The Definitive Guide to Recovery from the Unnatural Link Penalty

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 This was an enormous event, especially considering that this superseded the total number of messages sent out in 2011.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

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder & VP of Marketing at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder and VP of Marketing of E2M, a digital marketing agency and, a mobile apps development company. Pratik has been featured on sites like Forbes, Moz, SEW, SEJ, KISSmetrics, Entrepreneur and FastCompany to name a few. Hit him up on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik for a quick chat.
Pratik Dholakiya

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27 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Recovery from the Unnatural Link Penalty

  1. Thanks Pratik! Very thorough and hopefully helpful. I have a few new clients who came to me after getting the warning and it’s been sort of hit & miss on recovery. I’ll take these suggestions and try to make some progress.

  2. You want to think of it like a see-saw. As you remove the unnatural links you need to fill those missing spots with quality links so your see-saw stays balanced in the right direction. You may not be able to do one-to-one replacement but you want to keep things moving in a positive direction.

    1. That’s very true Nick. I have come across to people who tend to have an approach of not building any links at the time they’re working on removing the links which I believe is not a sensible strategy. Both the strategies should work together in order to get recovery and see improvements as well.

  3. I also want to add that newbie who does not properly understand the SEO should not use this. Removing a wrong High PR backlink by mistake can cause a sudden drop in PR in next update..

    1. Deepanker,

      Your statement is an understatement to say the least. I’ve had customers try to perform certain SEO tasks (i.e., incorrect use of canonical/link tag as well as link removals) on their own only to end up doing more damage in the end. One customer that comes to mind lost over 4 thousand links and de-indexed 10 of their highly ranked Page One pages in Google. OUCH. I can’t agree enough with you, thanks.

  4. Good Post – However there are many that have removed the “Unnatural Link Penalty” and also added quality links but have not seen any improvements in SERP’s. There has been thought that those also need the Penguin to refresh to see any sort of recovery. So we highly believe that the link penalty goes hand and hand with the Penguin algorithm which would need the refresh for recovery. Your Thought?

    1. I agree with your point of view however, I believe there could be different reasons behind not seeing any improvements in the rankings.

      May be they could have taken down majority of their helpful links from the database and are now requiring to build more such new links that help them improve the rankings. – Or perhaps Google may not have given the same priority to their web pages as much as they used to give even though they believe the penalty has been lifted. Hence, if there’s no improvements in the rankings and if you haven’t filed reconsideration request yet, I’d recommend to do that first and along with that keep building new links as well.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Thanks for sharing this at the right time before getting pagerank.By the way now i’m safe and don’t do the link buying and exchanging.But check my website with the above mentioned tools.

  6. Maybe, I’m suffered from unnatural links. Because recently almost all my SERPs have been dropped. As your suggestion, I removed numbers of links from low quality websites. I hope it will end my frustration lately.

  7. I never received an official message saying that I’ve been penalized for unnatural links (or any other reason). However, I have several indicators such as drastic drops in traffic and SERPs that suggest a penalty. Does Google always send a formal message saying that a site has been penalized?

    1. no they don’t – we found out the hard way :( Our only luck was that the drop by other site owners caused a stir at the time (last May-Jun) and a friend who went from 40K traffic per day to 4k traffic per day was going crazy on my Skype about it. (she is in the pet food business). They had to lose half their sites and start over pretty much. I guess they paid the wrong SEO firm to get their ranking…we do our own as our business is only small so our problems were no so hard to fix and the sites are not our main income thankfully. Learned a big lesson though.

    2. @Lee, they necessarily don’t send a formal message. – It might be possible that your website may have got penalized because of any other reason rather than unnatural links penalty.

      Let me know if you need any help with this.

  8. We had a few sites with messed up links (not even links we placed ourselves) and spent a whole 5 months trying to correct it all – was a night mare but we found them all and removerd them and now we are about 70% back to where we were…a long struggle – this article is really helpful in trying to fix the last bits!

  9. Everybody is talking about recovery, but isn’t suppose algorithm to target only websites that have use unethical methods? Well, I suppose that this would be very small percentage of total, so why this is still one of the trendiest topic for all bloggers?

  10. We got hit a bit and asked for a review. Then Google sent a template with the text featurd in your article. Now what do you think: is our penalty manual or algorhytmic? We did not get any unnatural link warnings – as we hardly rely on linkbuilding. Still, when asking for a review we got a message like that. So I wonder if this is a manual penalty…

  11. So we just got this message today about the unnatural links. We have been around since 2002 and in my opinion have done things the right way. We recently bought some banner advertising on a industry website and they also included our link under the Visit our Advertisers section. What they didn’t do is put a no follow like they should have and now we are showing 60,0000 links pointing back to our home page from that domain.

    Could that have triggered this manual penalty?

    Also, I’ve searched on this subject and can’t find the answer. When you receive this message is the penalty already in affect or does it take time to “kick in” . We haven’t seen any negative impact in our traffic yet and we have requested that the no follow be added to that link.

    Any help would be appreciated.

  12. Generally webmasters submitted list of UN-natural list for disavow, and after that submit reconsideration request. But if the website owner has not receive any confirmation message from Google about Penalty, its not good to submit reconsideration request. It may harm website reputation & ranking.

  13. Interestingly, your article doesn’t mention buying text links specifically. Our site until yesterday had 183,000 links. 180,000 of them were TLA links. So I took those down because they were paid links. Now we have less than 3,000 links. 27 of the domains were TLA links, but we still have over 450 more.

    I have found that much of the SEO advice about link building doesn’t work very well in our industry – we are in a small niche that is relatively unpopular. A large percentage of our customer base is over the age of 60 and don’t use social networking much. Getting natural links has been extremely slow even with good link bait. Not to mention, most of the sites we got links in 2007 are not around anymore.

    I have a feeling I will regret giving up those links in exchange for removing this penalty, but really it is a lose-lose situation. But then, it looks like Google only seems to be going after links that are OBVIOUSLY unnatural. What about paying for links in small numbers of pages and tailoring the link text so they don’t appear artificial?

    I know, I have finally released the burden of looking over my shoulder about the paid links and shouldn’t be considering going back, but I am grasping at straws trying to work out how getting back even a meaningful fraction of 180,000 links in our industry is in any way feasible. Thoughts?

  14. This whole unnatural link thing is ridiculous. They should just ignore such links if it bothers them so much. I really think this is an effort to destroy their competition, aka other search engines, and really shear down the size of the internet so only huge websites are left. They’re destroying peoples traffic sources,and making them spend time, and resources going around begging people to remove links. Seriously it’s time to boycott Google. They have way too much power!

  15. I downloaded the excel document of all the sites linking into mine, how am I supposed to go through over 50k links to find which i should disavow?

    if anyone has any experience getting this removed, I am looking to hire a consultant or advisory for this, i am really struggling