SEO Question: I was recently threatened by a competitor about them pointing bad links at my site. Can I be penalized based on who links to my site?
SEO Answer: For most people it is unlikely that a competitor is going to go to such lengths to try to sabotage your business, and it is probably not worth being too paranoid over. The whole reason SEO works well is that few people actively practice it.
Having said all of that, the answer to your question is yes. I have seen it done a couple times and there are many different mechanisms people can use to hurt your rankings. Google is constantly testing new algorithms. Sometimes sites will not rank for their own names due to too much similar anchor text. Then at other times sometimes Google creates new algorithmic holes while trying to patch old ones.
As far as building shady links goes, some search algorithms may ignore them and some may give them a bit of a negative weighting on your overall relevancy. Generally though the more positive signs of quality your site has the more low quality signs you can get away with. In that regard probably the best way to protect your site from competitive sabotage is to ensure you don't have domain canonicalization issues (ie: engines realize www.site.com and site.com are the same) and work hard to build legitimate signs of trust. Dan Thies offers some good link building advice in this video, but there are a limited number of quality votes any site can get. The key to beating competitors in the link game is to create more legitimate reasons for people to want to link to your site.
Different engines have different mechanisms for analyzing your link profile. For example, Yahoo! may place too much emphasis on sitewide links while the same links may not help you as much in Google. If you push the low quality links hard enough it may boost your site to #1 in MSN and/or Yahoo!, but you may end up with a link profile that prevents you from ranking well in Google (audio here). Also keep in mind that if competitors try to use links to hurt your site in Google they may also be boosting your Yahoo! or MSN rankings.
In summary I think the two best ways to avoid competitive threats are to stay away from hyper competitive industries OR work hard to create enough legitimate signs of quality that your site is hard to harm.
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