[Editorial] Post Penguin Update, Can Competitors Harm Your Site Through Link Bombs?

penguin1On April 24th 2012, Google introduced another major update to its algorithmic filter , better known as The Penguin update. Similar to the Panda update, Penguin has produced disastrous results, literally killing the organic traffic of thousands of “over optimized” sites in one shot. Penguin was launched to address the issue of “over optimization”, filter sites who don’t adhere to Google webmaster quality guidelines and use black hat SEO techniques to manipulate rankings.

Penguin is surely more dangerous than Panda, because once you have bought 6000 links from paid directories, it is very difficult, if not impossible to undo that effect. Panda can be cured if you improve or remove low quality content from your domain but the issue of spam links is sometimes, beyond your control.

Let me get this straight. If you buy links from SEO firms or do link exchanges with random sites, stuff your pages with keywords and phrases that don’t flow or read well, there is a high chance that your site will fall in the Penguin pit. Penguin takes link spam very seriously, any manipulation and you’re in big trouble.

Moving forward from the usual talk, the big question is – can your competitors harm you through link bombs? What if one of your competitor tries to bolster you by buying paid links from thousands of sites?

According to Penguin’s principles, if your backlink portfolio looks unnatural and deceptive, the rankings of your site is going to suffer. Big time. Over optimized anchor text is another big factor; Google scans all the links pointing to your domain and if Penguin finds that the Anchor texts are very similar and have been intentionally manipulated for better rankings, the Penguin filter is thrown on your face.

Before I put up a test case, lets understand the scenario of a legit site that got hit by Penguin update. The reason why I am citing this example is that the site in question did nothing wrong, but Penguin “thought” that it was manipulating rankings through over optimized Anchor text.

WPMU.org Got Hit By Penguin

Wpmu.org observed their organic traffic from Google taking a nose dive, as they discovered that they were hit by the introductory Penguin update on April 23rd 2012. Here is a screenshot James has shared in the Wpmu blog


Upon inspection, James and his team found that the penalty was directly linked to low quality links pointing to their domain. Where and how did these links originated in the first place? Well, you guessed it –Footer links from free WordPress Themes.

Lets hear James’s explanation on this.

1. You create and released a really great WordPress theme, for free.
2. Some spammer decides to use it on their sploggy / nasty / low quality / keyword stuffed pages.
3. You get penalized for that.

This is insanely ridiculous. I don’t care what negative SEO, Penguin or any algorithm is, I’ve done nothing wrong, built and gave away my work for free. Now this is the reward I am getting. Wow!

How am I responsible if thousands of spammers use my free WordPress theme and there is a link in the footer pointing to my domain? Isn’t it natural that I place a link in the footer to let people know that I have developed this WordPress theme? I am not manipulating PageRank and neither I am buying or trading links.

Here is an interesting comment.


Blaming Google or cursing Penguin isn’t going to help but according to Matt Cutt’s advice

If you’ve cleaned and still don’t recover, ultimately, you might need to start all over with a fresh site

What that means is I have built something for years, tons of thousands of people have used my work in their good, bad, horrible, spam sites and one day, some algorithm “thinks” that I have bought all these links and penalizes me. Now, either I have to beg to all those spammers to remove my credit links or I have to start all over again . Doesn’t make any sense, no?

The Recovery Story Of WPMU.org

Ross Hudgens and James Farmer agreed to begin their hunt for Penguin and get WPMU.org out of the Penguin filter. They did made a lot of changes, took down massive number of incoming links from edublogs.org thereby fixing the ratio of sitewide links / anchor texts. Additionally, the team had to email bloggers to take down footer links that point to WPMU.org and since the site had hundreds of thousands of links, this was meant to be an ongoing effort.

Meanwhile, the site made a full recovery from its original hit from the Penguin update.


Now WPMU.org is a big brand and they were able to get this specific use case in front of Google and the greater SEO community that highlighted it. This might not be the case with you. It is unlikely to get the same media coverage and attention, rather claim it.

This comment from Ross put it as straight as an arrow:

It’s smart marketing, for sure. If you really deserve to be ranking, shout it out loud. Either you’re going to quickly find out why you don’t deserve to rank, or Google will realize there’s a hole there and potentially correct if a hole really does exist.

Unfortunately, the benefits of such a strategy are diminishing already – media cares less and less, especially the further away it gets from a Google update. So, James was definitely smart to get this in front of the media and capitalize on the press – but more so, he was smarter in that he had already built a business deserving to rank well on Google – turns out the rest tends to just figure itself out.

Now the bigger question is – what am I supposed to do if my competitor is engaging my site in black hat techniques? For example, earlier SEO’s were focused on buying links for their domain. Now that things have changed, what if someone pays some SEO guy to do black hat SEO for my site? This is something beyond my control and there is no way I can prevent people from distributing spam links on forums, directory sites or a link wheel.

There is a support page on Google Webmaster help which reads:

Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

Prior to this, the same page used to read the following (highlights by me) [h/t SER]:

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

I feel pity for those people who don’t have any clue what PageRank is, what is Google Webmaster Tools, neither have they heard about Panda or Penguin.

Nobody really knows whether it is really possible to harm a competitor through sale of spam links. If you can harm yourself through spam links, you can always use the same techniques to harm a competitor’s site as well. Who is going to determine the “intent” and “source” of the spam behavior? Link manipulation is link manipulation, regardless of whether it’s the site owner purchasing links to improve rankings, or a third party doing it to take down a competitor.

There is no rule book of spam.

Of course, negative SEO is a fairly unexplored ground but if this works (God forbids), sooner or later all those SEO’s are going to find a way around it. Previously, Google did a good job ignoring the volume and quantity of links that seemed irrelevant. The philosophy – incoming links from third party sites can either improve your ranks or have no effect whatsoever, was perfect.

Now that this negative SEO (in theory of course) is in place,  I can’t elevate my site but I can try to corrupt the reputation of my competitor. Lets just buy paid links from porn sites and spam the whole web with repetitive anchor texts, it will show an effect sooner than later.

Congratulations. Search engine optimization becomes search engine warfare.

P.S: The following video by Matt Cutts gives some hints but tells nothing about negative SEO and things a legit webmaster should do, if he finds that his competitor is trying to destroy the reputation of his site through external deceptive behaviour.

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Amit Banerjee

Amit has been writing for Techie Buzz since early 2009 and keeps a close eye on web apps, Google and all things Tech. He also writes at his own tech blog, Ampercent. Follow him on Twitter @ amit_banerjee