Many sites have found themselves penalized in recent months for unnatural links. Webmasters around the world have been forced into self-examination, the painful process of asking to have links removed that were hard-won (or co$tly) and the difficult task of contacting other webmasters asking to have links removed.
I've had occasion to work on a couple of sites that received manual penalties for unnatural links, and have learned a few valuable lessons in the process. There are obviously still a lot of people that are confused, though, so here are a few facts, opinions and tips, that might make things easier for you, should you suddenly find yourself a victim.
- The unnatural links penalty is a manual penalty, not algorithmic. Penguin is strictly algorithmic.
- If you've received a message like this in your Webmaster Tools account, you have already been penalized:
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.yourdomain.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
- Even if you haven't yet been penalized, you may still reap some benefit (as in, avoid a future penalty) by pruning links that Google might consider to be spammy or manipulative. If you've ever been aggressive in your link building efforts, I strongly suggest you consider this. Each of us should be keeping a close eye on our link profiles, with an eye toward quality inbound links. Relevance and diversity are the watch-words!
- Even those who have never bought a link or engaged in any link schemes can still be penalized, if their link profile paints an unflattering picture of their site. Search engines (or their human operators) still can't determine intent... only probability.
- While claims of "I'm a victim of negative SEO" abound, I've yet to see an instance where the webmaster of a penalized site was totally innocent of veering away from Google's guidelines. That said, I have seen cases where the SEO they had hired had put them at risk. Whether the webmaster was unaware of those risks - who knows? I'm just of the opinion that we all have some responsibility for knowing what's done on our behalf.
- I've seen various cases of multiple penalties, where a site had received as many as three different simultaneous penalties. That makes it very difficult to focus on precise causes for each penalty. The best approach in a situation like that, in my opinion, is to get back to basics (things like optimizing your site architecture, your inbound, outbound and internal links, ensuring your canonicalization is properly set up, the list goes on...). Meanwhile, check out your link profile, and be brutally realistic about which ones may be questionable in Google's eyes.
Assuming that you have received a notification like the one above, here are some of the steps that I recommend:
- Download your links, using Google's Webmaster Tools or whatever tool you prefer. Start sorting through them and build a list of toxic and questionable links to get deleted. Don't be greedy - keeping links that you hate to give up could be the difference between a successful recovery and a prolonged dry lack of visibility. A couple of tools that I like for speeding the process of categorizing inbound links for removal are Remove 'Em and LinkDetox. A couple of others I've seen mentioned are deletebacklinks.com and linkdelete.com. As always, though, you need to decide if you want to trust any tool's metrics in your decision-making process. I certainly recommend you stay away from any service that takes the removal decision out of your hands via total automation.
- The first thing I do is check for any sites that are de-indexed. They are automatically tossed into the pile to request link removal.
- Compile a list of contact information for the webmasters of the sites where you need to get links removed. The Link Prospector from Citation Labs is one I like. Whois Search is another resource that can come in handy.
- Prepare an email requesting removal of your toxic and questionable links and send it out to all the webmasters in question. You can offer the alternative of adding a nofollow attribute to the links, as an alternative, if you value the traffic a site can offer. And in instances where anchor text abuse may be the only negative factor, you could ask for a modification of the text, rather than removal.
- Keep detailed records of when you sent those emails, to whom and for which links. You'll need to provide that information for any links that you don't succeed in getting removed.
- If after a reasonable amount of time (I suggest a week, minimum - two weeks is more than ample) you haven't heard back from some of those webmasters, send another email as a second request. If you receive any responses either refusing to remove links or demanding payment to do so, prepare a different email for them. Make that your final request for removal, stating that if the links aren't removed within 48 hours (or 72 - your call), you'll be reporting the links to Google in accordance with their advice in such cases. I've found that gets nearly all resistant webmasters to comply with the request.
- Depending upon how many links you have to prune from your profile, how cooperative the webmasters you have to deal with are, and to a certain extent, the manner in which you approach them, this portion of the process can take anything from a few weeks to a few months. It can be a frustrating ordeal, made worse by the prolonged loss of visibility of your site. But this is no time for shortcuts, as your thoroughness will have a great bearing on the success of the next step.
- At this point, you should have a detailed list of all the links you set out to purge from your profile, with the URL of each link, dates of attempted contact, method of contact and the outcome. You'll now need to extract a listing of the remaining links you want removed, that for whatever reason, still exist. Put those in a .txt file, one URL per line, with comments, per the explanation on Google's Webmaster Central Blog. Read the instructions carefully before submitting your disavow list. Your file, including comments prefaced with a pound sign (#) should look something like this:
# Contacted owner of spamdomain1.com on 7/1/2012 to
# ask for link removal but got no response
# Owner of spamdomain2.com removed most links, but missed these
- After submitting your disavow list, it will take some time to see the results in the SERPs. The disavow request will have to be processed and your site will need to be re-crawled and re-indexed before any effects can be seen.
If you believe your site was affected by the Penguin algorithm, with bad links as the cause, then a disavow request is a viable step, but since that is an algorithmic penalty, a reconsideration request isn't appropriate. However, if you received notification of a manual penalty for unnatural links, you should file a reconsideration request after "some time" (Google give us no idea how long "some time" is - I have waited a week, to ensure the disavow request has been processed. Your mileage may vary).
When all is said and done, you'll have spent a good amount of time waiting, with the attendant loss of traffic and revenue. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe the feeling, particularly if a site is the site owner's primary source of income.
The disavow process is new and it's certainly far from perfect. Over time, it will hopefully improve in effectiveness and efficiency, making the process more streamlined. By following the prescribed process carefully, you can at least avoid any missteps that might prolong the agony.
One final tip: Removing links translates to a loss of incoming PageRank/authority, which means that even after your site has recovered from the penalty, you're not going to see your site restored to the same position it previously held. The weeks of waiting can be used to your advantage to bolster your site's popularity with some great content, hopefully attracting new quality links to help offset that loss. Don't wait until you've recovered to start that process.
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