Operation: Finding & Removing Unnatural Links

Operation - Remove Unnatural Links

This blog is mostly about SEO for 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 as they are widely discussed, sometimes hastily, on plenty of other blogs.

A lot of these changes in Google are aimed at industrial-strength-manipulation of either Google’s reputation and relevance reward systems, which it relies on to create SERPs (search engine results pages) – and lots of smaller businesses won’t have come across them.

However, if you have been competing in your niche for positions using backlinks – chances are, you will be affected.

Google is indeed making a lot of noise about unnatural links so you cannot simply 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 primary interest is SEO for real business websites, and this post is about something that’s probably going to hit a lot of smaller businesses that, in the past, promoted their site using low-quality SEO services – resulting in unnatural links, which in turn can lead to an increased risk of ‘negative seo’.

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 a link building company to get you links, yes, those links (probably).

If you are using cheap submission services that 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 when it detects them.

Google knows which keywords to penalise you for to destroy your ability to attract useful organic visits.

Screen Shot 2013-04-02 at 02.23.23

Sometimes this happens on a keyword level, sometimes page-by-page – sometimes site-by-site!

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, in time.

Sensible opportunistic links still pass a manual review, it appears. Paid links and lots of ‘spam‘ still dominate lots of competitive niches. 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 find out if there are ‘unnatural’ links pointing to a website?

Google is telling a lot of people by email if you have subscribed through Google Webmaster Tools (now called Google Search Console). If you have unnatural links you need to worry about – the best place I think to detect any issues is rather obviously Google Analytics. If you have been found out, traffic will have plummeted.

There is an argument that Google is forcing website owners into using Google Webmaster Tools to get, what is, after all, limited information, but still, is the kind of data that you cannot get anywhere else.

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, indeed, penalised, you’re 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 no clean-up is undertaken).

Google appears to crawl a site slower under a penalty. Google caches changes to your pages a lot less frequently, too, it seems, and fresh content seems to struggle a bit more to get into Google’s index. In some cases – you might not rank for your brand name.

In the very worst cases – your site and all its pages can be removed from Google. It can be ‘de-indexed‘.

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 choice, however, is to clean toxic links up.

First, you’ll need to download your backlinks from Google.

Download links to your site

  1. On the Webmaster Tools home page, click the site you want.
  2. On the Dashboard, click Traffic, and then click Links to Your Site.
  3. Under Who links the most, click More.
  4. 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?

PAID LINKS are the REAL toxic links Google is looking to penalise you for, and these leave a nasty footprint e.g.:

  • a high % of backlinks on low-quality sites
  • a high % of backlinks on duplicate articles
  • a high % of links with duplicate anchor text
  • links from irrelevant sites or articles
  • footer links on unrelated sites

You are looking for the non-editorial links or links from very low-quality websites that link to your site.

Google will penalise you for these links if a clear intent to manipulate results is evident.

Most, if not all, low-quality links are (probably) easy for Google to detect algorithmically. Most low-quality links Google will ignore, in time.

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

You are going to have to try and remove the worst offenders, especially if you receive a manual action notice.

How To Remove Unnatural Links

I’ve had success using simple methods and widely available tools.

  1. Removing pages that are the target of unnatural links
  2. Google Webmaster Tools
  3. Excel
  4. Pagerank

I have since built my in-house toolset to manage my backlinks.

Do I need to audit my backlinks? 

Most definitely.

Google is fully expected to make a lot of noise about unnatural links in 2017, and that always involves website rankings impacted in some way.

Whether or not you use the Disavow Tool in Google, you should be looking at your backlink profile and see what various links are doing to your rankings. You should, at least, know who links to you, so you can calculate the risk to your organic traffic that is attached to those links.

A simple method I used when this first became a problem a few years ago, was:

  • Download your links from Google Webmaster Tools, pop them into Excel. I will presume you have SEO Tools for Excel.
  • Get the root domain of each link (I’ve used URL Tools for this for a while), and check its toolbar Pagerank with SEO Tools for Excel. (Note that in 2017, you are probably best to use Majestic Trust Flow & Citation Flow for such analysis).
  • 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 pages with -1. That’s probably not a good indicator of reputation – even though PR is INCREDIBLY out of date, in 2017.
  • If you have a LOT of links (tens of thousands) filtering, in Excel, for 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 are some false positives.

