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

Sponsored


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



SearchCap:

Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  

Share

Other ways to share:
 

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • http://houseofcopy.com houseofcopy

    Oh what the hell…

  • http://twitter.com/JadedTLC JadedTLC

    Happy April Fool’s Day! Oh wait, that was a few months ago..

  • http://xeeme.com/MikeMiguel/ Luis Miguel

    It seems another Penguim update for soon

  • http://joey.jp Joseph Miller

    Google might want to be more transparent with their definition of transparent.

  • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

    Google’s cracking down, and they are tired of people taking the easy way out. Matt isn’t contradicting himself, he’s just saying, just because you get a message doesn’t mean you need to start running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Google’s just letting you know that their algorithm see’s something awry and you need to look into it. If you know you’ve been up to no good you should stop doing no good. If you haven’t done anything wrong you should be fine. If something bad happens you can plead your case and submit a re-inclusion request.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_O7TXNSOLJZGZIEMPM53OZBE3PU Kaj K

    When was “Block Google in robots.txt” day again?

  • http://twitter.com/erocketSEO Dave Fowler

    I’m intrigued by Cutts’ comment that “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.”

    It’s that “as a whole” bit that intrigues me. Maybe further penalties for inaction will still occur as before, but at a page level? For those affected that still doesn’t fit with the advice not to panic, but then this whole thing is rapidly turning into farce.

    Transparency? It’s all clear as mud.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.lee.144 Gary Lee

    Kaj K its everyday when you install an ad blocker!

    I am fed up with this stupid nonsense from Google. This sort of stupid behaviour is costing companies so much money. Arguments with seo companies and staff etc..

  • Barry Welford

    Why does Google continue to try to push peas up the mountain of spammy web pages with its nose. As Danny suggests it is time to give up on the failed Pagerank concept. This is all an incredible waste of time and human energy. And all to make a computer algorithm work better. Sheesh.

  • Eldar1673

    Very old link: http://elyeconomy.blogspot.com/2005/06/future-of-seo.html

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ANQXK4DSBMNMY5C2SLY7FSIPDM MasterTechMark

    I wonder how many webmasters are in my boat? No messages in WMT. Submitted for reconsideration and got a “there is no manual penalty” message back. But the problem goes way beyond traffic drops. I can copy and paste the first 2 short sentences from my home page that contains my Unique nick name into the search box and my site doesn’t rank in the top 100. Snippet scraper sites that scraped those 2 sentences with grey PR Bars out rank my PR 4 homepage. But G say’s I’m fine?

  • http://www.facebook.com/pinton Max Pinton

    Here’s my situation: I have a 13 year-old e-commerce site, no SEO, no ads, no linkbuilding, and no warnings: my organic Google traffic was cut 60% on April 25th.

    I understand Google is very serious about fighting spammers, but the unchecked power they wield on the public internet is staggering, and it’s chilling how there’s simply no recourse if you’ve been caught in the crossfire. Reconsideration request: no manual penalty. Penguin request: ignored.

  • http://twitter.com/puresilva Andrew Lang

    My guess is they’ve seen some negative SEO cases crop up in the last 24 hours with this latest round.  Cutt’s follow-up comment contradicts the message sent to webmasters in that they HAVE to do something.

  • http://www.antonkoekemoer.com/ Anton Koekemoer

    Agreed. They have to do something. 

  • Edmund Pelgen

    This reminds me of of a creaky house of cards which as it gets bigger and more focused becomes increasingly more difficult to manage without disastrous results.  Its becoming increasingly frustrating to get decent insight and data whenever Google (Matt) opens his mouth.

  • Meg Geddes

    Well now Matt says he’ll work on different messages for different situations.

    Insanity was the right word.

  • Gus1281

    This might sound dramatic but I left work yesterday after receiving this GWT message worrying about my job, leading to a chain of worrying thoughts (will i get another job easily, support my family etc) I work for a one of the largest websites in Europe, I’m purely white hat and construct my SEO around the user (via the teachings of Wall, Fishkin, Sullivan etc).

    Our link profile consists of millions of links and its inevitable some bad (uncontrolable) apples will be thrown into the mix. I was preparing to explain the possible outcomes of receiving this message to high level executives who know nothing about SEO, all they know are numbers, it’s probable I would have been fired.

    I officially hate Google, if they are to wield this power and deliver ‘Armageddon’ threats they at the very least need to provide us with more information, clarity or provide some understanding.

  • Gus1281

    This may sound dramatic but after recieving this message in GWT I became concerned about losing my job leading to greater concerns (will I get another job easily, will I be able to support my family etc).

    I work for one of the largest Internet retailers in Europe and am pure white hat focusing my SEO efforts around the user (via the teachings of Wall, Fishkin, Sullivan and more). A link profile consisting of millions of links is inevitably going to contain some bad(uncontrollable) apples, we’ll eventually get them.

