Insanity: Google Sends New Link Warnings, Then Says You Can Ignore Them

Google’s war on bad links officially became insane today. For months, Google’s sending out warnings about bad links and telling publishers they should act on those, lest they get penalized. Today, Google said the latest round of warnings sent out this week can be safely ignored. That’s not “more transparency” as Google posted. That’s more confusion.

It’s easiest to do the history first, to better understand the confusion caused by today’s post.

How We Got Here: Link Warnings Earlier This Year

Toward the end of March and in early April, Google began sending out warnings about “artificial” or “unnatural” links, such like this one:

Dear site owner or webmaster of….

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

There was some confusion about whether these messages meant that a site was actually penalized for having these links pointing at them or whether Google was just informing the sites but not really taking any negative action. Google’s response on this wasn’t clear:

Google has been able to trace and take action on many types of link networks; we recently decided to make that action more visible.

In the past, some links might have been silently distrusted or might not have carried as much weight. More recently, we’ve been surfacing the fact that those links aren’t helping to improve ranking or indexing.

The Penguin Attacks

In late April, the Google Penguin Update went live. Designed to fight spam, it especially seemed to take action by either penalizing publishers who had participated in bad linking activities (as determined by Google’s) or discounting those links, so they no longer carried as much weight.

All hell broke loose in some quarters, especially among those who had been actively using link networks to boost their rankings in ways that went against Google’s guidelines. One of the suggested recovery options from Google was to remove bad links.

Google Advice: Get Rid Of Bad Links

But what if people couldn’t get links taken down? The head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, just generally suggested such a thing was possible without giving any specific advice.

This led further support to those who argued that “negative SEO” was now suddenly a real possibility, that any publisher could be targeted with “bad links” and made to plunge in Google’s rankings. Google stressed that negative SEO in this way is rare and hard. To this date, negative SEO still hasn’t seemed to be a wide-spread problem for the vast majority of publishers on the web.

Those reassurances — along with a Google help page update saying Google “works hard to prevent” negative SEO — hasn’t calmed some. Negative SEO has remained a rallying cry especially for many hit by Penguin (and many were deservedly hit) looking for a way to fight back against Google.

The New Link Building: Remove My Link Requests

But aside from the negative SEO sideshow, plenty of publishers tried to follow Google’s advice to get links removed. I’ve even had one come to me, from some publisher who was listed in our SearchCap daily newsletter in the past and wanted us to pull down a link. Insane. A link from a reputable site like ours is exactly what you want, and yet they wanted it removed.

The insanity has gotten even worse. We’ve had people threatening to sue to have links removed. We’ve covered that before. Boing Boing also covered another case today (without providing any of the background on how Google itself has fueled some of this craziness).

Today, we covered how some directories are now charging people to have links removed. Let’s be really clear on how topsy-turvey that means things have become. People have wanted links in the past and have been willing to pay for them (despite this being against Google’s rules). Now they’re perhaps willing to pay to have links taken down.

June: Google Says Don’t Ignore Link Warnings

But you’ve got to get those links removed, if you’ve gotten a warning message. After all, Google has said that. In June, at our SMX Advanced conference, Cutts said this about those link warnings:

You should pay attention. Typically your web site ranking will drop if you don’t take action after you get one of those notices.

Here’s the extended video clip on the topic:

YouTube Preview Image

But again, what to do if you can’t get links removed? Cutts said that Google might release a “disavow” tool. By the end of June, Bing even did launch such a link disavow tool — not that it helped with Google, of course. Those who had notices from Google about bad links pointing at them, notices they were supposed to take action on, still might not be able to get those links removed.

New Batch Of Warnings Goes Out

That leads to yesterday, when Google began sending out a new batch of link notices. Here’s an example of what one of those looks like:

Dear site owner or webmaster of….

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

Yes, that’s exactly the same content as what Google sent in late March. Nothing in the message gives the impression it can be ignored. It even encourages people who can’t get links removed to actively file a reconsideration request with Google.

July: Google Says You Can Ignore Link Warnings

But today, Cutts said this about the messages in a Google+ post:

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.

Like I said, this latest round of messages doesn’t seem to make things more transparent. The messages seem to be the same exact ones that Google previously told people they SHOULD worry about.

How About Just Saying If There’s A Real Concern

How do you know if you’re at risk if you get one of these new messages? Apparently, you also need to look at your traffic from Google and see if there’s a plunge. If so, you have a bad link problem. If not, well, you got a message that apparently can be ignored.

It would sure be much easier if the messages themselves said if action was really required or not. If there really was a penalty or not (in a world now where penalties that were penalties now might be “adjustments”).

That would be transparent. Instead, I predict this is all just going to cause greater confusion and panic, not more clarity and calmness.

It’s also yet another sign of how creaky the foundations or ranking sites based on links has become. It gets even more difficult these days to know what’s supposed to help or hurt. Links as votes suck.

Postscript: Google’s Matt Cutts commented below on Monday, July 23rd that the newer messages that can be safely ignored are now actually saying that:

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.

See also our follow-up story: Google Updates Link Warnings To (Sort Of) Clarify They Can Be Ignored (Maybe).

Postscript 2: See also my column in Marketing Land, Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing.

Postscript 3: See the latest from Google, Google Explains New Link Warnings, Says Don’t Panic But Don’t Ignore.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Disavow Links Tool | Google: SEO | Google: Webmaster Central | Top News

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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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.michaelmerritt.org/ Michael Merritt

    According to a comment to Matt’s original Google+ post, looks like they might be re-sending messages to people who got the initial warning.

