Optimizing your website so it performs well in search engines is something all website owners have to partake in at some point. Whether you run a small business or work for an agency, SEO is a vital aspect of the work you will do online, as it ensures your content gets noticed by the right people.
There are various elements of search engine optimization that you will work on, including obtaining high-quality backlinks to your content. Developing a backlink profile is a way of directing more people to your website and thus increasing your ranking on search engines.
However, while there are many advantages to using links on your website, there can also be some issues to contend with. This is where Google Penalties come into play, and in recent years there have been millions of claims for the same thing.
If Google considers any of your backlinks to be unnatural links, this can have detrimental effects on all your other SEO work as it reduces your organic visibility.
While link building is such an important part of SEO, you must follow Google’s webmaster guidelines to prevent issues. As millions of web pages are flagged every year by Google for bad links, you are not alone in facing this issue, and this guide can help you out.
Table of Contents
Firstly, we need to address the biggest cause of getting a Google penalty which is presenting what this search engine deems as unnatural links in your content.
Link building can be a great way to increase traffic to your site and improve your ranking in search engine results. This is a way to connect your content with other websites in the same niche, increasing your relevance and authority on specific subjects.
However, some links can have the opposite effect on your website and lead to you getting a Google penalty. These are unnatural links that are seen as misleading or manipulative by Google.
Unnatural links are also referred to as spammy links, spam links, or harmful links and will lead to a Google Penalty when identified. These may be considered in black hat SEO tactics, where you will use paid links as a way to manipulate the search engine ranking in an attempt to appear higher. These are known as link schemes, and there are various ways you could get involved.
Such links are often used because they are easier to develop than natural inbound links and could provide faster results. Natural inbound links require true connections with other web directories and are more likely to be earned organically over time, whereas these unnatural inbound links identified as spam links or bad links by Google can be purchased.
These links are identified because there is usually no natural reason for the inbound links to be there. Unnatural links will appear in content with no relevance to the main source, and this is the easiest way for search engines to identify them as an issue.
When developing your link building strategy, you may consider such links due to the shortcut they could provide to increase traffic on your site. Various issues can arise from opting for paid links or unnatural links within your content, such as:
- Affect the integrity of Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs)
- Are built by scammers and purchased by website owners and therefore do not offer a true reflection of SEO performance
- Give websites that use these black hat links an unfair advantage against any other which relies on natural inbound links or better SEO methods
- This leads to Google penalties for the website owner and reduces the website’s ranking
While using unnatural inbound links within your content may be the easier option, compared to the long road of developing better connections and white hat SEO efforts, it is most likely going to reduce your website ranking in the long run.
The Google Spam Team is dedicated to identifying and punishing anything that could impact their integrity as a search engine, which is why unnatural links are flagged millions of times per year. Anything that goes against Google guidelines will be flagged and could lead to Google penalties on your site, with a spammy backlink profile being one of the biggest culprits today.
Your website does need outbound and inbound links to perform well on Google and other search engines, but this should be done in accordance with Google’s webmaster guidelines which we will discuss.
What Is A Google Penalty?
A Google penalty, also known as a manual action, can be flagged towards your site at any time.
As we have mentioned, one of the biggest causes for a Google penalty is unnatural links, but they can appear for anything that is said to be going against Google’s guidelines. If you are seen to be violating Google’s webmaster guidelines, then you will be faced with a Google penalty and see your website demoted in search results ranking.
Auditing of sitewide links is done through Google Search Console, where issues that will negatively impact the organic traffic from SERPs will be notified and penalized if required, which is where the Google link penalty comes in.
Google’s spam team will contact the website owner in the form of a manual restrictive order if unnatural links or any other black hat SEO method is identified.
Due to the fact penalties are common for many sites, SEMrush did perform research into the reasons sites are flagged and what you can do about it. Using the SEMrush backlink audit tool, over 53% of websites that were given an unnatural inbound links penalty over the past two years used sponsored or paid links. 50% of these sites were flagged due to having exact match anchor text.
To learn more about how Google penalties work and what happens to your website when you are given one, we need to look more into the reasons why the Google spam team flags your website.
Reasons For A Google Penalty
According to the Google webmaster guidelines, which can now be read on the Google search console, you can receive a manual action for a range of issues.
Google penalties will be handed out for any patterns of ‘unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links’ directing to or from your site. As we have mentioned, unnatural links are those which have either no relevance to your content or have been purchased, making them appear like pure spam according to Google, and these will be faced with penalties.
An unnatural link can impact the relevancy and authority of your whole web domain, which is why you want to avoid toxic links as much as possible. However, unnatural backlinks are still going to be used across web directories and other sites because of the way they are seen as a ‘quick fix’ for increased internet traffic.
Developing link networks and pairing your site with other relevant content can take a long time, and this is why some site owners will fall into paying for toxic links or becoming part of a link exchange.
When you are given a Google Penalty, you will be notified of the reason, and this is most likely due to on-page guideline violations, such as:
Major and pure spam links
If a website owner gets a notification from Google penalties that their website has major spam problems, this means that Google has identified the site as spammy and, therefore, of no value to users.
