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Unnatural Links & Techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines

unnatural links shown by broken chainSince early 2011 site owners have been receiving messages in Google Webmaster Tools detailing that their site has been identified as partaking in link schemes or as having artificial or unnatural links and as a result of this, they have been removed from or heavily penalised in the organic search results.

From the buzz it would seem that in preparation for the promised over optimisation penalty and in tandem with the increased actions towards known Blog networks and linking schemes that there has been an upturn in these messages over the previous week or so.

The message itself goes something like this:

Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.yoursite.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.

What to do if you have had this message?

If you have had this message and lost most of your organic search traffic then my heart goes out to you. For small business owners, this can be a scary time, for marketing managers and internal SEO’s, this can be horrifying but it’s time to face up to some hard facts and start to put things straight and get back into the organic search results.

The remainder of the message itself provides clues as to what you need to do to get out of this situation:

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.

Simply put,  they want you to tell them about AND remove any unnatural links. If you absolutely can’t remove them, then you need to provide details of all links AND why you can’t remove them.

Good Links, Bad Links

In most cases, it is fairly straightforward what has happened and triggered this message: Google has identified some bad links pointing to your site from a link scheme or some other paid link intended purely to manipulate search results and increase your ranking and has given you a slap across the wrist.

Don’t sit on this and hope that it will get better, it won’t. To get out of this you need to contact Google and completely fess up to what you have done. You need to cease all involvement with all any link schemes. You need to get reports on the bad links from anyone who has done any link building for you and you need to remove any links that you can. You then need to package this all up showing everything you have done to make this better and a complete list of all the links that you can’t remove in your reconsideration request. You may also want to provide details of sites you have contacted and asked to take the  link down along with any other ongoing efforts to clean up your link profile.

In my experience, if you show a real willingness and effort on your part to remove the problems and detail everything that you have done, they will be a lot more accommodating.

It wasn’t me sir

The temptation here is to either deny any involvement in any such schemes OR go with a ‘but we did not know that was against the rules’ approach first. Well bucko, save that for your boss as that is not going to work with sheriff Google.

If you are responsible for your website then you have to arm yourself with a knowledge of the rules of acceptable SEO. Simply claiming that you did not know it was illegal to build these sort of links (or drive at 100 miles an hour when drunk) is just not going to cut it.

30, 60, 90 Days

If you search around you will see mention of 30, 60 and 90 day penalties yet I would strongly encourage you to expect to just bounce back after a short time period. Firstly, you need to get reconsidered, secondly, if the bulk of your link portfolio is based on these kind of links, well, you may have just seen a huge chunk of them deindexed so your natural rank is going to fall as well. Finally, I have seen sites that never made it back so don’t tell white lies and don’t rest on your  laurels waiting for this to get better. Every lie you tell in your reconsideration request just reduces your chances of getting this resolved.

Do the right thing

Something else you can do to improve your chances is to demonstrate an understanding of what google wants. Start investing in good content, show them you are not just chasing the algorithm, start improving your site for users and adding new features and content that you can detail in your reconsideration request that shows you are now trying to be a constructive and valued member of the organic search result community and not another pest trying to buy their way to the top.

Reconsidering Reconsideration

So, the ideal reconsideration request will include the following:

  1. An honest breakdown of what you were doing
  2. Comprehensive details of what you have done to put this right
  3. Detailed listings of everything you were unable to put right
  4. Overview of your plans to do things the right way
Ultimately, you need to show that you accept that you have made a mistake, understand the error of your ways, have made considerable efforts to undo or put right the problems and detailed reports of anything you have been unable to put right (and why).
Ultimately that you have made an effort to put things right and that you are now going to play fair. If you skimp on your reconsideration request, what  does that  say about the efforts you have made to put things right?

It’s Google’s Ball

Google has taken a lot of flack over their search results and as such is trying to clean up their act and the only way they can do this is to punish people who are abusing the system. Unfortunately, in big money topics, almost everyone is abusing the system so there are going to be some smaller organisations who get caught out whilst they were learning the ropes and trying to compete. This kind of sucks, the system is not perfect and it’s far from fair, but now, more than ever, website owners and marketing managers have to play the long game with organic search and have to play by the rules or be prepared to deal with the consequences.

So, if you are doing bad things, and don’t want to get these kind of problems, pull out of any link schemes and start to do things the right way. If you have been penalised, then own up and start doing things the right way right now.

