Google sends new, confusing unnatural links messages.

I am starting to receive a lot of requests for help from webmasters who have received a new type of unnatural links message. The message reads as follows:

targeted action unnatural links warning

Confusing unnatural links message recently sent to webmasters.

We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

We don’t want to put any trust in links that are unnatural or artificial, and we recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links. If you are able to remove any of the links, you can submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.

If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.

This is a different message than the normal unnatural links warning that Google has been delivering to penalized sites over the last couple of years. The “normal” unnatural links warning is this:

Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://www.example.com

Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.example.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.
Sincerely,
Google Search Quality Team

Note: If you have received this type of message, then you definitely do need to take action and file for reconsideration. See here for help with unnatural links penalty recovery .

There are a few differences between the new messages and the old ones:

yellow caution sign

  • The new messages have no yellow caution symbol next to them.
  • The new messages say “However, we do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links.”

These messages are confusing! The way I interpret the message, it sounds like Google is saying, “Don’t worry! There are unnatural links, but they’re probably not your fault. But if you want to remove them and apply for reconsideration then go ahead.” Huh? No wonder webmasters are confused.

These messages are very similar to ones that were distributed to webmasters in July of 2012. I do believe that they are saying the same thing. The wording on those messages said,

We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

We don’t want to put any trust in links that are artificial or unnatural. We recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links are outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole. If you are able to remove any of the links, please submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.

If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.

The difference between those messages and the current ones that are causing confusion are these sentences:

  • Current message: “As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links.”
  • July 2012 message: “As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.”

To me, the messages are the same. If so, this means that the advice that Google gave in the past about what to do would also apply to sites who received this message today. Google provided a blog post to describe these messages that proclaim targeted action on particular links and not an entire site:

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.ca/2012/07/new-notifications-about-inbound-links.html

Summary of Google’s recommendations

Here is a summary of Google’s recommendations from that article:

  • Google will sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking.
  • Google states that “We often take this action when we see a site that is mostly good but might have some spammy or artificial links pointing to it (widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc.). – This is a good place to look for culprits. Have you used widgets that link back to your site using a keyword as anchor text? Do you have MOSTLY natural links, but also excessive reciprocal link exchanges? Is there a particular SEO tactic that you have used in the past?
  • In the above case, if a site was using, for example, widgets that contain links using keywords as anchor text, the site may not be able to rank at all for that keyword. The direct quote from the article is, “So this message is a way to tell you that not only are those links in your widget not working, they’re probably keeping that page from ranking for the phrases that you’re using.” In my opinion, this means that those links are not just discounted or devalued, but rather, a penalty is imposed on the site when it comes to that keyword. It is possible that the degree of penalization is related to the amount of unnatural links that are present.
  • Some sites will get this message if their sites have been hacked and hackers are using it to try to rank for keywords like, “buy viagra”. If you get one of these messages, it’s a good idea to run your site through sucuri.net to be sure that there is no malware injection present.
  • Sites can get this message if someone is trying to boost their rankings for the purposes of reputation management. For example, if a company is trying to increase the rankings of a favorable article that was written on cnn.com by pointing spammy links at the site, then cnn.com could get a warning message that unnatural links are pointing at the site. These messages are particularly frustrating because Google does not tell you why they are sending this message. You have no way of knowing whether the warning message is in regards to unnatural links that you need to take care of or if it is due to someone else’s actions.

Google summarizes the description of these warnings by saying,

The message says that the current incident isn’t affecting our opinion of the entire website, but it is affecting our opinion of some links to the website, and the site might not rank as well for some phrases as a result.

Shortly after the July 2012 messages went out, Matt Cutts put this statement on his Google Plus page:

Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts, head of Webspam at Google

If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic. In the past, these messages were sent when we took action on a site as a whole. Yesterday, we took another step towards more transparency and began sending messages when we distrust some individual links to a site. While it’s possible for this to indicate potential spammy activity by the site, it can also have innocent reasons. For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it’s not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.
If we’ve taken more severe action on your site, you’ll likely notice a drop in search traffic, which you can see in the “Search queries” feature Webmaster Tools for example. As always, if you believe you have been affected by a manual spam action and your site no longer violates the Webmaster Guidelines, go ahead and file a reconsideration request. It’ll take some time for us to process the request, but you will receive a followup message confirming when we’ve processed it.

What this is saying is that the warning message could be nothing to worry about (i.e. in the case of a hacked site), but it could be something that requires action.

What do you do if you have received this message?

