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Rankings tanked? Check your links

Posted by Michael Bloch in web marketing (Monday March 26, 2007 )

Have your search engine rankings taken a nose dive recently? There’s so many reasons that this could be due to, but here’s a dark and nasty one you may not have thought of.

It sounds a little like tinfoil hat stuff, but it does happen quite often – people’s sites being hacked and hidden links to other sites added. The parties behind it do this to give themselves an artificially boosted search engine ranking – if somewhat short term and often not successfully. Search engines pick up on the fact that the links are hidden after a time and bam – the site is penalized or banned.

The process can be automated, so even if you publish an update, the hack program simply gets in again on a regular basis and re-adds the hidden links. Nasty stuff.

How does this happen?

Usually this type of exploit will occur if you have an insecure application on your site such as old forum or blog software, or a contact form with a security hole. It can also happen if your web hosting company doesn’t have their servers properly secured; i.e. an exploit performed on another account can affect yours.

How do you detect hidden links?

View your web site home page and then view the source – run a search on anything starting with http:// and see if any outbound link looks particularly suspicious or nasty. Usually it will be the home page that will be hit, but sneakier operators will go for sub-pages on a high ranking site and the truly despicable hit every page on the site.

In some cases, viewing the search engine’s cache of the page may also reveal nasty outbound links.

If you have many pages to check, try a search on your favorite search engine for:

outbound link check (or checkers)

If you use one of the free hosted services, just be aware that the service may store information about your site. I’m not suggesting they all do this of course :).

Xenu Link Sleuth (freeware) is an excellent application you can run from your desktop for checking the integrity of internal and external links on your site; while it’s primarily used for checking broken links, you’ll be able to see where all your links are pointing to. It’s also a good maintenance task to do occasionally, if only to point out any broken links. There’s many times I’ve screwed up an internal link, only to discover it months later or through a kind reader pointing it out.

If you use Xenu, just be careful to not set the “Parrallel threads” option too high or your web host might end up sending you a “please explain” note about the odd activity – stick with the default setting.

Learn more about other reasons for ranking poorly or not at all.

Further information on linking to bad neighborhoods

Pick up some more search engine optimization tips.


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