    I was preparing to inform high level executives of the potential outcomes of recieving this message. These individuals know nothing about SEO but will most likely have fired me.

    Google needs to get its act together, when sending out messages that impact people’s lives they should provide some clarity and actionable insight.

    I’m sick of Matt Cutts and more so the brown noses that praise and glorify his every word, Google’s ignorance and bullying is downright disgusting.

  • http://www.seoautomatic.com shendison

    Matt said this in his + post - 
    “The innocent site will get this message, but it’s nut necessarily something you automatically need to worry about.” 

    Great – clear as mud…

    I think what Google is looking for here is to instill so much FUD (Fear Unscertainty and Doubt) that site owners throw up their hands, fire their SEO’s, and gravitate more towards self management and paid search. 

  • http://twitter.com/johnjmcdonald John McDonald

    Officially became insane… today!?  

    This is just the latest link in a long chain of double-talk and obfuscation designed to hide the fact that they’ve really messed up – and possibly lost control of – the quality of their search results. The more SEOs they mislead, confuse, and misdirect, the longer they can keep up the charade…  Because as soon as the SEOs look at the SERPs and do some critical thinking of their own, they’ll realize what kind of crap is actually ranking and they’ll copy the winning formula of throw-away domains and irrelevant anchors. 

  • http://twitter.com/johnjmcdonald John McDonald

    Ya this basically happened on one of my sites.  Once you get Penguin-flagged, Google will trust the scrapers stealing your content more than they trust you as the originator.

    Any link warnings?  Nope.  Participating in any blog networks?  Nope.  Hire a shady SEO or Fiverr wannabe?  Nope.  Just original content with a lot of social shares, a few bookmarks, and a few articles.  Result:  page 40 for title keywords and outranked by scrapers.  The worst part is that site survived the April Penguin check and got snagged in the May version, even though I didn’t touch the domain in the meantime except to add some new, unique content. Good job, Google.  Way to fight spam by rewarding the scrapers who don’t bother to promote their stolen sites!

  • http://www.fuzzone.com/ Kunle Campbell -Fuzz One Media

    The plot thickens – negative SEO is definitely at play here and Google is shuffling it’s feet trying to figure out how to handle these inevitable cases. Let’s see how things pan out. I am all for flushing out aggressive SEOing through dodgy link building and link networks.

  • http://xeeme.com/MikeMiguel/ Luis Miguel

    I know many cases as yours, Master and John. Officialy those sites aren’t penalized by Penguim… so they are colaterall damage?? or Google create a “Black Hat”  algorithm?

  • http://twitter.com/Azipharel Azipharel

    Although in my mind you are partially correct, I don’t fully agree. Cracking down and being tired of people “taking the easy way out” may all be good things, but innocent people having their sites taking a plunge even if they have done nothing wrong.. and THEN having a chance to submit a request for re-consideration.. that is a terrible (and very totalitarian) way to distribute “justice”. What good is it to a small business to have their site restored to a more fair position after the company has gone out of business? Large companies are completely immune to all this, and small companies are completely open to being abused and taken down. I think Google has completely lost its direction to “do no evil” a long time ago!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ddungu Richardo Ddu

    The best way is for google to simply discount spammy links instead of punishing websites that gain those links. Its because of penguin that we are getting wrong results in google. For the first time in 3 months, i visited yahoo and got the results that i wanted….also remember that google just announced an increase in profits…after the penguin update…u can see where we are going…

  • http://twitter.com/thelondoneer The Londoneer

    shafted 12, how do you know that’s what your competitors are doing? You can’t be certain – so is attacking them in this way justified?

  • Matt McGee

    Pretty sure Google’s profits have gone up every quarter since they went public ages ago.

  • fjpoblam

    Ah, well. G has always said, another SE is just a click away. Right?

  • http://www.blackysky.com/ Ricardo Solon

    oh wow…sounds like they are losing control…They better find a new way to rank pages because the whole links paradigm is outdated ….People are finding a gazillion ways to “trick” their search engine with links…They will need more then a penguin to stop them …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28004290 Tomoyuki Sugao

    From the post of Matt Cutts on Google+, I got there are two types of message (the contents are same), and you do not need to be afraid if the message is the one for some links to your site.

    However, the message sent last week are all the one of this kind? Or, it also includes same message like the one that Google sent March or April??

  • Paweł Korniak

    I agree, last algorith changes just doesn’t work. They “correct” big part of SERP’s and broke another big part at the same time.

  • BIrwin1

    It does not matter how they change the algorithm – someone is always going to find a way to get ahead…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/the.nathaniel.bailey Nathaniel Bailey

    Tell me about it, we got one of those silly messages for a clients site on Thursday (the first message we ever got from google for something bad) and nothing seems to have changed for rankings or traffic etc.

