Pulling A Kesey (Or Link Tripping Filters)

Recently, on the SEOBook Community Forum*, this question was asked:

I built too many incoming links too quickly and tripped a filter sending me from about #17 to #95. Whoops! Not being much of a link builder historically, this has never happened to me before. Is it possible I could just wait it out? I will have some natural links coming in over time to sort of balance things out … it might not kill me since #17 wasn’t too great to begin with. 

Great question!  The topic of tripping filters comes up all the time, let’s take a look at it.

You have a website, it’s been around a while, has a good number of pages in the index and ranks decently for your primary keywords.  You did a little optimization and link building when you launched it so it has a handful of links plus a couple you picked up while you’ve been online.  Other than that, you’ve done almost nothing to the site and things have been OK ranking wise. 

Now life is good until one day you notice your little site with its handful of inbound links has slipped in the search results.  You also notice your competitors are actively marketing their sites and moving up in the rankings  while  you’re moving down.  Life goes from good to crap in a link heartbeat!  :(

So you decide to quickly fight back by aquiring a large number of one-way links all pointing to your home page.   Then you sit back, rub your hands together gleefully and wait to see your little site climb back up in the serps.

And you wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.  

Then this happens:   

sending me from about #17 to #95″

Oh crap. :(

What the heck is happening?  Was I slapped with some +99 , over optimization, under-the-radar, anti-brand, bad neighborhood, they don’t like my hair penalty?  The bad hair thing aside, probably not.  You just tripped a link pop filter and have been tweaked for too many links too fast. 

Search engine algorithms are mathematical equations, you can’t add new numbers to the mix without another part of the equation being affected.   The little site had a history of being a little site with a handful of links so when big changes happened, red flags go up.   All of a sudden the numerical equation behind the  site changed dramatically which caused the site to tank.   When you add a lot of inbound links quickly and nothing else changes in and around your historically quiet site,  you should expect to see either no-or-downward movement.  That type of link growth isn’t natural unless you’re doing something  promotionally to build  links. 

But you’re not doing anything to the site except adding links.   There’s no new content, no increase in search queries, no media mentions (media = social and traditional),  no nothing.  Hoards of people don’t just give away links to a single site/page unless they’ve been asked/paid to do so,  so the engine assumes the links haven’t been acquired editorially and either ignore them or slaps you down. 

Ouch. :(

At some point time passes and you either add content/traffic/media or the time filter wears off and you see a little improvement in your ranking. Or maybe you don’t because you weren’t smart enough to figure out what was going on when you added those links to begin with so you kept adding MORE. 

The concept of link popularity is simple.  Link quantity, quality, anchor text and relevance all factor into the equation, change one of them dramatically without balancing the rest and the single biggest component of the ranking algorithm will start to scream and throw up flags.  Keep in mind link popularity is also balanced  by 199 additional ranking factors some of which include content, domain age, load rates and search referral traffic.  ALL of these things need to be considered when adding links to a web page/site.

Even for big/branded/competitive sites.   They “get away” with being able to add more links because what they do have established (their reputation, content, traffic, links, involvement in the media) continues to work for them.  Small sites lack that insulation so they need to be careful and remember balancing content, traffic, and links is key.

*The SEOBook Community Forum is  a paid membership platform and part of the SEOBook Training program. 


  1. SEO says


    We’ve been building links for a few years and I too have seen new sites add links without issue but I’ve also seen the reverse. Since nothing in SEO is consistent to every site or channel, we have to speak in generalities and work with averages.


  2. HP printer cartridge says

    This would probably explain our websites severe drop in SERPs last week.

    However, my linkbuilding output is basically the same.

    Could it just be that I link our website unknowingly to a site which Goolge suspects of being link farm?

    Also, channel5 comments really make sense to me.

  3. one-way backlinks says

    My experience has been that the drop is only temporary. Usually the site will return to it’s previous spot or better within a few days, week, etc.

  4. Jon says

    Hi Debra – excellent post. I have only just discovered your site but wish I had found it much sooner. Thank you for the highly useful info!

