Do You Know Who You’re Linking to?

You might not be fully and 100% aware of everyone you are linking to. You could even be linking to a bad-neighborhood site without realizing it. There are a few ways this can happen.

hyperlink

hyperlinkFirst, a little background …

If you have been working online for more than a week then you probably know that, as a general rule of thumb, a site’s search engine rankings are benefited by the number of backlinks your site has (links from other sites pointing toward your site).

This is because search engines want to rank high-quality sites at the top and low-quality sites at the bottom.  High-quality sites tend to be linked to by more other sites, as they are recommended or referred to by other bloggers and webmasters.

However, this system goes awry when people take dishonest or questionable measures to get links back to their site, and this is why search engines have been many various (secret, or no-so-secret) algorithm changes in order to try to combat this problem.

When you link to another site, you are essentially giving a little “vote” for that site in the eyes of a search engine.  You are saying “I like this site. I recommend it.  Go here and read this stuff.”

This is also why Google asks us to only link to sites that we truly wish to vouch for, unless we use the “nofollow” tag on the link.  Of course, Google can’t force us to abide by their guidelines.  This is not a legal matter.  It’s our site, we can do what we want with it if we don’t break the law.  We also can’t force Google to index our site!  It’s their index.

Google therefore simply penalizes websites which don’t abide by their Webmaster Guidelines, by giving those sites lower search engine rankings or even removing those sites entirely from the index.

Four Ways to get your site Penalized by a Search Engines

Four examples of practices you can get penalized for by Google include:

  1. Paying or “bribing” others to link to you, for example, in a contest.
  2. Having paid links on your site – that is, linking to a site without the “nofollow” tag because someone has paid you to do so.  It’s fine for you to allow advertising on your site where you are being paid to link to another site – but you should use the “nonfollow” tag on each paid link.  Otherwise you risk being seriously penalized by Google or even de-indexed!
  3. Linking to sites which are considered to be in a “bad neighborhood” – including pharmaceutical sites, porn, gambling, illegal activities, etc.
  4. Hidden text in a site or in a link.  For example, white words on a white background.  This has been used as a black-hat technique to squeeze keywords or disrelated links on a page without the visitors seeing them.

Okay so What’s the Point?  I would never do that!

What you may not realize is that, you might not be fully and 100% aware of everyone you are linking to.  You could even be linking to a bad-neighborhood site without realizing it. Here are a few of the ways this can happen …

1. Links in Comments

Do you remove the nofollow tag from links in reader’s comments?  I don’t personally find anything wrong with that in itself, and I personally have the nofollow removed from comment links when a reader has commented a certain number of times.  (That’s just me.)  But do you LOOK at the site before you link to it?  Do you check the person’s blog or website first, to see if you wish to honestly “vouch for” that site?

If you don’t, you could very well have a link from your site to a bad-neighborhood site.  All someone has to do is leave a few comments on your blog and put their URL in the comment field – if they have just linked to a gambling site and you didn’t realize it, you are now essentially linking to a bad-neighborhood and can be penalized.

2. Footer Links in Free Themes

What about free WordPress themes?  Free WordPress themes are great, but some people take advantage of unsuspecting new bloggers and put all kinds of nasty links in the footers of the theme!  Before you use a free theme on your site, I suggest you check the footer links – and don’t rule out the possibility of there being hidden text in the link.  This can hurt you in two ways – first, you can be penalized for having hidden text on your site, and secondly, that hidden text might be a link to a naughty website.  If you haven’t checked your footer, you might not even realize this is happening.

Embarrassingly enough, yesterday I was changing some code in the template of one of my old blogger blogs.  (The one blogger blog I have held onto without trying to move it to WordPress). I have been using a free template which allows me to have a three-column layout that I like.  What I noticed yesterday was that there was hidden text in the footer credits.  Obviously I fixed that right away.  But that template has been there for a long time, and I never thought of checking the footer links when I first installed it.

Note: Another tool you can use to check your free themes for misbehavior is the Theme Authenticity Checker.  Or you can simply start using Premium Themes.  I would have switched over to Premium themes AGES ago if I had realized how much time and money it would save me in the long run.

3. Advertisements

A blog post I came across yesterday, How I Reversed My Google Penalty, tells the story of one blogger who got himself heavily penalized in Google.  One of the reasons for this had to do with a link he had in a paid advertisement.  For one thing, he was using the “Text Links Ads” service and was giving other sites paid links (without the nofollow).  For another thing, the link happened to lead to a bad neighborhood.  You can see how Matt Cutt’s (head of Google’s anti-spam team) responded to this blogger on the matter.

