Unnatural Link warnings, Conspiracy theory?

by Neil Walker
Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency
See Dave Speak SMX London

 Welcome to Neil Walker who has written this guest post for the David Naylor site….

The SEO World has had its biggest shake up in years in 2012, for as long as I have been involved with Search (ten years plus) Google always said: "Build great content and we will do the rest". Of course the reams of SEO's over the years said make sure you build natural anchor text and only use what was called "white hat" methods of link building, but even the term "white hat" is muddied these days with what is now SEO and in practice the other methods worked so much better and for me until 2012 have never really posed a problem but I will leave the debate of what is white hat/black hat today it has been covered enough, my personal opinion is as SEO's we manipulate full stop.

So from my perspective when I first got involved with Search I like most SEO's learnt from experience so I had a handful of my own sites where I tried all sorts of tactics, hidden text, over optimised text/images, duplicate text with subtle keyword changes, buying vast quantity of poor quality links, buying small quantities of high quality links, gaining links more naturally through PR or traditional prospecting/outreach and of course content driven links and link bait. I witnessed back in 2007/8 the over optimisation of anchor text finally mean something when sites that ranked top 10 for big keywords fell to pages 2,3 and beyond. Of course the first tactic was to "build more stronger links"  which inevitably only pushed your result further down the SERP's. This to me was the first time I saw Google actually getting to grips or putting a focus on SEO manipulation. They had of course carried out other changes and the advantage of being across the water from America is that we are not so much in the spotlight of Mr Cutts and Friends, but the above was the first that affected me and my clients directly after 6-7 years. As Search engine evolved so did our tactics to manipulate their listings to get over the above in the past I did one of the following in various cases:

  • Simply dilute the link profile (Took a long time but eventually worked)
  • Change the URL being optimised (Moved towards an inner page for a chosen keyword)
  • 301 redirected the domain (Instant wins)

The next major update was Panda, now I didn't see as much of an affect from this, I'd encouraged unique content to be written for years and so when Google clamped down on content with the panda updates the majority of the clients I dealt with were untouched. However 2012 has been the big change because it seems Google took its intentions with Panda on improving content to improve links.

So firstly let's set some so called facts!

So firstly let's set some facts; I used to always love this article from 2009 on Dealing with low-quality backlinks and quote:

"many site owners are trying to build a good reputation for their sites, and some believe that having poor-quality incoming links can be perceived as “being part of a bad neighbourhood,” which over time might harm their site’s ranking. If your site receives links that look similarly dodgy, don’t be alarmed… read on! While it’s true that linking is a significant factor in Google’s ranking algorithms, it’s just one of many." Or "keep in mind that low-quality links rarely stand the test of time, and may disappear from our link graph relatively quickly. They may even already be being discounted by our algorithms. If you want to make sure Google knows about these links and is valuing them appropriately, feel free to bring them to our attention using either our spam report or our paid links report."
Posted by Kaspar Szymanski, Search Quality Strategist, Dublin & Susan Moskwa, Webmaster Trends Analyst, Kirkland
Friday, October 16, 2009 at 4:53 PM

This was key that Google would in essence devalue bad links against your site as appose to place a penalty as this would open up the world to "negative SEO", this was a safe bet for SEO in my eyes, as I never used FFA links or blatant farms which were picked up by Google back in 2003 and beyond, so this meant that as I advised clients what we did and the risks but they were confident that Google wasn't suddenly going to change the rules, well it did.

So what’s changed?

We'll Google started to send messages out to website owners through GWT advising them that they had "unnatural links", this initial tactic scared SEO's to start revealing what links they had paid for and built, this started at in 2011, Google then put this into overdrive in 2012:

(The graph above is an accumulation of Agency messages by volume "Numbers have been removed)

  • Thank you for everyone's data, you know who you are but my apologies if I didn't link to you for gratification

So around march 18-22nd 2012 the SEO community went "uh oh!" and then came the onslaught; the community caught on to the fact that Google changed the wording on the possibility of negative SEO:

In 2007:

There's almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you're concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don't control the content of these pages.