    I’ve thought it through more than once and searched for references but the meaning of your title for this post eludes me… “Pulling A Kesey”?

    ‘splain me please!

  5. John says

    First of all – I have a question for the community!

    Do they count No-Follow links also for filtering? I guess the answer is a BIG NO from everybody.

    And as most says – I too believe in the relationship between link acquiring equation with that of a site’s age.

    Suppose – a site barely 6 months old — with few backlinks – suddenly acquires few hundred links in a month. I think the Red Flag is hovering on the radar. :(

    Compare that to a site of 3 years – and if it suddenly acquires those links – it should have a lee-way with Google bots. Thats how I’m figuring the current ‘algo’ and having no problem.

    I have a site that has been having normal SERP ( OK type ranking) since I started it — but the main “Keyword//Phrase” — has gone for a hiding over a year now though I have been getting natural links regularly for it.

    The secret – (sadly I discovered it late) – I sponsored a WordPress template with it when it was 5 months old- and unfortunately the template became more popular than required. Links came in quickly- SERP improved dramatically, remained inside top 10 for 5/6 weeks — then out of top 500. :( It has been more than one year — and hoping that my site will come out from the filter — and then dominate the SERPs again with a vengeance:) I can afford it because it is not my main earning site.

  6. Korea SEO in Malaysia says

    This happened to me before and I have to compensate my client by sending him free traffic from my network of websites. This is one of the reasons why I no longer outsourcing link building to others.

  7. says

    I totally agree with channel5’s point of view : It would be too easy to blow competitors out of the serps if it was that simple.

  8. says

    “under-the-radar, anti-brand, bad neighborhood, they don’t like my hair penalty”

    Those are the worst kind LOL

  9. channel5 says

    I think you’ve overlooked the fact that *if* such filters exist then it would be simple to kill your competitors by building a bunch of links to them in short order.

    You should read:


    where they state that you basically shouldn’t worry about a bunch of low quality links appearing.

    Anyway, part of me is happy that the myth of BLOOP is being propogated as it reduces the competition in the SERPS ;)

  10. SEO Doctor says

    I’ve been doing some testing in this area and its quite unpredictable. I have one site which I have been trying to get a penalty on by acquiring many large site wide links (10k each). It totally disappeared for 3 weeks then flew back in with a top 3 position!

    But I would go real slow with new sites and never look at blogrolls.

  11. Debra says

    @Jaan – your avatar always makes me laugh. Agree about sites/media mentions/insane link growth but again, it’s usually balanced with people looking for it.

    @Jason – Cool logo on your site! Keep in mind we’re not talking penalties here, just flags. Penalty to me is out of the index, flag just downward movement in the serps. I know we use the term interchangably but they are different and probably good to note that.

    Like yourself, I’ve been building links for a few years and I too have seen new sites add links without issue but I’ve also seen the reverse. Since nothing in SEO is consistent to every site or channel, we have to speak in generalities and work with averages. Sure I can throw a lot of site-wides or single links to a page and have that page react positivly in the serps but it’s normally short term. Short term sucks in my book, I hate wasting time for something that’s not going to be beneficial for the long run.

    Can I use site-wides for older sites in busy niches? You bet. Will they help? You bet. Would I do it if those older sites didn’t have good links and domain age behind them to balance my new links? No way. I wouldn’t take the chance and bring eyes or algo flags to the site if I didn’t have to. Staying under the radar is best, and balance is key IMO. :)

  12. says

    I completely agree with Jason. Little websites and companies get mentioned on TV all of the time and then experience insane link growth, all it does is helps them not hurt them

  13. Jason says

    I have been building links for several years and based on my experience, it’s very difficult to trip a filter and get a site penalized unless:

    A) Someone put the site in the Google snitch box and they did a manual review and found your link portfolio to consist of several shady links


    B) The link builder is adding links at an insane rate on a brand new website.

    I have yet to see even the newest of sites get penalized for building links too quickly, and I have seen people acquire over 1,000 links in the first month of their site being indexed.

    I don’t even consider this topic something of concern, because if your site gets penalized for building links too quickly then you were obviously doing something shady.

