If you've done any link building for your website, you've probably been warned about linking out to “bad neighborhoods” such as link farms and spammy sites. But what if they should link to you? That's not as much a cause for concern as you might think.
As Jason Lancaster noted for Search Engine Journal, the idea that inbound links from bad sites can earn your site a Google penalty is a myth. You'll hear lots of would-be SEOs who should really know better spouting that myth, however. So what is actually going on?
Say a black hat webmaster links to your website. Since this webmaster has been engaging in all sorts of practices to raise his standing in the search engines, his website has a certain amount of rank. This rank passes on to your site through the link. But since most of those practices violate Google's Terms of Service, when Google catches him at them, he will be penalized.
This means that whatever rank he passed through any links he made to other sites will be diminished as well. When you see your rank drop as a result of this, it isn't your site that is being penalized for the inbound link. Rather, that link has diminished in value – because the site linking to yours has diminished in value.
Lancaster notes that in such a situation, “we have no relationship with the linking party. We can’t control who links to us, so we can’t be penalized when someone who links to us does something evil.” So what you're seeing in this situation is “a lot of ranking brought on by a loss of link value,” he explains. Don't mistake that loss for a Google penalty directed at you.
Google tries to avoid penalizing innocent parties, and the search engine understands that we can't always control who links to us. It assumes, however, that you CAN control to whom you link. That's why you need to avoid linking to bad neighborhoods. As Google notes in its Webmaster Guidelines: “…some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.”
But what if you run a blog or a forum where users drop links? In that case, you need to use the rel=nofollow attribute, to let Google know that you're not actually vouching for the linked site.
If you're still not convinced that bad websites linking to your website can't cause you to receive a penalty, let me reiterate something I've seen repeated ad nauseum in SEO Chat's forum. If this trick actually worked, then competitors all over would buy a bunch of links from a link farm and point them at your site. You'd see this being done wholesale, all over the web. The fact that it isn't should clue you in to the truth. “Google and Bing know that if their algorithms penalized sites for poor quality inbound links, it wouldn’t be long before SEOs added sabotage to their list of services,” Lancaster observed.
In short, an inbound link from a bad neighborhood can't hurt your rankings...unless you choose to link back. Good luck!
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