What To Do About Google’s Confusing Link Warnings

    July 30, 2012
    Steve McQuaide
    Comments are off for this post.

Editor’s Note: This is a post from a guest author in the search engine marketing field. Any advice within is that of the author’s, and does not necessarily reflect the view of our organization.

If you read Chris Crum’s post last Monday, you may be one of the thousands of webmasters who received Google’s indistinguishable link notifications in Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) last week. As Chris’ article mentioned, Google’s “head of the webspam team”, Matt Cutts promised on Friday that a revised notification that more clearly stated the purpose of the original message would be distributed soon.

Update: Since this article was originally written, Cutts has talked about the messages in a blog post.

That notification arrived in the GWT message inbox Monday afternoon and it reads:

“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.”

The second message helps explain that the website receiving the message is not distrusted by Google as a whole, but instead that only “some” of the links pointing to the website did not meet Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

It recommends that webmasters “remove” any “unnatural links” and submit a reconsideration request. Reconsideration requests, historically, have been reserved for websites that have been penalized by Google in any number of ways, including deindexing and/or ranking drops. Remember though, the updated notification said that Google did not distrust the website as a whole.

It begs the question that if Google is not distrusting your site as a whole and Matt Cutts said that the notifications are“… not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about,” why would Google suggest that you submit a reconsideration request at all?

Therein lays the confusion.

What does one do now?

There is a lot of speculation circulating online about how to treat these warnings. Some are suggesting you simply ignore them and carry on with business as usual. Some believe that submitting a reconsideration request is an admission of guilt.

It is always my suggestion to follow Google’s instructions when it comes to these notifications. You should try to remove unnatural backlinks and you should submit a reconsideration request. After all, Google did say “please.”

Where do I start? Start by pulling an inventory of backlinks. You can pull linking domains from the GWT console under the traffic section. However, this doesn’t give you the specific URLs that are linking to you, only the domains that have links pointing to your site. I recommend using a third party tool like SEOMoz’s Open Site Explorer or the Majestic SEO Site Explorer to inventory your links. These are paid tools but will provide you with all inbound link URLs, which will make your analysis considerably easier.

What am I looking for? Google does not want to trust “unnatural” or “artificial” links, as they said in their (equally confusing) second message. Yet, what does “unnatural” and “artificial” really mean? According to their Webmaster Quality Guidelines, they suggest following these quality tests:

“A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’”

I’ve always liked the latter approach – focus on your users. You should promote your businesses on sites and in content that is relevant to your audience. You should ask yourself, “does this link provide value to a potential customer?” If not, it should be removed.

Create a spreadsheet of questionable sites and specific URLs with links to you that you would like to be removed. This spreadsheet will function as your tracking document when you file your reconsideration request.

How do I get these links removed? There is no easy, one click solution here. It takes time to gather contact information and submit a request to webmasters to remove the link. When possible, include the specific URL that the link resides on to simplify the process on the webmaster’s side.

There is no guarantee that the links will be removed. In fact, the success rate of removing links is fairly low. There is no incentive for the webmaster to take the time to find the page in their CMS and remove the link. However, this is what Google wants us to do, so we do it.

It is extremely important that you track your analysis and outreach in detail because you will need this information when submitting your reconsideration request.

On your spread sheet, add a date column for “1st removal request” and “2nd removal request” so you can track all correspondence that you send. This can help support your case when you submit a reconsideration request.

How many rounds of outreach you perform is really up to you. Some webmasters will go as far as having a Cease and Desist letter drafted by their legal department and sent to webmasters, which has proven successful in motivating publishers to remove the links.

It is my recommendation to be thorough as possible with your backlink analysis in order to avoid any further notifications from Google regarding links that do not match their Webmaster Guidelines.

What should a reconsideration request look like? First off, don’t stress about this. You are not drafting legal document, it’s an email to Google letting them know that you’re following their rules, they should check your work and award you a proverbial gold star. Use the facts you’ve gathered on your tracking sheet to help you craft your message. An example request may look something like this:


After receiving the Unnatural Link notification in Webmaster Tools on July 19th, we have proactively reviewed [total number of linking URLs] backlinks and identified [total number of links you wanted removed] unnatural links, then contacted each webmaster and requested removal. We conducted [1, 2, 3, etc.] rounds of outreach to these webmasters to request removal, concluding with a Cease and Desist letter in our final round of outreach [only if you sent a C&D]. We believe we have taken the necessary steps to remove these unnatural links and would like to have our Unnatural Link notification reconsidered.

Thank you,

[website] webmaster

You can obviously expand upon this template as you see fit, but beware that there is a 500 word and >2850 character (including space) limit for the reconsideration request form in GWT.

Conducting this entire process should guarantee that your Unnatural Link notification is removed. Furthermore, taking the time to analyze your backlink profile at this time should ensure that your inbound links meet Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will prevent you from receiving future notifications and negative impacts from algorithm updates.

  • http://blog.directorymaximizer.com Sameer Panjwani

    Yeah, Google’s not making it any clearer in their messaging. While they still insist on trying to remove the links, from my experience, not only is it very difficult but I don’t think it’s really worth the time. In fact, have even written a post on why I think removing links might be a bad idea…I think it’s better to re-focus on the site with the intention to build links the right way going forward.

    • http://www.thesearchagency.com Steve McQuaide

      SEOmoz discussed the impact of their “spam us!” negative SEO campaign. Since their site has such an established and natural link profile, even their coaxing of spammers and spammy links had no impact on their traffic. This supports your suggestion that growing a natural and authentic link profile can dilute the impact of poor links. I wholeheartedly agree, if webmasters have not yet established an authentic link building strategy, then they definitely should now. Thanks for your input!

  • L R Sexton

    There is no way that a huge site should, or really can, go through all of their links to find a few that Google doesn’t like. Google should provide either a comprehensive list of the links or a sample so we know which are causing problems.
    Many of us want to be sure that we help Google rank our sites appropriately, but this type of message doesn’t help at all. They need to stop making it hard to work with them, and just be upfront about some things.

    • http://www.thesearchagency.com Steve McQuaide

      I totally agree with you! Many webmasters for large sites are drowning in hundreds of thousands of individual links and thousands of linking domains. The webmaster tools console should implement the “disavow” option for these “specific” links that seem unnatural. That would give the webmaster the option to tell Google to ignore the link if he/she agrees that it is unnatural.
      Large sites most likely have their own dedicated SEOs who are very keen to their specific link situation. This post was intended for small to mid size sites that may have been panicking about what appeared to be a penalty notification.
      Thanks for your comment!

  • Joe Lewis

    Sorry but as an SEO at the cutting edge of this update, I find this article adds nothing to the debate over what to do next because it fails to explain why you are advising us to file a reconsideration request – reconsideration of what? They don’t like some links and will devalue them. What are expecting to be reconsidered?

    • http://www.bangsfordds.com Sarah Cruise

      In my opinion, combining different search operators and website content pattern is one of most effective link building strategy you just need to be more creative to combine and try different combination.

  • http://twitter.com/SEOWaterman David Waterman

    I’ve always felt Google’s strategy is to give you enough data/information for you to choke on. They’re never direct. They either give you way too much data (i.e. trying to do targeted keyword research with their Adwords Keyword Tool) or not enough (i.e. these damn warnings). I think this article brings up an interesting strategy to audit your backlink profile from time to time…especially if you know you’ve done some old school linking tactics. It’s a lot of work, but worth it to maintain the integrity of your website. Remember, we’re dealing with algorithms and bots here people. Check, tweak and pray. :)

  • http://www.paulsidahohomes.com Paul

    This penguin update has left me scratching my head. Heard so many view points. What is the truth; is it your site content or your back links. Thought Panda was back links and it loved me, penguin spanked me.

  • Tominguez

    “What To Do About Google’s Confusing Link Warnings” –
    ANSWER: Stop using google aggressive and constantly changing unnecessary and mysterious updates meant for spammers but really, attacking honest sites. Instead, use Bing, Yahoo, Blekko and Ask.com, the term “Never put all eggs in one basket” wasn’t created just because, try and see, google is an old, obsolete search tool populated with nothing but paid inclusions from to top to bottom. It should be called Adsearch instead of google

  • http://www.besthoteloceanside.com/ Jimmy

    Google is becoming more and more weird thing now. Sometimes I can not understand Google properly about displaying the same results with same titles in SERP. I hate google sometimes.