    On a well-established site it is even more difficult to get penalized for building links too quickly…. I mean, really difficult.

    I’m guessing the person who had the issue must have been doing something blackhat or using a service to SPAM bookmarking sites or dofollow blogs.

  14. paula says

    Hi, I am building about 45 links per week constantly for the important pages of my site, I am not sure whether it is ok? Is it too much or just ok?
    Any suggestions?

  15. Debra says

    @RobW – Thanks :) I believe the older the backlink history the more they get away with.

    @Arnold “penalties” and “flags” are two different things. I’ll agree there is some human intervention but we’ve also seen things go away without it.

    @Gerald – eloquent as usual ;)-

  16. says

    Yep yep this has happened to me before. If you go too balls to the wall building links on a site that doesn’t have much a backlink profile it’s not difficult to get a Google B-slap.

  17. Arnold says

    I know that the Webspam team sometimes look at flagged sites manually and see their link profile (link growth, linking domains, IP history, anything they think are relevant) to determine whether they’ve violated the guidelines. But I’m 95% confident there’s no automated filters / penalties that apply without human interference, unless the site in question has been hijacked and filled with malware.

  18. Rob W says

    Great concise explanation of the dangers of acquiring links too quickly. Older sites with lots of existing links can certainly be far more aggressive in growing their links than a new site or one with few current incoming links.

    How much does the attention to links vary by vertical? The question is really for anyone out there… Are the flags all triggered by the algo or are some verticals paid more attention to? Some of the competition in one of the verticals I deal with rank very well with very suspicious looking link profiles. I just need to deal with it as I’m against “outing” anyone but it appears as though the engines simply aren’t paying attention to link profiles for certain sites or verticals.

    (and, yes, I have looked at numerous other ranking factors for the sites in question…)

  19. says

    I’ve only had this happen once and I won’t let it happen again. It took three months almost to the day to jump back into the game. I also wondering of it is depending on how competitive the keyword is as well.

  20. Debra says

    Dang Will, those kind of questions give me head hurt. ;)

    I really don’t know what the link history was for the site I used in the post, the forum user who left the question didn’t say. When I’m working and adding links I always keep in mind a little comment a G rep made to me about this subject: “25 links won’t matter but 2500 links might unless you’re Amazon or just launched a long lost Harry Potter book”.

  21. says

    Hey Deb,

    Great post.

    My question is, what was the starting point and what was the end point? In other words, did they have 10 links and added 200 from sources so reputable that they would by definition get spidered immediately?

    Or was it, have 1500 and added 20,000?


  22. Debra says

    @Jeremy – it might not be a good idea to add any more “sap” links.

    Thank you Arnie!

  23. Heidi Passey says

    This happened to me with several Squidoo pages this last year. We learn as go thought, right? Now I know to work at things slowly and consistently.

  24. Jeremy says

    @ Arnie. If you have never done ANY link building how do you go about adding on a % basis, and how long should you plan out these new links? I have been planning a strategy that could easily add 100 relevant “and free” links in 2 weeks. I could double or triple that number over the next 8 months. Suggestions?

  25. says

    Something else you can do is try to restrict your link growth to a percentage basis. So if you do need to go out and acquire or add a bunch of links for a page to “keep up with the Jones”, you might be best to only increase the number of backlinks by a fraction of what you currently have.

    Good article Deb – Sphunn it.

  26. Brandon Van Wyk says

    Great post. You really helped me see how the algo ties everything in.

  27. uggs says

    Big News for me! Yes, how can we know when we trigger the filter? Is there a equation for this, i bet nobody know this this.

  28. Dee says

    It’s best not to do too much of anything at once on a website. I plan things over months and years which is how businesses used to do it when they were made of bricks and mortar.

  29. Debra says

    @Andrew – thank you for the RT. :)

    @jon – because the site fell in the rankings

  30. jon says

    oh!how would you know if you have overdone clicking and putting all the link? What kind of setup do you have to partake? What are the possible cause, on why such things happened?

  31. Andrew says

    This also happened to me before and it was really an ouch. This is also a really very detailed and easy to understand explanation so retweeted it.

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