Organic Limbo

If you have a penalty,  and don’t want to sit refreshing your search results for months on end, use your time constructively to review your Internet Marketing strategy. Make sure you have more than one stream of traffic for your site, ensure your strategies are going to build a solid and worthwhile base and should you lose one stream of traffic, the sky will not fall in. It is probably time to start looking at some PPC and content driven SEO strategies to build some good, honest ranking.

SEO needs some faith to be done well: Faith that Google will catch up with the cheaters and faith that your investment will come good – which it will.

Rise from the ashes

This may seem like the end of the world now, but it is your job to make sure that is not so. Take what you learn now and use it to forge a rock solid Internet Marketing and SEO strategy going forward that is not built on such shaky ground. There are myriad opportunities to market your business online and organic search is just one part of the picture so your time can be spent constructively whilst you dig yourself out of the pit you have fallen into. There are no mistakes, only lessons and you have just learnt a hard lesson the hard way so be sure to learn and move forwards and not repeat the same mistakes again.

If you have any questions drop a comment below or give me a shout on Twitter. If you would like any help putting together a well crafted reconsideration request or a safe and effective Internet Marketing plan then get in touch.

Update: There is  a post over at Search Engine Land that claims that whilst Google has shut down a few more Blog networks they are not getting more aggressive and it is actually an effort to communicate better with webmasters. I am not 100% sure I believe that, it sounds like some spin on the ‘we just shot your website out of the sky’ approach they are taking with people using blog networks. Still, communication is a good thing, it’s one thing to lose your rankings, and another to have no idea at all why.

Marcus Miller

I am an SEO Consultant based in Birmingham UK and with clients all over the world. I have been working in and around search for 15 years and currently focus on SEO Consulting, Website Consulting, Local SEO and Technical SEO Audits.

Comments (2)

  • comment_avatar

    Doug

    |

    Hey Marcus great post.

    Perhaps I should be be upfront with every client as we get them in.
    Yes sir, please sign the dotted line….. Good…
    Right! First thing we need to do is to “report you” & get your site banned from Google.
    Come clean, tell them you worked with some other bad guys then we can work getting it back into rankings from there?
    Sound Good?
    Awesome!

    Suppose it’s better than what happens now.

    Clean-up cleanup and hope that Google does not notice until it’s all sorted.

    I always feel a bit loathed to go out and say sorry Google editors on behalf of clients when I have done no wrong.

    As an SEO company we often inherit “issues that need cleaning up” however I’m not certain I like the association of being that cleanup guy in Googles view.

    When I look at the links that are now seemingly to be causing this reaction from Google we are talking about those $50 link deals on high OBL pages that someone blindly bought at some point in the companies history. Perhaps they looked like squeaky clean and were legit links, who knows?

    P harm a next to casion next to norp next to weight loss, on dropped, flipped high PR domains and client site right in the middle is what I think Google sees at “black hat” page rank steering. Unrelated posts on high PR flipped domains are also a bit suspect.

    I see all these other posts in this issue ranting about blog networks being the root of all evil, perhaps but what im seeing is these dirty link exchanges.

    So what do you do sitting with a well known brand that has a mostly clean profile and some historical bad links. Please Google please include us, Im sorry I promise it was not us? (I dont even believe myself there).

    Reply

    • comment_avatar

      Marcus Miller

      |

      Hey Doug, yeah, it kind of sucks, and as Google tries to usher in SEO 2.0 they need to show some lenience, get the bloody algorithm working to disallow these obviously fraking bought links, fire some warning shots out, get some good honest FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) going and try to only look at the signals that actually mean something.

      It’s funny, or not, but in so many sectors, the winners are still the ones playing these bullshit games and trying to convince people to invest in content and some good honest linkable assets is like punching yourself in the face!

      I am trying to pull a few new sites up in highly competitive sectors where the competition is like 10,000 links from 1000 sites with 99% of that being purchased links (mostly OBL style) but some garbage articles about as far off topic as possible on the hosted domain.

      Bring on the over optimisation penalty, lets make the ground shake around here and maybe people will start to listen up!

      Still, I hear you on the clean up thing, it kind of sucks, and picking up a site that is either on the verge or has just lost loads of bad links is a fairly thankless task.

      Clients, have faith, the good guys walk the honest and more stable path to ranking and success. Avoid the dark side, it is easier, more seductive…. you get the picture!

      Reply

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