Link building / Back link penalties do they exist or not?

A couple of months ago I had a couple of sites that seemed to receive the dreaded -30 penalty. To be fair they arguably deserved it as I had bent the rules slightly on what would be classed as an acceptable link building strategy. Basically too many links, similar anchor texts, low quality etc etc.

Rather foolishly of me I thought I could get away with some dodgy links on the side as I presumed the worst would happen would be that the links would be devalued, I would drop a little in rankings but nothing major. However I ended up with a drop of 30+ places across all key terms, which is a little more serious!

On further investigation the sites all had other minor little issues so I obviously cannot say that the penalty was 100% applied to the sites for the links, but I am pretty sure they are the root cause of the issue. One possible theory I came up with was the links triggered some alarms with the Google Algorithm and then it applied the penalty for the other minor issues which by all accounts had been around for years.

However over at Google groups I got involved in a discussion about a website called Sonic Shack receiving a penalty. One of the common responses on Google Groups is that the site probably doesn’t have a penalty and they are just not ranking as well as they should, but in this case the website wasn’t even ranking in the top 30 for its own name and website’s with blogs or articles about this site were ranking on page one. This therefore gives me the impression it is a little more than the site just not ranking as well.

As with my sites this site has a few issues, slightly spammy titles, duplicate meta descriptions, canonicalization issues etc. It also had quite a large number of links from blog posts, and most of these blog were un-related and also using the same anchor text in the links. Also there were some sidebar links looking quite like paid links. It did however have a few decent links including one from Download Squad.

So anyway my reason for them receiving the penalty was for the links, I told them to try and remove the low quality paid for links, and get a few new higher quality links then file for reconsideration. This view point was apparently not shared amongst most of the other people in the discussion.

I was told that:

“If it would be 1% more effective/easier/cheaper to gain rankings by
bowling your competitors out than doing your own job well everybody
would start it and SERPs would be ruined in days.”

“I’m still quite sure that Google Bowling does not exist in this
way.”

“A figment of your imagination. Out of MILLIONS of webmasters out there, only two have ever suggested it is possible. Dead simple – if "Google bowling" actually worked, it would overnight become the most exploited opportunity on the planet.!”

“What a load of rubbish!”

“Forget it. It’s an escapist avenue.”

“I’m referring to TODAY – end of Augiust, 2008. Neither here nor anywhere else relevant are there any mass complaints about "Google bowling". Whether or not it ever worked, it certainly doesn’t now.” (I stupidly posted some out of date examples)

“As to Yossarian’s comment that Google might manually apply a penalty to random sites, this is nonsense – not only would this require way to much human time to do, it goes against Google’s basic philosphy that they want their algo to be able to spot things – the best example of this is the famous ‘total failure’ Google bomb that had a link to the White House site of George Bush as the #1 result – Google had an AdWords link explaining this and explaining the reason they had not manually removed the link was because they feel it is more important to update their algo to be able to detect this sort of thing.” (I had commented I would hope it would be a human that applied a penalty for link building rather than the algo as a human probably could tell if someone is building he links themselves or a competitor)"

So I guess I made some friends with that one.

JohnMu also got involved saying

“Hi welcome to the groups!

It might be that the links to your site are not counting the way they might have in the past. In general, it is important to us that links are not just exchanged, bought/sold or otherwise used in an attempt to manipulate rankings, as we have detailed in our help center article at

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66356

If you find that your site has issues with regards to our Webmaster Guidelines that can be resolved, I would recommend doing that and then submitting a reconsideration request, detailing the changes that you have made.

Hope it helps!

John”

From this I would like to think that means the links are just devalued, I did respond asking that but I have had no response as of yet.

So from this it looks like I am a complete moron and know nothing. However I am pretty sure that quite a few other people believe incoming links can hurt a website.

Matt Cutts confirmed that Google bowling is theoretically possible in a Forbes article, though this was a year ago

“Matt Cutts, a senior software engineer for Google, says that piling links onto a competitor’s site to reduce its search rank isn’t impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. "We try to be mindful of when a technique can be abused and make our algorithm robust against it," he says. "I won’t go out on a limb and say it’s impossible. But Google bowling is much more inviting as an idea than it is in practice."

He also commented on a popular thread regarding the penalty of Faraway Furniture

Saying:

“ShyBoy, have you been collecting backlinks in any unusual ways? It looks like you may have, and I would pay special attention to that. For example, if you had been attempting to get PageRank via paid links on various templates, then when that PageRank stops flowing (e.g. if Google improves its detection in various ways), the fact that you have less PageRank can also mean that a site won’t rank as well.

If that applies to you, my advice would be to pay special attention to that issue, in addition to the other good advice you’ve already gotten.”

SE Roundtable did a poll on whether most minus X Google drops are associated with backlinks the results being:

  • 7% said Yes (50 responses)
  • 28% said No Idea (30 responses)
  • 25% said No (26 responses)

106 responses probably isn’t classed as a acceptable number considering the number of webmasters/SEOs out there.

And another post from SE Roundtable advising to check your backlinks

Go Compare was also penalised in January for what would seem questionable links building

JustSayHi appeared to receive a penalty for Widgetbait for link building

Slightlyshadyseo made a nice post on Negative SEO which includes comments about link spam

And well the list goes on..

Competitor Can Sabotage Your Website Rankings In Google!

Can Quality Sites Be Google Bowled & Hurt in Google’s Search Results?

Help! I’ve Been SEO Sabotaged!

In fact it seems well known enough to of acquired its own acronym:

BLOOP (BackLink Over Optimization Penalty)

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