Late yesterday afternoon, Google sent out another batch of “unnatural links” notices to many webmasters, via Google Webmaster Tools. If you have an email address associated with your Webmaster Tools account and your site was flagged, then you likely would have received an email. Another way to check to see if your site was flagged is to log into your Webmaster Tools account and check the “site health” messages.
While a webmaster could receive this message at any time, they appear to be sent in batches. The first notices were sent in July 2011, and the most recent large round was in March 2012 which triggered about 700,000 messages, before yesterday’s round. Here is what the email looks like:
So what is the “unnatural links” warning all about?
If you follow SEO much at all, you know that
building attracting links to your website helps signal to the search engines that your site is credible and of high quality. With this in mind, lots of webmasters, agencies and other parties are tempted to look for shortcut ways to build links to their sites without really “earning” them. But there is a problem – with billions of sites on the internet and trillions of links, the scale of the web is too great to manually determine what is a legitimate link versus a spam or manipulative link. As such, Google relies on algorithms and automated triggers to sort this out. Automation helps with scale, but it’s never going to be 100% accurate. Sometimes spam links don’t get caught and slip through the filters. Other times legitimate links are falsely flagged and may hurt a website that does not deserve to be hurt.
As a mid-sized internet marketing agency, we have the benefit of working with a wide range of businesses – who in turn own a wide range of websites. Each potential client that we speak with comes to us with a unique set of experiences, knowledge and objectives as it pertains to online marketing. In some cases, we’re the first agency our client has ever hired – and their hiring of us may signify their first serious commitment to internet marketing. In other cases, we might be the fourth or fifth agency they’ve hired.
When we work with a client who has had several agencies prior to hiring us, it’s a very different type of project then when our team is the first on the scene. This is especially true lately – as Google has gotten better at identifying spammy SEO tactics and either penalizing or devaluing them. While we applaud Google in their effort to clean up search spam, it does make for extra work as an agency when we may be taking over a client’s site that has a bit of a shady history.
It’s unfortunate but certainly very true that there are some shady agencies out there that believe in short cuts and don’t take the best long-term interests of their clients to heart. However, good agencies have the benefit of experience and are able to understand changes and trends quickly, as well as apply learnings from one project to another. There is much to be said for knowing 10 different ways to accomplish X, not just one way.
But short cuts are always the result of a bad agency or consultant. In fact, much of the “clean up work” our agency takes on for clients is the result of in-house efforts – either an in-house SEO person or webmaster, or in some cases a marketing manager or business owner who read a few blog posts about link building and got lured into using private blog networks or link farms without understanding the risks involved. Eventually their site drops in the rankings – either due to a penalty or devaluation – and they contact us to help fix the problem. While we appreciate the challenge of recovery SEO, we’d much prefer to focus our efforts on building great content and earning quality links than to have to focus on spam link removals.
So what should you do if you received one of these messages?
I think the first thing to understand is that these messages are sent in batches. So the message is really about your website’s total link profile and not necessarily that one link that pointed to your site yesterday.
The second thing to understand is that these messages – as well as the algorithms in general – appear to be getting more strict in recent months. I’ve seen sites that built spammy links years ago but then stopped – only attracting quality links more recently – still get hit with this warning email.
But with this in mind, these messages do warrant taking a close look at your inbound links – especially if you have a site that has been around for a while. What may have been considered “link building best practices” six or seven years ago is not necessarily the same today. When we take on a client where we suspect this may be an existing issue, we look at the following:
- anchor text
- sitewide links
- relevancy of links
- links on spammy networks or link farms
- interlinking multiple company websites
The words that make up the link to your website help signal to search engines that your website is related to those words. Building links with keywords in your anchor text has long been an effective SEO tactic. However, because it was so effective many SEO’s took this a bit too far. Ephricon is a bit guilty of this ourselves – when getting a link from a blogger or partner website we would often request certain anchor text. At the time, there was no guidance against this and it was effective. But in today’s post-Penguin world, having a natural link profile that is diverse, supplemented with a small amount of targeted anchor text is the best approach. Generally speaking, if you just build/attract links naturally this should take care of itself.
Sitewide links are when one website links to your site from every page. So you have 1,000 links coming in, but only 1 unique website (i.e. there are 1,000 pages on that site all linking to your site). This is most common with links in the footer or sidebar – such as a blogroll. While often times these links are legitimate in the sense that they are not intended to be manipulative, Google does seem to be particularly sensitive to these – especially if they contain keyword-rich anchor text. We advise taking an especially close look at these types of links since we’ve seen Google often mis-classify them as paid links or spam links. It’s unfortunate, but often we advise removing these links or changing them so that they are not sitewide.
Relevancy of Links
You can’t always control what sites link to your site, but you can control who you target with your content efforts. Take a look at your backlinks. A normal link profile will have a good portion of links from sites in related topics/niches as yours, as well as links from more general sites. If the vast majority of your links are from irrelevant sites, that’s a problem.
Links on Spammy Networks or Link Farms
In essence, any mass link building where the goal is “building links” without much thought to relevancy or quality is risky. Blog networks like Build My Rank and Linkvana, as well as most paid link brokers out there rely heavily on networks of blogs with generic and low-quality content, often on sites that don’t even have a common theme. These are often the services that are offered or promised in various “long sales letter” or “infomercial style” websites that cater to the make-money-online crowd. Avoid any involvement with these, and if your site already has links from these types of networks then do whatever you can to remove them.
Interlinking Many Company-Owned Websites
If your company owns multiple websites then there is often a legitimate reason to interlink your websites. However, this must be done carefully, as it can trigger a false positive to Google. Owning a few websites is generally not a problem. When we are talking about dozens or hundreds, it’s a problem. If this describes your business, first we would advise removing any sitewide interlinking and instead just linking from one page on each site. Second, we’d probably want to reconsider and see if indeed all of these are strong, legit websites of their own merit. If not, there is work to be done.
If you receive one of these Unnatural Links notices and you are actively building links that conflict with the above factors, stop that immediately. Then, turn your attention to your existing link profile. Attempt to remove all spammy links. Be advised that this is a very tough challenge though, and you’ll likely only have a 30-40% success rate. But remove what you can. Also consider removing sitewide links as well. Then give some thought to your anchor text. If 80% of your links have the same keyword-focused anchor text, then work on diversifying that by changing some of those links, while also working on building new links with more natural, varied anchor text (including your brand).