Google now explicitly warns site owners to avoid linking to “bad neighborhoods”, which effectively means penalized web sites or web sites banned by the search engines for using spammy tactics.
The following excerpt is taken from the Quality Guidelines section of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines page.
Bad neighborhoods are sites that violate Google’s guidelines. They are typically sites that knowingly or accidentally utilize Black Hat SEO techniques intended to artificially boost a site’s rankings in the free or natural search engine results pages (SERPs). Google has always taken the lead when it comes to penalizing site owners who cheat or use any method they can to obtain top rank positions. The warning posted on the Webmaster Guidelines page takes this one step further. They not only will penalize a site they catch cheating; they also penalize sites that link to the penalized site to discourage linking. This would naturally tend to drive the penalized site out of business.
The flaw in this is that many of the techniques that are now penalized are very innocent in nature and not identifiable by most web site owners. Also, how would a site owner know if a site they link to has been penalized?
Identifying Penalized Web Sites
There is no way to know for certain if a penalty has been applied to a web site. The vast majority of penalties merely reduce the site’s ability to rank well for their targeted search phrases. However, sites with egregious or repeated violations of the guidelines are commonly banned by a search engine, which means all of the site’s pages have been removed from the search engine’s database, or at least blocked so that they never show up in search results. These sites are easily identifiable and are clearly considered to be bad neighborhoods that you do not want to link to.
Three techniques are used to identify a web site banned by Google.
The first is to use the site: query command in a search engine search box. This technique works for Google, MSN and Yahoo. The results list every page indexed by the search engine. Just substitute your site’s domain name in place of domainname.com. The syntax is as follows:
The second technique is to view the backlinks, or inbound links, to a site using the link: query command. Every mature site should have at least a few backlinks. This technique also works with Google, Yahoo and MSN. The syntax is as follows:
The URL used should be the standard format that you use to link to your home page. If you do not use the www subdomain in links to your site, then omit it from this query.
The third technique is to use the Google toolbar to view a site’s PageRank. Pagerank is one factor used by Google to rank a site. Pagerank is assigned to each individual page and is a reflection of the quality of the links to the page. Most mature sites will have a PageRank of 3 to 5. The scale is 0 to 10. To view a site’s PageRank, you must first install the Google Toolbar. Using Internet Explorer, visit the toolbar installation page and follow the instructions:
After installing the toolbar, it will be visible in Internet Explorer just below the standard IE toolbar. The PageRank indicator is in the middle.
Every site that has been up for more than six months that has at least a few links to it should have a PageRank indication. If you see a green bar in the PageRank window on the toolbar, move your mouse pointer over the bar to see the numeric value that has been assigned. A PageRank of zero or a gray bar indicates that the Google spider is either ignoring the site or cannot read it due to a technical problem. Neither is a good indicator for a site that has existed for more than six months.
Identifying Bad Neighborhoods
Any mature site (more than six months old) with no pages in a search engine’s index, and with no backlinks displayed, has probably been banned by the search engine for some egregious violation. With Google, you can take an additional step and verify that a PageRank has been assigned. Keep in mind that most new Web sites may not have any pages in a search engine index, and may not have accumulated backlinks. Without backlinks the site will not display a Pagerank.
Avoid Linking Programs That You Cannot Control
The best way to assure that your site does not get penalized for linking to a bad neighborhood is to pre-qualify every link you provide to another site. A company offering an automated link exchange program recently approached one of my clients. This is by far the scariest type of linking program I have ever seen. NEVER engage in a program where you do not have absolute control
over who you link to. A single link to a site penalized by Google can ruin your Google rankings. Even most link exchange programs are questionable. Exchanging links with a known and reputable company in your industry may have benefits, but exchanging links with unknown companies is reckless.
The bottom line is that you need to check every site that you provide a link to. it does not matter if the reason for the link is very legitimate. It’s hard to reason with a search engine spider, which is just an automated algorithm. The best piece of advice is to always be careful who you link to, or your site could be penalized as well.