Google Updates Link Warnings To (Sort Of) Clarify They Can Be Ignored (Maybe)

Dear Google. Please don’t send out any further link warnings to publishers. Your latest round yesterday, intended to clarify the confusion sparked by ones sent last week, is likely going to make things worse, not better. No more warnings, not until you get some fundamental clarity in place.

Dear Publishers. Here’s our latest news on the crazy link warnings that have gone out and our best attempt at figuring out whether you should be concerned or not.

How We Got Here

Earlier this year, Google began sending out warnings to some publishers, alerting them that they were involved with “artificial” or “unnatural” linking. Many publishers that received these messages saw ranking drops, especially after Google’s Penguin Update.

Google later said that one way to recover from Penguin was to get bad links removed. It also said that anyone who received a link warning should take action to remove bad links, if they received one of those notices.

Last Week’s Confusion

Last week, Google began sending out a new round of link warnings. These were exactly the same as link warnings that had gone out in prior months, warnings that meant — according to Google — that a site might see a ranking drop if it didn’t act to remove bad links or otherwise report them in some way to Google.

Cue panic.

Cue next the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts, who said not to panic, because the latest round of messages were different. These messages, Cutts explained, were meant to inform some publishers that there were links pointing at their sites that Google might now “distrust” but not something “you automatically need to worry about.”

Unfortunately, there was no way to tell if you got a link warning that you could safely ignore or not.

Cue confusion.

More Warnings, New Wording

Seeing the confusion, Google made a change over the weekend. Cutts commented on our original story, saying:

An engineer worked over the weekend and starting with the messages that we sent out on Sunday, the messages are now different so that you can tell which type of situation you’re in.

We also changed the UI in the webmaster console to remove the yellow caution sign for these newer messages. That reflects the fact that these newer notifications are much more targeted and don’t always require action by the site owner.

Now, if you’re getting what I’d call a “link advisory” from Google, rather than the traditional link warning, it says something like this:

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.

I’ll get back to interpreting this message in a moment. The new messages, the ones that you’re apparently safe to ignore (not that the message makes this clear), appear listed under the “All Messages” area when you log into Google Webmaster Central. They may look like this:

In the screenshot above, “Warning” points at an example of the message that went out last week. Notice the yellow warning sign next to it. Apparently, going forward from this past weekend, link warnings you need to act upon will always have this type of warning sign.

Marked as “Advisory” in the screenshot is an example of the advisory messages that began going out on Sunday. There’s no yellow warning sign, which is designed to reassure publishers that they don’t necessarily have to take action. Maybe.

Can You Ignore The New Advisories?

Maybe? Well, we’re trying to get more clarity from Google on the latest messages. Cutts had suggested that these types of messages were more to inform site owners about distrusted links pointing at them rather than require site owners to take any particular action. But the new advisories still have wording that may cause panic.

After all, the new supposedly-reassuring messages tell people that Google recommends “removing any unnatural links” or to submit a “reconsideration request.” Telling publishers to submit reconsideration requests by its very nature suggests they are getting penalized.

What’s a confused publisher to do? I think if you got one of the messages last week, don’t worry unless you also noticed a recent traffic drop from Google.

If you got one of the new advisories, you’re likely safe to ignore them. However — and now your head will really hurt — that might be a precursor to a future ranking drop that has nothing to do with your site being penalized.

When Links Don’t Get Counted

For years, Google has said that it might not count some of the links it finds on the web as “votes” in favor of a particular web site. The Penguin Update seems to have ramped that up. The messages that are going out also seemed to be tied to this, to better alert publishers that votes they thought they were getting might no longer count.

Think of it as an election, where bogus links are like bogus votes. The ballot box has been stuffed, and those bogus links aren’t being caught. Candidates getting those votes get elected. Then the elections people start looking more closely at the votes and tossing out the bogus ones. Now the candidates that were winning no longer get elected, or elected as often.

Those candidates weren’t penalized. They weren’t barred from being in the election. They just weren’t allowed to benefit from bad votes.

Penalty Or New Way Of Counting Votes?

