Google's unnatural links

Google's unnatural link penalty – How it could affect you

02/03/2021 12:50:29
Back in 2016, the search giant, Google, announced its crackdown on what it calls ‘unnatural outbound links’ in it's quest to deliver the best results to it's users. When it was launched, bloggers and website owners across the UK suddenly begun seeing the following notice in their Google Search Console accounts:

Curious as to whether this is likely to affect your business? Wondering how it might relate to your PR strategy? Read on…

What’s a link and why is it important?

URLs on the internet take users from place to place. They’re also how search engines travel through websites to create an index of their content, allowing them to present those pages in search results. A website with a strong backlink profile has plenty of good quality websites linking to it – this means that search engines will assign more importance to that website, which will help to boost its authority and improve its rankings.

Understandably, this is an important part of many businesses’ digital marketing strategies. But links can be attained in many different ways: search engines brand some of these as natural and ‘white hat’, while other linkbuilding methods and types of links are classified as bad practice. So-called ‘unnatural linking’ has been frowned upon in SEO circles for several years, but this is the first time Google has actively announced a penalty for the sites using them.

What counts as an unnatural link?


Both the power and the ‘cleanliness’ of a link are determined by a variety of factors, but arguably the two most important elements of natural linking are:


If a website ranks for keywords relevant to your business and contains plenty of useful, original content around topics relating to your products and services, a link to your company will sit naturally on that site and is likely to be useful and interesting to its readers, increasing the likelihood that they will click through to your own website. Conversely, links to sites which offer products or services which are irrelevant to the site the link is placed on are an automatic red flag for search engines.


A link should always be a natural fit for the site it appears on. Some of this will be due to relevance, while some will come down to other factors. Integrity and transparency play a large part.  For example, bloggers are required to explicitly disclose if they have been paid or reimbursed in exchange for linking to or writing about a product. To not do this is a violation of Google’s guidelines – and, in the USA, it's the law.

What does this penalty mean to you?


It’s important to note that the site with the unnatural links on it will receive the notices, not you. However, since any sites receiving this message will have the power of its unnatural links discounted, this could include any links to your site, so now is a good time to check that other sites are linking to your own website in a way that complies with Google’s guidelines.

If you have conducted any SEO activity for your company, take some time to think about how it was done. For example: was the website owner incentivised to link to your business in exchange for reimbursement of some kind, and was this made clear in their post? If not, your link is in breach of Google’s guidelines and, in the United States, also the law.


How does this relate to PR?


As the boundaries between digital PR and SEO continue to blur, it’s vital to have an understanding of what both disciplines bring to a digital marketing strategy and where they differ. On the whole, digital PR is more holistic than SEO: while links are an end goal for SEO, PR articles have a more rounded focus on building brand awareness and encouraging site traffic; gaining links is just a part of this.

Nevertheless, with the intersection of digital PR and SEO it’s important for PR professionals to understand the various search engine pitfalls they may encounter. Where there is the potential for PR to encroach on SEO’s turf, professionals should be aware of what is best practice and try to stay within those boundaries. At Partners, we’re well versed in the dos and don’ts of current SEO, and do our best to incorporate this knowledge into the work we do for our clients.

What do I need to do?


The advice from Google’s help centre is useful and unequivocal, so we’ve reproduced it below, but modified it to help you identify opportunities to improve the cleanliness of your website’s backlink profile, and prevent your inbound links from other sites being devalued by Google.


First, review Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on linking.

Next, follow the steps below to identify and correct the violation(s) on the sites which link to your own website:

  1. Identify any links on sites linking to your site that were paid for or that appear to violate our linking guidelines, such as excessive link exchanges.
  2. Contact the site owner or webmaster and ask them to either remove these links, or to change them so that they no longer pass ranking power, for example by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute.

Once the site owner is sure that links on their site are no longer in violation of our guidelines, they can request reconsideration of their site. If we determine that the site is no longer in violation of our guidelines, we’ll revoke the manual action.

Have questions? Need help?


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