Receiving a ‘pure spam Google penalty’ is a sign that your website has already suffered the most severe consequence of being removed from Google search results altogether. In some cases, your whole website may be removed from SERPs, but in others, only a subset of pages may be hidden from users.
Getting any kind of spam Google penalty is a sign that your website has not reached the expectations of the Google Search Console and will, therefore, not be recommended to users.
This is the toned-down Google penalty related to spam compared to the pure spam Google penalty we have just mentioned.
When you get this manual action from Google, it shows that your whole website may not be violating the guidelines, but instead, some areas are not good enough. Usually, thin content, known as spammy content, is the reason for this penalty, and this will contain a lot of unnatural links.
Typically, with this kind of manual action, your whole website will not be completely removed from Google search results, but the offending files, folders, or pages will be.
When the unnatural links used on your website become hidden links, in the sense that they are removed from Google search results, this can harm your website ranking as a whole and reduce organic traffic to your content.
Every site needs a link building strategy to aid with their SEO performance, which contains both inbound links and outbound links.
This is a way of showcasing not only relevancy but also authority when it comes to specific search terms, as you will link to other relevant sites in your niche. As we have mentioned, developing relationships with other sites, including business directories and bookmarking sites, can take a long time.
In a bid to save time or simply because there is no SEO expert present, some sites will rely on link spam options instead. These are referred to as black hat links and can take form in many ways, but regardless of this, all these link listings will cause issues with Google.
Link spam is certainly going to be found in any location that is selling links, as these will have been created by bots or scammers for quick cash.
There are several types of unnatural links that you may come into contact with, including:
Also known as link farms or private blog networks (PBNs), this is a link building tactic where a whole website is developed purely to provide links.
Private blog networks are connected sites that link to one another through unnatural outbound links and inbound links for the sole purpose of better SEO. Due to the density of the backlink profile on these websites, using link networks is not going to do you any favors.
Links taken from free blog services like this are seen as having no value and are, therefore, not a part of Google’s guidelines.
Low-quality Web directories and bookmarking sites
Linking your website to web directories, business directories, and similar link listings can be a beneficial move. This can be a great way to get valuable referral traffic from relevant audiences, but only if you are using quality sites for this.
During a backlink audit, if your website is linked to spammy directories, this can lead to penalties. These reciprocal links are part of the black hat tactics which are banned by Google.
Appearing on these sites results in unnatural inbound links, and these go against Google’s guidelines and, therefore, will have the opposite effect on SEO that you want.
This is one of the quickest ways to get a Google penalty, as injected links are created by automated software. This will result in an unnatural link appearing in your content without context, reducing the value your website can provide and causing lower search engine rankings.
Contextual links are the best way to benefit from link building when it comes to making content online because these will be relevant to your work and offer additional information when required.
While you do need a combination of outbound and inbound link content across your website, sitewide links are usually put there by a web developer and seen as unnatural links by Google.
If these links are natural, then they may not be picked up as an issue by Google but buying links from another platform is an issue and should be avoided.
Press releases and syndicated content
Press releases have been used for decades to get information out to the public. They work essentially like ads, where bloggers and journalists will use information directly from the source to promote something.
This is to say that press releases can be used on your website, but the problem comes when people resort to keyword stuffing or fail to use branded anchor text to differentiate this content from your own. Keyword stuffing is when keywords are used so much that they become unnatural in the content and can sometimes be used so much in press releases that they become unreadable.
If you are using a press release or writing one yourself, make sure to remain focused on the audience, not the search engine. This means you can make use of keywords, along with similar or related keywords, in a way that allows the content to remain readable while still being relevant.
A few years ago, it might have made sense to insert a direct link to blog comments to direct people to your site; however, this has now been overused by spammers.
This overuse means that blog comment links perform badly in any backlink audit and will hurt your ranking in Google search results and, therefore, the amount of organic traffic you get.
Forum links and user generated spam
Likewise, promoting your content on forums could be a good way to directly reach your audience and increase brand awareness. However, this, too, has led to unnatural inbound links, with many forum users only creating an account to post their links.
This has become known as user generated spam, as the user has created the link themselves and is behind this work. Like all other forms of spam or unnatural links, user generated spam goes against guidelines and will negatively impact your search engine ranking.
If you have an old domain that links to your new domain, this can also result in manual action from Google.
This is a common cause for an unnatural link these days because domains are so easy to obtain. Many spammers will buy expired domains, usually with a backlink profile intact, and use this to redirect people to their new sites.
Due to the fact this form of inbound link is common, the Google webmaster tools used to identify unnatural links can find this instantly and will deliver a penalty.
Whether you join link networks, use direct ads, or find someone who is selling links elsewhere online, you fall into the risk of violating Google’s guidelines. This negative appearance on your backlink profile will cause issues in terms of your search results ranking and can be difficult to resolve.
This does not mean there is no way of resolving Google penalties, however.