This is why Google has begun saying that Penguin isn’t a penalty but rather just an algorithmic change, where the algorithm is detecting what it considered bogus votes and not counting them. If you were a site with a lot of bogus votes, then you’re going to be hit harder than sites that have only a few of them among all the legitimate ones.

That’s also why Google hasn’t advised people to do reconsideration requests, if they were hit by Penguin. There was no manual action that could be removed. In other words, Penguin didn’t ban them from being in the election. It just didn’t count bad votes.

Confusingly, however, Google did advise people to clean up bad links. That suggests that Penguin does more than just discount bad votes. It clearly must somehow penalize sites that seem to have a lot of bad links. Otherwise, there would be no reason to advise removing bad links.

So Why Send Messages?

That leads back to why the latest round of messages may be going out. If Google is automatically counting bad links as a way to penalize sites, rather than just discounting them, then any site is potentially vulnerable to “negative SEO,” where someone might point bad links at a competitor.

Google has continued to discount the threat of negative SEO. SEOmoz just covered how an overt negative SEO attack hasn’t impacted its traffic. But the new advisories might be a poorly-implemented way of reassuring publishers about not to worry about negative SEO. They seem designed to give a heads-up that a site might not benefit from some links in the way it did before, not because the site faces a penalty but because the links aren’t counted.

Potentially, that’s helpful. It’s good advice for a publisher to understand they might not be ranking well because the link counting methodology has changed, not because they’ve done something wrong or because of some negative SEO attempt.

However, it’s bad advice not to be clearer, to be suggesting that publishers should be trying to actively remove links pointing at their site, if these links supposedly aren’t trusted. It’s worse to be telling them to file reconsideration requests if they’ve done nothing warranting reconsideration.

If Google wants to keep discounting an increasing number of links out there, that’s Google’s right. But publishers have better things to do than being dragged in as part of that ballot box policing, if they’ve done nothing wrong.

Postscript: See also my column in Marketing Land, Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing.

Postscript 2: See the latest from Google, Google Explains New Link Warnings, Says Don’t Panic But Don’t Ignore.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Webmaster Central | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Corey Eulas

    I still don’t understand why they (Google) are asking people to do anything.  They should just discount the links and move on.  This is all nonsense and causing a frenzy. 

  • Russell Dean Jensen

    Google “recommends” that I manually take down links right? But if Google is only going to distrust those links it would automatically be like they don’t exist at all. Why should I jump through hoops to manually remove links when Google doesn’t place value one them in the first place?!

  • The God of SEO™

    Uhm, because no-follow from known blackhat sources switch is too hard to implement into the algorithm Google? Right….joke’s on EVERYBODY.

  • Elliot Dean

    Google doesnt want to be seen as simply discounting spammy links. This would encourage dodgy link builders to continue to build tonnes of links knowing they wont be penalised, in the hope that some of the links will be counted as a vote. Google want to prevent people trying to see what they can “get away” with, and scaring them into penalties (whether real or not) will help curtail these practices.

  • Alan

    I personally have a theory that Penguin and all these link warnings are more to do with resource allocation than actually fighting web spam although fighting web spam is a nice by product. What do I mean? Well, we have seen an exponential growth in spammy links out there, brought on by a level of automation that has never been seen before. Nearly every blackhatter and his dog has a copy of scrapebox or xrummer or Senuke or some other relatively cheap blackhat link building software. There are literally millions of blackhatters coming at Google from all fronts and doing without even having to be at their machine for most of the time. Add to this the insane growth in blog networks, I think even the tireless Googlebot will run out of steam eventually. Personally I have never had to run a web bot like Googlebot but I could imagine that it must get frustrating logging all these billions of horribly spammy links that really serve no good purpose. It must cost quite a bit also? 

    We all know that the people at Google are trying to drive profit up and at one end of the spectrum you can move to increase revenue, which obviously they have done in the last year. However at the other end it is probably just as likely that Google is moving to reduce costs. All this “link warning” and “Penguin” activity may just be a cost cutting venture. For example the blog networks once identified, no longer have to be scanned. The bot can happily ignore a whole section of the web and still give good results to the user. By identifying these horribly spammy links and getting the webmasters to help them do this, helps drive the costs of operating Google down.Anyway it is just a theory.

  • Harm Hendriks

    I can confirm that this is also happening in The Netherlands. 

