Unnatural Links: What They Are & What to Do About Them


Latest Google Penguin Update Sends Slew of Unnatural Link Warnings

In “a step towards transparency,” Google webmasters initiated a series of warnings to sites against spammy activity and sketchy, manipulative links better known as unnatural links. On July 19, a confusing link warning was sent to a large number of sites. Google’s Matt Cutts posted on his Google+ account soon after to address the SEO hysteria:

If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic. In the past, these messages were sent when we took action on a site as a whole … For example we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it’s not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.

Despite the internet storm the announcement caused among SEO’s, some marketers were left wondering, what exactly is an unnatural link? Generally, unnatural links are artificial links mainly intended to manipulate a page’s ranking. These can include purchased links or links created by scrapers and spammers that attach themselves to your site under the radar and potentially link your site to another in a bad neighborhood of the internet.

Unnatural links became a Google target after their Penguin update in mid-April of 2012. The algorithm update was established to penalize sites for low-quality links, over-optimized anchor text and keyword stuffing – all tactics that Google considers unfair and unbeneficial to users. As a result of the recent upgrade, all negative SEO and questionable page ranking tactics have been targeted, but at what cost?

Why Unnatural Links Are Harming Small Businesses

If Google is suspicious of a site they can take manual action, where a member of the support team manually delists the site from the search results. When a warning is sent out to a site it is given a time frame of about six months to alter and delete malignant unnatural links. The owners of the site are then urged to submit a reconsideration request. Without this request the site will reach its expiration date.

After a site is tagged for unnatural links their rankings on search engine pages will generally dramatic decrease, and this can have a drastic affect on small businesses that operate online. Small companies without SEO technicians to help the company’s products fall into the lap of the searcher and work to to dissolve unnatural links are then left at the mercy of dropping search results. Without this key lead generation channel, many small businesses are doomed.

Bloggers React to Unnatural Link Warnings

There has been a negative backlash from bloggers in the SEO realm against Google’s message. SEO’s have been hit hard as a result of the update because companies rely on them for rankings and traffic. Many marketers have been tweeting at Cutts for an improved update that would assist SEO instead of harming it.

Unnatural Links

Matt Cutts Addresses Link Warnings in Blog Post

On Friday afternoon, Cutts authored a post on the Webmaster Central blog explaining the warnings. He said that these messages indicate that Google is taking action on individual links, rather than the site as a whole:

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."

Cutts also defines what Google is identifying as "spammy or artificial links": "widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc."

What Can Small Business Do About Unnatural Links?

What affected businesses can do to improve their rankings on search engine pages and site traffic is to begin a detox of unnatural links from their individual sites. You can download your backlinks and sort by date to get an idea of what kind of recent link activity is attached to your site. 

It is particularly beneficial for businesses to utilize the Google Webmaster Guidelines located on the Google support page to distinguish what is profitable for page rankings and what will lower a site’s ranking.

For instance on Google’s support page they frown against most but not all purchased links – since all purchased links are unnatural. Google advises webmasters to include a "rel=nofollow" attribute on links purchased for advertising, so they know the link isn't intended to manipulate search results. Alternatively those links can be redirected to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.

Another way for companies to stay in Google's search results and good graces is to hire trained personnel to get unnatural links deleted, or, as an economically friendlier option, utilize sites such as deletebacklinks.com, linkdelete.com and removeem.com. These sites claim to specialize in assisting other sites that have run into trouble with unnatural links – but tread cautiously. You want to be very careful not to delete natural, beneficial links, because destroying your link profile could have an equally negative effect on your site’s rankings.

Last but not least, the best and preferred method is to build reputable backlinks. At WordStream, we believe that any given website is going to get hit by bad links. What's important is to have a steady stream of healthy backlinks from legitimate sources to balance out the ratio of bad links your website recieves. To do this, you will need to have a strong content strategy in place that continually impresses your site's visitors so they'll want to link to your website.

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Will E.
Jul 30, 2012

Great post.  Yes, those were very scary emails that Google sent out!

Jul 30, 2012

Thanks for teaching me about unnatural links!

