What is an Unnatural Link – According to Google

Every week there are more and more people receiving penalties from Google for unnatural links, and often these site owners were not aware that the links they were paying someone to build on their behalf were not acceptable in Google’s eyes.

In the past two years alone I have dealt with over thirty unnatural link penalties and from that experience of reconsideration request after reconsideration request it’s become obvious to see the types of links Google sends back as examples of unnatural links.

Whether you’ve received a penalty for unnatural links or you’re planning your next campaign it’s important that you understand what Google considers as a link scheme. Over time their guidelines have become a little less vague but they can still be open for interpretation.

link-schemes

In this post you will see some examples of links that Google has shown to be manipulative and part of the reason for a penalty being in place.

Buying or Selling Links that Pass PageRank

This is number one on the link scheme naughty list. Google just hates it when you buy and sell links and do not mark them as nofollow.

In the past, this was an efficient way to game the system, it was often hard to get caught but then Google got smarter and started seeing the same patterns again and again.

  • The most obvious paid links will use commercial anchor text
  • They will often be listed on pages under our sponsors/donors/advertisers
  • They are quite often site-wide with links in the sidebar or footer

The “grey area” comes if you might have sponsored an event, paid to join a professional organisation or donated to a local sports team. Of course many legitimate businesses will conduct these activities as part of their social responsibility and professional development schemes, therefore a few of these links in the grand scheme of things will not bring the whole wrath of the webspam team crashing down on you, it’s important to monitor the situation.

great-deals

Offering Free Products or Services in Exchange for a Link

For a time businesses got around directly compensating bloggers with cold hard cash and would give bloggers free products, to keep, for reviews or perhaps send them gift cards or coupons as a method of persuasion.

For a long time companies have sent free products to journalists for review, such as computer games, gadgets, clothes and often the cost of posting them back wasn’t worth the time and money. In the UK and US this is a perfectly acceptable practise should the blogger mention in their post that they got to keep the product or they were compensated for the review by other means – however Google wants the blogger to mark any links in the post as nofollow.

About 7 months ago I was working on a link removal campaign with a client who sent a number of free gifts to bloggers to promote the launch of a new range. Within the goodies bags was a card asking the blogger to write about the promotion and of course the bloggers did, en masse, they were so happy with their gifts they posted photos of them and couldn’t help to mention them too. This resulted in over 120 links to the page of the new product line as well as some links to their homepage too.

Whether this sudden growth in links was detected by Google or the company was reported by a competitor remains to be seen, but it ended up costing them a lot to deal with.

But this isn’t purely just about free products after all. RapGenius thought their “affiliate” scheme by offering social shares (services) for links would be a sneaky way around that.

Offering Free Products or Services

Of course this penalty wasn’t a big one in the grand scheme of things it did to get a lot of attention.

Advertorials/Sponsored Content

Advertorials worked for a long time. It was a good way to get a link from a newspaper website with a nice link back to a money page. A lot of newspaper websites were happy to publish them especially with the financial problems many have had in recent years due to the growth of the web it was easy money for them and they didn’t even have to write the content.

Of course if money is changing hands and the link is not necessary an editorially given one then the nofollow attribute should be applied.

The most well-known case in recent years was the Interflora penalty which lead to a blog post from Google reminding both publishers and businesses about making sure native advertisements do not contain followed links.

Advertorials Sponsored Content

Excessive Reciprocal Link exchanges

Before Google, exchanging links with other webmasters was quite a common occurrence. In those days the search engines didn’t count links as votes and so it was quite common to swap links with your buddy or a complimentary business in the same town, it just made sense.

Once webmasters caught on to the fact that Google could be gamed by rigging the voting contest people setup links pages and sent thousands of emails to anyone and everyone. People would write scripts to automate the link exchange process and delete your link should you remove theirs.

Once Google said that they would devalue the links of people who are linking to one another, then people started offering three-way linking schemes i.e. you link to me and in return I’ll link to you from my other website.

Again there is nothing wrong with a lawyer linking to his accountant friend who works a few doors down, the problem is simply one of intent and scale. A few links from links or resource type pages aren’t going to hurt you.

Excessive Reciprocal Link exchanges

Blog Networks

Sites such as Build My Rank were very popular with SEO’s prior to the first roll-out of Penguin. It was very cheap to obtain links from the sites in the network for as little as $2 and you had control over the anchor text ratios and which pages your links pointed to. The content was often spun and the sites had no clear theme they would post about fly fishing one minute and Payday loans the next.

Blog Networks

Links with commercial anchor text

Google doesn’t like the fact that people use keyword rich anchors with their links. As I mentioned before this is an alarm bell that the link is not editorially given because it’s very rare for a site owner to link out with keyword rich anchors without being prompted to do so.