  • Merlinox

    The situation after penguing in embarassing for SEO!

  • Tim

    We got the same exact messages over here in Germany. Our inbox looks actually exact like the screenshot in this article. I now wonder if the new messages are an answer to our recently sent reconsideration request or not.

  • Ant

    At the moment Google seems intent on sewing as much confusion as possible, going back to the less transparent days of the past. One of the many things that concerns me is that Google can’t even seem to actually decide what is and isn’t a manual penalty. Matt Cutt’s recently stated that it’s only worth carrying out a reconsideration request if a MANUAL penalty has been placed however these latest messages seem to be a result of Penguin, which is algorithmic and presumably a recon request wouldn’t work.

    They then send out messages advising that a reconsideration request should be carried out after the links that the webmasters probably don’t know about have been removed from sites they have no control over, which suggests these are MANUAL penalties not algorithmic.

    I also take exception to the arrogance that webmasters will know of a penalty after they see their traffic disappear - a bit like fitting a smoke detector after your apartment has caught fire really isn’t it?

    Google you are doing a great job of alienating your most loyal customers, anyone for Bing?

  • Peter Kern

    Yeahhh Google thinks people will start removing links and SEO will die. DON’T remove any links DON’T send requests for reconsideration. REMOVE google analytics and google webmaster tool from your website. Less Google knows about your site than better!

  • Mark Hughes

    Removing GWT has to be the worst thing you can do – rather than getting an unnatural links message giving you time to take action, the first you’ll know about it is when your site bombs.  Example -

    There’s too much paranoia amongst SEOs right now, having had our fingers burnt earlier in the year.

  • Mark Hughes

    It was certainly irresponsible of Google to post these messages. I totally respect that Google is trying to get rid of spam and to pass value from links that are actually worth something.  However, they are totally aware of the chaos which followed the original messages back in Feb/March. It was cruel to send these messages out and leave people to stew for 24hrs, without clarifying what they mean first.

    As for the “remove them if you like” message – come on!  Tell us what you want us to do, with clarity!

  • Codex Meridian

     I definitely agree on this. Google has the data (the inbound link profile for the site). Therefore, its Google responsibility to clean this data as much as possible as they are the ones gathering it and using it for their algorithm.

    Now that they pass this responsibility to webmasters, it made me think they are slowly surrendering the battle of spam on the Internet. They are not smart enough to sort what is “good” data from “bad” data.Think about how many Ph.D is working at Google. So shameful to them.

    If you are the one gathering the data, you should be the one to sort out the outliers before proceeding to the analysis. However Google cannot sort out this outliers (e.g. unwanted links and all of these dirty link tactics that is beyond the control of webmasters) themselves. They look unsure. I think what they are doing is a sort of validation, but it won’t work. It’s too much for the webmasters to handle thinking that our job is simply to create quality content and nothing more.

    In my wildest imagination, probably it’s time to accept that the Google PageRank model has its serious flaws and limitation. It is time to move forward and formulate another system.

  • Mariya James

    Well, it has become difficult for all SEOs to rank or to get traffic on your site, but we all understand that Google is trying to remove all spammy sites from Google search results.

  • Bibiano Wenceslao

    IMHO it’s Google’s way of asking “we need your help filtering out which links are good, and which are bad”. It’s like a link election – when a particular link gets enough vote as a bad link  (from the number of webmasters who’ve reported it as such), and combined with the data they already have, then it’s hammertime. All other sites (aside from those who have made removal requests) with that same link gets the downvote sting. Imagine what happens on the next major update. 

  • George Michie

    I agree, Elliot.  The “advisories” serve the function of letting folks know that Google sees something nefarious happening.  If you’re paying someone to build links and get this warning, you might be encouraged to stop paying that person because they’re doing link building badly.  Over time, that will have the benefit to Google of slowing the explosion of bogus websites they have to crawl, index and process algorithmically.  If the internet only contained “quality” sites, devoid of all the AdSense spam dreck, and link farms, Google’s job would be easier and the quality of search results would be better as well.

  • Kevin Gerding

    These messages from Google are vague, provide no examples and do nothing but induce panic.

