Updated December 1st, 2021 — version 307

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

Chapter Nine, Negative Ranking Factors

Chapter Nine
Negative Ranking Factors

As we've alluded to throughout this book, there are situations, errors, elements, relationships, and strategies that can work against you, ranking-wise. Collectively, we call them Negative Ranking Factors.

The most common Negative Ranking Factors include:

  • Hidden text and/or links
  • Keyword Stuffing
  • Cloaking
  • Buying links from link networks/brokers
  • Getting links from bad sites
  • Linking to low quality or bad sites
  • Over-optimized anchor text
  • Low-quality content
  • Redirecting the user with the intent to mislead
  • Server down or connection problems with website

  • Hidden Text and/or Links

Remember, in Chapter One; we mentioned how webmasters used to stuff web pages with keywords in order to manipulate search rankings? Part of that strategy included hidden text and links that the spiders could see in the source code even though people could not. Well, search engines do not like content that only spiders can see. It's one of the surest ways to get penalized.

For example, take a look at the box below. Inside is a bunch of text and a single link that matches the background color of the page, rendering it invisible. And because the font is set to super-small, we've managed to stuff 1280 "invisible" keywords plus one link into a very small space. You can highlight the text inside the box, then copy and paste it into a text editor to see for yourself what a search engine spider would see.

The border is there for your convenience, to make it easier to find the text. In the old days, we'd simply make this our header and footer (without the border) and, presto, we'd have a number one ranking within a day or so. Today, we'd get penalized or possibly even banned from the index.

  • Keyword Stuffing

The example above (inside the bordered box) represents a most egregious form of keyword stuffing. It's pretty obvious that you shouldn't do that. But a little less obvious is the fact that you should avoid superfluous overuse of keywords in your body content, headline tags, title tags, meta tags and anchor text.

If Google thinks you're overusing your keywords, they're likely to penalize your web page's ability to rank well. Furthermore, such a violation of their guidelines will probably affect your entire site's ability to rank well. Use this test: Read your content aloud; if it sounds a little weird like you are repeating any particular keyword(s) too often, then you probably are.

  • Cloaking

Cloaking refers to an old SEO technique where the content that's presented to spiders is different from the content a site visitor would see when visiting the same URL.

This is made possible when the website's server identifies a visiting spider-based upon the spider's known IP address. When that spider visits to crawl and index the page, it is served a special page designed specifically for that spider instead of the page that a normal site visitor would see. In such cases, the normal page is said to be cloaked since the spider cannot see it.

One reason for cloaking is to help spiders understand the content of a Flash video. In the past, this was considered useful because spiders can't easily index Flash video. However, cloaking has also been used to manipulate search rankings. For this reason, Google frowns on all forms of cloaking.

Our recommendation is that you entirely avoid cloaking. And, fortunately, there is little need for cloaking these days. The evolution of Responsive Web Design, coupled with the fact that spiders have gotten much better at indexing all forms of content, means there is no good reason to use cloaking as an SEO technique.

  • Buying links from link networks/brokers

Since much of Google's algorithm is based on naturally occurring incoming links, it stands to reason they would not like links that are presented as "natural" but, in fact, are paid links. Mind you, they don't care if you buy links, per se, but they strenuously object to any attempts to make those links look like they are naturally occurring, organic, unpaid-for links.

So, I hear you asking: How can they tell the difference? Good question. Here's how. For starters, Google is in the business of identifying networks and relationships. It's what they do, and they are VERY good at it! When someone is selling links (i.e., a link broker), Google quickly figures them out by seeing what looks like an unnatural network of link relationships. In addition, the anchor text will often be over-optimized with targeted keywords that make the links look contrived.

The bottom line is that you should avoid buying links UNLESS you ensure that:

  1. The links are nofollowed, telling Google that you do NOT expect to receive any link juice (PageRank) from those links. This satisfies their terms of service (TOS), and in such cases, paid links are ok.
  2. Or, if there is no possible way that Google could learn, the links are paid (good luck with that, btw).

Remember that Google knows about ALL of the brokers, ALL of the networks, and ALL of the websites that sell links. It's their business to know. If it is mathematically logical for them to know it, they either know it already or else soon will know it. We have never found an exception to this rule.

  • Getting links from bad sites

Earlier, we talked about such algorithmic factors like PageRank, Trust, and Authority. You've learned that having links from pages with high PageRank and domains with high Trust and Authority can help your web pages rank well even if you have only a few such links.

And, you've learned that links from low PageRank, Trust, and Authority sites will not help you nearly as much ranking-wise. Well, in fact, having links from sites that are guilty of violating Google's Webmaster Guidelines or Terms of Service can actually hurt your rankings. That's because Google views such sites as bad sites. And the sites they link to are considered to be bad neighborhoods. So, as you might imagine, being associated with a bad site or a bad neighborhood will kill your site's ability to rank well.

Therefore, it's important to pay attention to who is linking to you! You should strive to acquire ONLY links from reputable sites that are trusted in the eyes of Google. This is a quality over quantity issue that you should take very seriously in your quest for top rankings.

If you find links that are not welcome you can submit to google to have those links removed through the search console.

  • Linking to low-quality sites

Of course, you should also be very careful who YOU link to. Not only are you passing PageRank, but you are also effectively recommending them. If Google sees you are linking to (i.e., recommending) sites that are in violation of their guidelines or TOS, then Google will think you're endorsing dubious practices. This will hurt your rankings. So, be very careful who you link to.

  • Over-optimized Anchor Text

As previously mentioned, there can be too many targeted keywords in a link. Such links can work against your ranking efforts when Google detects them. That's why you should do your best to acquire a very natural looking incoming link profile that avoids stuffing all of your best keywords into all of your incoming links. This is covered in Chapter 8 above and there is more information here as well:

  • Low-Quality Content

It's better to have fewer pages of high-quality content than it is to have a lot of pages of low-quality content (duh!). Make sure you avoid anything that looks computer-generated or simply rehashes content found elsewhere on the web. Your goal should be high quality, unique, and compelling content that other sites will want to link to. To gain a deeper perspective on this, go to:

  • Redirecting the user with the intent to mislead

Google will seriously penalize (or ban) any site that misleads users. Therefore, it stands to reason that they don't like pages or sites that use redirection to trick visitors into landing on a different page than the one Google indexed. So, don't do that, ok?

  • Server down or connection problems with website

Google expects that your site will provide a high-quality user experience. Glitches and downtime are the antitheses of a good user experience. Therefore you must see to it that your web hosting service provider is reliable and that your pages are not broken, missing, or otherwise contrary to what Google expects them to be based upon what their spider has indexed.


Your first goal in SEO should be to avoid making any of these avoidable mistakes. If you fail to do so, it won't matter how good you are at any of the other strategies. So, priority-wise, you must:

  1. First, avoid the mistakes that can get your site penalized or banned.
  2. Second, get your On-site elements in place and optimized.
  3. Third, focus on continuously sharpening your Off-site strategies.

And always remember, if you piss Google off (by making these dumb mistakes), it may not matter for a very long time how good you are with the rest of your SEO efforts.