Large-scale article marketing

“Fire up the Spinner we’re building article directory links today!” was the battle cry in SEO agencies across the world in 2009.

Everyone loved article marketing it was just so easy and cheap. You could turn one single 400 word post on the benefits of air conditioning into dozens of links on various article directories in minutes. SEO tool providers were falling over themselves to sell us the latest tool to help scale the process. And if you were really luck someone with an AdSense farm would scrape your content and publish it on their own site links and all – organic links!!

Again building a few links on article directories was never really frowned upon too much it was simply the fact that SEO’s saw it as an opportunity to build cheap links and to stuff those links with commercial anchor text…

Large-scale article marketing

Since 2011 and the birth of Panda many of these sites have disappeared from the SERPs, and existence after all if Google won’t send the article directory traffic there is no way for them to make money from advertisers.

ezinea

Scaled guest blogging

Some SEO’s have simply taken their article marketing techniques to a whole new level and applied them to guest posts.

I don’t need to hammer another nail in the proverbial guest blogging coffin, I think everyone with an SEO blog has done that so far. But just in case you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks Matt Cutts has said that guest blogging is dead. He then retracted his statement and said that guest blogging on high authority sites was ok(ish) but you shouldn’t be counting on those links helping you out.

Of course every SEO has hit back with their own interpretations of what this means but in the end it comes back to the old intent and scale arguments – after all Google comes down heavily on guest posts like these which use commercial anchors.

meet the author

about the author

Typically these guest posts:

  • are several paragraphs of text about 500 words in length.
  • the page has one or two outgoing links, usually from within the author bio
  • links use keyword rich anchors

Sitewide Footer Links

A common practise in the world of web design is to add a footer credit link to your design. After all you want potential customers to come and seek you out as they liked the website they were just looking at. Some designers would use commercial anchors in their footers and of course this then lead to people developing their own free WordPress themes and adding links to their money sites or their clients as seen in the recent Expedia penalty case.

about author

One of the earliest documented Penguin penalties was due to commercial anchor text being used in WordPress Theme footer links and lead to significant traffic drops for WPMU. Recently we handled a similar case where a client had excessive footer links with commercial anchor text and we are awaiting the next Penguin refresh to see what happens next as we have made significant changes.

Press Releases

Google clearly stated that links in press releases should be nofollow. Their reasoning for this is that Press Releases are advertisements, but the other reason is that SEO’s were using it as a scalable link building technique. It was very easy to submit a press release to hundreds of different wire services online and quite often commercial anchor text was used. Many of these press release sites were then automatically syndicated to Adsense farms and various other sources.

In July 2013 Google added press releases to their list of link schemes, this has subsequently lead to many press release sites now making all external links nofollow.

Widget Links

Google has been quite clear about the position regarding Widgets, especially widgets that link to commercial pages with keyword rich anchor text. A famous case of “Widgetbait” was by Matthew Inman in 2007. Inman built a number of embeddable quizzes for bloggers which linked back to his dating website with keyword rich anchors, of course these links embedded on hundreds of blog sidebars helped him rank for all sorts of lucrative online dating keywords. When his bosses acquired a Payday Loan company they used the same tactic again, which led to a big fall out with Google and press all over the world about sneaky SEO tricks.

In Google’s Link Schemes pages gives an example of a site traffic counter with a link to a car insurance page. In a 2012 webmaster video Matt said that links in widgets should be nofollow he reitereated that statement in 2013 with potential warnings regarding infographics too

Automated Link Building

A lot of SEO’s still use automated link building tools with a lot of success but they understand the risks of using them while most people do not. After all for just $5 you can buy a huge amount of links from Fiverr.

Automated Link Building

In the past couple of years I have seen lots of people who have had some form of automated link building carried out which has caused a manual penalty for unnatural links. It’s quite scary to think that for as little as $20 and a little naivety you can damage your site’s rankings and end up paying a small fortune to have it rectified.

Whether that is in the form of

  • Low Quality Directory Links
  • Excessive forum links
  • Large Scale Blog Commenting
  • Using a Multitude of Social Bookmarking sites

It is important to remember that any established website will have a number of unnatural links in their link profile and quite often it’s nothing to worry about but should the volumes of unnatural links outweigh the organically earned links you can be sure there will be problems ahead. All site owners need to take ownership of their link profile and understand the levels of risk their links currently carry.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

  • ChrisLDyson

    Businesses need to be smarter when it comes to link building – it’s marketing cheap SEO leveled the playing field but at the end of the day in all advertising/marketing those who can spend their budget the best way win. Business owners need to realise that there are risks involved with SEO, if a business owner wants quick results then you can ignore Google’s own set of rules but you have to understand that when they catch up with you your rankings are gone.

  • John S

    So then what exactly can one do for linking? Because I don’t see too much left to do other than PPC, and I’m not going there!

  • Akash Agarwal

    Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.