    Just because Google engineers lack the skills to algorithmically discount bad links does not mean they need to turn the whole web upside down with policies that promise to do nothing but waste millions of webmaster’s time, exponentially increase the demands of SEOs, and do not a darn thing to solve any problems.

    I can’t wait for the link disavow tool to go live.  Instead of creating content I can sift through countless links all day long.  Since Bing offers this feature now, I can do it for two search engines.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I must repeat that such link disavow options give productivity a swift and hard kick between the legs.

    Panda, Penguin and all of these unnatural link “advisories” and “warnings” are a complete waste.  Google’s effort to enlist deputies to become backlink police officers is not welcome by me and many others.  We have better things to do with our time like create that great content that Google so frequently mentions.  There’s one problem.  I am not Google and do not have employees that I can devote to being backlink deputies.  Time to outsource such a task?  Not while the budget is under my control.  I’d rather disavow Google.

    If there’s one positive to all these updates and notifications is that they have indeed offered some insight into how Google is presently operating.  What Google has shared thus far indicates their engineers can’t solve the problems of some gaming the system and that their webspam team is quite unorganized.  Google’s effort to push transparency has been quite an abysmal failure in my eyes.

  • rafaelmontilla

    Agree with most of all.  
    I have been removing links and more links. Yes Google has the Data, if Google can not remove those links,  I would be easy if Google send the list of unnatural link.
    I can not understand why G send this warning to some websites owners and other that are doing bad SEO do not get this warning.
    I have found a client’s compatitor who was ranking #1, using a blog network and low quality links. I had send a ditail report to Google 4 months ago,  but nothing happen on Google end, but on the competitor end, thing are getting better. After Penguin the compatitor is ranking #1 and #2 and some times 3# also.

  • Peter Kern

    oh dear
    it is not about links FROM your website but about back links to your website…. it was obvious from the beginning of SEO that you should be very careful when putting links on your site to others especially dofollow links. 

    GWT and Analytics is just like another google big brother machine to control the net… have you ever heard about google street cars? they supposed to only take photos but ooops by mistake they also hack into wireless networks hahhaa

    never believe corporations ..

  • Peter Kern

    when are you going to stop believe what google says? what other proofs you need that what they say is piece of
    DONT remove links! This is the worst what you can do.

  • Mark Hughes

    I posted that case study as an example of why you need GWT – so that you can receive the warning message from G before they bomb your site.  Whether that be for inbound or outbound links is irrelevant.  Without GWT, you’ll get no warning, no chance to take action, and like that site you end up with 4 days of no revenue from Google.  If you’d rather risk that because you’re worried about Google bats infecting your coffee with rohypnol through your mouse cable, go ahead!

  • victorpan

    Not all links are created equal. If you’re able to remove links that you believe are from a bad neighborhood, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t attempt to remove them (even though it’s tough).

    If they wouldn’t be driving quality traffic otherwise, there really is no point to “bad links” other than amassing your link count – which would be a dangerous path to go on towards for quantifying success…

    Until then…  Brace Yourselves ;)

  • Mark Hughes

    I just can’t see a link disavow tool ever working.  So you can go and built a tonne of bad links, wait for G to tell you it’s seen something dodgy, then disavow them before the penalty kicks in.  Then the process begins over again… and again… and again.  It’s just helping those who build bad links to undo their work before they get penalised.

    I wrote a quick blog on putting an end to negative SEO the other day, feel free to take a look

  • Savinder Dhiman

    Thanks for Sharing this nice information.

  • Peter Kern

    Show me the website which recovered after receiving the message from Google (but the website which has unnatural link warning message not simple problem with external links on the website) . People are just gone crazy with removing links and believing what M.Cutts or other gig has to say. And yet a lot of spammy websites with black hat seo methods still rank well and they laugh at your faces.

      If you’d rather risk that because you’re worried about Google bats infecting your coffee with rohypnol through your mouse cable, go ahead! 
    Is it supposed to be funny? because they DID hacked to wireless networks and collected some data! It is FACT. they explanation? oh we did it by mistake wow:) Do you believe them?

  • Mark Hughes

    Here’s a pretty good example -

    I think you may have not had the same experience as many of us back in Feb/March.  If you got an “unnatural links” message back then, Google tended to give you about 2 weeks to get rid of them (or at least demonstrate that you had made reasonable attempts to do so).  If you didn’t take action, you got a penalty.

