This blog is mostly about seo for genuine small businesses and beginners to seo. Although I have touched on other areas that interest me and not specifically seo, I don’t usually blog about all the algorithm changes Google pushes out that are discussed on other blogs.
Most of these changes in Google are kind of targeted to industrial strength manipulation of either Google’s reputation or relevance rewards – and lots of smaller businesses won’t have come across them. If you have actively been competing in your niche for positions – chances are, you might be impacted at some point.
Google is certainly making a lot of noise about unnatural links so it’s probably not wise to ignore them. They’ve chosen NOT to ignore your links anymore if they detect an INTENT to rank for specific keywords using lower quality means – or link schemes, in other words.
My main interest is seo for real business websites, and this post is about something that’s probably going to hit a lot of smaller businesses who’ve been promoting their site using low quality seo services – resulting in unnatural links.
What are unnatural links?
Well, if you’ve been actively promoting your website, sit back for a moment and think about all the links you managed to generate to your site because you DID NOT come from a position of actually building a rich informative site – yes – all those links. If you paid someone else like a seo to get you links, yes, those links (probably). If you are using cheap submission services that actually are not a scam, yes those links. Those tactics to get easy-to-get links you got that were linking to your competitors’ websites? Yes, those links.
In short – if you are using unnatural links to get top positions and don’t deserve them Google will nuke your site if it detects them. Google knows exactly which keywords to hit you for to destroy your ability to rank. Sometimes keyword phrase by keyword phrase, sometimes page by page – sometimes site by site!
I’ve seen sites penalised for their main keyword and the main keyword in anchor text back links from other sites is not the problem.
It’s NOT ALL manipulative links Google is penalising, either. Many manipulative links still work – but Google is good at detecting a lot of them.
Sensible opportunistic links still pass a manual review, it appears. Paid links and lots of ‘spam‘ still dominate lots of competitive niches – that is – white hat seo has little, if any chance, of ranking in these serps.
The important thing to realise is there is a certain amount of risk now associated with backlinks that point to any site and any page.
How Do I know if I have unnatural links?
If you honestly do not have a clue….
Google is telling a lot of people by email if you are subscribed in Google Webmaster Tools. If you have unnatural links you need to worry about – the best place I think to detect any issues is rather obviously Google Analytics.
There is a case to be said Google is kind-of forcing people into using Google Webmaster Tools.
What happens to my site if Google detects unnatural links?
Sometimes you’ll get an email from Google:
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.example.com/, 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
Google is moving in various directions:
In less severe cases, we sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking. The new messages make it clear that we are taking “targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.”
Other times the indicators might be more subtle. You might not rank at all in Google for something you used to rank for very well for. Your traffic might reduce month by month. You might disappear overnight for valuable keywords associated with your content. You might disappear for one keyword phrase. You might be reviewed manually. If you are actually penalised, youre going to have clean your links up if you want to restore your ‘reputation’ in Google. Penalties can last from 30 days to, well, forever (if the penalty is a manual action).
Google appears to crawls a site slower under a penalty. Google caches changes to your pages a lot less frequently, too, it appears and new content seems to struggle a bit more to actually get into Google. In some case – you might not rank for your brand name (like happened to Interflora a few weeks ago). In the very worst cases – your site can disappear from Google.
When you get a penalty revoked, things start to get back to normal within a month or two.
What can I do about unnatural links?
If you are a small business – you probably don’t want to start again with a new domain. Do you want to use 301 redirects to postpone a Google slap? That option works, for at least, a while. The best option is to clean them up.
First, you’ll need to download your backlinks from Google.
Download links to your site
- On the Webmaster Tools home page, click the site you want.
- On the Dashboard, click Traffic, and then click Links to Your Site.
- Under Who links the most, click More.
- Click Download more sample links. If you click Download latest links, you’ll see dates as well.
Note: When looking at the links to your site in Webmaster Tools, you may want to verify both the www and the non-vww version of your domain in your Webmaster Tools account. To Google, these are entirely different sites. Take a look at the data for both sites. More information
Which unnatural links am I supposed to worry about?
I think these can be summed up if you are ranking for money terms with a low quality site and have:
- a high % of backlinks on low quality sites
- a high % of backlinks on duplicate articles
- a high % of links with duplicate anchor text
Basically the stuff that used to work so well for everyone and is mainly detectable by Googlebot. Google doesn’t just ignore these links anymore if intent to manipulate Google is easy to work out. Most low quality links are (probably) easy to detect algorithmically.
Do I need to remove bad links?
We know that perhaps not every link can be cleaned up, but in order to deem a reconsideration request as successful, we need to see a substantial good-faith effort to remove the links, and this effort should result in a decrease in the number of bad links that we see. GOOGLE
It kind of looks as though we’re going to have to, especially if you receive a manual action notice.
How To Remove Unnatural Links
There are services popping up everywhere offering to remove unnatural links – I’ll blog about those later as I have little experience with any of them. An seo needs to be able to deal with this new problem in seo with the very basic of tools.
Ive had success using simple methods.
- Removing pages that are the target of unnatural links
- Google Webmaster Tools
Do I need to audit my backinks?