Don’t allow paid links on your site without the nofollow.  And not only that, but know who you are linking to and know who you are promoting.  Not just for the search engines, but for your readers too!

Here is something to remember:

If your readers trust you, they will want to trust the sites you link to as well.

Link Exchanges

If you have participated in many link exchanges, you could be linking to a bad neighborhood, particularly if you have not actually reviewed each site before you decided to link to it.

A Tool to Scan Your Site for Links to Bad Neighborhoods

Here is a neat little tool you can use to scan your site for links to bad neighborhoods:

Bad Neighborhood – Link Exchange Tool

Remember, it is a tool not a god.  Use your own judgement.  I found myself laughing about some of the links that the tool considered to be questionable.  It was apparantly judging based on the words included in the post.  My links to IM with Joe, for example, were considered questionable because of this post on Joe’s blog:

Twitter Porn: The Sexiest Twitter Client Around

Obviously the word “porn” and possibly “sexiest” trigger the tools little alarm, though Joe is certainly not selling pornography.  I suspect search engines are smart enough to differentiate these things, even if the free tool isn’t!

4. How to Add the “Nofollow” Tag to a Link

Here is an example of a link without the nofollow.  This is how you would link to my blog if you wanted to vouch for it and recommend it to your readers:

<a href=”http://buildingfromnothing.com”>Building from Nothing</a>

And here is the link with the nofollow.  Use this link if you think I might be up to no good:

<a href=”http://buildingfromnothing.com” rel=”nofollow”>Building from Nothing</a>

5. Additional Resources

Here are some more resources you can look at on this subject:

5. What Else?

I am sure there are other things I haven’t thought of.  Do you know of any other linking pitfalls which bloggers can overlook?  Or other tools on detecting and preventing them?  I’d love to know about it.

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37 Responses to “Do You Know Who You’re Linking to?”

  1. Stefan
    July 21, 2009 at 12:22 am #

    Blog comments can actually be a big dilemma. Hear about one guy who were thrown out of Google Image Search since a visitor wrote a bad comment, and therefore Googles filter excluded him if you search with “save search”. Since the comment where posted in his sidebar (recent comments) all of his pages were excluded.
    .-= Stefan´s last blog ..Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko =-.

  2. Anna
    July 21, 2009 at 12:27 am #

    OMG, that’s crazy. Another good reason to keep a better eye on our comments. Not just the comment links I suppose, but the comment text itself.

    I also have started to remove the “@keywords” when they are totally disrelated or off the rails. I was not paying as much attention earlier so I might have a bit of backlog cleanup to do.

  3. Dave Doolin
    July 21, 2009 at 12:05 am #

    I just published a post on security today, with a nice overlap on checking for malicious code. Upshot: check for base64 encoding.

    The Exploit Scanner plugin is nice for this. I recall writing something up about it, now I can’t find it.

    Thanks for the tip about Theme Authenticity Checker. I have a couple of client sites that I need to run that on.

  4. Top Ten Internet Marketing
    July 21, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    The google slap or ban is definitely not good for business. Thanks for reminding me of these insights as I move along in the future. I totally forgot about the potential negative impact of using Text Link Ads. I like the free money they bring, but the google slap is not cool at all. Especially not cool, if you have spend weeks upon weeks building white hat backlinks to your site.

    Good luck on your journey!
    .-= Top Ten Internet Marketing´s last blog ..Top Ten Twitter Uses for Internet Marketers =-.

  5. Anna
    July 21, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    @Top Ten Internet Marketing

    You know, it’s funny – I read a lot about Text Link Ads and almost used them on some of my websites but I had a funny feeling about it … and I was also wondering about the nofollow issue. So I set it aside as something to figure out later. I am glad I came across this data in the meanwhile.

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I hope to see you around more 🙂

  6. iCan't Internet
    July 22, 2009 at 10:06 am #

    Thanks for this great article Anna. Linking to bad neighborhood sites certainly is a bad thing, and can indeed get you badly penalised. Thanks for bringing this back to my attention, as I had forgotten to take enough care of this!
    .-= iCan’t Internet´s last blog ..Using channels in Adsense =-.

  7. Indie
    July 22, 2009 at 11:28 am #

    this is a great article thanks Anna, Blog comments can actually be a big dilemma
    .-= Indie´s last blog ..Indie Music ! =-.

  8. Anna
    July 23, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    @ iCan’t Internet – Hi, thanks for stopping by again. I’m glad it helped! 🙂

  9. Anna
    July 23, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    @ Indie – thanks, I am glad you ilked it.

  10. iCan't Internet
    July 26, 2009 at 9:46 am #

    @Anna: Yeah, it’s been a while. Been quite busy in the other business 😉
    .-= iCan’t Internet´s last blog ..Using channels in Adsense =-.

