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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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 ;)-

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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…)

  8. 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.

  9. 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”.

  10. 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?