The answer to this question depends on how severely your site has been affected. It is often a very tough call.

If you have lost significant rankings for particular keywords, then you probably should take action and file for reconsideration. However, I have heard of several situations where sites had received this message and suffered no loss in rankings. Or, in many cases, there is a very minor drop of say, 4-5 positions for their main keywords. It is hard to say whether a drop like that is due to a penalty, or due to regular ranking changes.

Isn’t Google already devaluing the links? If so, then why do I need to remove them?

This is a good question. Many SEOs believe that these warning messages with no yellow caution symbol next to them can be ignored. The rationale is that if Google is taking targeted action on specific links then they are probably essentially nofollowing those links. If that is the case, then why bother removing them? The problem is that in some cases Google says that they may take action so that your site will not rank for specific keywords that are used in the anchor text of these links. This could mean that you can not rank well again for this keyword until you have taken care of the penalty.

Personally, I think that if you have seen a signficant drop in rankings for a particular keyword and you know that you have used SEO tricks or techniques in order to rank for this keyword then yes, you should try to remove these links and file for reconsideration. If you have seen no drop in rankings within two to three weeks of getting this message, I would likely recommend doing nothing.

The problem is, however, that it is usually not a black and white situation. Here is an example scenario. A site is trying to rank well on Google for “green widgets”. The SEO for this site has done several things to try to increase the rankings. They have:

  • Created a useful tool and invited webmasters to embed it. The tool links back to the site using the anchor text, “green widgets”.
  • Written some low quality articles and published them on article syndication sites. The articles link back using the anchor text “green widgets”.
  • Written some guest posts and gotten them published on medium to high authority sites. Again, they have used the keyword to link back to the site.
  • Placed directory links in niche directories that are related to green widgets. Many links link back using anchor text and others use the site’s url.
  • Exchanged links with sites closely related to “green widgets”. Sometimes the keyword is used as anchor text, sometimes the brand name and sometimes the url.

This type of SEO may sound ludicrous now because we all know that we need to avoid using too many anchor texted links. But, it was very commonplace just a year ago. This type of situation is very common.

So, let’s say that the site in question gets one of these non-caution symbol warnings that says that Google has detected unnatural links and is reducing trust in the unnatural links to their site. About a week later, the site, which used to be ranking #2 for “green widgets” is now ranking #12. What do they do?

It’s possible that Google has simply devalued all of the anchor texted “green widgets” links to the site and all that the site needs to do is improve their SEO efforts from this point on. They may be able to regain their rankings. But, what if they are actually penalized for the term “green widgets”? The warning message doesn’t tell you if your ranking drop was due to devaluation of the links, penalization because of the links, or something else.

Let’s say that the site decides to clean up their link profile and file for reconsideration. Do they simply get the links removed from the embedded tool? Most likely the article sites should be addressed as well. But what about guest posts? They used anchor text, so they are probably penalized but we don’t know for sure. Are the reciprocal links ok? The quality guidelines say that excessive reciprocal linking is a no-no, but they don’t tell you what the definition of “excessive” is.

I don’t have a concrete answer to what this site should do. Every situation is different. In some cases the path to reconsideration is clear, but in others a strategy will need to be developed based on the link profile and the severity of the ranking drop seen.

How to “clean up your links” and file for reconsideration.

The process of filing for reconsideration in this case is really not different than for a site that has received one of the more common unnatural links warnings. The following steps need to be taken:

  • Identify the unnatural links – Each link in your backlink profile needs to be analyzed to determine whether it is self made or earned. It is often a good idea to hire a professional to do a link audit for this purpose. (link)
  • A thorough attempt must be made to get these links removed. – Remove the links that are under your control. Then, for the remaining sites, contact webmasters using any available email address, the whois email address, and contact forms available on the site.
  • Document these attempts thoroughly – Use Google Docs to show Google the work that you have done to try to get links removed.
  • Disavow the links that you can’t get removed.
  • File for reconsideration.
Unnatural Links Recovery GuideIf you need help with the process of removing an unnatural links penalty from Google, you may be interested in my book in which I describe in great detail the steps that I take to get these penalties removed. You can find it at UnnaturalLinksRecovery.com.

Will you see a full recovery?

Some sites probably will see a full recovery. It is possible though, that you may not see an improvement after you have removed these links and filed for reconsideration. It all depends on how many natural links you have in your link profile once the offending links are cleaned up and also whether or not Google was penalizing your site for particular keywords or if they were just devaluing the unnatural links.

