Summary: DON’T get involved with link buying schemes no matter how desperate you are to get your a website indexed/ranking well. Google warns that you will eventually get caught and punished for trying artificially boost your rankings by tricking their algorithms. They began sending out messages warning about unnatural link issues earlier this year and the second round has just hit.
I’m proud to say that we have never received the dreaded “Unnatural Links” warning message from Google Webmaster tools for ANY of our clients… unless you count former clients who left to pursue link buying schemes that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, but who’s WMT account we still have access to through our master account.
Let’s start with a little bit of background. Over the past couple of years our partner, iMarket Solutions, has experienced rapid growth. But back in 2010, they hadn’t yet built up their own team, so they still often contracted with Vermont Design Works for SEO, web development and online advertising services. This included claiming sites and submitting their sitemaps through our own Google WMT account. One of iMarket’s earlier clients had a staff member assigned to deal exclusively with their web presence, however she was being lured by all of the “get links quick” schemes she saw all over the web, and ignoring our advice about content creation. For the uninitiated, let me just state what is apparently still not known to everyone yet – DON’T BUY LINKS.
Note: Buying advertising space on other sites that link back to you is allowed, but these links should generally be nofollow links. The links you shouldn’t buy are from sites claiming “XXX links for only $99.99!” or whatever “offer” they’re promoting. Just to clarify – there is a distinction here.
Anyway, long story short, this one client picked up their ball and went home… and by ball I mean 2 websites, and by home I mean to blackhat webspam companies. It’s no secret that there are a lot of people out there who don’t comprehend the idiom “too good to be true”, but it’s disappointing when you see a client make a poor decision because a spammer promises them page 1 rankings within a certain time period. At VDW understand that SEO is a marathon, not a sprint, so we stick to whitehat tactics. By the end of this post, I suspect you’ll understand why.
The sad part about buying links is that it can often work until Google’s robots get suspicious, but when you’re caught there’s a good chance Google will punish you, leaving you worse off than if you were just starting from scratch. This seems to have been the case for this particular client. They left, bought their links and within months it was clear to any human observer that they had bought links (spammy links hidden in garbled and spun content on abandoned foreign blogs, etc.), and they ranked on page 1 for important keywords before Google caught them and sent the following Webmaster Tools messages for both sites on March 3, 2012 (click screenshot to enlarge):
Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.REDACTED.com/
March 3, 2012
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.REDACTED.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
The initial shock of receiving this message was quickly replaced by a healthy amount of schadenfreude once I realized that these were former clients who’s sites we had no control over. It wasn’t long before I saw their rankings take a pounding. On the positive side, not a single one of our other clients received a message like this. Basically Google’s algorithm got smarter and figured out what I as a human had observed upon reviewing this former client’s link profiles a few months after they left – links were nothing but webspam, and Google has adjusted rankings accordingly. Good – make way for legitimate Tampa air conditioning contractors who don’t try to game the system.
Matt Cutts on Unnatural Link Messages – 7/23/12
So if those spam messages and the de-ranking happened in March, why am I talking about this now? Because “Round 2″ hit Sunday/Monday. The first I heard about it was this tweet by Matt Cutts early Monday morning which was meant to calm fears after there was apparently some panic over the weekend when some webmasters started receiving these messages. Cutts links to his own Google+ post which explains that these are actually more mild warnings and may not require any direct action (emphasis mine):
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.
He goes on to explain that they’ve attempted to deal with the initial furor by clarifying the language used in these messages:
First off, we changed the messages themselves that we’ll send out to make it clear that for a specific incident “we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.” So anyone that gets a message going forward can tell what type of action has occurred.
The second change is that these messages won’t show the yellow caution sign in our webmaster console at http://google.com/webmasters/ like our other webspam notifications. This reflects the fact that these actions are much more targeted and don’t always require action by the site owner.
Unnatural Inbound Link Messages – 7/23/12
Then about midday I got 2 of these new messages, and again for those same 2 former clients, but not for a single current client site, of which there are several dozen (emphasis mine. click screenshot to enlarge.):
http://www.REDACTED.com/: Unnatural inbound links
July 23, 2012
We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
We don’t want to put any trust in links that are artificial or unnatural. We recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links are outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole. If you are able to remove any of the links, please submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.
If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.
Clearly today’s Google WMT message seems to be much more subdued than the messages that went out in March and I’m two minds about this whole thing. I can understand the panic many webmasters felt after the first, more dire messages, especially when you couple them with the Penguin updates that have hit throughout the year. I feel a little bit bad for individual business owners who unwittingly bought links. But I have less sympathy for those that were warned (see above) and SEO companies who engaged in these shady tactics to boost their clients’ rankings. At the same time, it’s got to be tough for SEO companies who sign new clients right as those clients are getting hit for link building schemes.
