First, 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:
- Paying or “bribing” others to link to you, for example, in a contest.
- 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!
- Linking to sites which are considered to be in a “bad neighborhood” – including pharmaceutical sites, porn, gambling, illegal activities, etc.
- 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.
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.
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:
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:
- Matt Cutts on How Google Views Paid Text Links and Page Rank
- Matt Cutts on How to report paid links
- Matt Cutts on SEO Mistakes: Not Checking Your Site
- Matt Cutts on “Pagerank Sculpting
- SEO Pitfalls: Outbound Links to Bad Neighborhoods
- Bad Neighborhood – Link Exchange Tool
- How I Reversed My Google Penalty
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.