    So, if you get the ‘warning’ message rather than the ‘advisory’ referred to above, you do need to take action.  If you think it’s an unfair warning, challenge it in a reconsideration request and argue your case.  Chances are, though, that you’ll end up going through your backlink profile and getting dodgy ones removed.

  • Peter Kern

    Sorry but this example doesn’t proof anything. 26th may when they recovered it is a date when another major google algo update took place. Removing links is the worst thing you can do. It is not even really possible if you did some link building or somebody did negative SEO to your website. 

  • Aranzamendez Design

    I’m still thankful I’m not receiving this messages from Google even if my clients website ranking is very inconsistent.. Well, we should delete all the previous bad links pointing to our site as soon as possible.

  • scottdennison

    Mark – I agree with your point, however Google never gave any ideas on how to remove links they did not like. I was one who did you a blog network that got blown up, and there was no way to get those links removed. All 3 sites that we used this for were hammered. Why doesn’t 
    Google just provide a way to disavow the links you don’t want – almost like pruning a plant?

  • David Waterman SEO

    I wonder if this is Google’s way of tricking people into outing themselves as having done black hat linking tactics. Send tons of notices stating you may have bad links and if they see they all start to get quickly removed, you’re penalized instead. Hmmmm.

  • Jon Good

    You know it is kind of funny, I never received one of these messages, but yet I lost ranking for my main keyword in Google for my site

  • Sheila Cruze

    Why don’t Google comes up with a system where publishers and webmasters could disavow ir-relevant links. I guess It could make our job easier and convenient. Last month Bing came up with such a facility where publishers could disavow links that they deem irrelevant.

  • Content Axis

    But how could someone dare to remove Google Analytics and GWT when much of your traffic and customers are coming through Google. I wish we could have another search engine that could give tough competition to Google

  • Mark Hughes

    Sorry but this is garbage. We’ll have to agree to disagree!

  • Mark Hughes

    Hi Scott,

    Sorry to hear you got hit.  However, from my experience, Google did provide instructions on how to remove links – they suggested you check your backlink profile to identify bad links, then contact webmasters to request their removal.  Obviously they knew that many would fall on deaf ears, however if you could provide proof (lists of sites, copies of emails) then they would make a decision based on that.  If you pressed them, sometimes they would provide examples of bad links (which I believe they should have done in the first place, for the non-tech savvy and people who may have unwittingly employed a dodgy SEO company).

    Admittedly what they didn’t do was tell you ‘how’ to check your backlinks, because at that time they didn’t allow you to download backlinks in GWT.  They relied on people knowing about and having access to OSE or Majestic.  I’m not saying it wasn’t a massive pain in the neck, but clearly it was intended to put people off building bad links again.

  • Mark Hughes

    P.S. that update on 25th May was, to quote Matt Cutts, a “‘data refresh’ that impacts less than one-tenth of a percent of English-language searches.” That’s 0.1% – a one in a thousand chance that the update resulted in the recovery.


  • Patrick Bonnes

    That also means that the competition can sabotage the links to their competitors!

    That is scary and saves the wrong target!

    But, the more Google changes the algortim, the more we are able to learn about Google’s algortitm.

  • Bruno M. Picinini

    Best title ever!

  • Garrett Williams

    Does this mean that if you did not get the warnings or whatever from Google your linking is ok? I must have some other problem then because I was slammed by penguin.  Could be spammy onsite links.

  • Allan Hall

    I think that there is another factor to this .

     I had a site that got hit by penguin where  it was mostly natural links. It lost 50 % of Impressions in WMT .   Thre was no link warning for this site.    This is consistent with what you are saying about devalued and rather just an algorithmic change.

    Then I had another  site  that was not hit with penguin  but got the first link warning and subsequently lost 50% of its impresions in WMT .  just after pengiun

    Both are smaller niche sites one promoted via linking the other not but a lot of natural links from our provide code from the site ( alot the same) .  So there was good seperation between the 2 .  Maybe there is a lot of combonations of the 2  going on with sites at the same time hence the confusion.

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