Unnatural inbound links: Search Engine Land’s ultimate guide to Google penalties and messages
The most frequently experienced Google manual penalty by far is the one applied as a consequence of unnatural inbound links to a website. Affected sites are deemed to be engaging in link schemes (link building intended to manipulate Google rankings), which Google considers a major violation. The penalty’s impact can be partial or affect the entire domain.
The consequent loss in visibility in Google ranges anywhere from barely noticeable to a steady decline over time to a dramatic total loss of visibility overnight. The vertical and brand prominence seem to play no role — large, reputable sites have been affected by this penalty.
Very rarely, we’ve seen sample URLs (even as many as five) listed on the unnatural inbound links message, which gives the site owner a starting point for their investigation. These samples may be of great use if they can indicate the pattern that raised a red flag — for example, if they all show low-quality PR services that scrape and reproduce pieces that include commercial anchor text links.
Whether examples are provided or not, it is vital to conduct a full backlink audit. Based on that evaluation — which, depending the backlink data volume, could take up to several weeks — all questionable backlinks are to be noted in a separate file. It is important to bear in mind that, for large websites with millions of backlinks, samples provided in Google Search Console will likely be too fragmented and offer insufficient data for a successful reconsideration request. Therefore, you must identify all of the questionable links yourself before asking to be reconsidered.
To boost the prospects for a favorable result with the very first reconsideration request, it is crucial to consider not only backlink volumes and distribution, but also the linking site’s quality and their general approach to linking out. A solid backlink risk assessment is inclusive of all historic linking liabilities, without neglecting any legacy link-building remnants, like directory entries of a long-gone SEO era.
Once you’ve created a file containing all your questionable or spammy backlinks, it’s time to work on getting those links removed from the web. This may require reaching out to webmasters and asking them to take down links to your site or have them marked as “nofollow.” Any spammy backlinks that you are not able to get removed, despite your best efforts, should be isolated and included in a .txt file called a disavow file.
Once the review is finalized and a disavow file created, it is recommended to upload the disavow file first (and receive confirmation of the change) before submitting documentation outlining all relevant steps taken to resolve the issues Google has highlighted.
Find answers to more of your questions in other pages of our guide:
- On-page guideline violations & related notifications
- Off-page guideline violations & related notifications
- Reconsideration requests & related notifications