2012:

Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you're concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don't control the content of these pages.

They key change in messaging means that link can now potentially harm your site, for me taking away the negative SEO aspect this is not something that new, in extreme cases we have seen negative SEO or the phrase "Blue hat" many years ago, but does this change the way people build links. It is common for an SEO to look at a website competitors links and then place content and incentivise to the site to gain a link for their website, SEO's need to tread carefully in this area.

 Some Clarity

Firstly let's make things clear:

  • Receiving a "Unnatural links" message from Google and being affected by Penguin are two different things, Penguin is an algorithmic change about over optimisation if you didn't receive a message and lost ranking you need to take a look at your entire SEO, from links to technical.
  • The next is we all caught on to the number 700,000 link warnings were sent out, this is not actually true according to Matt Cutts in a presentation at SMX Advanced in Seattle only 3% of this 700,000K were  link warnings the rest were a combination of the other messages such as "traffic change" "Wordpress updates" etc. so this means potentially only approx. 21,000 messages were sent out!!

So what's the Conspiracy theory?

So above I've presented official statements from Google. Now I've had the pleasure of meeting a lot of SEO's and talking with them about the message from Google but I simply don't know every SEO in the world and from the number of message I'm aware of that would constitute to a reasonable percentage of the figure Matt presented, so how accurate is that. But in terms of conspiracy theory I think the best analogy I can give you is from @fantomaster at SASCON where he described the scenario of the messages like the Gestapo. In essence Google has sent out thousands of warnings to bait SEO's.

As a community we have then simply divided; everyone has run for cover, the outing started, then as a community we have simply sent Google lists and list of links we think might be bad, not a bad tactic if you want to reveal more networks or other sources of links.

So what's the Problem, I hear the self-proclaimed white hats say?

Think about that nice bit of outreach you did, or the link bait you did which encouraged that site to link to you and then "oh", someone just included that site in their reinclusion request, doesn't look so white anymore… That site may stand the manual review, something which as someone who has run networks and still does I like.

So I received a message what should I do?

The key here is there are a lot of different messages but which one did you receive?

Below you can see the main message the community is talking about "Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.yoursite.com/"

So what's gone on?

I have seen and am aware of a number of these messages through personal sites, people I network with or one form or another and the community each has a different opinion; but this is what I have seen:

  • This is what I get overall from my detailed talks with other industry professionals, you may have your own opinion but the data I gathered was enough to advise what has happened after a site has received a message more than 70 days ago:
    • 50% of sites had no affect at all in rankings
    • 20% of sites had small drop on specific keyword phrases
    • 20% had big drops on specific phrases
    • 10% had complete fall out on phrases and brand

The community itself is divided into:

  1. Submit a reinclusion request and advise Google of all the links you have done which you feel may be "unnatural"
  • After personally speaking with Pierre Far (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) he advised you should submit a reinclusion (But this goes in line with the conspiracy that you have bad links!)
  1. Others say don't do a reinclusion request just change the way you build links and carry on.
  • After seeing some sites receive a message and no change in rankings why wouldn't you do this?
  • Also some sites do not have GWT installed so how would you know?

Let's look at the first option, speaking with Dave Naylor regarding this he felt that Google would have a few pools of links, one which is the list they suspect are bad, a second pool of links which have been identified by site owners in their reconsideration request as the information comes in from requests; Google can match up links and then notify more sites or if a number of sites mention the links in pool two they will be moved into pool 1 and more sites notified of unnatural links.

I have personally seen some sites which were hit hard but have seen slow recovery when building more links indicating a "link devaluation" as appose to a "penalty." I'm also aware that there has been a lot of 301 redirects carried out which seems to have removed the effect of loss in rankings, some sites have gone down the reconsideration route and removed link and gained their listings back while others have gone far worse after they requested reconsideration.

Removing links:

For those who have read up on this a lot you will be aware that "link networks got hit" these are network of websites, blogs, forums etc. which have been put up (Normally quiet cleverly) to manipulate links.