Most definitely. Google is fully expected to make a lot of noise about unnatural links this year, and that always involves website rankings being nuked with traffic decimated, and lots of ‘collateral’ damage.
Wether or not you eventually use the Disavow Tool in Google, you should be looking at your backlink profile and see what various links are doing to your rankings for instance. You should at least know who links to you, and the risk to high rankings now attached to those links.
Get the root domain of each link (I’ve used URL Tools for this for a while), and check it’s toolbar Pagerank with SEO Tools for excel. Most of those links with zero -1 pagerank on the domain are worth looking at. Do the same for the actual page your links are on (on domains with PR). Similarly, if you have lots of links and all your links are on page with -1. That’s probably not not good indicator of reputation.
If you have a LOT of links (tens of thousands) filtering, in Excel, for only unique domains can speed up this process.
I normally get the PAGE TITLE of the linking page too (using SEO Tools for Excel), so I can easily detect duplicate articles on lower quality sites, and sites not yet affected by a Pagerank drop.
Of course, there’s some false positives. Pagerank can be glitchy, or flat out misleading. So a human eye is often needed to reduce these. If you are using this method, you can run it again in the future and see if sites you identified as low quality by Pagerank have changed, and perhaps modify your disavow list.
Using this method I’ve successfully identified lower quality sites fairly easily. To be fair, I know a crap link. Ultimately, if you have a lot of links, you can never be too sure which particular links are ‘toxic’. It may very well be the volume of a specific tactic used that gets your site in trouble – and not one solitary link.
If you have a load of low quality directory submissions in your backlink profile, or have taken part in low quality article marketing recently, the next Google update might just be targeted at you (if it hasn’t already had an impact on your rankings).
Once you’ve examined your links and identified low quality links, you can then submit a list of links to Google in a simple text file called disavow.txt.
What is the disavow Tool?
A tool provided by Google in Google Webmaster Tools. You can specify which domains you want to disavow the links from (you can also specify individual pages). Generally speaking if disavowing a link, you are better of disavowing the entire domain (if it is a spammy domain).
The disavow.txt is just a simple text file with the following list of domains:
The way it appears to work is you tell Google which links to ignore when they are calculating wether or not to rank you high or boot your rankings in the balls.
If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy or low-quality links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links. In other words, you can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site. GOOGLE
Should I use the Disavow Tool?
This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool. Google
Some might recommend pulling links down instead of using this tool from Google. Lots of people have different angles. If you have a manual penalty, you’ll probably also need to actually get some of these links physically removed, too. Yes that means emailing them.
If you get a manual penalty, have lots of links and actually removing the low quality links is going to be a hard task - definitely. I’m also proactively using it on sites that are obviously algorithmically penalised for particular keywords or on links I expect will cause a problem later on. One would expect penalties are based on algorithmic detection on some level for some sites.
If you’ve ever attempted to manipulate Google, nows the time to at least quantify the risk attached with those links.
It’s clear Google is better at identifying your low quality links. Google already knows about your crap links. Google is very definitely ignoring some of your links. Google has probably already has penalised you in areas and you probably are not aware of it. For instance, I’ve helped a few sites that got the unnatural links message that were clearly algorithmically slapped a year before and never noticed it until it started to hurt.
Using the disavow tool
Upload a list of links to disavow:
- Go to the disavow links tool page.
- Select your website.
- Click Disavow links.
- Click Choose file.
It may take some time for Google to process the information you’ve uploaded. In particular, this information will be incorporated into our index as we recrawl the web and reprocess the pages that we see, which can take a number of weeks.
… and they are telling it like it is.
You really do need to wait for a few weeks (after you submit your disavow list) before you submit a reinclusion request (if you have a manual penalty).
Will your rankings come back?
This depends on what, if any, quality signals are left in your backlink profile and what’s happening in your niche. If you have decent links, individual rankings can come back, that is for sure. I’ve yet to see a site where total traffic levels have came back to previous best positions. Sometimes there’s just better, more information rich pages out there these days. Often, there’s always a couple of low quality or spammy sites between your site and number 1 in Google. Hey, there’s always Adwords.
But YES, i’ve seen rankings come back after a manual penalty. Sometimes better than they were before. I’ve yet to see site-wide traffic levels return to normal in most cases.
Are you really penalised, or is Google just ignoring your links?
If you start with nothing, get top rankings in 3 months, then end up with nothing. Are you really penalised? Or is Google just ignoring your links? If the ‘penalty’ is an algorithmic shift, then by the very nature of it, getting good links (links Google has no reason to believe are suspect) to your website should tip the balance in your favour again.
Google can’t tell the difference between good seo and good spam. The payday loans market is taking a pounding at the minute as some folk brute force Google’s algorithms using basic protocols Google basically has to respect (for now at least).
If you see obviously spammy links to your site, and your rankings are in the toilet, perhaps disavowing the links is an option. I’ve seen improvement, and heard of other successes using the tool. FOr me, the jury is still out on whether you can actually use the disavow tool as a new seo tool.
Google is getting serious with what it calls link schemes (ways to get easy links):
What Google says about link schemes:
Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links influences your ranking. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. 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. The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:
Some examples include:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
- Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)
- Linking to web spammers or unrelated sites with the intent to manipulate PageRank
- Building partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
- Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
- Text advertisements that pass PageRank
- Links that are inserted into articles with little coherence, for example:
- Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
- Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites:
- Widely distributed links in the footers of various sites
- Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature, for example:
What Google says about building natural links:
The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it. Before making any single decision, you should ask yourself: Is this going to be beneficial for my page’s visitors? It is not only the number of links you have pointing to your site that matters, but also the quality and relevance of those links. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the buzzing blogger community can be an excellent place to generate interest.
Ironically Google has ignored their own rules on many occasions with apparently - little long term consequence. Big brands too have been recently hit, including (in the UK) the BBC and INTERFLORA. Big brands certainly DO seem to be able to get away with a LOT more than your average webmaster, and so these problems often are often short-lived, especially if they make the news.
So how do we get natural links?
The simple answer is we’re all going to have to think harder and work harder to get links from real sites. I think it’s fair to say you need to avoid links from websites designed to give you a link. It’s hard not to think Google will at some point takedown guest blogs and press release sites, much like the recent action they took on advertorials.
- stay away from just about all ARTICLE SITES
- most DIRECTORIES and
- most BLOG NETWORKS
- IGNORE LOW QUALITY SPAM EMAILS offering you links (or cheap seo services).
- be wary of ADVERTORIALS
- avoid LOW QUALITY GUEST POSTS and
- LOW QUALITY, OFF TOPIC SITEWIDE LINKS.
Have a think for a minute and work out if the article you are going to have a link on will end up duplicated across many low quality sites, for a start.
NOTE – In my experience you do not need to remove every instance of a site-wide link. NOT if they are on topic, and editorially given.
Will my competitor be penalised for unnatural links?
Your guess is as good as mine. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. You can always tell Google about them, or out them in Google forums. If you have the energy to be bothered with that – perhaps focusing some of this on making your site a better landing prospect for Google’s customers is a more productive use of your time.
Why doesn’t Google just ignore bad links?
Where would the fun in that be? Google wants our focus on low quality backlinks now, and so, it is. It’s in Google’s interest to keep us guessing at every stage of seo.
Is linkbuilding Dead?
No – this is what seo (I use the term collectively) is all about. If Google didnt do this every now and again, ‘search engine optimisation’ wouldn’t exist. Opportunity will exist as long as Google doesn’t do away with organic listings because they can’t be trusted or produce a ‘frustrating’ user experience in themselves. Not until Google convince people of that.
One things been constant in Google since day 2. SPAM, or Sites Positioned Above Me. I think it’s safe to say there will always be spam, some of your competition will always use methods that break the rules and beat you down. There will be ways to get around Google – at least, there always has.
I can tell you I am auditing the backlink profiles of clients we work with – and new projects I’m invited to advise on. Those obviously manipulative backlinks aren’t going to increase in quality over time, and if Google is true to it’s word, it might just slap us for them.
Matt said that there will be a large Penguin (“webspam algorithm update”) update in 2013 that he thinks will be one of the more talked about Google algorithm updates this year. Google’s search quality team is working on a major update to the Penguin algorithm, which Cutts called very significant. The last Penguin update we have on record was Penguin 3 in October 2012. Before that, we had Penguin 2 in May 2012 and the initial release in April. SEARCH ENGINE LAND
Google is very serious about messing with the longevity and confidence in SEO. We are told to expect a new update from Google 2013 that will hit a lot of sites. The jury is out if the disavow tool SHOULD be used on fringe cases without manual penalties. If you get a manual penalty, you’ll probably have to remove links and use the disavow tool.
Audit your back links if nothing else. Consider using the disavow tool to tackle obvious algorithmic penalties if traffic is taking a nosedive, or a site you know will take a hit in the next Google Penguin update. There are arguments against this, mind you, but low quality unnatural links are certainly going to have to be addressed for sites with little online business authority themselves – and probably even more so for sites that exist to profit from natural seo traffic.
You are going to hear a lot about ‘content marketing’ in 2013.
You still need to be building links, but avoid the low quality stuff and avoid the kind of networks on Google’s radar. Any industrial method of link-building is eventually going to get Google’s attention.
For a refresher – you can also see things Google tells you to avoid.
- Using the disavow Tool
- Google Disavow Tool
- Announcement From Google about the tool
- Link Schemes
- Site not doing well in Google?
- Notice about unnatural links
If you are having problems with unnatural links, or experienced a gradual, or cataclysmic fall in traffic from Google, and want professional help to remove them, you can contact us here.
*I will update this post with more I learn about google webmaster unnatural links and the disavow tool. If you have any experience with penalties, re-inclusion requests or recoveries, or have some questions about the notice of detected unnatural link warning emails from Google, please leave a comment below. Have any experience of the duration of google unnatural links penalty or expired penalties? I’d love to hear from you if you have anything to add to this page. Feel free to share any tactics on recovery or removal of links.
*I will be testing some unnatural links checkers out shortly for the purpose of reviewing on the blog.
— debra mastaler (@debramastaler) April 2, 2013