Pagerank can be glitchy, or flat-out misleading. So a human eye is always needed to reduce these false positives.

Using this method I’ve successfully identified lower quality sites relatively quickly. 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 particular tactic used that gets your site in trouble – and not one individual 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?

Google Disavow Links

A tool provided by Google in Google Webmaster Tools (now Search Console). 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).

Disavow Links is an advanced tool - use carefully (we are told)

The disavow.txt is just a simple text file with the following list of domains e.g.:

  • domain:google.com
  • domain:plus.google.com

The way it appears to work is you tell Google which links to ignore when they are calculating whether 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

Google has said that they will treat links found in your disavow file as nofollow links.

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 removing links instead of just using this disavow tool from Google. Lots of people have different angles.

I have used BOTH methods to recover sites from manual actions and algorithmic penalties.

If you have a manual penalty, you will probably also need to get some of these links physically removed or at least try and get them removed. Yes, that means emailing Webmasters and keeping a record of that endeavour.

If you get a manual penalty, have lots of links and removing the low-quality links is going to be a hard task – you WILL need to employ the disavow file in 2017.

I also proactively disavow links 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, now’s the time to at least quantify the risk attached with those links.

I recommend you go that one step further and disavow all low-quality links pointing at your site, as:

  • Google is better at identifying your low-quality links.
  • Google already knows about your crap links.
  • Google is very definitely ignoring most of your links.
  • Google has probably already has penalised you in areas and you probably are not aware of it. 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.
  • Some competitors will ‘negative seo’ your website (I go into this below).

Using the disavow tool

Upload a list of links to disavow:

Google says:

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.

This process is designed, by Google, to take TIME to fix.

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 hit by a link penalty where traffic levels have returned to previous best positions. Sometimes there’s just better, more information rich pages out there these days for Google to rank above your page.

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, without investment in many areas.

Recovery from a links based penalty is a two-step process; a clean-up process and a growth process and this growth process involves investment in higher quality web marketing.

Are you penalised, or is Google just ignoring your links?

Here is something to think about, which may help you direct your efforts:

If you start with nothing, get top rankings in 3 months, and then end up with nothing.

Are you penalised? Really?

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.

It is worth noting that in some business cases, and with some business models – starting again on an entirely new domain might just be a better option, after a link penalty – especially if you think you need these type of link schemes to compete in the first place.

Link Schemes

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
  • 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 optimised links in the post or signature

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 can be hit, too, with these link penalties, but these type of sites 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.

Big brands and healthier websites, in general, have ‘natural links’ pointing to them, from reputable websites, so this often serves to protect big sites from major penalties or negative seo attacks.

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 to real, user-friendly content. I think it’s fair to say you need to avoid links from websites designed to give you a link, especially for cash, or reciprocal links.

I’d certainly:

  • stay away from just about all ARTICLE SITES
  • most DIRECTORIES and
  • IGNORE LOW-QUALITY SPAM EMAILS offering you links (or cheap SEO services).
  • Be wary of ADVERTORIALS

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?

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 user experience for Google’s users is a more productive use of your time.

Eventually, Google will catch up with a competitor’s low-quality links, unless they know what they are doing, of course.

Why doesn’t Google just ignore bad links?

Where would the fun in that be? Google wants our focus on low-quality backlinks for 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 didn’t 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 thing’s 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.

Obviously manipulative backlinks aren’t going to increase in quality over time, and if Google is true to its word, it might just slap us for them.


Google is serious about messing with the longevity and confidence in SEO. If you get a manual penalty, you’ll probably have to remove links and use the disavow tool – which is a tremendous drain on resources and time.

  • 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’ going into the near future.

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.

Related 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.

Keep Up-To-Date

For industry news about seo in general, I follow Search Engine Land and Search Engine Roundtable. For search engine patent analysis, I recommend Bill Slawski.

