Whatever is auto classified as Spam, Viri, Adult gets a red flag in our system and can then be take care of - ASAP - before Google notices.

    Best christoph

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  13. Adam

    this post is not a how-to-screw-someone-over

    You should think about doing a post like that :D

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  14. Nice post. I've always been a bit curious about this topic as well because of some of the SEO/Internet marketing forums I read (everyone says to be careful with link building / purchasing), the JC Penny situation could actually be a "good thing" for those not involved, seeing the big G in action.

    As for tracking down web owners, I have found that Domain Tools is my favorite and most reliable method to get in touch with a Webmaster if their is no direct contact on the website itself.

    Another good method is to try and contact other websites being linked (especially if it looks like they purchased the link), they may be able to provide you with an email address with whom they made the deal with.

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  15. I don't think it's just necessarily penalties that you have to be wary of. Someone could build a lot of links to your client's site, and trip an algorithmic filter, for instance by building a seriously uneven anchor text distribution.

    I did a 'detox' on a highstreet brand in the UK. One website had no contact details. Found a site hosted on the same IP. Looked through the backlinks, and found it was social bookmarked. Took that username, found that username posting on another forum, of which their profile had their real name. Put that real name in Linkedin and found the site owner. Sent them a message and got the link removed :). That was the one I was most proud of.

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  16. I think that this is why Google could never put in a simple penalty for link buying that applies across the board. Google can almost definitely identify the vast majority of paid links easily, but as soon as it starts penalising that activity too easily, you're going to get black hats trying to ban you.

    Instead the best that Google can do is take away any value from bought links, and penalise a few high profile or extreme sites.

    From the POV of self protection though - I'd say the key is diversification. Just keep building good, high quality, natural links and it will get harder and harder for anyone to build enough bad links to harm you.

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  17. I apologize to everyone for not keeping up with the comments, but thanks for your input - all great comments in here.

    @Chris Hornak - I disagree. Algorithmic and Manual actions were taken against JC Penney - http://dis.tl/gknLQc

    I devaluation of those links the reason why they've fallen so far behind? They are still in the SERPs but for keywords like area rugs, bedding and dresses where they were on the first page they are now in 60,61,56 (google.com/Mar 2011). Have a look at the sites that are outranking them... However, I could be wrong.

    @Carl Eisenstein Agreed. I hope that G doesn't penalise too easily either, but then again does that mean these shady links will benefit SEO because Google won't penalise easily? Or will G just rule out forum, article sites, directories, blog comments all together as sources for links?

    I don't know the answer. I can't even say in confidence that even if you have high quality back links that 2 million forum links with anchor text wouldn't be enough to hurt you.

    I would do my very best to get them removed as soon as possible and let the search engines know that this is happening.

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  18. This is a nice overview, but it's scary to think this can happen.

    Essentially, you're saying that even if you have quality links left, right and centre; if someone spams your links all over the place and reports you, then you may well be screwed!?

    Even if you then report it and sort it out, what's to stop it from happening again??

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  19. David Sottimano

    @AlexLeigh - I wish I had an easy answer for you. Here's a post worth reading about emails Google will send to you if they detect spammy links pointing to your site: http://www.seroundtable.com/google-unnatural-links-warnings-12761.html

    If you look towards the top of the comments, Kris Roadruck mentions an important point. Just don't piss anyone off and you should be fine.

    Otherwise, find out who did it and report them. There aren't too many people out there (I think*) who would take the chance of doing this - as they are very likely to get caught by SEOs.

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  20. Yeah, I hired a shady SEO firm that was being lazy so I got rid of them. They spent more time putting up bad links afterwards then they did good ones when we were paying them. I've lived all these steps.

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  21. David Sottimano

    @Mike L - I'm very sorry to hear about your experience. As this is somewhat of a controversial topic in the SEO community, I was wondering if you could share a bit more of your story...

    How did the bad links affect your site?
    Did you report / remove them?
    Have you recovered?
    If you did recover, how did you manage it?

    Thanks!

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  22. Than you for sharing, Its an eye opener for small businesses who do not have resources to safe guard there hard earned SEO position.

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  23. One adjective that defines Simon Wilby is smart. He is the CEO of Smart Power, Inc. He developed

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