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Google Sounds the (False) Alarm

Posted by in SEO

Webmasters worldwide have been waking up* to fresh warnings from Google. These messages report that Google has detected unnatural links pointing to their websites. 

The messages can be shocking, particularly to anyone whose business and livelihood depends on Google search traffic. After all, angering the great beast can mean a one-way ride to Davy Jones’ online locker, right?

First Things First – DON’T PANIC!

The answer, as it happens, is “not quite”. So before you go crazy uprooting links and harassing websites with links pointing to yours, take a moment to calm your farm – something even Google’s own Matt Cutts recommends. Doing this is not only time-consuming and stressful but also potentially harmful. In the best case, you’ll throw out the baby with the bathwater and uproot some helpful links along with the “unnatural” ones. In the worst case, you’ll attract Google’s attention for unnatural link culling and, ironically, risk your getting your site banned while trying to fix up a non-existent threat.

So now that your farm is calm, let’s dig a little deeper…

What Are Unnatural Links?

Unnatural links are any links that are made to deliberately manipulate Google’s search results. In Google’s perfect world, no-one is aware that being found by search engines can pack a powerful business punch for the fortunate few at the top of the search results. People will simply create great websites crammed with value-adding content out of the purity of wanting to please their readers. The grateful readers will in turn link to said website.

This is a great vision, and in no way am I discrediting the value of fresh, quality, engaging content. However, the world is not such an idealistic place that this vision will work. This was proved by a large-scale experiment performed in Russia to determine whether people would put in maximum effort for the benefit of the entire ecosystem purely out of altruistic intent. That experiment was communism, and we all know the end result of that.

Thus, an entire industry called SEO was born, with exponents trying various methods to help out their websites (or their clients’ websites). Most spam with short-term gain in mind, thus crowding out quality websites. These quality websites then attempt to top the spammy sites by engaging in (hopefully non-spammy) SEO so that their legitimate, quality websites are found. A digital arms race was born, with search engines entering the fray to seek and destroy spam. This vicious cycle has gotten to the point today where even the good guys are caught in the crossfire of search engines trying to eliminate web spam.

Why Am I Getting These Links?

If you received the warning, it’s because Google suspects it’s found patterns in your backlink profile that are intended to manipulate search rankings.

There are two types of warnings:

  1. “individual links aren’t trusted” – these warnings are sent to websites that Google finds minor (probably incidental) evidence of unnatural links to. The website is not penalized and traffic will not be affected. In these cases, the links are simply not attributed any value.
  2. “our opinion of your entire site is affected” – these warnings are sent out to websites in which Google finds egregious (probably deliberate) evidence of unnatural links. In this case, the website will be penalised and traffic will likely drop overnight.

In summary, if your traffic is unaffected a day after you receive the first warning, you very likely have nothing to worry about.

Why Google Won’t Penalize Your Site

Links to a website are generally outside the website owner’s control – anyone can place a link to any site. For example, someone on a blacklisted forum can genuinely link to your website. Or, in cases of Negative SEO, a competitor can maliciously link to your website in the hope of having you penalised. For this reason, Google is very cautious in giving out penalties.

To prove the point, SEOmoz ran an experiment where they invited their community to bombard their website with spammy links. The result was that around 2.7 million spammy links were built to their site – or around 30% of the original link count. The result? They received a warning – but no penalty. Note that not all websites are immune to these attacks – SEOmoz has historically enjoyed massive natural authority. Despite this, the point remains that the threat of being penalised is not something that should keep you up at night.

What If Google DOES Penalize Your Site?

In the case that your website has been penalized, you’ll notice that your traffic has tanked. In this case, you will have to review your backlink profile and look to remove any intentionally spammy links. Then submit a reconsideration request for Google to audit your website. However, this is only recommended if your traffic does go out the window. Otherwise you’re attracting the attention of the Big G for a non-issue, which is tantamount to asking the IRD to audit you because you think KFC overcharged you for a 3 pack of Wicked Wings.

The good news is that none of our clients at E-Web Marketing have been penalised for unnatural links. At the time of writing, under 2% of our clients had received these warnings in their Webmaster Tools accounts. All were for individual links, none for the entire site being affected. None have had a drop in traffic.

The Takeaway

Google is putting more and more effort into finding and handling unnatural links. It’s now more important than ever to be improving the authority of your website through natural means – something that we are continuously working on at E-Web. Since the work that we do will not attract any penalties from Google, don’t panic if you get these warnings. And before you take any action such as removing links or submitting a reconsideration request, make sure you talk to us. And if you have received a “warning” from Google, comment below!

* it is common knowledge that most webmasters wake up to their Google Webmaster Tools screen, choosing to speak to their families only after checking this life critical screen.

About

Dan is an slightly mad and wildly offensive online marketing consultant. He manages campaigns for E-Web Marketing with an irreverent style that inexplicably nets fantastic results. He is obsessed with all things online and can frequently be found blogging about Conversion Rate Optimisation, SEO and whatever random ruminations go through his questionable head.

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