Google Penalty Recovery Services

We have a very good track record of lifting penalties, or manual actions, as they are called. We do NOT have a special relationship with Google or anything (NO SEO company does), but Google (in our recent experience) is being fair-handed when you make a concerted effort to promote your website in their listings by their guidelines.

We get successful results because we STICK AT IT – and work with your business UNTIL the penalty is lifted, and for a fixed cost, based on the number of domains (websites) pointing at your site.

Every website situation is different, but the good news is your business CAN recover from such a Google penalty. It CAN return to previous ranking positions.

Rankings and traffic CAN even improve after a penalty if you are willing to promote your website in a way more likely to build real trust and reputation signals to your website.

We can often get a penalty lifted relatively FAST, and using no tricks – contact us today if you need a professional, manual review of your unnatural links, and help with identifying and removing them, for a successful Google reconsideration request.

Verdict: A ‘Prolonged, Sustained’ Sin Bin For Google Manual Actions On Artificial Links


The penalty box (sometimes called the sin bin, bad box, or simply bin) is the area in ice hockey, rugby league, rugby union and some other sports where a player sits to serve the time of a given penalty, for an offense not severe enough to merit outright expulsion from the contest.


  1. Google identifies you have unnatural links pointing at your site, and
  2. a history of ‘web spam’ activity Google is confident about, and
  3. you get a manual actions message in Google Webmaster Tools
  4. or your traffic or rankings tank over night

…you can probably consider your site “sin-binned” – penalised – until you sort the unnatural links out.

I see a lot of people complaining this doesn’t work and that doesn’t work to lift these penalties – manual or algorithmic – [Google isn’t fair!!! Google is telling lies!!!] – they seem to miss the point.


Punishment is the point. Google wants you to feel the pain. Google wants you to lose time. It wants you to refocus your efforts away from investment in low-quality link building services. Google wants you removing these links from the web – which for some involves a lot of emails to Webmasters of sites you’ve dropped links on, numerous times. Google wants to see you’re rehabilitated. That you’ve learned the error of your ways. From this point on – it’s all quality stuff. They want to stop you buying links.

Whether or not you agree with it, that’s how it is – or at least, the message Google is ramming down our throats.

Using the disavow tool as a last choice

The disavow tool is presented as the last choice. I find this rather contrary, as the disavow file would surely be a MUCH faster way of showing “good faith” in dissociating a site from artificial links.

It’s where I start.

“You know, whether you’re tracking things in a spreadsheet. Or you’re just doing a good job of monitoring. How many sites you’ve asked to take things down. Essentially we just wanna know you’ve done a prolonged, sustained effort to try to clean things up as much as possible. So the mental model we want you to have is this. We’d like to see as much of the link spam to go away. As much as possible. And so that’s your first goal. To try to get as much down. And then we need to know that ideally, we’re not gonna see this sort of link spam in the future. And so that’s where the documentation comes into effect. MATT CUTTS

Community Service

Google even wants us cleaning up the links that were made in your name.

Google doesn’t want folk seeing how low-quality links manipulate Google results. If you’ve looked at link spam, or been involved with it, you’ll know that linkspam makes Google look stupid, and render proclamations about good content ranking above spam ‘not true’, at least, in many instances. If you get a penalty for unnatural links – you just bought some community service cleaning up the neighbourhood. Don’t like that? Tough sh*t.

Will your rankings recover after you remove a penalty?

While I answer this in my other post (and the answer is – depends on what quality you have left after your link clean up), I think it is a mute point.

In many cases, if you have a manual action against your site, you are not going anywhere on your main keywords until you do something about it. If you ignore the warning or try to play around it, other rankings start to deteriorate, given time.  Unnatural links are, I think I can say, the kind of links that often made sites rank at the top of Google organic listings, from 1998 to, well, now. It is and was very hard to compete with unnatural links, without employing them.

Clearly Google is telling us the fastest way to get out of this penalty box is to remove the artificial links pointing at your site and disavow the rest. A scary prospect for everyone I talk to – these are the links that got no1 rankings. That is true as far as I can tell.