  11. Margret
    July 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    I actually recommend sites i find very interesting. However, i only go for sites i find a good read. nothing more. nothing less.

  12. Jannie Funster
    July 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    Number 4 in itself seems to be worth its weight in gold, if I understand you correctly.

    If I went back through all my old posts and switched all the links to those “lesser” sites to the nofollow way you show, my Google rank might rise?
    .-= Jannie Funster´s last blog ..Lazy River Sunday (Formerly Titled “Frisky Jim at the Water Park”) =-.

  13. Anna
    July 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    @Jannie – it might, or it might not. Based on what I can see (in the resources I linked to in point 4) it looks like a definitely possibility. But I think this would be particularly true if you were linking to a bad-neighborhood site or irrelevant sites.

    One key stable datum to think with in SEO is actually simple integrity. One could even say, “When in doubt, think of integrity.” 🙂

    Search engines respect integrity – or at least they try to. Their algorithms are written so as to give more trust and value to sites that have integrity, than those that don’t.

    These are the types of site the search engines want their users to find in searches. And these are the types of sites that also HELP search engines to determine the relative value of other sites (for example, by linking to websites they actually respect, and thus helping search engines to determine the quality of other websites).

  14. Jannie Funster
    July 30, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    Almost all sites I’ve linked to are blogs, some very little yes, but no bad neighborhoods, that I know of anyway. I hope not!

    I guess I’ll just keep trying to put out some posts that my friends might Stumble (and I’m not talking about today’s.) One post people seemed to really like is the following one, so I’d like to continue the series wtih my daughter’s natural anctics.

    http://www.janniefunster.com/2009/07/13/why-we-usually-eat-at-home/

    I’ve been blogging for almost a year, but only really finding out about improving my Alexa and Google rank and such lately. It’s a ton of freaking work! 🙂

    A lot of my subscribers actually seem to be spammers, should I delete them?

    Thanks! And I promise I really won’t bug you too much. I followed your comment link from Problogger and of course, am intrigued but the stuff you share here.
    .-= Jannie Funster´s last blog ..Lazy River Sunday (Formerly Titled “Frisky Jim at the Water Park”) =-.

  15. Anna
    July 30, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    @Joe – Yeah, I thought it was pretty funny myself!

    Really Joe, you must stop selling Twitter porn if you want us respectable bloggers to keep linking to you … you’re gonna get us all in trouble.

    Actually now that I’ve said that word, I’m probably already in trouble …

  16. Personality Marketing
    July 30, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

    Another awesome post as usual Anna! I’m going to use that tool…

    Joeville questionable! Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat! lol

    hahaha, that’s the risk I take sometimes with my titles….
    .-= Personality Marketing´s last blog ..Jimmy Vee and Travis Miller piss me off! =-.

  17. Normal Joe
    July 30, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    Too late! you already showed up as my only questionable link…because of your article on pharmaceuticals lol

    cool tool though!

    I always check sites especially for comments that automatically go to pending or spam.
    .-= Normal Joe´s last blog ..Finally learning to read faster with the Readers Edge =-.

  18. Dave Doolin
    July 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Whoa whoa whoa… pr0n? Did I miss something…?

    😉

    That Bad Neighborhood tool is pretty cool. It tells me I have too many blog links. Whatever. They’re all good so they’re staying. Google will figure it out eventually, Bing already likes it.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Leveraging Localhost WordPress for Learning Webmaster Skills =-.

  19. Anna
    August 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    Hi Tom, at some point I am going to do some more research on the different plugins and options. Personally I would like to find a plugin which allows me to manually remove the dofollow on specific blogs (as opposed to just being able to remove the link).

    The thing is, it is probably best to do it manually if you can – if you don’t have tons and tons of comments, it should not be too hard to check out the websites of first-time commenters as they come in.

    This is why search engines use backlinks in their algorithms to determine the quality of a site – because (originally) it was expected that people would only link to other sites if they were vouching for those sites. This is why I think it is best to do it manually.

  20. Anna
    August 1, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    @Danni – Hi, I don’t know exactly how they determine which sites are in bad neighborhoods. Remember that many of these things are kept intentionally confidential by the engines. You might try checking through Google to see if you can find some more information on this – particularly, I would look for whatever information is provided by Google, perhaps in their Webmaster Help section, their forum, or one of their YouTube videos. Matt Cutts also often explains these types of points more thoroughly, when they are not totally confidential.

  21. Tom
    August 1, 2009 at 11:28 am #

    I too have a ‘dofollow’ blog but didnt realise the links in there could damage my google standings. Is there a way to set a monitor to check for ‘risky’ sites and alert these comments for moderation or is it just a case of doing things manually? i’d like to keep the site dofollow if possible.
    .-= Tom@herbal fiberblend´s last blog ..Colon Cleansing Diary 1 Week On =-.

