Friday, July 27, 2012 at 4:30 PMWebmaster level: Advanced
Lots of site owners use our webmaster console to see how their site is doing in Google. Last week we began sending new messages to sites with a pattern of unnatural links pointing to them, and I wanted to give more context about these new messages.
Original Link Messages
First, let's talk about the original link messages that we've been sending out for months. When we see unnatural links pointing to a site, there are different ways we can respond. In many severe cases, we reduce our trust in the entire site. For example, that can happen when we believe a site has been engaging in a pretty widespread pattern of link spam over a long period of time. If your site is notified for these unnatural links, we recommend removing as many of the spammy or low-quality links as you possibly can and then submitting a reconsideration request for your site.
In a few situations, we have heard about directories or blog networks that won't take links down. If a website tries to charge you to put links up and to take links down, feel free to let us know about that, either in your reconsideration request or by mentioning it on our webmaster forum or in a separate spam report. We have taken action on several such sites, because they often turn out to be doing link spamming themselves.
New Link Messages
In less severe cases, we sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking. The new messages make it clear that we are taking "targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole." The new messages also lack the yellow exclamation mark that other messages have, which tries to convey that we're addressing a situation that is not as severe as the previous "we are losing trust in your entire site" messages.
How serious are these new link messages?
These new messages are worth your attention. Fundamentally, it means we're distrusting some links to your site. We often take this action when we see a site that is mostly good but might have some spammy or artificial links pointing to it (widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc.). So while the site's overall rankings might not drop directly, likewise the site might not be able to rank for some phrases. I wouldn't classify these messages as purely advisory or something to be ignored, or only for innocent sites.
On the other hand, I don't want site owners to panic. We do use this message some of the time for innocent sites where people are pointing hacked anchor text to their site to try to make them rank for queries like [buy viagra].
Example scenario: widget links
A fair number of site owners emailed me after receiving one of the new messages, and I think it might be helpful if I paraphrased some of their situations to give you an idea of what it might mean if you get one of these messages.
The first example is widget links. An otherwise white-hat site emailed me about the message. Here's what I wrote back, with the identifying details removed:
"Looking into the very specific action that we took, I think we did the right thing. Take URL1 and URL2 for example. These pages are using your EXAMPLE1 widgets, but the pages include keyword-rich anchortext pointing to your site's url. One widget has the link ANCHORTEXT1 and the other has ANCHORTEXT2.
If you do a search for [widgetbait matt cutts] you'll find tons of stories where I discourage people from putting keyword-rich anchortext into their widgets; see http://www.stonetemple.com/articles/interview-matt-cutts-061608.shtml for example. So this message is a way to tell you that not only are those links in your widget not working, they're probably keeping that page from ranking for the phrases that you're using."
Example scenario: paid links
The next example is paid links. I wrote this email to someone:
"I wouldn't recommend that Company X ignore this message. For example, check out SPAMMY_BLOG_POST_URL. That's a link from a very spammy website, and it calls into question the linkbuilding techniques that Company X has been using (we also saw a bunch of links due to widgets). These sorts of links are not helping Company X, and it would be worth their time to review how and why they started gathering links like this."
I also wrote to another link building SEO who got this message pointing out that the SEO was getting links from a directory that appeared to offer only paid links that pass PageRank, and so we weren't trusting links like that.
Here's a final example of paid links. I emailed about one company's situation as follows:
"Company Y is getting this message because we see a long record of buying paid links that pass PageRank. In particular, we see a lot of low-quality 'sponsored posts' with keyword-rich anchortext where the links pass PageRank. The net effect is that we distrust a lot of links to this site. Here are a couple examples: URL1 and URL2. Bear in mind that we have more examples of these paid posts, but these two examples give a flavor of the sort of thing that should really be resolved. My recommendation would be to get these sort of paid posts taken down, and then Company Y could submit a reconsideration request. Otherwise, we'll continue to distrust quite a few links to the site."
Example scenario: reputation management
In some cases we're ignoring links to a site where the site itself didn't violate our guidelines. A good example of that is reputation management. We had two groups write in; one was a large news website, while the other was a not-for-profit publisher. Both had gotten the new link message. In one case, it appeared that a "reputation management" firm was using spammy links to try to push up positive articles on the news site, and we were ignoring those links to the news site. In the other case, someone was trying to manipulate the search results for a person's name by buying links on a well-known paid text link ad network. Likewise, we were just ignoring those specific links, and the not-for-profit publisher didn't need to take any action.
What should I do if I get the new link message?
We recently launched the ability to download backlinks to your site sorted by date. If you get this new link message, you may want to check your most recent links to spot anything unusual going on. If you discover that someone in your company has been doing widgetbait, paid links, or serious linkspam, it's worth cleaning that up and submitting a reconsideration request. We're also looking at some ways to provide more concrete examples to make these messages more actionable and to help narrow down where to look when you get one.
Just to give you some context, less than 20,000 domains received these new messages—that's less than one-tenth the number of messages we send in a typical month—and that's only because we sent out messages retroactively to any site where we had distrusted some of the sites' backlinks. Going forward, based on our current level of action, on average only about 10 sites a day will receive this message.
I hope this post and some of the examples above will help to convey the nuances of this new message. If you get one of these new messages, it's not a cause for panic, but neither should you completely ignore it. The message says that the current incident isn't affecting our opinion of the entire website, but it is affecting our opinion of some links to the website, and the site might not rank as well for some phrases as a result.
This message reflects an issue of moderate severity, and we're trying to find the right way to alert people that their site may have a potential issue (and it's worth some investigation) without overly stressing out site owners either. But we wanted to take this extra step toward more transparency now so that we can let site owners know when they might want to take a closer look at their current links.