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Unnatural Links Penalty: Audit, Removal, Recovery

An Unnatural Links Penalty from Google can be applied Manually or Algorithmically. An unnatural links penalty is also commonly referred to as a Penguin penalty, with Penguin being the nickname given to the algorithm that specifically audits unnatural links pointing to a website.

A Manual penalty is applied manually by a human Googler, whilst and algorithmic penalty is applied via algorithmic detection. An Unnatural links manual penalty can be applied at an time when detected by a Googler. The Penguin algorithm was first launched in 2012 and has run sporadically since then.

The SEO community is expecting Penguin to run again early in 2016, however reports in recent days suggest that Penguin will be baked into the system and run in real time.


Penguin Penalty or Links Penalty


Penguin Updates


Penguin 1 on April 24, 2012 (impacting around 3.1% of queries)
Penguin 2 on May 26, 2012 (impacting less than 0.1%)
Penguin 3 on October 5, 2012 (impacting around 0.3% of queries)
Penguin 4 (AKA Penguin 2.0) on May 22, 2013 (impacting 2.3% of queries)
Penguin 5 (AKA Penguin 2.1) on October 4, 2013 (impacting around 1% of queries)
Penguin 6 (AKA Penguin 3.0) on October 17, 2014 (impacting less than 1% English queries)



Unnatural Links Penalty: Audit, Removal, Recovery


If you have received a Manual Penalty for unnatural links in the manual action section in Search Console ( formerly Webmaster Tools ), or suspect that your site is suffering from an algorithmic penguin penalty, it is imperative that you understand what constitutes an unnatural link in Google’s eyes in order to conduct an Audit, how to Remove and ultimately Recover from the penalty.

Understanding Links:

  • What are Google’s Quality Guidelines?
  • What are Manual Penalties?
  • Why Does Google Police Unnatural Links?
  • The Unnatural Links Problem
  • Gray Area’s & Links
  • Where is Unnatural Links, Line Really Drawn?

The Penalty Recovery Process:

  • Your First Step in Unnatural Links Recovery
  • The Links Audit
  • Links to Disavow
  • Links to Keep
  • Requesting Removal of Links
  • Document your Removal Efforts
  • Submitting your Reconsideration Request


What are Google’s Quality Guidelines?


Google’s stance on unnatural links is articulated in the Google Webmaster Guidelines. They are defined as “any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines.


Quality Guidelines:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Specific Guidelines

Avoid the following techniques:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Participating in link schemes
  • Creating pages with little or no original content
  • Cloaking
  • Sneaky redirects
  • Hidden text or links
  • Doorway pages
  • Scraped content
  • Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
  • Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
  • Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware
  • Abusing rich snippets markup
  • Sending automated queries to Google


Quality Guidelines:


Link Schemes

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results.

The following are examples of link which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site


Creating links that weren’t editorially placed (unnatural links), can be considered a violation of Google’s guidelines.

Examples of Unnatural Links:

  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that pass PageRank
  • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
  • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature


Link Schemes:


What are Manual Penalties?


There are an estimated 400,000 manual website actions monthly. These are penalties that are applied at any time when someone at Google has examined your site manually and determined that you are violating Google’s quality guidelines with so-called “unnatural links” or another Manual Penalty Actions.


Manual Penalty Action from Google



View: Google Manual Actions Explained


Then there are algorithmic penalties, these penalties are applied to your site by the specific algorithm, you wont get a notification. These automatically lower your website’s ranking based on the presence of the same kinds of unnatural links as in the manual penalties.

The difference is that the prohibited back links are found when Google automatically scans websites, and so the process is not subject to the discretion of a human being working on behalf of Google. Therefore, the auditing and removal procedures detailed below are largely applicable to algorithmic penalties as well, but the complicated documentation and reconsideration procedures are NOT in play for those types of penalties.

Rather, the approach simply becomes to find the bad links, work to get them removed, Google’s automated spiders recrawl everything without your intervention.


