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 Linking to bad neighborhoods

Did you know that linking to questionable sites can have an impact on your rankings? Don't just take my word for it, you can check this yourself in Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines

"In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links."

What is a "bad neighborhood"?

A site considered to be in a bad neighborhood would be one that has been banned or penalized by search engines. This ban could have occurred for a number of reasons; such as spammers and link farms. A link farm site is one that links to a variety of other sites that all link back. This goes beyond natural linking in that the sole purpose of the link farm arrangement is to attempt to boost search engine rankings. Often the sites within a link farm are not related by theme.

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How to determine a bad neighborhood

Before linking to a site, it's wise to check if the site may fall into the category of being in a bad neighborhood. This can be done in a variety of ways; but it needs to be approached holistically. Any one flag may not indicate that the site is a search engine ranking time bomb.

- Firstly, visually inspect the site a little more thoroughly - look for unrelated outbound links on the pages, then follow those links. Check to see whether the sites they link to are linking back.

- Take a closer look at the pages of the site - do they seem "spammy"? Go a little deeper and view the source code and look for issues such as keyword stuffing and hidden text. 

- In Google, type site:www.theirsite.com; where theirsite.com is the name of the site you are considering linking to. If there's none or just the home page listed, it's possible the site has been banned or penalized by Google.

- Take a section of text from the site, from an article and see if it appears elsewhere and who the author is. It's possible that the target site may be a "scraper" or plagiarist site.

- Go to http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/ and type link:http://www.theirsite.com - see what types of sites are linking to them. The reason I suggest using Yahoo! search instead of Google for this is that Google only shows a subset of links pointing into a site using the same command. Yahoo! will display a great deal more.

As mentioned, you do need to approach determining a bad neighborhood rather holistically. For example, if the site: search brings up none or few listings; it may be that it's a new site and hasn't been fully spidered yet or there's a glitch. If the link: search brings up questionable links pointing in, that may be no fault of the webmaster. 

All things considered, go with your gut vibe. I've linked to sites that have thrown up red flags, simply because I felt the information I'm linking to would be of great value to my readers and I believe whatever issue the target site is experiencing is due to a search engine ranking or listing glitch.

I don't believe linking to a single bad neighborhood could see your own rankings tanked in most cases. It's down to intent, volume and a variety of other factors that are all part of the complex ranking algorithms used by search engines these days.

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3 way link exchanges

I mentioned earlier on the issue of link farms. Search engines are becoming increasingly adept at detecting link farms and some people try to get around it with 3 way link exchanges.

I receive quite a few emails along these lines:

"I'm writing to see if you would be interested in setting up 3-way link with us. By doing this we can avoid Google's reciprocal link penalty."

From the outset, that tells me the person knows that what they are doing is probably an SEO no-no; aka a "black hat" strategy; frowned upon by search engines.

A 3 way link exchange works like this: 

Site A - their site
Site B - another of their sites
Site C - your site

Site B links to Site C, Then site C link to Site A.

Seems pretty clever doesn't it? The thing is, Google can pick up on this sort of linking activity. Any benefit you get from such arrangements will probably be short lived. So the question to ask, is it worth risking your site's existing rank? People who send out these link exchange proposals usually do so en masse, so if their sites aren't considered a bad neighborhood by search engines currently, chances are they will be soon.

If you should get emails like this encouraging you to participate in such exchanges, my advice is to ignore them. 

The best way to get links is to write compelling content and then letting other site owners know about that content. While one-way links are best, also bear in mind that linking out to good quality sites can also help your own search engine rankings. It is a factor in determining rank, albeit probably a minor one.

More articles on linking:

Anchor text optimization

How to - link exchange requests

Avoiding the pitfalls of link exchanges

Link exchange services - be cautious

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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