I am talking from experience (this is all I can do):


Successful reconsideration request notification in Google Webmaster Tools

I’ve seen quite a few of those now…..

If I cared about the site in question from a longevity point of view, I would dump low-quality unnatural backlinks now – and stay away from building them in the future. Penalties get harsher for repeat offenders, and Google is getting more and more aggressive, and faster, in dealing with them. PAID LINKS are particularly problematic if Google finds them – and I’ve seen enough of them recently in site cleanups (from supposed experience paid link brokers), to say the VAST majority of paid links are clearly paid links lol. Oops.

I wonder what happens next year, despite repeated warnings, some sites still engage in low-quality SEO tactics. What happens when low-quality SEO activity “merit(s) outright expulsion from the contest” for a big brand for a prolonged period.

Maybe Google won’t go this far with a big brand (they can defend themselves) – but it will CERTAINLY do it to your site.

Whatever – cleaning up your backlinks just became a priority!

“A Level Playing Field” – Matt Cutts

What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now. MATT CUTTS – GOOGLE (SER).

If I have my SEO hat on I think SEO (or rather, link building) levels the playing field. I also often think Google is throwing us a Kansas City shuffle. We can all see CLEARLY the way Google has set up a strategy for IT to win online, which lets big brands dominate organic listings in many (if not all) niches.

But I recognise, if Google didn’t change, our particular SEO industry would not exist. If Google didn’t change, industrial SEO players would leave no room for most of the industry – me and you included.

If I put my ‘start-up’ hat on, it’s a different scenario.

For instance, say a website launches with the real quality content. It could, should, rank for some nice terms, but it doesn’t. It’s below a myriad of substandard ‘just good enough’ content. It is below sites built upon a mountain of paid article marketing activity, directories and paid links, built up over time that even editorial links can’t help you topple. And this, just because you can do it, because of the way Google, and most search engines, work by counting backlinks as votes.

Is it fair to rank high in Google natural listings (by that I mean under the fold, below Google and Wikipedia and big media sites, of course) using this manipulation – just because you can? In a perfect world, which we don’t live in, it certainly sounds a fairer system.

Whatever you and I think (which is, usually, based on how you make a living) – Google says ‘no’ to low-quality SEO, and Google calls the shots in SEOland.

Google Is Making The Organic Listings It Wants

Google has always said no, but now it’s CLEARLY saying no, and backing this up with some aggressive punishment. It doesn’t matter if you think Google should be better at attributing quality. It’s far easier for Google to take this route.

It’s easier to penalise low-quality manipulation – the type A LOT of sites had to use to compete for rankings.

This, of course, will all have the effect of lifting corporations and big trusted brands into the top of the natural SERPs, and any critic of Google will tell you that. I don’t know – but I am a bit tired of the ‘I hate Google rhetoric coming out of the SEO industry. For sure, A LOT of this criticism is warranted, but it’s cool to rebel. Cool – but usually a pointless waste of time. I prefer to spend my time on stuff that that see me through these changes, and moaning about Google just doesn’t do it for me anymore: too much energy for too little reward.

A Defensible Link Strategy

Google now has an army of unpaid website reviewers working for it. A link that can’t pass a manual review, or is on a site that wouldn’t exist if Google didn’t count links – is not defensible anymore. Well, lots of them are not. It’s easier, and cheaper, to get a competitor (who is outright breaking the rules) penalised than beat them at their own game – though this, like everything to do with Google, takes time.

When grey-hat becomes black-hat, you’re better off leaving that stuff to the people who know what they are doing, and what to expect from it. It’s too easy for your activity to be reported to Google these days – it doesn’t matter if it ‘works’ to change your rankings if you don’t have a long-term plan to deal with the fallout.

Google is siding with the “user” in a classic move where Google can’t lose. A sensible move for SEO is to do the same, whether you like it or not.