Drop in Traffic after Penalty

Click to Expand:Penguin Manual Penalty

The Unnatural Links Manual Penalty Notice


The site then starts to see a drop in Impressions and clicks 2 days after the unnatural links warning


Traffic does not Drop Immediately

Looking in analytics the traffic does not take an immediate drop, but when adding a comparison it becomes abundantly clear as to the impact of the Penguin Penalty



This is where you see the impact of Penguin Penalty. Also when compared to the previous period, it now seems that traffic started to fall around May 22, so the site had already been earmarked for penalty a full 20 days prior to recieving the actual warning.


Search Terms Drop in SERPS

Rankings for keywords start to plummet.


Link Profile

Looking at the image from Ahrefs it seems that there was a big link building push at the beginning of May, just in time for the roll out of Penguin 2.0.




There are very little natural links to the site.

View Original Article




Why Does Google Police Unnatural Links?


Whether it is through  an algorithmic or a manual penalty, why is Google doing this? Given the wide latitude Google has in policing its search engine rankings, there is always the potential for regulatory overreach by Google – the very real, non-zero chance that Google shoots itself in the proverbial foot and inadvertently harms the very businesses most willing to embrace Google as a marketing partner. In light of that risk, why do anything at all?

To understand why Google has a vested interest in policing unnatural links, we must revisit the early, dark days of the Internet. Search engines such as Google, Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos, and Infoseek ranked results according to simple metrics like keyword frequency, reasoning that the more times a word appeared on a page, the more content-rich the page must be. This led to widespread exploitation of search engine algorithms by spamming keywords on the pages. For example, a junk ad site that contained the word “dog” repeated over and over again, thousands of times on one page, may have ended up among the first search results, while actual content-rich sites about dogs remained buried. The effect of this brand of search engine gamesmanship rendered the early Internet convoluted, hard to navigate, and largely unhelpful.


Link Building


Due to Google’s adoption of a comprehensive page ranking strategy that valued followed links over rote frequency metrics. The idea in its simplest form was that if one relevant, content-rich page–perhaps an early academic paper–included a link that the author of the page felt was worthy of sharing with others, then that link, too, must have some intrinsic value. It may even be not just a link but a citation to the other page, further amplifying the link’s usefulness. This seemingly common-sense approach was highly innovative at the time, and helped revolutionise the Internet as we know it today.

Flash forward to the present day, Google enjoys an astonishing 90% market share in the United Kingdom. As spam guru Matt Cutts has said, Google is continuing its mission “to help searchers find sites that provide a great user experience and fulfill their information needs.” In other words, the search engine’s ubiquity has not prevented the company of the same name from still attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff in parsing search results. Despite Google’s ongoing and well-publicised expansions into other technology fields, Google’s own prosperity as a company was and continues to be uniquely tied to the usefulness of its search algorithms–the search algorithms that nearly everyone has come to adopt worldwide.


The Unnatural Links Problem


The Internet is in its very nature filled with links to websites, that in turn link to other sites, which in turn link to still others. Within the scope of this complicated network, backlinks are links to your website from other domains that essentially demonstrate to Google that your site has value. A link to your site from another, after all, is considered a sort of implicit “vote” for the content on your site that another person felt was valuable enough to share.

Therein lies the kernel of our problem. Because while the Internet stands as a shared, collective resource that is supposed to be referential and reciprocal in nature, it has also become a major tool for commerce. As such, the same quid pro quo and deal-brokering that powered the world of commerce long before the Internet existed, has now become a sort of underground Internet backlinking economy as well.

We can recognise a great deal of this dubious behavior on its face. There are, for instance, large banks of content-barren partner pages or link exchanges where a link to one’s own page is swapped solely for a link to theirs. These are explicitly forbidden in Google’s guidelines. It is considered an obvious, artificial, quid pro quo attempt to manipulate PageRank.

