Unnaturally Natural Link Building Philosophy
Ok, maybe Google doesn’t find your site loathsome. But, Google definitely finds your site unnatural. Specifically, they find your link profile unnatural.
While this isn’t a brand new effort (Barry Schwartz reported on Google’s unnatural link profile messages back in Jan of 2011), Google seems to have kicked this program into high gear in the last month. Recently, several people have received this message in their Google Webmaster Tools inbox with the title: Notice of Detected Unnatural Links. Since one of these has already been published in Google Webmaster Help Forums, I’ll just use that one so you can see exactly what Google has to say:
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://xxxxxxxx.xxx/ 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[emphasis mine].
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. Sincerely, Google Search Quality Team.
What’s This Letter Really Mean?
A couple of things. Primarily, your site’s been penalized, as evidenced by the reconsideration request. Now whether your website has been completely removed from the index is suspect, but it’s safe to say Google has banished it to the nether regions of the index; nevermore to see the light of user’s queries. Secondly, and perhaps, more importantly, it is evidence that the algorithm can detect link manipulation (or at the very least think they can).
Again, as the pace of these “notices of banishment” has picked up since late last month, it also suggests the Google has refined this piece of the algorithm to be clearer in detection of “unnatural” links. Let’s not rule out this is an unpublished Panda iteration refining how to distinguish “quality”.
How is Google Determining Unnatural?
I would suggest that it has less to do with where the links are coming from, unless of course, you are deliberately getting links from known bad neighborhoods. Then, you’re simply asking for trouble. As much as Google, Bing, or any other search engine on the planet believes they can dampen link signals in favorite of content quality signals and block-level analysis of sites, links still drive the web. As long as any website/web page needs a URI to be accessible, links will always have significance. Period. End of story.
You don’t have to stop getting directory links and other plentiful links. They exist precisely for those reasons, to give links to help people find your site. My belief is that Google is using a more technical analysis of websites’ link profiles: link velocity, linking root domains, and anchor text.
What is Link Velocity and What to Watch For
Link velocity is the rate at which links are acquired by a website. Link velocity is constantly fluctuating; there will be periods of higher link acquisition and periods where link acquisition will be lower. For example, your site publishes a controversial post/article, and the links come flooding in for a week. After which your link velocity will return to a more normalized rate. What Google might be keying in on is aberrant link velocity rates. That is, link velocity rates that are much higher than the normalized link velocity rate of the site.
For example, SITE X sees a sudden, tremendous growth of links over a one-week span, once Google has gotten around re-indexing all the sites. And, typically, SITE X has almost no link velocity. This could set off alarm bells that some type of manipulation has occurred. Whereas, sites like CNBC, a known and authoritative content publishing site, could see a spike in velocity several times a month, but its normalized rate would indicate there is always constant link acquisition, and therefore, is likely not link manipulation. Here’s an example of what non-normalized and more normalized link velocity looks like:
Linking Root Domains
Google might also be keying on this algorithmically to determine if your link profile is “unnatural”. What Google would be looking for is, relative to the number of inbound links a website has, a wide base of linking root domains and C-blocks to accompany those inbound links. Not only is that a measure of authoritativeness and diversity of the website (many different sites across the web linking to you), but it’s also great way to see if a site is piling up links from a few specific places on the web.
What this means, essentially, is that if your site has been stockpiling links from a few specific places on the web in a disproportionate way (i.e. you have several thousand links from X, Y, and Z and relatively low amount links from other sites across the web). Or, you have large clumps of links from specific C-blocks with very little diversity in your C-blocks, this is also indicative that there could be manipulative link building.
What’s the bottom-line here? Avoid big, chunky clusters of links from specific websites and specific C-blocks. If a site’s building links “naturally” it’s getting links from a variety of sources on a variety of C-blocks.
Anchor Text Concentration
Personally, I think this is the biggest key for Google’s algorithm to detect unnatural site link profiles. It’s something I saw last summer, and if you’ve been to conference in the last 6 months you’ve heard it, exact match anchor text on links for highly competitive keywords are trouble.
Let me clarify that by saying exact match isn’t to be avoided all together, but it has to be used judiciously and should remain interspersed with other semantic and temporal variations. Unfortunately, it is the past sins of link building that can be haunting you today.
I can only guess as to how Google sees it, but I would bet they attempt algorithmically to interpret how a “normal” web user would link to things. And, normal users don’t typically use keyword-precise anchor text when linking to things; they likely link with website/company name, a long string of words, short phrases like “here” or “this one”, or just simply the page itself with no anchor text.
The point here, is that when Google sees an over-abundance of highly-targeted, exact match anchor text with as much, or more, concentration than the company name or brand name, they have a pretty good idea that link manipulation has occurred. The bottom-line: if you are a new(er) SEO on the account, do a full-scale audit on the site.
Look at internal link anchor text (and whom you’re linking out to) as well as inbound anchor text. Group and measure the concentration of targeted anchor text for competitive terms, brand anchors, long-tail anchors, etc. If you’re seeing higher concentrations of targeted anchor text than your brand, then you might have a problem. Find ways to remove/limit the targeted anchor text and supplement with brand anchors.
Be Smart and Link as You Like
If you haven’t been officially told by Google that you’re unnatural, that’s a good thing. Count your blessings. But, that certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t planning on it. If it were me and my site, I’d run a full scale link audit to make sure I knew exactly where I stood. Everyone can still link with impunity.
You can still get links any way you want, just be smart about it. Build a linking game plan: create lists of brand, exact match, temporal, and semantic anchors, the quantity each of those anchors will be used, and the frequency with which you get them. Even if you’re not “natural”, there’s no reason to pretend to be natural, so that you don’t end up on the “unnatural” list.