Updated February 1st, 2024 — version 336

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

 Chapter Nine
Negative Ranking Signals

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

The most common Negative Ranking Signals include:

  • Broken Videos and Faulty Redirects
  • Bad Spelling, Grammar, and Readability
  • 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

Broken Videos and Faulty Redirects

As the emphasis on Mobile, Google penalizes sites with page elements that do not display properly or break when viewed on a mobile or tablet device. Most commonly, we're talking about Flash videos and faulty redirects.

As you may already know, Flash does not work on smartphones or tablets and has been all but phased out, relegated to the dustbin of the internet's yesteryear.

For that reason, Google "suggests" that you avoid using Flash on your website. And, since websites and pages that are 100% smartphone and tablet compatible gain ranking favor over those that aren't, it means that incompatibility translates to a ranking penalty.

The same is true if your redirects are faulty or if your site returns .404 Page Not Found errors.

Bad Spelling, Poor Grammar and Readability Issues

Because spelling, grammar, and readability are quality signals factored into Google's ranking algorithm, you should know that spelling errors, bad grammar, and poor readability will work against you.

However, you don't have to worry about these issues when they appear in the comments that are posted on your webpage — the postings that people leave in your comments section are not factored into your webpage quality scores.

Hidden Text and/or Links

Remember, in Chapter One; we mentioned how webmasters used to stuff webpages 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.

Keyword Stuffing

Be sure to avoid overusing your keywords in the body content, headline tags, title tags, meta tags and anchor text.

If Google thinks you're overusing your keywords, your rankings will suffer as they're likely to penalize your webpage. Furthermore, such a violation of their guidelines will probably affect your entire site's ability to rank well.

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 refers to an old SEO strategy 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 by their known IP address. When that spider visits to crawl and index the page, a special page designed specifically for that spider is served 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.

We recommend that you avoid cloaking entirely.

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, and 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 can ensure that:

  • 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.
  • 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 webpages 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.

In some cases you may find that a bunch of low quality sites are linking to you. In the past this was a serious problem. These days, however, Google tends to ignore links from bad sites. So, you should ignore them too.

Of course they won't help your rankings but Google says they won't likely hurt you either. The exception is when you've been notified within Google Search Console that you're subject to a "manuel action" — aka, a penalty that temporarily excludes you from Google's index. In such a case you may need to use Google's disavow tool to disavow certain links to your site.

Linking to low-quality sites

More importantly though, you should be very careful who YOU link to. Not only are you passing PageRank, but you're also effectively recommending them. If Google sees you are linking to (i.e., recommending) sites that are in violation of Google's guidelines or TOS (terms of service), 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.

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.

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:

  • First, avoid the mistakes that can get your site penalized or banned.
  • Second, get your on-site elements in place and optimized.
  • Third, focus on continuously sharpening your off-site strategies.

And always remember, if you anger the beast (Google) 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.