There are other companies that cut to the chase and simply buy a link on another site to improve their online profile. This, too, is explicitly forbidden. Since it is a link exchanged not because of the intrinsic value of the content at the link, but because money has changed hands, it is not considered a natural link by Google.


Gray Area’s Surrounding Links


Sometimes, what may simply be an honest, good-faith effort to market your products or services, still counts as a violation under Google’s guidelines. It is important to note that there is plenty of ambiguity within these restrictions, where the behavior in question may have the colour of basic marketing or goodwill, but is still prohibited anyway.

For example, if a company sends a blogger a product to review, would it not be reasonable for that blogger to then review the product, while including a link to the company’s website?

Who can think of thousands of times this has happened on the Internet? What if the link passes PageRank and improves the company’s online footprint, which may have even been part of the point? Is that acceptable?

Google’s Own TV Advert: Note how she sends a Fashion Blogger the Bag, how should any links in the blog article be handled ?



According to Google, the answer is “nofollow”. Since the inclusion of the link was incentivised through the delivery of the product, Google considers the link unnatural. In fact, as of this writing, Google now explicitly describes and forbids this exact marketing scenario in their guidelines, stating that “This includes [. . .] sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

Essentially, there can be an ever-widening disconnect between marketing activities that may seem benign and commonplace to us in other formats, but that Google specifically disallows within its own web ecosystem. This difference can and does get many webmasters into trouble.


Where is the Unnatural Links, Line Really Drawn?


It all begs the question of whether there any hard triggers on backlinking that specifically cause Google to investigate a site for a possible manual action. Google will not say. The company fears that publishing detailed information about specific spam-like behaviour that can warrant an investigation, would only encourage further gaming of its algorithms, and encourage spam-like behaviour right up to those limits. But what we do know is that a number of factors figure into the calculus of evaluating a link as unnatural.


These factors include some combination of:

  • The authority of the linking site
  • Whether or not the link looks natural
  • The relevance of the link’s anchor text -AND-
  • The subject matter that appears on the linking page


Now that we have covered what you should be on the lookout for in a general sense–essentially any kind of quid pro quo, incentivised, or spam link according to Google–we can move on to what to do, exactly, when you discover these kinds of links to your site.




Your First Step in Unnatural Links Recovery


Before we embark on a discussion of what to do when Google flags your site for unnatural links, we need to first discuss what NOT to do.

The thing not to do is to panic and request an immediate reconsideration just hours or even days after your site is flagged. Doing so will only net you a form letter admonishing you for rushing the review, assuring you that fixing the problem can take time, and informing you that Google will refuse to even look at another review of your site until weeks later. You want to act quickly, but not hastily, or you lose your chance at a speedy review by Google. Wait until the issue has been fixed first, then have Google review the site again.

Your best strategy will be to address the issues, and then submit your website to Google for review when you are confident the issues have been fixed.


The Links Audit


Your first and most significant step will be conducting an audit of your site. Fortunately, Google supplies most of the necessary information for doing so in Google Search Console ( formerly Webmaster Tools )


Navigate to Search Traffic -> Links to Your Site -> Who Links the Most -> Download the Links.

A list of linking domains and pages will appear.



WMT Links to your Site



Some webmasters report better luck when using Google’s toolset in conjunction with other web software. A more comprehensive picture of who and what is backlinking to your site can also be located with the use of products such as:


Note that while Google’s software is free, the other products are not. However, with the health of your website on the line, it may pay to ensure you are able to find every problematic backlink you can to aid in your review request.

Most of these tools have a trial period, sign up and download the links.


Links to Site


Links to Disavow


In general, the strategy for dealing with each result supplied by Google will be informed by the type of link. In a perfect world, the webmaster of each offending site quickly and dutifully responds to your polite, well-worded removal request (more on these later) and no further effort is required on your part. However, that is not the world we live in, and it may prove far from surprising that the same entities that operate spam and link scheme sites are highly unlikely to respond to removal requests.