Google guidelines are (effectively) laws for ranking in Google now, where once, they were just a list of things that you could use to rank in Google. Google is more than happy to crack down on them now. Since 1998, it wanted us to live under rules that were not policed properly and so, by definition, unfair. These rules are so ‘unfair, even Google can’t play by them. But Google is certainly policing them more effectively today.

Nonetheless, the message is slightly different to SEO today than it was back then, before industrial SEO.

Google WANTS its SERPs a certain way, rightly or wrongly, and now ADMITS freely its algorithms are not always up to the job – it’s happy to manually edit listings and manually penalise sites, to get the SERPs it WANTS.

It’s all part of a great move on Google’s part, for Google’s long-term benefit.

The message is clear – stay away from low-quality link building tactics.

Most of these shortcuts are EASILY DETECTABLE and will only hurt you. Link building isn’t dead, it can’t die, only change.

Low-quality link building IS dead.

Google IS ‘levelling’ the playing field and it’s probably best for small businesses to stay out of Google’s way at the moment.


It all depends on who you are talking to, and how you make money online.

Bad Neighbourhoods

Unnatural Links From Your Site

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. GOOGLE’S ADVICE ON LINK SCHEMES

In 2017, Google is mostly concerned with unnatural links from your site, and specifically paid links. If Google is confident your website hosts paid links or you link to a link seller, you may receive a message from Google’s web spam team in Google Webmaster Tools.

Links like these on your site usually impact the trust of the links on your site (or your Pagerank), but not normally your rankings or Google search engine traffic.

Traffic and ranking penalties can depend on the infraction, and the intent and effort behind the tactics employed. Google makes the rules as it has always done, and reserves the right to make its judgement as to what you have been up to and how much of a penalty you ‘deserve’.

Removing unnatural links from your site is certainly a lot easier than removing them from external sites.

You need to be very careful about who you link to in 2017. Don’t worry about linking to sites if you trust them, but beware becoming entangled in somebody else’s paid for link scheme, or some black hat’s 3 tiered link building efforts.

Paid Link Schemes & Blog Networks

Low-quality sites, more often than not made just for Google, link out to other spam sites, or sell links that improve other website rankings in a way that violates Google’s guidelines. Google calls these guys web spammers (as opposed to email spammers). You don’t want to be linking to these sites, for much of the same reasons as I go into below.

Be aware of guest posters for instance, and the sites they link to. Be aware of user generated forum or blog comments or signatures, ESPECIALLY if those links do not have rel nofollow.

Website Hacked?

You might be linking to sites, and you don’t even know about it. Hackers are interesting in stealing your traffic or your ranking power. They might hack you to place your site in part of a network of sites all pointing to one recipient site to fool Google. Not only is this against Google’s rules, but it is illegal too – not that that stops them.

Hackers know that these spam networks (or bad neighbourhoods) need links from trusted sites to earn reputation. Links from trusted sites transfer trust and votes of relevance (Google Juice, whatever) to the receiving sites, allowing these sites to improve their positions in Google’s index. So, they hack your site, place hidden links in the code, and leave you none the wiser. You may find yourself part of a tiered system to manipulate Google – a LINK NETWORK – and you might never find out about it.

Google hates hidden links, spam networks, and ESPECIALLY paid links. Rather than let your site “heat” up and validate a spam neighbourhood so that it can start receiving visitors from Google, it might just remove your site from the index, by classing your site as part of that bad neighbourhood.

Google may reduce the reputation of your external links – leaving your traffic ok.

That may be of concern to you, or it may be not, but TRUST, when it comes to ranking in Google is a BIG DEAL in 2017 and not something to take lightly.

Determining if a site is in a bad neighbourhood can take some experience, but there’s plenty of professional SEO tools out there to help identify these links.

Being hacked can certainly impact your rankings and your site can be labelled with “This Site May Harm Your Computer” in Google SERPs – which is a click through killer.

If you’ve spotted it before you’ve seen your rankings drop, there are measures you can take (apart from deleting the offensive links immediately!).

This has happened to me before, and as long as you take action immediately, you’ll probably be OK.

Linking To A Bad Neighbourhood.