Jul 30, 2012

Haven't received any e-mail from Google. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing (we can interpret it as us not having enough exposure). Still, this is a good post - a heads up to us. Thanks.

Jul 31, 2012

I haven't received any emails like that from Google team but hope not so, i'm scared if they woud delist my site without explanation

John A.
Aug 03, 2012

 Came across this post when doing a search for link removal services, I'm having a tough time deciding how to move forward. I found a few different services, two that are spoken highly of on the net and came across a post on Seroroundtable about them too. Linkdelete.com and then Removem.com - both seem good, I like the idea of removem but it seems that they are really just a tool to help manage the process? I am a business owner and don't want to be removing the links myself. I have better things to focus on. So that leads me to Linkdelete.com. I'm wondering if you have experience with them? It seems that they do everything for you and will work with you on deciding which links to remove.  I hired a bad seo company, well in hindsight, that built links on a lot of low quality link networks that got deindexed. Not to mention other bad links that I haven't a clue where they came from. From the looks of it they will contact the sites, manage the whole process and give me a final report that gets sent to Google.  So again, have you worked with these guys yet?  Thanks,John

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 03, 2012

Hi John,We haven't used any of the above services ourselves. We are doing our best to get any suspicious links deleted on our own. I sympathize with you -- if you don't have a dedicated SEO team to handle this stuff it can be a huge pain in the ass.I would use caution dealing with any of those companies -- I worry that link removal services are popping up to take advantage of people panicking. You don't want to end up losing real, valuable links!I would start by getting a link of your inbound links so you can invesigate which ones are likely to be raising red flags.Elisa

Aug 03, 2012

Great article. It's true that the Penguin update from Google can seem to do much more harm than good to the innocent and quality sites out there.But still, I don't believe the actual result of the update are as horrible as many say they are. By understanding Google's point, it's clear that they're meant to provide a better user experience to their millions of searchers out there. I'm using Google Search as my No.1 search engine and I don't have much to complain about. I think their updates are only making their entire system better as time goes by.

Joel Heim
Aug 03, 2012

This is a very informative article.  I really appreciate the information about Penguin and the recent warning letters.  For small businesses I do find link building as a game and these changes quite frankly make it even harder for us. Nevertheless, I also think it is a reminder that content is still king and the key to back links.  First off, you can have a direct influence on your website, by providing content for your readers that is worth sharing.  This is the most organic – and often the most productive – way to build backlinks.In addition to providing quality content on your site, you can also help the chances that your readers will share this content by making it easy for them to do so!  With social media widgets that make it easy to share your content through Digg, Twitter, facebook, Google Plus, and more, you will increase the likelihood of your readers sharing your content with others.

Aug 05, 2012

Thank you for the explenation about unnatural links! I heard about it but didn't know what it meant.

Nick Stamoulis
Aug 06, 2012

With the new algorithm updates you need to carefully monitor your backlinks.  If any of them appear to be spammy you could face a penalty.  It's a long, manual process but if you have any bad ones you should reach out to the website owners and request removal. 

Oct 11, 2012

Excellent stuff with wonderful information! I'm new here and loving the post! Thanks for sharing this great info!effective seo

Forum Posting Service
Nov 28, 2012

I also haven't received any email from Google but my site ranking was penalized in EMD update while my site is not related to EMD, the domai name is E07 so there is no keyword in that domain but yet my site was penalized, so I would say that Google penalizes those sites which are not doing natural link so unnatural link is main thing here and we should learn it well for better result.

Nicks Website Builders
Jan 05, 2013

I'm finding  the issue of un-natural links a rather un-enlightening and time-wasting activity Google is trying to impose on us by virtue of its virtual monopoly.By nature all SEO built links, including article marketing, directory submission and most comment links are designed primarily to gain links and to a large degree un-natural.They may add value to a site, but one wonders to what degree they would ever be created  and published if they did not add any value to the destination website.For the small business owner who has their hands full with their daily business activities and now because of Google Panda has to spend a huge amount of time creating large volumes of content if they hope to rank in Google, where is the time to detect  all the un-natural links and then send emails to google asking for them to be dis-avowed.  Should Google be asking for this?Google greatly overestimates the degree to which the average business ownera) wants to be involved in SEO as opposed to building their business andb) is even aware of these issues i.e. " download your backlinks and sort by date to get an idea of what kind of recent link activity is attached to your site."Your average website owner doesn't have a clue how to do this e.g. One of my clients wants me send monthly Google anaylytics stats even though they have full access to the data. Basically they are penalising people with no clue, for issues in which they may both be faultless and completely ignorant.Afterall, how many non-seo master, non-programmer and non-web designers have ever heard of webmaster tools, not to talk of knowing where to find and then understand how to use them!Thanks for the article though, it did clarify the issue.

