The unnatural link penalty was one of the most significant changes Google made last year. In January and February of 2012, they sent out roughly 700,000 messages to webmasters via Webmaster tools. This was an enormous event, especially considering that this superseded the total number of messages sent out in 2011. In fact, it was comparable to the number of messages that they had sent out ever, starting with the launch of the Google Webmaster Tools message center.
Can you recover from the unnatural link penalty? How is it different from Penguin and some of the other penalties? Here is our definitive guide. We hope it answers any questions you might have about how to move forward.
What is an Unnatural Link?
Most of us probably think we’re on the same page when it comes to the definition of unnatural links, but the reality is more fuzzy than we’d like to admit. The truth is, SEOs in general tend to be a lot more lax about the definition of “unnatural links” than Google’s own guidelines. Here is the language that Google uses:
Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site, or outgoing links from your site. Manipulating these links may affect the quality of our search results, and as such is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Read that again. “Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results.” Whoa! Isn’t the entire point of link building to improve search rankings, and couldn’t that always be considered “manipulation?” The vagueness of this definition all comes down to how we interpret the word “manipulate.” Manipulation can mean anything from double crossing a webmaster to merely manipulating text with a keyboard.
Google does get a more specific by providing examples of what they mean. Here they are, in our own words:
- Buying and selling “do-follow” links. This isn’t limited to outright purchases. It includes exchanging goods and services and free products for links or posts containing links.
- “Excessive” link exchanging. In other words, trading links simply to boost rankings is against the rules.
- Linking to “spammers” or unrelated sites in an effort to manipulate PageRank
- Building websites or pages just to build links from them
- Using automation to build links
And specific examples include:
- Text link ads that aren’t no-follow (Amazon doesn’t appear to care about this one, so if you’re an Amazon affiliate you might want to start no-following the links)
- Links tossed into an article in an incoherent fashion
- Links from low quality directories and bookmarks
- Links embedded in widgets that are installed all over the web
- Excessive footer links
- Forum comments with highly optimized links in the signature
And here are a few other common examples from our own experience:
- Links from websites that are built specifically to provide links for SEO “value”
- Links from irrelevant websites
- Site-wide links, especially if they are optimized for keywords instead of branding
- Links from blog networks
- Links from blogrolls
- Links from websites that you have control over
- Links from article directories, spam comments, and spun content
Despite all these examples, keep in mind that that’s still all they are. Google considers any link that is intended to manipulate rankings as part of a link scheme. In other words, manual link building in general is frowned upon by Google. That is why I always stick to the simple mantra: “would I build this link if it were no-follow?” If the answer is no, it’s difficult to call it anything but manipulation.
Was it Really the Unnatural Link Penalty?
Unlike most algorithmic penalties, it’s pretty easy to tell whether or not you’ve been hit by the unnatural link penalty. As long as you had Webmaster Tools set up at the time when you got hit, you should have received a very specific message from Google. Here is the message you should have received:
Subject: Site violates Google’s quality guidelines
Dear site owner or webmaster of ….
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
If you did not receive this message from Google, and you had Webmaster Tools set up when you lost your rankings, you were not hit by the unnatural link penalty. It’s important to point this out, because the number one error that people make in response to a penalty is incorrect identification. Most affected clients, and even many consultants, fail to understand the differences between direct and indirect penalties, and the various types of penalties involved. If you weren’t hit by the unnatural link penalty, get in touch with us or take a look at our guide to learn more about penalties.
If you did not have Webmaster Tools set up when your site lost its rankings, you’ll need to set it up. You can learn how to do that here. Once you have it set up, you can file a reconsideration request. If it was the unnatural link penalty, you should get a response from them similar, or identical, to the message above.
However, keep in mind that the reconsideration requests are read by human beings, and their entire purpose is to convince Google that you have corrected all of the issues that might have caused a problem.
In general, reconsideration requests are only intended for manual penalties. The unnatural link penalty is halfway in between. It’s not part of the main algorithm, but there’s no way they sent out 700,000 messages and penalized that many sites without some algorithmic activity involved. Nevertheless, you should treat this one like a manual penalty, under the assumption that a Google quality expert reviewed your site and manually penalized it. Don’t try to get tricky with the reconsideration requests; they’re read by human beings.
In short, if you didn’t have Webmaster Tools installed when you lost your rankings, it’s going to be much more difficult to identify the cause. At bare minimum, you’ll want to make sure that the penalty really was link-based, and not a quality based algorithm like Panda. That’s because you’ll be doing a lot of link removal before you send in a reconsideration request.
Locating the Unnatural Links
If you’re sure the cause of the problem was the unnatural link penalty, the next step is to identify the offensive links and start removing them. You’ll need to move carefully. Most links do not pass negative value, and removing too many links will hurt your rankings. You should never remove natural links, even if they are fairly low quality. Only remove links that you built (or, in rare cases, that you feel were built to maliciously damage your site’s rankings).
Google’s Matt Cutts has offered some advice in a video about how to find unnatural links, but here is our more in depth guide on the matter:
Perform an in depth analysis of your inbound links
You’re going to need to use tools to do this. Here are a few tools you can use to analyze your link profile:
- Webmaster Tools – From Google Webmaster Tools you can click on Traffic, and Links to Your Site. Then you can click on any site under Who links the most, and click on the Download latest links button. This will give you all the links that Google explicitly admits to having on record, though they almost certainly have more links on their servers.
- Open Site Explorer – Use this to explore your link profile sorted according to metrics more useful than date.
- Majestic SEO – This is an alternative to Open Site Explorer, and we appreciate their guide to unnatural link investigations
- Ahrefs – This is another alternative to Open Site Explorer, with the biggest benefit being their time chart view of links as you acquire them.
Digging through every single link is going to be nearly impossible if you have any kind of authority already, so you are going to want to focus most of your efforts in two areas: identifying over-optimized keywords and identifying site-wide links. Open Site Explorer is great for identifying keywords that have been used excessively. Ahrefs will let you know which of your links are site-wide.
Identify which links are unnatural