Here’s an interesting quote from the Official Google Webmaster Blog;

Q: I’ve cleaned it up, but will Google penalize me if the hacker linked to any bad neighborhoods?
A: We’ll try not to. We’re pretty good at making sure good sites don’t get penalized by actions of hackers and spammers. To be safe, completely remove any links the hackers may have added.

Bad neighbourhoods, to Google, are typically identified by spammy on-page ‘SEO’ techniques and dubious backlink and interlink profiles. A good example would be a blog network – set up just to spam Google for links. You do not want to link to neighbourhoods like that, because who you link to matters.

If you’ve been penalised by Google (i.e., removed from the search engine index) because you now link to a bad neighbourhood, you should read Google’s official advice if you’ve been hacked.

My theory is that Google will crawl your site a number of times to check if you still have these links to spam sites. If you remove them, no problem. If they survive multiple crawls, your site may suffer some loss of reputation based on a violation of Google guidelines for inclusion or as part of bad neighbourhood identification.

Google now helps you with notifications if you’re website is hacked, and Google also clearly punishes you for bad neighbourhoods linking TO your site – so watch out.

Is It OK To Link Out To Related Sites?

Of course. I regularly link out to other quality relevant pages on other websites where possible and where a human would find it valuable.

I don’t like to link out to other sites from the homepage (social media links aside). I want the PR residing in the home page to be shared only with my internal pages as much as possible. I don’t like out to other sites from my category pages either, for the same reason.

I link to other relevant sites (a deep link where possible) from individual pages and I do it often, usually. I don’t worry about link equity or PR leak because I control it on a page-to-page level.

This works for me, it allows me to share the link equity I have with other sites I admire while ensuring it is not at the expense of pages on my own domain. It may even help get me into a ‘neighbourhood’ of relevant sites, especially when some of those start linking back to my site.

Linking out to other sites, especially using a blog, also helps tell others that might be interested in your content that your page is ‘here’. Try it.

I won’t link out to sites using the exact keyword /phrase I am targeting, but I will be considerate, and usually try and link out to a site using keywords these bloggers / site owners would appreciate.

I try to be considerate when I have the time as anchor text in external links is ultra important and does have an impact on rankings for others – and me.

If you don’t trust a site you are linking to or don’t want the link to look like a paid link, you can always use rel nofollow. But remember – the web is built on links. Everybody wins when you are sensible with your links, and focus on the user.

Your Backlinks Will Very Probably Need MANUALLY Checked

There’s no one tool out there I trust more than myself to identify problematic links in a backlink profile.

A tool can work out obvious spammy sites but no link analysis tool can determine the overall intent of every site or every link, on every occasion.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have come across a link I expected to be crap (based on a popular metric) and found it was ok.

And similarly the other way.

The thing about managing ‘link risk’ is that somebody who knows what they are talking about (when it comes to crap links) NEEDS, at some point, to review your links – MANUALLY – – even if they ARE categorised by risk.

You, or somebody on your behalf, is going to have to review your backlinks and strip out the borderline cases, to ensure you keep every link you’ve ‘earned’ and only submit to your disavow the worst offenders.

I say that because:

Not all directories are crap

Not all blog links are crap

Not all syndicated duplicate articles are crap

Not all duplicate content is crap

Not all optimised anchor text links are crap

Not all press releases are crap

Not all scrapers are bad

Not all site-wide links are bad

Not all blog roll links are bad

Sometimes you have a good article on a crap site – sometimes you have a crap link on an excellent site

The makers of link analysis tools know that too – and they have got to err on the right side of telling you which links to disavow – as you don’t want to disavow links that are not problematic.

Some of these are editorial, natural links, the type Google says it will reward (in the future, if not now, you would hope).

I can tell looking at a site within a few seconds if that site is a site I want to be dissociated from (yes, that statement still looks strange to me in text).

I make my decisions based on how well maintained the site looks, how relevant it is to my site, if it’s original content, if there are any obvious paid links, if it breaks Google’s guidelines, what I think Google may think of it on a few levels. I also make my decisions on EXPECTING GOOGLE TO GET EVEN MORE AGGRESSIVE in dealing with ‘manipulation’.

