July 25, 2012
As you know, I've been reviewing tons of websites that have lost Google traffic lately. Most of the reasons that the sites lost favor with Google have been fairly obvious (to me)--especially the sites that have seen steep declines. Most of the reasons include any combination of:
The main reason why it worked so well was that it was an easy way to use keyword anchor text as opposed to just a company name like typical natural links would end up with. Everyone who ever tried to figure out why certain sites ranked where they did would see the top-ranking sites almost always had fake paid-for links, chock full of keyword anchors, of course. And on the next page of results would be all the great sites that only had real links--you know, the kind others linked to out of the goodness of their hearts (using the company name as anchor text).
So it's no surprise that more and more people blew off what Google requested and instead did what worked: They paid for whatever kind of links they could get that had keywords in them. And then they paid for even more. And they kept paying for them because if they didn't, they'd lose a good portion of their website traffic (and business) to their competitors who did it.
Until the Penguin Came A-Callin'
After so many years of allowing people to subvert their algorithm with purchased links of one form or another, Google finally put their foot down. They sent out messages and emails to those with Google Webmaster Tools accounts, explaining that they had discovered links pointing to their sites that they deemed to be "unnatural." They told people they'd need to get rid of the unnatural links or risk losing their Google traffic. By sending out these messages and actually penalizing sites for fake links, Google was now taking action. The only problem was that, by allowing them to work so well for so long, Google was basically trying to cut off the head of the very monster that Google had created.
Most of that happened toward the end of April 2012. Interestingly, 2 sites I had recently reviewed had lots of links pointing to them that I would certainly call "unnatural." Yet they had never received the message from Google. I assumed they had enough real links to not have to worry about bad ones. But last week Google sent out a second round of warnings, and both of those sites were included. In a way, I felt vindicated because many of the links were so obviously spammy and/or paid for. Both sites had already lost some traffic (which was why I was reviewing them in the first place), but neither had lost as much traffic as I had seen with many other sites I'd reviewed. In fact, both sites were doing lots of things right and were leaders in their space.
Even before receiving the notice, both of these site owners were working to clean up as many of the bad links as possible, based on my recommendations. But the notice definitely put it higher up on their list of things to work on. A few days after receiving the first notice, Google sent out a new message. This one said that while they found some unnatural links that were concerning, there was no wide penalty being assessed. Still, it still seemed prudent to clean up as much of the junk as possible.
What Are Unnatural Links?
Unnatural links are generally using specific keyword-rich anchor text. And while I can't speak for all sites that received Google notices, here are the types I found that I would personally classify as unnatural:
When you add nofollow to paid links, you can have whatever links you want without Google wondering if they should count them as a vote for your site or not. That would work well for affiliate links and any paid-for online ads. In addition, any links you (or someone working on your behalf) managed to have placed on completely irrelevant sites (especially those next to really spammy links) should be removed if at all possible.
The other thing that you should be aware of, one that is counter-intuitive to what we as SEOs have been saying for years, is that you may want to completely forget about using keywords in anchor text. My hope is that Google finally understands that real natural links rarely have keywords in them, and that they've adjusted their algorithm accordingly. I can't say for sure whether they have done this yet, but I imagine they're working toward it more and more with every update.
Clean Up Internal Links As Well
While I haven't heard others saying this, my advice about anchor text includes your own internal links. I've been telling people for quite awhile now that they need to dial back the keywords within links from their own blog posts or their navigation. While Google hasn't said it (that I know of), I wouldn't be surprised if part of the unnatural link notifications has to do with internal linking. Some of the sites I've seen that have lost a lot of Google traffic were doing some heavy-handed things with internal keyword-rich anchors.
If you received the first unnatural link warning from Google (without the subsequent second one), then you've likely got a worse scenario on your hands. You'll need to get rid of as much junk as possible and then submit a reinclusion request via your Webmaster Tools account. If you received the second one, you probably don't have to do a reinclusion request. But I'd still try to get nofollows onto any paid links and take down any links that are on irrelevant sites.
You may also want to read Julie Joyce's new article: Time & Value of Link Cleanups: Should You Even Bother?
Added 07/30/2012: Also see Matt Cutts official explanation of the unnatural links penalty.
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
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