  • Let's make some thing clear if you can make a website which looks natural, has unique (Non Spun) content, is updated regularly , has people linking to it, has comments on articles, links to various sources then how do you know if this part of a Network?

I can be quite clear some network got hit… A lot didn't.. and as I said in the start of this article SEO evolves and so will the networks, I'm not going to discuss what factors can make a network distinguishable from a normal site today I'm afraid.

Networks have worked for years and years and it seems 2012 has been the big year for Google to try and deal with them, if you site was linked on a network detected by Google, then chances are that is why you received the message above.

My Suggestions:

  • Remove links from those network(s)
  • Build more links (Maybe easier said than done, but there are plenty of methods.)
    • Make your profile look natural include no follows, beware of the site you want to gain a link from, Network or Non Network you should be able to identify will this link stand up to a manual review?

If you don't see any increase..

  • File reconsideration request; but initially look at the rest of your links, tools such as www.linkdetective.com can identify the types of links you have look especially at "sidebar links" they seem to be more toxic over article based links.
  • The difficulty in removing links is that you often don't know which ones have been identified by Google. In a test I carried out on a personal site which had 54 links, 40 from a network 14 genuine business directories, I removed all but two of the network links and after I sent a reinclusion request in Google's message back to me was the site still violated Google's quality guidelines with only 16 links left pointing to the site .
  • Another tactic I have found to identify bad links is see if they are still spidered in Google, I'm aware that if Google finds a network site it tends to delists it so checking if the sites are still indexed could be a clear way of identifying the so called "bad links."

Once you've placed a Reconsideration Request

So you'll receive a message very quickly from Google advising they have received your reconsideration request.

So how long does it take to reconsider?

From the reconsideration requests I have done we have received responses back in:

  • as quick as 4 days
  • up to 34 days
  • averaging at 15 days for a message return (Based on approximately 10 reinclusion requests)

Reconsideration Request Processed – You still have bad links!

So you decided to carry out a re-inclusion request, and you get the message below back; this is where the pain comes, because you're going to have a long road of trying to keep remove links you think may be bad and wait up to another month to see if its worked.

Site Reconsidered message:

If you have gone down the reconsideration request route and passed you will have received a message such as the below. Well done! Now you need to work a lot smarter and a lot harder!

Other Return Messages:

This is an earlier reconsideration processed from Google around 2010, not sure if they still send this but thought I would throw it into the mix (Key here is that Google wasn't very transparent in 2010 but at least we get an extra paragraph in the reply).

Do you own a bad site?

The message below is the one you get if you are doing really bad things with your own site i.e. Blatantly selling links, aggregating content which is not unique and generally so poor it makes no sense.

If you received this message guys then if you type your domain into Google you will probably not see it; that's right you've been deindexed!

  • Fix the issues on your site i.e. Remove links, change content and you may be considered again.
  • This does in my opinion need a reconsideration request because you've been thrown out of the index.

Conclusion:

I have carried out talks at SMX San Jose, Stockholm, London etc. and had the opportunity to network with a lot of SEO's, one thing I know is that a lot of networks didn't get hit and sites which have only used so called "white hat" techniques still received messages. Some SEO's have received messages when they have not used networks and I have seen sites receive messages for what appears to be their internal linking when they operate in multiple countries.

Also there is still a lot of bad links out there, comment spam is still everywhere and some types of article spinning seems to work very effective, while link brokers and scripts to place links are dwindling there are still very good network thriving as well as other methods of link building working effectively.

The key if you have had the message in my opinion is:

  • Remove any known networks, you may need to contact someone with experience in as many SEO's are out of the depth clutching at random sites to remove links from without actually taking a look at the links.
    • Build new links and see if rankings start to rise
  • If no change file a reconsideration request.
  • If still struggle change the page you optimise
  • This is not really an option for most companies but worse comes to worst 301 redirect the domain.

I think the most interesting thing I have heard lately is that in Matt Cutts key note at SMX Advanced he mentioned "Google is considering offering a tool that would let webmasters disallow certain links", this will at least level the playing field in uncertain times.

By

Neil Walker
@theukseo

Bronco - Digital Marketing Agency
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