If a site linking to you indicates that its main intent is to manipulate Google using low-quality techniques – you do not want to be associated with it in 2017.

These type of links are probably not going to improve with age, and Google isn’t going to ‘lighten up’ anytime soon.

I’m a control freak. If a tool tells me there are 100 risky links in my profile, I need to look at them. If I know I will need to look, why run these tools in the first place?

Why not just look?

Most of these tools I’ve used will need to be greatly improved before I trust them on their own to do what I do myself.

It is clear that Google wants you to invest – or waste – your time cleaning up old low-quality backlinks rather than creating any new low-quality backlinks.

If you don’t dig deep enough to remove low-quality links – you’ll find yourself going back and forth with Google through MULTIPLE Google re-consideration requests.

I think this very fact makes link risk tools without a manual review from an experienced link builder a little redundant.

I would say this of course – because I sell manual reviews.

I’ve built tools in-house to help me process manual reviews, but I still choose to provide a service to carry out human based reviews.

Negative SEO – How To Check For A Link-Based Attack

The basic premise of links based negative SEO is that a competitor can use it against you to destroy your rankings in Google’s organic SERPs. Google has gone some way to offering Webmasters a way to disavow unnatural links you may be worried about, but there is still a lot of controversy as to why this is the case, that a competitor CAN hurt your rankings, just by pointing manipulative links at your site.

Can a competitor hurt your site by pointing lots of links at it? If you can neg-SEO yourself, you can neg-SEO someone else, just by faking the same intent, ESPECIALLY if there is already present an attempt, hitherto going unnoticed, to manipulate rankings.

I think that claim holds a lot of water, and there’s some evidence to support it.

Some time ago an interesting case came to light.

Dan apparently annoyed a few people….


And they decided to use his site as an example how NSEO can work to destroy a website rankings….Dan spotted his rankings take a nosedive, – EDIT – Dan got a message from Google about unnatural links…..


the person who had a problem with his liaison with Matt Cutts decided to make an example of him…..

Pixelgrinder and I conducted a little experiment on whether negative SEO was possible in the current climate – we felt it was important to know whether it was possible for a site to be negatively affected completely by outside influences. We carried out a massive scrapebox blast on two sites to ensure an accurate result.


You can see the results of this activity below:

Screen Shot 2012-04-19 at 13.48.46 

Dan commented:

Both sites have received “unnatural links” messages in Webmaster Tools. Neither site has had a “link building” campaign ever. By using 3rd party tools (e.g. Majestic) I can see a lot of unnatural links pointing at both sites, but I didn’t put those links there.

Someone in the forum mentioned:

Also if you look at the changes Google has made to their guidelines, it paints another picture again.
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.” Then, in November, it got “slightly” modified… just a TINY fraction too:
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.”
Wow, what a difference one word can make! So hang on, saying “almost nothing” means “can”, no matter which way you spin it. Then on March 14th, they caved.
“Google works hard to prevent other Webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the Webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.”http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66356  In case you missed it, the key difference is in that first line:

You can see it’s changed from “nothing” to “almost nothing” to “perfect political answer”

So – can a competitor hurt your rankings? On their own? Or do you need to be doing other things as well….?

Tell me someone who has heard of Google, and who IS NOT trying to rank higher….. ?

You now seem to HAVE to keep an eye on the types of links you have pointed at your site, ESPECIALLY if you are actively promoting your site on top of this – I know this only too well, too.

I would say this test has proved to be a test Positive.  Keyterm: SEO Book
Check Date Rank URL Found

Apr 18, 2012 —- Position 41
Mar 28, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 26, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 23, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 22, 2012 —- Position 3
Mar 21, 2012  —- Position 8
Mar 20, 2012  —- Position 8

The people behind this activity think this attack example has been successful.

Dan was kind enough to leave a response in the comments…..