  • Steffen Boskma

    Google is making a lot of smoke but I don’t see any fires yet… I found a lot of websites buying links still on the first spots on Google. Even reporting them doesn’t work really. Also the networks are just doing what they are doing. I find a lot of networks and they are spreading harder than Google can catch them. Still good people like Matt work hard to fight it and after all the updates form the algorithm did work for a lot of websites.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shari.mcconahay Shari Maxwell McConahay

    Thank you, Matt. I just received the new email notifications regarding my sites.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shari.mcconahay Shari Maxwell McConahay

    Vanessa, I just received new email notifications letting me know my sites were not penalized, just that some inbound links are being ignored.

  • http://twitter.com/EdWords Eduard Blacquière

    Seems like Matt kept his promise, I just saw a new Unnatural Links warning from Google. Posted it here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/100578268595568068954/posts/FPkmp9xTbTm

  • scandnc

    And then there’s this new email since from Google on Webmasters today -

    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.

    Huh?  Guess that means all is ok though…. as in perhaps they’re going for the links rather than the site.  About time.  That way scraper sites and negative SEO won’t get in my way.

  • http://www.theistudio.com Judith

    “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

    “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

    “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

    L. Caroll, “Alice in Wonderland”

    This is the way it has always been with G.  Nothing different.  Just that no one is willing to honestly discuss even the possibility of collateral damage or false negatives. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/besthotsauce Jon Good

    I think Google did this so more people would use Pay Per Click Adds and make them lots more money.

  • Sandeep Kumar

    I got about unnatural backlink messages about 3 months ago and currently i get some new messages of unnatural inbound links that is not more informative as earlier. It looking like this.
    http://www.seofleet.com/:
    Unnatural inbound links

    July 23,
    2012

    We’ve
    detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques
    outside Google’sWebmaster
    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 already removed my links from link exchanges schemes and request to directory webmasters about to free my site links. But still it is showing the same message what i am do?
     

  • Adnan Ahmed

    Hi all webmasters,
    I have received one msg on 20 of this month, I was very worried when I read this post and felt very relaxed. But suddenly 3 days later i.e on 23 i again received this mail from google regarding unnatural links. Now what would you suggest me shall I perform some activity on my website or should I consider this message as auto generated?

  • Mark Peters

    I totally agree with the hate part, lets all start using & promoting BING.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7I2VZLXCHKQGWQ3KY37Z3QP6FI Hual_Arc

     Not necessarily Joe, and  it’s only no good if google says it’s no good for them and their money. It’s all about money, and shareholders, so up to no good!? Everybody is out to make money bottom line. Again, google sells back links called PPC, and many directories were basically selling back links for years and google ignored them until now. Contradictory? Yes, but that is ok, because google says so, and it isn’t a matter of up to no good or not, it’s a matter of what they (king google) say is good or bad for them. Anyway, I really would like to see the other SE’s come on stronger like DuckDuckgo, blexo, Bing, Yahoo and others and just keep eating away at google’s SE market share and level the playing field a lot more. This would of course be a penalty to do so according to google, but that penalty they can’t control, ie. competition. Ciao.

  • http://www.tylerherrick.com Tyler Herrick

    Most of the comments here are largely negative. How about some positive comments on the fact that Google is more informative today than it was yesterday. So many negative people are thinking Google is actively out to ruin their own search experience. It’s mind-boggling how critical people can be. I help manage too many sites for me to look at them individually from an SEO perspective. However, now I know when I need to go take action on a site. Win for me.

  • Ronald Clark

     No matter what Google does the farm fest directories google algorithm PROMOTED now make even more cash. I tried to removed some directories that had a rank of 4-5 pre-penguin and now are 0 and they charged me 20$ per link. Good job Google, promote crappy link building then penalize everyone for having a faulty algorithm.

    I can only imagine in how much pain some link builders are right now. If you chose to go for comments, you’re pretty much screwed now.

  • http://twitter.com/beneficialfunk Beneficial Function

    I’m more and more convinced that Google simply doesn’t have a handle on what they claim as their service. The only way they can produce a service that matches the quality they claim to have is by controlling the entire web from start to finish.

    They issue updates that swing one way or another as they test algorithms in a live environment. All this backpedaling comes from the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing, have no customer service (and thus can’t be held accountable), and their TOS for users is like a novel.

    That’s also why they keep pasting Google “owned” content over their SERP pages. It’s the only thing they can control with reasonable accuracy! 

  • http://twitter.com/sanojuniq imuniq

    I don’t know actually what Google wants, Most of my sites ranking have changed i don’t know now what i do. is there any tool which tell me about those links which links are spammy or unnatural. really i am very confused.

  • Mech S

    I don’t even know why the heck Google even bothered with the latest round of messages. Stirring sh*t around for nothing – in the end the whole idea of link penalties still stinks because most of us can’t do anything about removin’ them. 

    My question is, is Google still going ahead with the “disavow” links feature?

  • JC Edwards

    Google are here to make money, they don’t care about bad PR (even when it has been proven they lied to the UK government about stealing passwords and data from peoples computers with their street view cars). Google are out of control, they can (and do) do exactly what they choose to do.

     Google are not, nor have they ever been a search company, they have always been an advertising company.

    It is not in their best interests to have decent information out there. they have screwed up mightily by penalising sites for bad inbounds aas it is simple. :-

    the only thing that has held back website owners in the past has been the fear of being pinged by google. NOW there is no need to worry about that, just build a few decen’t links and social to your site, and spam the backside relentlessly out of the sites above yours, and just watch Google remove them for you.

    Servers in meltdown running xrumer, scrapebox and all the other such like software. 

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    They are totally more informative than in the past. I’ve praised them ample times for this in the past. But this latest effort isn’t informative. It’s confusing, in my view.

  • http://bolivartech.wordpress.com/ bolivartech

    As Long as you don’t bad SEO, you’re going to be fine. People worried about this thing I believe you just need know the basic about SEO, to get good Ranking.

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