Are Negative Links a Myth? (Hint: The Answer's Complicated)

Posted Monday, October 28th, 2013 in Link Building by .

If you follow SEO news, you already know that bad links are toxic. They poison your site, they can get you penalized, and they can sink your rankings. That's what the unnatural link penalty is about. That's what Penguin is about. Everybody knows this.

Could everybody be wrong?

Google's guidelines on manual actions clearly describe a penalty that exists for unnatural links to your site. So that's it, right? Links can count against you. Case closed. What more could you possibly say?

Well, sorry, it's just not that simple.

Link Buyers Don't Typically Get Penalized

Sounds like heresy, doesn't it? Except that this is coming straight from the horse's mouth. Matt Cutts himself said recently:

Normally what happens, is when we find a site that's selling links, we say okay, this is a link seller, its PageRank goes down by 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, as a visible indicator that we've lost trust in that domain. And it typically also loses ability to send PageRank going forward...The most likely scenario is, if there is a link selling site, and they get caught for selling links, and they just happen to be linking to you, the value of that link that the site was providing, it just goes away.

In general, Google approaches link selling the same way most governments approach the black market. They don't go out of their way to punish buyers. It's the sellers who face the harshest sentences.

When Matt Cutts starts warning people about commercial link exchanges, he's typically warning webmasters not to sell links.

And while there is an inbound link penalty that directly demotes your rankings, it's not the only, or even the most common, type of link penalty out there. We also have:

  • Penalties on inbound links that only affect the links. The links are effectively no-followed, and you no longer receive value from those links. Removing the links in this case is an outright waste of time, unless of course you're doing it for more "political" reasons.
  • Penalties on sites for unnatural outbound links. In this case, the site containing the outbound links is assumed to be a link seller, part of a link network, or that it otherwise exists primarily to manipulate the rankings of other sites.

So while links that count against you do in fact exist, the vast majority of webmasters who are affected by penalties aren't being directly penalized for their inbound link profile. Instead, they are merely losing the value of their inbound links.

Why it Matters

When Matt Cutts says that a link from a link seller doesn't typically count against you, it's a pretty strong statement. It implies that Google's algorithm doesn't penalize inbound links. Let me reiterate that.

There is a very good chance that there is no such thing as a negative link within Google's algorithm.

Google has manual penalties for inbound links, but the algorithm itself doesn't appear to penalize inbound links. Why am I so convinced? Let's start with Penguin. Most SEOs seem to believe that Penguin penalizes sites for having spammy link profiles. But here's what Matt Cutts said when he was asked about Penguin 2.0:

It is a leap. It's a brand new generation of algorithms. The previous iteration of Penguin would essentially only look at the homepage of a site. The newer generation of Penguin goes much deeper.

So, on the surface, this is just Google being proud of its new algorithm and boasting about what it will do. But there's also a major revelation here. What on Earth could he possibly mean when he says that the first generation of Penguin only looked at the homepage of a site?

Everybody keeps saying that this meant the original Penguin only analyzed links to the homepage. That's insanity. I can point to several examples of sites that were penalized by Penguin 1.0, despite using a deep linking strategy.

Pre penguin we were doing lots of deep linking with a [wide] mix of anchor text. His anchor text heavily favors brand, and "visit us" type keywords. He should not have been penalized for any anchor text over use. I think something else went wrong here.

Here's another (from the comment section):

The homepage is still ranking very high, but the internal pages (which were housing content from the old domain) have disappeared? Prior to Tuesday this website was ranking very well for all of long tail keywords.

And here's another example, from a case study (PDF link):

As far as I can tell, the drop was mainly due to long-tails losing their rankings...Although the “main” keywords more or less stayed steady, a lot of those long-tails evidently slipped off page one for some reason, although it was impossible to track exactly because those long tails can’t really be monitored very easily, there are just too many of them.

While these examples aren't the norm, they definitively rule out the possibility that only links to the homepage were analyzed. If we take the standard interpretation of what Matt Cutts was saying, this means he was outright lying, and this is one case where it makes very little sense for him to do so.

It also makes little sense from the point of view of somebody designing the algorithm. Googlebot doesn't look at the homepage of a site and somehow work backward to find the links. It looks at a page and follows the links to see what they point to. Why would they design the Penguin algorithm to only analyze those links that pointed to the homepage of a site?

There is only one sane way to interpret what Cutts was saying about the original Penguin algorithm. It was clearly analyzing only the homepages of sites with unnatural outbound links. This is especially obvious when viewed in the context of Cutts' other statement, that link buyers typically aren't penalized.

This makes perfect sense if you think like Google, instead of like an SEO. The links on the homepage of a site tell you a lot about how trustworthy it is. Very few natural homepages are flooded with outbound links. Still fewer are flooded with outbound links containing exact match anchor text. Still fewer are flooded with links to sites that nobody is searching for.

SEOs need to start realizing that Google's algorithm isn't analyzing their link profile for artificial signals. It's analyzing your outbound link profile to determine if it looks unnatural.

This is not a trivial difference.

It means that it doesn't matter how natural you think your inbound link profile is. The anchor text, the guest post content, none of it matters. What matters is where your links are coming from. If they're coming from a site that's going to get penalized, you're going to lose that link value.

It also means that most people have Penguin 2.0 completely wrong. It doesn't mean that even your deep links are subject to scrutiny. They already were. It means that links from deep within the crevices of a spammy site are now subject to scrutiny.

Furthermore, it means that the fears of negative SEO are largely unfounded. Yes, it's possible to get penalized for inbound links, but only if a Google employee manually finds reason to do so.

I want to say it again. If you've lost rankings, and you haven't received a manual penalty, there's a very good chance you shouldn't waste time removing links. The evidence suggests the links aren't counting against you. They just aren't helping you anymore.

Finally, this also means it doesn't really matter how you obtain the link. All that matters is what the other links on that site are going to look like. If they look unnatural, it doesn't matter how "natural" your link is.

When you obtain a link, you need to be wary of that site's business model. Are they linking to sites that people would actually want to visit? Is the site's content worth reading?

Does the site's business model rely on search traffic to exist? Does it rely on helping other sites earn search traffic in order to exist?

These are the questions you should be asking.

Image credit: Su Neko

Carter Bowles


Carter Bowles is a strategist who leverages his technical knowledge of statistics (which he holds a bachelor's degree in) and his years of experience with SEO and content marketing to organize comprehensive marketing strategies.


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