Therefore, your recourse is to disavow a link to your site instead. Disavowing a link will be among the safest and most straightforward solutions in all but a handful of cases:

The page is offline, or the links cannot be found. The pages are no longer on the web, or a link could not be located on the page. Simply disavow these, as it would be unwise to run the risk of a spam page resurrected later and creating the same problem again.


Types of Sites / Domains to Disavow:

Obvious spam pages. These include links from domains hosting online casinos, porn sites, offers for pills, get-rich-quick schemes, and so on. Disavow all of these instead of waiting on a response to a removal request that will never come.

Spam scraper sites. These are spam sites that automatically copy their content from other, legitimate websites in order to appear legitimate themselves. Do not hesitate to disavow these, as link removal requests will almost never be accommodated.

Spam pages based on the top-level domain (TLD). These are domains that are not suffixed with .uk, .com, .org, .net, and so on, and are often identifiable geographically as popular spam host countries.These have included things like .ru (Russia) or .me (Montenegro) TLDs for many years now, but 2013 marked the widespread use by spammers of other, relatively unknown TLDs.

These can now include suffixes such as .pw (the small island nation of Palau), .to (the island kingdom of Tonga), or .tk (the New Zealand territory of Tokelau). You see the pattern.

It is certainly possible to create a valuable, content-rich and spam-free website using any top-level domain. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these sites are appropriating and abusing a geographic TLD specifically to spam, and should be readily disavowed without the large investment in time it would take to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.



Example of a Links Disavow File


Personally I would Disavow the entire Domain.

  1. It’s easier to identify Domains then hundreds of URL’s
  2.  You may miss a single URL that might hold you back


# removed most links, but missed these

# Contacted owner of on 7/1/2012

# ask for link removal but got no response


Links to Keep


Any sort of natural, organic link should be kept. These are your bread and butter links for improving your ranking. Also on the “To Keep” list are any social media links, as these are typically designated as nofollowed and help to improve your recognition on the web. If your website has partner sites that have related but unique content, then it may be wise to use the “nofollow” attribute on those links so as to avoid the impression of a lack of propriety through a doorway linking scheme.


Requesting Removal for All the Remaining Links


This is the category of all other types of links, and here is where things can get tricky. Our premise for this category is that another website is negatively impacting your own with one or more unnatural links–probably accidentally–and that website is run by a responsive, articulate human being who has the potential to be just as respectful of your presence on the web as you are of theirs.

Your primary focus in dealing with these other webmasters will be to identify yourself as a part of the human community of responsible webmasters, as opposed to, say, just another spam-bot. There is a certain art to crafting an effective removal request. Do not be afraid to visit the other site to learn the first name of the webmaster, or to execute a free Whois lookup to learn their true contact information. Emails that are personal-sounding in addition to polite and short are most likely to attract attention and net a quicker response.

In your removal request, be sure to include direct links to the page or pages that contain the questionable backlinks. Making this as easy as possible for the other webmaster by minimizing the work they have to do in hunting down the links, is also more likely to earn a response.


Targets of these removal requests will be websites that have:

Exactly matching anchor text, used for PageRank manipulation. The most common kind of violation that warrants a request for removal.

Domains that have been penalized. These are domains that have been issued a manual or algorithmic penalty of their own. They can represent a “guilt by association” quandary for your own website, and you should request removal of these links.

Link Networks. These are links that point to your site that are from websites that are part of a link network. Remember, these are considered unnatural links and are explicitly forbidden by Google. Do not hesitate to send the webmaster a request for removal.If at first you do not succeed, email, email again.

Persistence is your ally here. If you do not get any traction on your first battery of removal requests, send more, but give the webmasters time to act as well.Spacing requests roughly 3-5 business days apart may be a nice median between being too insistent with the frequency of your emails, versus being too unassertive in trying to fix the Google penalty.


Document your Removal Efforts


When you are ready to submit your reconsideration request, Google will want you to also submit proof that you have made a concerted effort to remove the unnatural links that point to your site.

