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Google Sends Out ‘Unnatural Inbound Links’ Notifications

Some of your links are being ignored, says Google, but we won’t penalise you as you may in fact be innocent.

Unnatural inbound links

On Jul 19, 2012 Google Webmaster Tools issued a scary notification to numerous webmasters advising that their website was in breach of Google’s quality guidelines. What was frightening about this email is that a week or so after receiving it you’re almost certain to receive a penalty and suffer severe loss of rankings and traffic from Google.

Here’s how the message looks like:

Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to http://domain.tld

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results. If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request. 
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.


Google Search Quality Team 

Webmasters quickly reacted to this notification to the point where Matt Cutts had to release a statement about it on his Google+ profile to clarify things:

If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic. In the past, these messages were sent when we took action on a site as a whole. Yesterday, we took another step towards more transparency and began sending messages when we distrust some individual links to a site. While it’s possible for this to indicate potential spammy activity by the site, it can also have innocent reasons. For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it’s not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.

If we’ve taken more severe action on your site, you’ll likely notice a drop in search traffic, which you can see in the “Search queries” feature Webmaster Tools for example. As always, if you believe you have been affected by a manual spam action and your site no longer violates the Webmaster Guidelines, go ahead and file a reconsideration request. It’ll take some time for us to process the request, but you will receive a followup message confirming when we’ve processed it.

Update: Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on this change. An engineer worked over the weekend based on the suggestions here, and starting on Sunday we made two changes so you can tell the “individual links aren’t trusted” messages from the “our opinion of your entire site is affected” messages.

First off, we changed the messages themselves that we’ll send out to make it clear that for a specific incident “we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.” So anyone that gets a message going forward can tell what type of action has occurred.

The second change is that these messages won’t show the yellow caution sign in our webmaster console at http://google.com/webmasters/ like our other webspam notifications. This reflects the fact that these actions are much more targeted and don’t always require action by the site owner.

Thanks again for the feedback, and we’ll continue to work on ways to provide more useful and actionable information for site owners.


On Jul 23, 2012 (as later announced by Matt Cutts) Google sends a clearer email to webmasters explaining what’s really going on.

The new notification titled ‘Unnatural inbound links’ reads as follows:

We’ve detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google’s Webmaster GuidelinesWe 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

It was not a surprise that in last night’s hangout with Google, John Mueller received numerous questions around link issues and the strange notification from Google. Here’s the recorded stream:

In Summary

The unnatural links Google has detected are simply being ignored and may affect your rankings slightly. Google refers to this as ‘targeted action’ against individual links instead of a site as a whole. If your rankings drop a great deal, this means you were relying on too many of the artificial links to rank in Google, but still lucky that Google didn’t consider your for a site-wide ban or a more severe keyword over-optimisation penalty.

If you’ve received this email do not panic, you’re not going to be banned out of Google. What you should do is look at your link profile and prepare for clean-up action. Once you’re confident that your link profile is free of unnatural links to the best of your knowledge and ability to remove, submit a reconsideration request and start the dialogue with Google’s search quality team.

Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is Australia’s best-known name in the field of search engine optimisation. Dan is a web author, innovator and a highly regarded search industry event speaker.

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