Can bad links hurt your google rankings ?

Have started doing significant SEO work lately (after long period of working exclusively on development) and got a chance to experiment with link building techniques and in particular profile links.  Mind you I do all the experimenting on non customer sites before I decide its worth the trouble and the risk.  I usually use my own domains that don't bring in any significant amount of money or use friend's sites after I explain the risks to them.  In this particular experiment I have used a friend's site.

Site details before the experiment

The site had the following characteristics 1 month ago right before the link building started

  • site has been running for more than 4 years
  • site has 8000+ indexed pages recently
  • the site has had a history of dropped PR from 3 to 0 because of google penalty 3 years ago which had not affected its traffic at all (the penalty was probably because of questionable outgoing links from the footer which have remained there actually)
  • the PR is currently 2 for the last 1.5 years with no SEO done (self adjusted)
  • link building was done on it only on the first 3 months of its existence mostly link exchanges with similar niche sites
  • site has had 200-400 daily visitors from google organic for the last 3 years with no SEO done on it
  • site has had pretty much steady top 100 positions for the same period in VERY competitive niche (probably more than 10K sites of the kind must exist)
  • the content of the site can be found elsewhere but its not an exact clone of any other site
  • the site is monetized with adsense mostly but not significant earnings

The link building test

Well I have been seeing a lot of talk on Profile links on many webmaster forums (especially the ones that are colored mostly grey to black) and just wanted to see if I could boost the rankins a little bit.  I have ordered a package (as they call it) of more than 8000+ profile links with extra actions that would get them indexed faster from a guy that promises to deliver in less than 5 days.

I know that those are low quality (very low actually) X Rumer links but with the price offered I figured it would be an experiment I could not resist to make.  The links were delivered in 5 days period.  Checking today I can see that about 42% of those pages (3404) ever carried the link and I will see if I can report later the count of how many have been actually indexed, since the package included high ratio of indexation.  Edit: 61 out of the 3404 (2%) where indexed by google and 2404 (70%) where indexed by Yahoo.  My take on this is that google has seen more pages than they actually index.  Webmasters suggest that google might have actually seen the pages and deemed that they are not worth to index since they carry no content and just counted the backlinks on them.

The only other changes made to the site were corrections for more descriptive Titles and 20+ extra footer links that pointed to important internal pages.

The consequences

25 days after this profile link building took place I have seen

  • Gradual drop in traffic from google for the last 5 days
  • Today most of the google rankings have dropped 300-500 places with some of the rankings completely dissapearing
  • Not all rankings/traffic have dropped though
  • The site still has 8000+ pages indexed

Could it be coincental ? After all the content is not super unique in any way with more than 10K sites doing the exact same thing. Could it be other webmasters doing a better job at their SEO efforts.  I think not because the site has not had any SEO done to it for last 3 1/2 years.

Could it be something that will self-adjust soon ? I doubt that too.  My take on this is that google has deemed those as bad/paid links and has penalized the site - especially if the fast indexation promised has worked well - what some people I think call it the "google slap".   Most of these links are on the forum profile of a member and with no other content surrounding them and therefore are probably easy for google to spot and note.   I will keep an eye on this and update this post when I see changes.

The unexpected results

Among the bad google results there is good results too that have actually made my friend happy.  Yahoo and Bing have been giving lots of traffic to the site consequently the adsense earnings have 5x increased.

Here is the details:

  • All rankings in yahoo and bing have improved dramatically
  • Top 10 positions gained in bing and yahoo for main phrases of link building thus bringing lots of traffic
  • 5x increase in traffic from yahoo and bing within 20 days
  • Google adsense earnings have more than 5x increased with better CTR, CPC and PPM
  • Increase in traffic/rankings/earnings is gradual and not sudden for the last 7 days

Why are those unexpected ?  I have been used to perform SEO with google only in mind since it brings more than 90% of the traffic to the sites I am managing that I had forgotten that yahoo and bing can carry traffic too.  Can this traffic last ? I hope so otherwise my friend might not trust me with his domains again.  It remains to be seen.

What could that mean for SEO

What concerns me most, if my findings are correct, is the future of the rules SEO's play by.  In the past I was under the impression that a backlink could not hurt, I was so advising in the webmaster forums too.  Logic behind it is that anything outside of the control of the owner of a site could not be held agaist his domain.  Otherwise "BAD SEO" could be done to competitors' sites.  In other words if google found a good link they could give credit but if fould a bad link they SHOULD not take credit away otherwise this situation could make SEO's even more manipulative then they already are.

Well this experiment has reversed this belief of mine.  Similar accounts have been found.  John McElborough on Can bad links hurt my site ? in which he shares almost the same concern of SEO professional playing the BAD SEO game in the future.  Another account on Search Engine Watch Can links hurt ? where there is a lot of mixed feelings about the matter.  I am sure more accounts can be dug up but the fact is that not many SEO professionals talk about this topic.  Why is that ?

What is your take on this matter, can links hurt ? Please share your experiences.

EDIT: It appears that google has gone through a major update on 24/2/2011 which I was not aware of which affects 11.8% of the search results and supposed to get rid of non quality sites from the results.  This probably is a better explanation of the sudden drop.  Even if that is the case the post above might still be valuable in certain cases.

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11 Comments

I think that bad links do affect the site, but not as bad as is thought. I think that link building is something that Google thinks should be done manually and there is no other way. I know that Google does not like paid links and they can and will punish you for it, especially if they catch you using a farm. But the odd bad link in a good campaign will not carry much weight. I think that is one of the reasons that Yahoo and Bing sprung up so much, I don't think that they look for those paid links. Thus, the sudden jump. I also think that Google is looking for those SEO campaigns that put that site on the web, in different places, with slow, even frequency. In other words, you work SEO 3 to 4 times a week and add 20 to 50 links in that period. I need to point out that this is just speculation, no one knows the comings and goings of Google, but in my experience with SEO, this is my opinion. And the reason that SEO pros don't like to talk about what they do and how they do it is because they don't want us to know how they do it. If we knew it was that easy we might diy it. That said, there are many different facets of SEO and though focus on one of them will bring some results, the more you work on, the better the results. I enjoyed this post, thank you.

Everyone says that google will punish sites that have paid backlinks. But what about those hotel directories that need an amount of money in order to include your site in their listings? Can that hurt rankings? I am asking that because I am intrested in hotel seo and the travel niche.

Hi Giorgos,

Interesting experiment and I hope you made up with your friend!

I read John McElborough's post as well, after making a post on this subject myself.

http://www.adjuice.co.uk/blog/bad-links-may-hurt-you-google-ups-the-ante/

I think some people are confusing back links with selling links (where it is clear from Google they will sometimes penalise the seller, if the links are not nofollowed).

I think the best defence to being penalised for back links is to build a strong healthy back link profile so that the sudden appearance of a load of bad links will clearly be out of character.

I had a very well established client who got hacked and had thousands of spammy (viagra type) links pointed at them. It hasn't done their normal rankings any harm at all. Mind you I did get the site reviewed manually by Google so maybe that made a difference to what might have happened if just left to the algo.

Cheers,
Ewan