D. Greene
Jan 13, 2013

Google is so unpredictable... as much as I like SEO it is just bad business to simply focus on one type of traffic for this reason alone.After all the updates it seems a little easier to deal with this unnatural link issue. Simply diversify your anchor text links and don't get too many links from one place or too quickly, especially for new websites. I make it a practice to go easy with link building for brand new domains. Get a few High PR links then consistent weekly links and social media links. It works great so far. 

Jan 28, 2013

I got an email from google and told me my site has unnatural links.  I am so confused as i didn't buy any links ,neither exchange links or others.  I do not know what's going on? what's the problem with my link buding? Hope someone can guide me. Great thanks!

Venture Enterprises
Jan 30, 2013

Hi KianaGreat post and thanks for helping to enlighten some people.I agree with most of what has been said, especially with the comments above,     a) most site owners are unaware of Webmaster tools, let alone know what to do with it    b) are unaware of links, let alone bad links    c) like most of us, if they knew where a 'bad link' came from and emailed that site, would the owner remove/answer/care?I know we all love Google, but I long for when there will there be a viable competitor to shake things up...Come on Bing, Ask, Yahoo et al!Good luck with link removal!Kind RegardsVenture Enterprises Ltd

Feb 20, 2013

Okay. Am one of those businesses that operates a local franchise with pretty much no control of our website.(corp. has that)Other than posting new photos with keyword-rich descriptionsand the ability to have a few of our local social sharing buttons we are at their mercy when it comes to seo, google rank, etc.I was thinking about purchasing a few "localized" urls that when clicked would land on our current url/site.i,e. (not our biz but) columbus-plumber.comIs this method called unnatural linking and a bad idea? Thanks!

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 20, 2013

I don't think buying multiple domains and interlinking them is technically the same as "buying links" but I suspect the SEO value would be minimal, and you'd be divvy-ing up your link equity among multiple sites. I think it would make more sense for you to focus on your local SEO and PPC options -- for example are you taking advantage of all the local options in Google+? Are you using geo-targeting and location extensions in AdWords?

Feb 20, 2013

We have a google+ local page but for some reason the map that's associated with it is wrong/shows a comletely wrong location.Have tried contacting google about it but never seems to get resolved.(when i'm talking about redirecting urls, this doesn't mean an actual site wquld be competing, i just thought the "keyword-type" url would come up higher when a local google search was done for our particular services)Oddly, another franchise (part of our corp) comes up higher in search even though i know that they aren't doing any organic or any online activity whatsover.Their google+ page lists our city, but their map is also in another. Odd. 

Elisa Gabbert
Feb 20, 2013

That is odd and may require some more in-depth troubleshooting.Buying multiple domains and setting up redirects to your main site DOES sound shady and Google would almost certainly frown on that.This isn't really my area -- I'd do a web search for SEO best practices for franchises and see what you can find.. Seems like a specific use case.

Sep 03, 2013

If I have a dating site 1 that links to site 2, if site 1 has 1000 members and I place the link on the footer, then does Google considers counting 1000 links, which are unnatural, am I right?

Google Sniper
Sep 30, 2013

Thanks for teaching me about unnatural links!  

SEO Expert
Oct 10, 2013

And only a few days ago they released Penguin 2.1 which apparently has had a bigger damaging effect. The simple solution is do the job properly!

Feb 13, 2014

I keep getting emails from SEO companies telling me I have unnatural links on my site that are negatively affecting them, but the links are not there. One was for a deer urine website.. I run a fashion site! The link is most definitely not there. Is there a scheme here? 

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