The most impressive change that Google unveiled last year was the penalty imposed for unnatural links. In the first two months of the year alone, about 700,000 messages were sent to notify webmasters by means of Webmaster Tools.
No doubt that was a grand happening, all the more that it followed on the heels of the whopping number of the messages that were sent in 2011. In terms of number, that was comparable to the total number of messages ever having been sent since Google’s Webmaster Tools message center was launched.
That brought the topic of how to recover from unnatural link penalties, and how it differs from that of Penguin and a bunch of other penalties. The definitive guide that follows below will hopefully provide the answers to a number of frequently occurring questions.
The Definition of an Unnatural Link
Although most webmasters think they have the same idea of what the definition of an unnatural link is, in fact the idea is not as clear as it seems to be comprehensible to everyone in the same manner. Webmasters typically have no such strict ideas of the concept of unnatural links as the ones that Google lays down in its guidelines. To quote Google:
To comment on the above, we should explore the meaning of what links that manipulate website rankings in the search results of Google means. Because it is universally known that linkbuilding is employed to achieve better search rankings, should we always understand the process of creating links manipulation? It is the very obscurity of the definition from which the interpretation of manipulation stems. The scope of manipulation comprises not only cheating webmasters but also manipulating by means of creating text for example.
Fortunately, Google provides some specific guidelines in the form of examples, and here is a brief list of such examples:
- The practice of both selling and buying “do-follow” type links. Here belong not only clear cut purchasing, but also the exchange of various goods and services as well as the offering of free products to obtain links or posts that contain links in them.
- The practice of overexchanging of links, with the sole aim of boosting website rankings.
- The practice of linking to “spammy” websites or to sites that are unrelated in theme, to be able to manipulate PageRank
- The building of pages or of whole websites with the sole aim of building links
- Automated activities performed in order to build links
Here are some specific examples:
- Text link ads which are not of the no-follow type. Amazon does not belong there, so its affiliates could wish to pursue no-following of links
- Links that are simply tossed inside articles, in an incoherent manner
- Links that are provided from inferior quality directories and by virtue of bookmarking
- Links that are contained inside widgets peppered around the web
- Excessive numbers of footer links
- Various forum comments which contain optimized links inside the signatures
Webmasters can also provide other common examples by delving into their own experience, such as:
- Links provided from websites built with the specific aim of boosting SEO by means of links
- Links that come from unrelated, not relevant websites
- Sitewide links, particularly when they are optimized with respect to keywords, not with respect to branding
- Links that come from blogging networks
- Links provided from blogrolls
- Links that come from websites controlled by the webmaster
- Links provided thanks to article directories, and also by spun content and spam comments
But in practice, as it should be kept in mind, Google regards any link whatsoever which is built to manipulate rankings to be a part of link scheming. Thus the manual building of links is not favored by Google. There is a simple rule of thumb which can help to decide whether the building of a link is worth the while. If the link would not be worth building if it were of the no-follow type, then building it would be tantamount to manipulation.
Penalty Nature – Unnatural Link Penalty Indeed?
As distinct from the majority of algorithmic penalties, with unnatural link penalties it is easy to pinpoint cases in which they are imposed.If Webmaster Tools has been set up at the time of the penalty hitting, Google should send specific messages delivering warning.
And if there is no message on part of Google, and Webmaster Tools has been set up at the time of the hitting and deterioration of rankings, then it is not an unnatural link penalty. That is an important rule, because when a penalty is identified incorrectly, the process of making efforts to achieve recovery will go in the wrong direction. Hence the mistakes made by clients that have been hit, and even by numerous consultants, on account of not differentiating between indirect and direct types of penalties. When webmasters find out a site has not suffered from an unnatural link penalty, they should consult the following penalty guide outlining more details.
In cases when the Webmaster Tools was not set up at the time when the specific site plummeted in rankings, the setting up should be done before long. Here is a guide on how to achieve the setting up. Afterwards, the next step is to submit a reconsideration request. In the event that the penalty was on account of unnatural links, the response will come soon and will be similar or even the same as the message quoted above.
Drawing up reconsideration requests in the proper manner is essential, as they are read by humans and should clearly demonstrate to Google that sufficient efforts have been made to remedy the issues that may have triggered the penalty.
Let us remind here that the purpose of reconsideration requests is specially for manual penalties. As for unnatural link penalties, they are somewhere between the main algorithm and manual penalties. For example, the reasons why about 700,000 messages of penalizing were sent cannot fail to involve algorithmic activity of some kind. But unnatural link penalties should be regarded and treated like manual penalties are, and assume that the penalties were inflicted because Google experts reviewed the specific sites and imposed manual penalties. So there should be no tricks as a way out when reconsideration requests are sent, as they are going to be read by human beings.
Let us revert to the discussion above and to the problem of not having Webmaster Tools installed at the time when the loss of rankings took place. Then the identification of the reason for the penalty is bound to be more difficult. But there is the absolute minimum which is a must to establish, whether the penalty was link based indeed, rather than based on an algorithm of the Panda type. That is important in order to be able to do a great deal of link removal before the reconsideration request is sent.
The Process of Establishing Which Links Are Unnatural
After it has been established that the reason for the penalty was the presence of unnatural links, the solution should be to seek out and identify the culprits and start action to remove them. Taking care is essential when doing that, because most links do not lend a negative value to websites, and there is a hazard involved in removing too many links – that will have a negative impact on the ranking. Natural links must never be removed, although they may be of not very high quality. The only links to be removed are the links built by the webmaster, or, more rarely, the links that were evidently built to harm the website rankings. Here the advice by Google’s web spam team head, Matt Cutts, provided in video form and dwelling on how to seek out unnatural links, can help, and there is more in depth advice below:
How to Analyze Inbound Links In Depth
For the analysis, the use of the dedicated tools is mandatory. Below is a list of tools that can be used in the analysis of website link profile:
- Webmaster Tools. In Google’s Webmaster Tools menu, choose Traffic, then Links to Your Site. Then you can choose to click on any of the sites listed in Who links the most, then click the button saying Download latest links. The displayed links will be all links which are allowed to be kept on record by Google, albeit the number of links on servers will be larger.
- Open Site Explorer. It is efficient for exploring the specific website link profile, which has been sorted in compliance with comprehensive metrics, not just according to date.
- Majestic SEO. A counterpart of Open Site Explorer, with a useful guide on the investigation of unnatural links
- Ahrefs. Yet another counterpart and alternative tool to Open Site Explorer whose greatest advantage is the ability to provide time charting of links in the course of their being acquired.
For websites that have already built some authority, it is an impossible task to go through each and every link acquired, and instead webmasters should devote their efforts in two directions. First, they should identify overoptimized keywords, and next they should find out sitewide links. For the first purpose, Open Site Explorer is just the tool, and for the second purpose, Ahrefs does an efficient job.
The identifying unnatural links
The process of identifying has already been dwelt on in the first section. Not each link using specific anchor text should be explored and then removed. What is imperative is to inspect links that contain over optimized text, and then find out which of them look to be manipulative; sometimes it can turn out that all those links seem to be built with manipulative purposes.
The fact that links exist on high Page Rank websites is not tantamount to their seeming natural to Google. The time tested and simple criterion to abide by is to reason if the webmaster would retain the link if it were a nofollow one. Provided a link does not bring useful referral traffic, and unless it helps to boost branding, and thirdly if there is some reason why it seems manipulative, the safest step is to remove it.
There can be another approach to helping decide if a link should be removed: on the basis of the answer to the question of whether the link can be justified to Google with respect to its being worth keeping. That approach is in fact what webmasters have to do when they submit their reconsideration requests – because such requests are reviewed manually.
It can be rather time consuming to judge links to find out unnatural ones. When webmasters get too persnickety about that and even remove lower quality links which are natural, that does not help the situation. The same applies to other cases when webmasters decide to keep their high rankings at all costs, by trying to slip some of their high Page Rank links to escape Google. To avoid complicating matters in these ways, hiring a consultant proficient in link cleaning can facilitate the task immensely.
Including unnatural links within spreadsheets
On being identified, unnatural links should be included into spreadsheets. Later these spreadsheets can be useful when it becomes necessary to contact webmasters and ask them to remove these links, or when the disavow tool should be used.
Is it Mandatory to Remove Unnatural Link
When a website has been hit by a direct penalty on account of unnatural links, those links should br removed at all costs. There can indeed be cases in which despite penalties some links do not need to be removed – cases of indirect penalties or Panda-style penalties. But when the question goes of direct Penguin penalties and of unnatural link penalties, keeping such culprit links is out of the question, especially if there are notifications sent in Webmaster Tools regarding unnatural links. Below is a message Google dispatches when following the submission of reconsideration requests it deems efforts made unsatisfactory:
Being honest and making the proper effort is the approach to follow, otherwise the penalty will be there to stay as long as the unnatural links concerned continue to be present.
The Way of Removing Unnatural Links
It is a really hard task to remove unnatural links, for the reason that webmasters do not have control over them. There are several ways of dealing with the task:
Remove linked pages concerned
Despite the fact that webmasters do not have the control of pages that link to their websites, they have control of the pages which are linked to from their websites. So when they find out that some pages on their sites have only former rankings on account of unnatural links, they can simply remove such pages to deal with the problem. As John Mueller from Google suggested, 404-ing such pages is OK to help disavowing all the links that point to them.
Another solution can be page relocation, or when needed a whole subdirectory relocation, when webmasters deem that the links are detrimental but the content has high quality. However, to avoid problems persisting, original URLs have to return the 404 message, and offer no redirecting.
That method can be an efficient solution for website homepages when Google has sent messages in Webmaster Tools warning of unnatural links.
Removing the Links Over Which Webmasters Have Control
In the event that webmasters have built their link networks, or they have established websites for the sole purpose of building links from them, such cases should be taken down.
In the event that links have been provided from directories, or from web 2.0 properties which are under the direct control of webmasters, it is time to edit such cases to remove the links coming from them.
Yet another must is to contact other webmasters involved to ask them to help and remove as many links as they can. When there are a huge number of such links, the template type email should be composed to be sent to as many webmasters involved as possible. Webmasters working on the contacting should strive to point their messages directly regarding the specific pages, to facilitate the task for the recipients who will help to remove unnatural links.
Link Removal by Using Tools
To consolidate success in the link removal efforts, there is a short list of tools which can facilitate matters really a lot:
Link Removal Using the Google Disavow Links Tool
The Google Disavow Links tool was released in October 2012. Its efficiency consists in the fact that it enables webmasters to explicitly inform Google which links should be ignored. The usefulness of the tool is doubtless, provided it is not used too meticulously. It is advisable for webmasters to get some background information first, and there are a couple of more tips that are useful in addition:
- When should the tool be used: It is advisable to use it only as the last resort, in the event that other efforts have failed, but there is still a hefty number of unnatural links that cannot be removed – then the tool can be used to inform Google to treat such links as nofollow ones. But it should be noted that Google will do so only after it has received sufficient proof that all other efforts to remove them have been in vain.
- Is it a serious error to remove too many links: Better safe with more links removed than regret that the reconsideration request has been turned down – then there will be another long period of waiting until another reconsideration request can be sent.
- Disavowing whole domains: There can be blackhat type links from a website, but that does not mean that all the links from their website are equally unnatural. Domains can provide both good and bad links. However, with domains such as wordpress.com or blogspot.com, for example, there can be cases of all round unnatural links.
- The disavow file should be copied into Google Docs; then it should be made public for all those who have the specific URL. When the reconsideration request is due to be sent, there should be linking to the file included, as Google only recognizes Google Docs format.
The Final Tips for Professionals
These tips can further help for the faster recovery from penalties:
- After it has been established the penalty has targeted unnatural links, webmasters should identify the pages that are the gravest culprits for that. In the event that they turn out to be internal pages, the solution is to 404 them immediately.
- When it is not certain which pages exactly are the culprits, the starting point should be the websites which only link to the specific site homepage: these are the most likely spam type sites.
- What is the most urgent task is to remove the sitewide links, the paid links, and the links provide from spun content or from duplicate content.
- When the reconsideration request is composed, all the efforts should be listed and it should be pointed out what measures have been taken to prevent the situation from recurring. Apologizing is indispensable.
The final words
Much as tough penalties on account of unnatural links are, the good side is that there is no ambiguity here, like there is with algorithmic penalties imposed by Penguin and Panda. So the measures to be taken are clear: the culprit links have to be found out and removed. The first ones to be dealt with are the links of sitewide type, and those that are obviously detrimental, then the other suspects can be worked on in descending order. To prevent penalties from recurring in the future, the manner of doing business should be changed, to comprise more work on branding and relationship, and vast traffic as a result.