I have a theory

I really do think that Google has pushed out a large number of these warning messages in the last couple of weeks. I find it interesting that this happened at the same time that Matt Cutts, head of the Webspam team at Google tweeted the following:

Google recently took manual action on several thousand link sellers. These sites likely received a manual penalty for linking out in unnatural ways. I’m wondering if it is possible that every site that was linked to from these penalized sites received the new “we distrust links to your site” message. It’s possible that these are machine generated messages and not manual at all.

If this is the case, then your site would only see a significant drop in rankings if you had links from a significant number of paid link selling sites. I think it is possible that a site could receive a warning like this even if they had just one link from a site that had received a penalty for linking out. If this were the case, then if Google reduces the trust in the one particular link it really shouldn’t make any difference in rankings at all.

Please know that this is just a theory though. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments to see if anyone else has data that could support my theory.

Please help!

If you have received this warning message from Google, please help by leaving a comment below. You do not have to name your url although if you would like to, you can send it to me at marie at hiswebmarketing.com. In your comment, please mention the following:

  • On what date did you receive this warning message?
  • Describe what happened to your rankings. Did you drop for a single keyword? If so, how much?
  • Did you file for reconsideration? If so, what happened?
  • Are you aware of any paid links that were pointing to your site?

Feel free to add any other additional information that you feel may help. The more information we can croudsource, the better we will understand how to react when a site receives this type of warning message.

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  • anon

    Received this exact message on 5/15/13 and suspect a slight drop in rankings for particular keywords but it’s too early to tell to be honest. This is a large, long-running corporate website that has had many chefs in the kitchen over the past 10 years.

    • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

      Thanks for commenting. It’s tough to know what to do when there is only a slight drop in keyword rankings. Do you know if any links have been purchased in the past? Do you know if you have any widgets that link back to your site using anchor text?

      • anon

        There is evidence of varying link schemes in the past, dating back to 2009 as well as one instance of a clear negative-SEO attack – I arrived on the scene only a few months ago.

        There are close to 50,000 backlinks and thousands of referring domains. In the past I’ve noticed abnormally low rankings for specific keywords that had anchor text built on shady domains but they weren’t target keywords (so no biggie). I made documented efforts to have links like those removed but never submitted anything to Google because I never had a warning show up until this month, AND there was no way I could do an exhaustive audit on all links – I only targeted the main culprits.

        My goal has been to share informative content and create a positive user experience, not housekeeping. This site has a lot of authoritative, niche backlinks and local listings for multiple locations throughout the US that help anchor it’s backlink profile.

        It’s hard for me to gauge the impact of the notification at this time (give me 3 weeks) but I’m hoping the shoddy links are simply devalued and do not result in a penalty. IMO that would not result in a good search experience for the user. The fact is shoddy backlinks don’t make the content or website any less relevant to searchers.

        • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

          Sounds like a tough job. Thank you for sharing this info.

  • http://myblogguest.com/blog/ Ann Smarty

    Hey Marie, you probably know my story, but here’s the follow-up: (1) I received it on March 14, 2013 (I don’t check GWT that often, so I noticed it a couple of months later I guess) (2) One of my keywords has dropped about 4 positions *very* slowly since then but I didn’t worry much: All my competitors followed me in that journey and now Google displays 4 *articles* on top 4 and then follow we, the home pages :) So either all of us got hit or Google re-considered the intent behind that keyword. Either way, it’s not that huge traffic source for me (3) No. My main thought was: “If I start, there will be no way out of it :)” (4) I never bought any links to it but I haven’t had too much time researching any bad neighborhood. I am pretending to be a regular website owner who doesn’t know a thing about links here :)

    • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

      This is probably a wise move Ann, especially if you have not dropped much. In my experience, if you apply for reconsideration you almost always get told that there are unnatural links and then Google will not clear the message until you address EVERY self made link in your profile.

  • Dave Davis

    This is incredibly frustrating. Hundreds of hours cleaning up links, contacting webmasters to get links removed and producing an amazingly concise disavow file. Penalty removed message yet 3 months later, no change in rankings.

    Meanwhile, top 10 results are polluted with sites with a couple of hundred directory backlinks as their ONLY backlinks.

    A new domain, brand and contacting the webmasters of all your old “good links” asking them to change the link is out next option.

    • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com/ Marie Haynes

      I understand your frustration. I often will see the same thing as you…that a penalty gets removed and then nothing changes. This is probably because the website is no longer getting any ranking benefit from those unnatural links. You still should be able to improve if you can truly attract natural links though.