  22. Danni@bird feeders
    August 1, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I also didnt realise what a problem this could be – how does google catergorize its ‘bad neighbour hood’ sites? For example there are decent supplement sites that get good organic google rankings, yet there are other sites selling ‘dodgy’, expensive and untested miracle ‘pill’s – yet they probably use very similar content?

  23. ansv@Webdevelopment ny
    August 13, 2009 at 7:57 am #

    In my opinion, your site back link structure is an important aspect of your search engine optimization and relates to the number and quality of the sites that link to your site

  24. Benivolent
    August 22, 2009 at 4:10 am #

    Excellent article, love reading the difference points that you were explained above. It will help by give an accurate insight into successful SEO.

    Thanks for sharing great information with us.

  25. web design company India
    August 24, 2009 at 2:38 am #

    Thanks for the great post. I am working as a SEO Executive and really don’t thought at this much deep point as you have mentioned for the themes for the hidden text or text links. I am agree with your all the points. There are many points to check whether a site link to you is good or bad. “http://linkchecker.submitexpress.com/”, “http://tool.motoricerca.info/spam-detector” hope this tool will help a little bit.

  26. ansv
    September 3, 2009 at 8:19 am #

    In my opinion, getting back links or inbound links from do follow is very easy. But getting quality back links or inbound links is a difficult task.

  27. Anna
    September 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

    @ansv – Hi, thanks for the comment. I’m not 100% sure what you mean, in your first sentence you seem to think it is very easy but in your second sentence you state it is hard 🙂

  28. Dave Doolin
    September 5, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    @ anna I believe what ansv means is that accumulating “real” backlinks, that is, links that actually reference material from another web site within context, is extremely unusual. I further believe this is a result of too much pre-occupation with “bleeding google link juice.” Another reason may be that most people on the web right now don’t understand what the web was designed to do, and haven’t ever really used the web as it was meant to be used… without search engines!

    It turns out that in the early days of the web, linking to other articles was extremely common. These links, in fact, are why the web was put together at CERN in the first place.

    I’m not sure if it hurts my “google page rank,” but I link contextually at will. If I can provide a link useful to a reader, I’ll do it, and the hell with whatever people say google thinks about it. This strategy will work better and better as time goes by.

    @ ansv – if you mean something else, please add more comments, I’m very interested in what you have to say.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Practical WordPress Tip #6: Limit word count per post to create article series =-.

  29. Anna
    September 6, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    Thanks for the clarification Dave! The irony is … as far as I know, search engines look for relevant outgoing links as well. This is a great idea of how someone can shoot themself in the foot by getting too caught up in technicalities instead of visitors. A website which links to useful and relevant information is more valuable than one which only links to itself and tries to hoard all of its page rank – which doesn’t really work that way anyhow. Search engines know this too, they are consistently evolved to find the best quality websites, and the best quality websites are those which are created for visitors.

  30. Trade Online
    September 8, 2009 at 7:48 am #

    I don’t know if google punishes contest holders that says you should link to me to enter the contest. I think the way to go about a contest is to give the contestants a post to post on their site. The post would contain a link to your home page.
    .-= Trade Online´s last blog ..Trading Forex During Summer Holiday Period =-.

  31. Google Riches
    November 20, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    You defiantely have to monitor comments. Bottom line is you should always double check them.

  32. Headstones
    May 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    It is clear that you need to know where your linking is going to. Links can get out of control quickly.

  33. poolheatpumps
    November 22, 2010 at 11:53 pm #

    I have a sad story of my sites banned because I bought a 1000 backlinks. Just sharing, using a short path is dangerous.

  34. Brian Adams
    May 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    I find all of your advise as sound, because I have experienced Google’s power of the slap. Another way to get on Googles bad side is from auto blogging and auto content posting to your site. If you don’t review the post regularly, something may post that Google doesn’t like such as a post on sex sites, sex toys or gambling sites.

    [spam link removed by moderator]

  35. Vicky
    May 27, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    Hi Anna, thanks for some very useful info, i am new on the net building my first few sites everything seems to be like hazy cloud. I am i have stumbled upon you site i have just learnt important thigs about linking to sites. To be quite frnk i had no knowledge about “nofollow” links. Are you saying check the sites before you link to them? so google doesn’t slap you.

  36. Anna
    May 27, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Hi Vicky – Thanks for the comment. I can’t say I’d give a specific rule on this but in general I do try to avoid linking (with dofollow) to sites of low quality or if I can’t tell their quality.

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