Hi Shaun. Unfortunately, this “test” hasn’t yielded anything yet. Two SERPs they claim to have moved are [SEO] and [SEO book]. For [SEO] I didn’t get any referrals (nearly zero) from this SERP until March 22, right after they started. Spiked all the way up to page 1 about 4 days in, held up for a few days, then dropped back down to a lower position. Probably higher than it was before still, since I am getting a handful of referrals per day now.

Verdict: Negative SEO Fail. Possibly the opposite of the intended result since I got traffic I never got before. Still am getting more.

For [SEO book] they drove it up from the middle of page 1 (5-9 is pretty normal, page 2 is not unusual) all the way to #2, then it dropped down to #3.

I moved the site from Rackspace Managed to Rackspace Cloud last week, because the old server literally could not handle the latest WordPress.

Unfortunately, theme I’ve been using since 2007 broke on the WP upgrade, and I had to deploy a new theme, more or less chosen at random because I was running out of time. Which changed run-of-site internal links from [SEO book] to [Home]. Last time I did that it dropped to page 4 within a week. In this case, it dropped to page 3.

It’s possible that the drop was not more dramatic, because the “negative SEO” linking is actually providing some ranking boost. Verdict: Inconclusive, but I will gladly take your even-money bets that it will be back on page 1 in a week or so.


How To Check For A Negative SEO Attack?

Tools like Majestic have a very useful historical backlinks graph (shown above) while not 100% accurate, that can help understand historical link building activity.

For most – the best place to check for an attack is in Google Webmaster Tools. Download recent backlinks from Google Webmaster Tools and review them and look for low-quality links pointing to your site.

NOT ALL low-quality links are spam, but if these are the links you are being judged on, are they doing you any good. You can also check at Majestic SEO for recent link patterns, because do remember, Google never shows you ALL the links pointing at your site.)

Google Webmaster Tools

You can now DOWNLOAD a sample of your BACKLINKS BY DATE in your GWT panel – which makes identifying who’s linking to you a bit easier. It might also be useful if you are cleaning up your backlink profile, too.

It looks useful on first play about with – the latest Hobo links are below – and considering I’m not building links of any kind at the moment and have not done so for years (or even blogging much if you are paying attention) I’m apparently still picking up lots and lots of organic, crappy links – as well as my low-quality attack links.

You can easily spot negative SEO posts, though, and who’s scraping and spamming Google with your URL:

My last 55+ links I’ve earned have been organic spam links, apparently….. No wonder Google gives little weight to most of the links pointing at your site…

Screen Shot 2012-07-18 at 01.47.04

Chances are Google will pollute this long term to take the real benefit of this away as per usual – i.e., – by rediscovering backlinks already in your profile. But – it is an interesting addition to Google Webmaster tools. It would be nice to know if the page your link was on was nofollowed, or the link was nofollowed – that would make it, even more, useful.

But then we wouldn’t have to build our own tools, would we.

A better addition to the DISAVOW links over at Bing for the moment, at any rate.

How I Stumbled On Attack

I actually stumbled upon a negative attack on the Hobo site a few months back:

Screen Shot 2012-05-02 at 02.28.56

I wouldn’t have known this quickly, but for looking at Technorati (a service no longer operational).


I disavowed the links by the way, with no apparent major impact.

Google Alerts isn’t that good for links alerts these days and the basic WordPress incoming links feature are pretty much useless, but using Google and searching it for your URL using date based filters can provide you with an indication of some types of spammy linkbuilding activity to your site.

Let me know if you’re using any other methods of discovery of negative SEO.


Send me an email if you want your backlinks manually reviewed, or have an unnatural links notice from Google. Costs will be dependent on your backlink profile. If you’ve lost Google traffic over the last year – this could be the sign of an algorithmic shift or penalty, based on an aspect of your links or site. I think we can expect Google to get more aggressive – end of summer is almost upon us. Contact us if you want a comprehensive SEO audit of your business site to look for risk AND opportunity.


If you know what you are doing, want to take this job on yourself, expect to review your links manually but you need a little direction to get started – try Kerboo (formerly Link Risk (Affiliate). I point out this tool as I have a great respect for the people behind it, their combined experience and technical ability.


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