What To Do If You Get A Manual Action From Google
If you have received manual action from Google based on hidden links, user-generated spam, or a paid link gone wrong, this does not have to be the end of the road.
There is a process you can go through to try and fight the Google penalty and prevent your website from suffering from the lack of traffic and promotion from Google. This is a complicated process and one that can take some time but it is worth it if you are suffering from an unwarranted penalty.
1) Backlink Audit
This is the first step in combatting Google penalties and can be done using third-party software or app. This will assess your website and bring up a complete backlink profile, where you can see every possible link that has been used across your website.
These links should be assessed based on their toxic score, and any with a score of 60 or more will need to take priority during this time.
This process can take a long time to perform as you need to manually assess every unnatural link that appears and review the content.
We have provided a complete list of unnatural links which will be flagged by Google, and you may be surprised by how many appear in your backlink profile. In some cases, website owners have even found adult content links or similar nefarious content through their backlink audit.
There may be some rare cases of unnatural links, but you may also be able to identify a pattern that can show where you are going wrong when it comes to link building.
Once you have identified the issues, you will want to categorize your links and decide what you want to do. Most people will disavow links to prevent them from appearing on their website again, but you can also create a nofollow link if you can contact the original website owner.
If this is the way you do things, then you will need to create a .txt disavow file, which can then be submitted to Google during your reconsideration request.
2) Send a Reconsideration Request
Once you have identified the issues on your site, it is time to inform Google, which is done through a reconsideration request. This is where you will need to make a disavow file as evidence, along with other changes to your website.
The reconsideration request is a way of asking Google to reconsider their penalty and determine whether you deserve the punishment. To support your reconsideration request, which is submitted to Google Search Console, you will need the disavow links and any other information you have regarding your website.
You can send a reconsideration request for links that have been flagged by Google, which should be highlighted in the penalty they have sent to you.
During this time, you can create an embedded code pointing to a nofollow request for anything remaining on your site or enter links into the disavow file if you cannot get in touch with the other site owners.
In terms of links on web directories or bookmarking sites, you can attempt to remove these yourself.
This should be done for direct ads, scholarship links, and paid links – all forms of unnatural links should be removed if possible while you wait for your reconsideration request to be approved.
Likewise, during this time, it is a good idea to leave an annotation or note on Google Analytics regarding your current status, allowing you to monitor any changes in traffic which may occur during this time.
How To Prevent Google Penalties
While there are some ways you can remove the Google penalty and bring your SEO back to life, it is best to avoid the whole process in the first place.
You will always want to rely on the link juice flow that comes with having links on your website because this is one of the best tools for a high-ranking site, but this does not mean you have to resort to black hat efforts.
Instead, consider the following:
Review your backlink profile
If you have not yet received manual action from Google, this does not mean you will avoid it forever. Most sites will have unnatural links used somewhere, even if these are hidden links, and these can be identified through a review of your backlink profile.
This is something you should do regularly to remain on top of things as a website owner, and there are many tools and free widgets out there that can help you with this process.
It is recommended to perform an audit around every three months to avoid issues.
Vary anchor text
While you assess your backlink profile, you should also take some time to reconsider anchor text and edit it when necessary.
It is a good idea to make sure anchor text is varied and relies on similar but not the same keywords to prevent keyword stuffing.
As we have mentioned, you can disavow links which can prevent them from being used with your website again.
With regular audits of your backlink profile, it will be easier to recognize the unnatural links that can cause problems. Whenever these appear, you need to either remove or disavow them.
All spam should be disavowed as standard to prevent getting a penalty from Google.
Google penalties are pretty common across the internet, but this does not make them any easier to manage should you be issued one.
One of the main causes of a penalty is the use of unnatural links. These kinds of links have many forms and are essentially links that have no place on your website or within your content.
While developing a link building strategy can be a great way to improve your ranking on search engines and generate organic traffic, unnatural links will have the opposite effect. These kinds of links directly violate Google guidelines and will therefore be punished by the search console. Not only does this mean you will be faced with a penalty, but your website will either be removed partially or completely from search results.
This results in less traffic to your site and, for many businesses, causes reduced revenue.
While it is possible to fight against a Google penalty, this is a complicated process and one that can take a long time – during which you are still struggling to generate traffic online.
This is why the best course of action is to instead make sure you avoid using unnatural links whenever possible and make sure your website is in accordance with Google guidelines.
Link building is a great tool for better SEO, but this needs to be done through white hat means and connects your website with relevant sources.
Doing things right like this, such as developing connections and genuine links from similar websites, can take longer than paying for links, but it does offer long-term results.
Long-term results are better for your business than any quick fix, so always consider doing the right thing, per Google’s guidelines.
Scott Calland is a highly regarded content specialist with an English Degree. He has a passion for creating compelling content as a UK journalist that engages, informs, and entertains readers. With over 10 years of experience in creating news publications as a reporter, Scott has developed a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of how to craft content that resonates with audiences. Working closely with data analysts Scott’s research on topics is unrivalled for latest news updates.
Scott is also an investor in Searcharoo.