So I’m somewhat sympathetic to some webmasters who cried foul initially, but it almost looks like Google bowed to pressure (perhaps an overstatement, because no one can “pressure” them), by now saying people may not need to take any action. When I look at the inbound links of that former client mentioned above, it’s still nothing but webspam and they’ve made no effort to clean up their link profile. Why shouldn’t their new message from WMT remain as harsh and scary as the original? That’s the only thing that bugs me about this. I’m obviously citing isolated and anecdotal evidence, but I fear that Google seems to be backpedaling when most of us whitehat SEOs were generally excited to see the search results getting purged of webspam.
Perhaps I’m overthinking all of this and nothing has changed other than the language of the message, but the point remains – if Google detects definite webspam and you make no effort to rectify the issue, you’ll be punished. If it’s a random link here or there, hopefully human vetting by Google will result in limited impact to otherwise great websites that follow Google’s guidelines. Perhaps they’re trying to calm fears of the latter group by pulling back on the sense of urgency they previously conveyed.
The bottom line is if you’ve received one of these unnatural link messages from Google Webmaster Tools, you need to make a serious effort to clean up bad links and submit a reconsideration request ASAP. Google recognizes that people make mistakes and that some of these less than reputable sites may not care to take the time to remove links to you, so it would seem they just really want to see that you’re trying.
Hopefully the process of getting Google to ignore bad links will get a bit smoother when WMT launches the disavow bad inbound links. In the meantime Barry Schwartz points to a Webmaster Help thread where Googler John Mueller explains what you can do if you’re absolutely desperate to get a link ignored right away.
For additional commentary on these new Google Webmaster Tools unnatural link notices, check out Ruth Burr’s post from yesterday on the SEOMoz Blog. I especially recommend that post because it includes an update on a challenge Rand Fishkin made to blackhatters who had claimed success with negative SEO against competitors.
We’ll talk more about how to attract legitimate natural links in future posts, but one of the simplest ways boils down to creating useful and interesting content that people will want to link to. It’s never surprising to us when we hear clients say that they just don’t have time to add new content to their site, blog, etc. Unfortunately, with the nature of the modern internet and how Google determines relevancy, that excuse doesn’t cut it anymore. Contact us today if you understand the value of content curation but you’re still struggling to come up with your content plan. We’re happy to help.
After publishing this post I went a-googlin’ to see how others were reacting to the new unnatural link messages and found that two of my favorite SEO bloggers had a lot to say on the matter. First, Danny Sullivan ranted about the “insanity” of Google’s war on bad links last Friday when apparently WMT sent out a round of messages that were identical to the ones sent in March. Odd that our former client didn’t receive these at all given that their link profile is full of nothing but webspam, but I digress. Yesterday, after the messages with updated language went out, Sullivan posted again. More breathlessly than me, he highlighted how Google seems hell bent on causing mass confusion when it comes to management of bad links. My key takeaway (emphasis mine):
Penalty Or New Way Of Counting Votes?
This is why Google has begun saying that Penguin isn’t a penalty but rather just an algorithmic change, where the algorithm is detecting what it considered bogus votes and not counting them. If you were a site with a lot of bogus votes, then you’re going to be hit harder than sites that have only a few of them among all the legitimate ones.
That’s also why Google hasn’t advised people to do reconsideration requests, if they were hit by Penguin. There was no manual action that could be removed. In other words, Penguin didn’t ban them from being in the election. It just didn’t count bad votes.
Confusingly, however, Google did advise people to clean up bad links. That suggests that Penguin does more than just discount bad votes. It clearly must somehow penalize sites that seem to have a lot of bad links. Otherwise, there would be no reason to advise removing bad links.
Nailed it! I’ll be interested to hear if Cutts has any response. While we wait, I recommend checking out Barry Schwartz’s post as well. Schwartz also decries all of the confusion Google is causing with these messages (to act or not, penalty vs. ignored links, etc.). Referring back to Sullivan’s Friday post, Schwartz says:
Danny Sullivan blew up and called this insanity and he is right. It caused a major scare amongst SEOs, webmasters and those who owned web sites, never bought a link in their life, didn’t even know what link buying was and got this severe notification that read, “our opinion of your entire site is affected.”
I guess this point is a little more surprising to me if this is really that widespread of a problem. Given that none of our client sites received these messages, and even the former client only got the new toned down version, it seemed to me that most sites that operate above board wouldn’t receive these messages. I’ll be interested to see how this continues to unfold. Who wants to bet more messages that only muddy the waters even further will be sent before the end of the year?