    So why did google send us the message for a client hows site is within the google guidelines? We spent about half a day checking over back links etc because we thought we might have messed up or someone (a competitor etc) could have tried to spam some links at the site to get us in trouble, but we still found nothing, so thanks for wasting half a day for two people that could have been getting some work done instead of chasing up on your pointless scares!

  • Chris Koszo

    That is the question I was pondering as well… From his post on G+:

     ”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”

    ^ That seems to tell me that, no, these last notices were not imminent penalty warnings, rather they were courtesy warnings. However, there may be small-scale loss of rankings for specific pages wiht the bad links, hence his inclusion of the phrases “whole site” and “individual links.” He also said:

    “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.”

    ^^^I think he said this because obviously they’re still manually penalizing sites just like they’ve always had, but if you received the notice on the same day that everyone did it’s probably safe to say that it was of the former variety rather than the latter.

  • http://twitter.com/Neuromancer Maurice Walshe

    FFS @mattcutts – Thanks a lot mate I just ruined a number of my US colleagues weekenda  some one needs to sort out the webspam team

  • Atiba Jefferson

    matt is an idiot.. i feel now as the entire spam dept. of Google is in a dis-array of clarity thought.

  • http://hometify.com/ Dimitri

    Unfortunately there always will be the other ways for doing black
    SEO.

    Maybe they should consider a new ways to rank pages

  • http://twitter.com/mattcutts Matt Cutts

    Hey Danny, I wanted to mention that I updated my Google+ post. 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.

  • http://suckmytrend.com/ Ashley Pearson

    So perhaps, stop running Link Directories. They seem to be the only sites affected from what I can see.

  • Robert Gaglini

    Will the Webmasters that received notices sent out Thursday/Friday receive an updated email notifying them of whether or not it is cause for concern?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28004290 Tomoyuki Sugao

    Thanks for your reply, Chris.

    He updated his opinion on Google+, and changed the message to recognize the difference.

    However, I sill have a question. There seems no way for webmasters who received the message already to distinguish them.

    I just hope he will answer this question, too.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    That would make things a lot calmer on the client side. Getting that notification is no fun, especially when I know that my SEO team has done nothing wrong. It leaves everyone a little anxious. 

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    I’ll make the case that, whatever frustrations we all have with the lack of clarity, some information is better than none.  If you hire an SEO firm and start getting bombarded with these warnings that might be a useful sign that your SEO firm is doing something wrong.  We’d all love to know exactly what matters and how much, but the spammers would use that level of clarity to their advantage, too.

    Figuring out a way to algorithmically rank pages is really really hard, particularly when there is big money at stake driving a million people attempt to game the system.  Sadly the best ranking signals are likely post-click behavioral data which Google claims not to use and webmasters may be loath to share.

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

    What about those of us that received the message on Thursday, how do we know if we should “ignore” it or if some links are negatively affecting us, especially since we never bought links at all?

  • http://www.ninebyblue.com Vanessa Fox

    Hi Matt — great news. Any way to send new messages to those who got the earlier round so they can tell that their messages fall into this new situation?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ralph.slate Ralph Slate

    I’m in the same boat as you. No manual message or penalty, but my Google referrers dropped by 40-80% on April 24. No way to tell why. I don’t buy, sell, or trade links. My site has been online since 1998 and has a ton of links, and is being linked to all the time, despite having my pages buried in the Google rankings. Directly on-topic searches now either don’t show many of my pages at all, or show them on page 15 or something, behind dozens of sites that actually link to my authority page or just mention it without a link.

    I have no idea what to do. All the advice I get in Google forums is based on Panda theories, like “add more content to your pages”. While we can always add more content, that doesn’t address the April 24 cliff walk.

  • Craig Gilmore

     Hey Matt – My notice that I received on 7/19 – still has the yellow caution sign so does that mean I have a problem?  We have found spam that we had nothing to do with and are trying to remove but why would you ever allow negative spam to be affective? This is so simple – if you don’t like a link, don’t value it – why would you ever want to be responsible for bankrupting hardworking family business owners?  So what do I do with my yellow sign notice? BTW I have worked 100+ hours every week for the past seven years and you can vaporize that in an instant. If a site owner games the system by doing what you value who cares (you value it), if they don’t, don’t value them. Allowing mega brands to dominate every search provides the best user experience or is it the only way you can continue to ramp earnings?

  • Craig Gilmore

     I still have a yellow caution sign on the notice I received on 7/19 – so do I have something to worry about or not?

  • 3Crowns

    That is very helpful going forward,  but does this change anything for the messages that were sent out on 7/19?  Those still look the same (scary!) but I don’t know whether I need to start investigating backlinks or not.  We’ve never received a message like this before.  So far our rankings don’t seem to be affected but I’m not sure if that would have happened yet or not.  Please help!  Thanks!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PB53VGBFFBADXOZMGZKZ6XDNKQ Alamsyah

    nice info guys

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest

 
 

Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States

Europe

Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech


Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!

 


 

Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide