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.