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SEO Website Audit

What to Do If You Receive an Unnatural Linking Message From Google

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:
  • Keyword-stuffed copy anywhere on any page.Panda Containment!
  • Copy buried at the bottom of pages, more for search engines than for people.
  • Title tags that are just lists of repetitive keywords.
  • Product information that is not as good as what the competitors have.
  • Not spending money to market and/or advertise your site.
  • No social media marketing being done.
  • Old site that hadn't been updated in many years.
  • Sites with very poor usability.
I've talked about each of those in previous articles, but one I've only touched upon is:
  • Placing keyword-laden anchor text links on other sites either by buying them or through content creation and submission schemes.
Let's face it--everyone in the SEO industry knew that paying for links in order to gain link popularity and PageRank was always something that Google frowned upon. After all, it subverted the very nature of Google's mantra that a link signals a "vote." The problem was that paying for links was an extremely efficient way to get them. And despite Google's claim that it was against their guidelines--it worked like a charm!

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.

New Warnings

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
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:
  • Affiliate links without nofollow on them and/or that didn't go through a tracking script.
  • Banner ads with direct links that didn't have the nofollow attribute.
  • Blogspot or other free blogging platform blogs likely created by the site owners themselves (or friends of them) as a way of creating links back to their main site.
  • Low-quality articles with links either in the body of the article, in the bio, or both--published on lots of free article directory sites.
  • Scraped versions of articles (not much one can do about these).
  • Blog roll links from irrelevant blogs where they've obviously linked to anyone who'd be willing to pay.
Something to remember through all this is that anyone can have any links they want pointing to their site. If a link brings you targeted traffic, then in my opinion it's a good one, regardless of whether Google likes it or not. That said, if you've paid for it, Google would like you to let them know this. You do that by adding a nofollow link attribute to it.

The Clean-Up

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,Jill Whalen an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Pete Kever said:
I totally agree on the internal linking issue. All one has to do is check out your Google WMT account and you can see the anchor text Google sees. Much of that anchor text is found in internal links.

I have wondered about this for years...why would Google place so much emphasis and continue to give so much weight to anchor text, when it's virtually NEVER the way anyone would naturally link? In April they decided to lower that emphasis!

Jill, thanks for refreshingly not attempting to make a moral issue of link buying. Google created their own bed, and if people found a way to make money from it, more power to those people. Google isn't in the business of making the web a better place. They are in the business to increase value for their shareholders. Period. So webmasters and SEO people should stop following Google around by the nose and obeying every command. Do what's best for your business, or your client's business. But be aware of the risks.
 Mark said:
Thanks Jill, this is good stuff and really it is exactly what I was hoping to hear. I do have paid links on a relevant site, but they're in a sidebar on that site which has millions of pages. So, I received that first warning and while I totally suspect it is that site, I wasn't sure. I get referral traffic & sales from those links so I don't want to remove them but was wondering if a simple nofollow on them would suffice. Hopefully it does, will send that request to them this week. One beef I have and I'm sure many other site owners also have is the wording of the Google notices. Could they be any more vague? How about you tell me "hey, your links from THISWEBSITE.COM aren't cool, do something about it and let us know when it is fixed."
 Keith said:
This is, without a doubt, the dumbest thing in the history of the internet. If Google has a problem with an inbound link, they should just ignore it. Making an effort to penalize sites is just an enormous waste of time - for Google and for "offending" sites. I haven't seen any explanation of how this process benefits anybody. A classic case of a solution in search of a problem. (This isn't a case of "sour grapes". I haven't run afoul of this and I still find it incredibly stupid.)
 Emanuel Hochstädt said:
Dear Jill,

I agree with your arguments and would like to add that even if one removes all inbound unnatural links to a penalized website, and submits the website to Google's reconsideration, it still won't restore former rankings.

Emanuel (father of July 4th - remember?)

 Mike said:
I think Google has it totally wrong - PAID links are a good thing and part of how companies operate using a marketing budget. I pay money to advertise with Google Adwords, maybe I should stop. It's okay for Google to make money on internet advertising, but not others. Am I missing something? Why should I be penalized for trying to grow my business.

Let's say I'm planning a wedding and I Google "Wedding Planning". I click on the top organic listing and I find tons of useful info. I then look for local vendors for my wedding. Should these vendors be penalized because they chose to advertise on the top ranked site?

Seriously, if Google has problems with paid links, then don't give credit to those links. Period.
 Jill Whalen said:
Hey everyone, thanks for the comments.

@Pete buying links is definitely not something immoral or unethical, it's simply advertising. No different than using Google Adwords (as @Mike mentioned later). The problem is that people weren't buying them for advertising, but for link popularity. It's still not immoral, but if you do it for that purpose and Google no longer passes PageRank or even penalizes you, then you really have no right to cry about it, IMO.

@Mark I do think you'll be fine if you nofollow the links you think might be causing the problem. That's all Google asks.

@Keith while agree that if Google has a problem with the links they should just ignore them, I have no problem with them penalizing sites as they see fit if they felt they were purposely trying to subvert their PageRank algorithm.

@Emanual thanks for that information. I wonder, however, they don't come back in the rankings because there are other issues with the site, perhaps more related to Panda stuff.

@Mike I agree with you as I mentioned to Pete. Paid links are advertising. Period. Except when they're not.
 Keith said:
re: "...penalizing sites as they see fit if they felt they were purposely trying to subvert their PageRank algorithm."

I'm not so sure that taking advantage of the system as it was is "subversion" worthy of a penalty, but, in any case, there's no benefit to the effort spent handing out the penalties. There's no reason to "see fit" other than some sense of "justice". It has zero impact on improving search results (ignoring the links takes care of that). Business-wise, it's a waste of money. The only benefits are to those on the Google staff who are being paid to participate in this boondoggle. Again, no skin off my nose, but if I was a Google shareholder I'd be thinking there are better ways of spending money.
 Alex said:
No-follow links may actually be a much more useful parameter for Google to use for determining ranking...comment and posts with no-follow links are much more likely to be made to add useful content than just a link drop by a spammer. Of course Google won't want us to know how much value they place on no-follow links, or the spammers will start targeting those as well.
 Eddie said:
Penguin, Panda, Packman..., it doesn't matter. With due the respect to the intelligent explanations, I suspect that at least some of Google's actions are related to its emerging financial profits. Think of it! Each algorithm change leads panicked high-rankers who dropped to bottom hidden SERPs to reach for their credit cards and start PPCing like mad. That's huge cash for Google. I have lots of examples that show terrible looking and written pages that rank higher than my own pages for certain keywords. And I know for sure it has nothing to do with links pointing to these pages.
Yes I know, Google is a business and not an academic institution. And it's a huge business with no competition. So I guess their actions make sense. I'm just amazed by the endless discussions on how to improve rankings by taking off some overused keyword or begging someone to drop my link. Too many good and talented people waste their valuable time while the guys at Google count money...
 Emanuel Hochstädt said:
Jill Whalen said:
Emanual thanks for that information. I wonder, however, they don't come back in the rankings because there are other issues with the site, perhaps more related to Panda stuff.

Not at all. It is a purely mathematical matter:

The value of the inbound unnatural links contributed to the relevance score of the page, and determined indirectly its present ranking in Google's SERPs. When, throughout "Panda", Panguin" or whatever, this value is either reduced, or becomes 0, or becomes a negative value, removing the inbound links assigns them a 0 value, and the new relevance score is thus lower than before, and corresponds to a poorer ranking (much lower if the main promotion technique was creating plenty of unnatural links).

However, if the page has already been punished, and the punishment assigned a negative value to those links, there will be a certain increase in the relevance score of the page, after removing the links, and probably also a certain improvement of rankungs, but not back to the value prior to the punishment.

The same is true if one removes those links after getting a mere warning.
 David said:
Hi Jill, I respect your knowledge and readily look up your site for down to earth advice so this next question is not me trying to be unpleasant so her goes:

Is linking from your Google+ account back to you main site not good. I notice you do this in your Google plus page.

Thanks in advance,
David :-)
 Jill Whalen said:
@david off topic, but it's what you're supposed to do.
 Katherine Andes said:
How come you still used the anchor text link "seo consultant" in your byline?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Katherine, because it makes sense to me to use it and I don't really care what Google thinks about it! If they like it, great, if not, that's fine too.
 David said:
Hi Jill,
I beg to differ when you said: "Not spending money to market and/or advertise your site.".
How does Google know whether I am or I am NOT spending money to advertise? And really why should that be of concern to Google? Even if I did advertise by paying for it, should I pay Google to do that or can I hire someone to do that? If I hire someone else, how does Google confirm that I am spending money to do that?

The above questions are some of the many that came up in my mind. I am sure, if you put a serious thought to it, you will come up with many other such questions. Spending money should not be anyone's concern as it really & seriously depends upon an individual's financial situation. Someone may be just starting out or someone may be trying to catch up with their life after going through a financial disaster. Not everybody leads life alike. So IMO, it would be totally wrong to judge whether a site be included in Google search result or not, just because they aren't spending money.
 Jill Whalen said:
@David, I don't make up the rules, I just interpret them as best I can. While Google may not know exactly if you're spending money on your business or not, there are many signals that can be determined by this.

For instance, the more money you spend marketing your business, the more branded it will become. The more branded it becomes, the more that people will be searching for the business by name in Google. That's a strong signal to Google that you're at least doing *something* to market your company.

That's just one signal. But others might be that people on social media are talking about your company. If they don't know about you because you don't market your company, then they obviously won't be talking about you.

See what I mean?

I can't say for sure that these are factors for Google, but it would make sense to me that after Panda these are the things they've added into the algorithm. Which makes SEO in all the right places no longer work, as I've previously written.
 Ern said:
I dont buy link but do web 2.0 article backlinking, yet my traffic dived half of what it used to be. I'm still clueless what did I do wrong.
 Jill Whalen said:
What is web 2.0 article back linking? Sounds like something to do to game PageRank.
 Brad said:
Is there a place or a tool to use that will list my backlink profile?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Brad you can download them via your Google Webmaster Tools account.
 Left Hand Luke said:
Low-quality articles with links either in the body of the article, in the bio, or both--published on lots of free article directory sites.

Thing is, how does Google tell a well-written article from a badly written one?
I've used article marketing in the past - I'm a trained journalist so I write reasonably well -- but no more.
However, surely a well written article on a free article directory has more inherent worth than a meaningless ("Yeah, thanks for this post", etc) comment on a do-follow blog -- which is how quite a few sites in my (competitive) niche have got to the top of Google.
 Emanuel Hochstädt, Jerusalem said:
Left Hand Luke, an article in a free article directory nobody reads only serves to wrap an artificial link, whether it is well-written or not. If it has not yet been punished it surely will (by contributing a reduced value to the relevance score of the linked page, a zero value or even a negative value).

It is the content of your website that should be "well-written". But being merely well-written is sufficient only if your competitors have poorly written content. If their content is well-written you need excellent content. And if their content is excellent you need outstanding content. And even if their content is outstanding, yours should be even better. This is the new criterion replacing having more artificial links than your competitors.
 A Thomson said:
The main problem for real compaines is that google does not explain properly what the problems with peoples sites are. They are expected to figure it out. This means that people have to use SEO experts - exactly the sort of people google seems to dislike.
 Chris said:
I think ranking a site by links is a terrible idea in the first place. Webmasters are usually not your average person, and using ranking by links, you're giving voter cards to the wrong voters. Further, now that almost everyone knows about ranking by links, is there such thing as a 'natural link' any more? .. Almost all the site I've seen are starting to drop every single link in fear that outgoing links are leaking their PageRank..