This consequently means that you will need to document the steps you are taking to make your site compliant with Google’s quality standards. For the sake of organisation, create a spreadsheet containing information such as the link or domain in question, the contact information of the webmaster, and the dates on which you sent your first, second, or even third takedown request. You will also want to document the link’s current status, if it is still live, or if it has been removed, or if the webmaster responded to your email but refused to remove the links, and so on.

Remember, even if you are only able to fix the vast majority of backlinks, and you still have a handful of other webmasters dragging their feet on your takedown requests, if you are able to document that situation, then it is still fine. Google essentially wants you to provide evidence of due diligence on your part. This means that a reconsideration will be tempered by the understanding by Google that there really are some things that are out of your hands to fix, and that can include the content of a website that is not your own. As long as you provide documentation showing a reasonable attempt to fix it, then one stray backlink or two should not prove too controversial.


Document your Reconsideration Request:

Reconsideration requests are handled by real people, so good documentation helps the reviewer better understand the steps you’ve taken to address the manual action.A good reconsideration request does three things:

  • Explains the exact quality issue on your site.
  • Describes the steps you’ve taken to fix the issue.
  • Documents the outcome of your efforts.

You can also link to documents that describe your clean-up efforts. The following tips describe how to document actions for specific penalties.


Manipulation of backlinks: Provide a list of links you have taken action on. You should make good-faith effort to remove backlinks before using the disavow tool. It can also be helpful to document the effort involved in removing those links. Simply disavowing all backlinks without attempting to remove them might lead to rejection of your request.

Selling links on your site: Provide examples of pages where you added nofollow attributes to the violating links or removed the links altogether. When you receive examples of violating links, make sure you extrapolate that information to fix similar links on your site.

Thin or scraped content: Provide examples of bad content you removed and good content that you added.

Purchased domain: If you recently purchased a domain that you think has violated our guidelines before you owned it, use the reconsideration request form to let us know that you recently acquired the site and that it now adheres to the guidelines.





Submitting your Reconsideration Request


This is the moment you have earned with all your hard work. Verify that you have included as much detail as possible in documenting your process for fixing your website. If you knowingly engaged in link-building practices that Google finds objectionable, now is the time to come clean and document those practices as well, all while giving Google your assurance that you will not engage in those practices in the future.

Google’s response to the request may take up to 30 days, but in most cases, response times are far shorter. Even though you have been thorough, and the reconsideration request is well-documented, you may still be asked to take more action. If so, request examples of what Google is asking for, and try once again. Sometimes, multiple reconsideration requests are required before the manual action is finally removed.

Keep in mind that no matter what Google’s first response to your request may be, no work that you have put into fixing this problem is lost. Everything is getting you closer to getting the manual penalty removed and restoring your website’s rightful place on the web.


New Challenges


A fresh battle begins after Google removes its penalty. Now, you must again fight with competing sites for the ranking you may have lost. You will need to earn new backlinks to offset those you had to remove.

The best way to earn those valuable new links is with ethical marketing practices that prioritize content sharing over mere link sharing. Providing visitors of your site with legitimately helpful or interesting information in exchange for their click is always considered a fair transaction by Google. It also has the desirable side-effect of making other websites that much more willing to link to yours, improving your backlink profile in the process.

You may choose to build out your website’s ethical, content-driven new profile on your own, or you can enlist the help of an ethical SEO company ( like Online Ownership ). Depending on the theme and goals of your site, your focus may be best spent on blogs, how-to guides, reviews, whitepapers, industry articles and so on–anything that constitutes a valuable contribution to the web, and therefore something that would warrant another site naturally and organically linking to it.



Link Building Graph




While dealing with a Google penalty can at first seem like a daunting task, it is nevertheless a process that rewards effort. Through careful and methodical synthesis of the sensible auditing, removal, and recovery techniques described here, even this is a challenge you can and will overcome.