10 Things the Unnatural Links Penalty Taught me About Google and SEO
I didn’t expect to get penalized for unnatural links at all, that’s why I noticed it very late. Also the whole process of dealing with the unnatural links penalty has been “problematic” itself to say the least. Here are the 10 things I’ve learned as a seasoned white hat SEO from the unnatural link debacle on a client site.
1. What was perfectly OK yesterday can be harmful today
SEO is changing all the time. One reason for this is that Google is a black box. Despite all their so called “transparency” they never clearly state what their ranking factors are “to prevent spam” they say. It doesn’t seem to prevent spam though. In contrast many legit webmasters “spam” by accident it seems due to the lack of clear guidelines.
Webmasters try what apparently works and then wake up one day to find out that Google changed the algorithm over night and their site got classified as spam despite it being perfectly OK the day before.
Search engine contender Blekko publicly displayed all their ranking factors below each site for a long time, now you have to pay for the extra tools but they advertised their search engine as “spam-free”.
Hiding your secret sauce has not much to do with preventing spam. Most likely this way Google makes sure that it doesn’t get sued, after all many businesses face bankruptcy after Google updates or at least have to “downsize” their work force or change their business models.
So you have to look out each day. What was perfectly OK yesterday may harm your rankings today. That’s why Google already starts to prepare webmasters for upcoming updates like Apple does with their new iPhones.
2. You can always overlook something
With almost a decade of SEO experience I was very proud to be beyond such petty penalties. Also the first thing I do with a new SEO client is cleaning up their link profile. In this case we even started our work with removing a penalty based on low quality links and adding better links instead so I was pretty sure that everything is good by now.
I only “built” natural links ever since. Still we got the unnatural links penalty.
At first I thought it was a mistake but after diving deeper and deeper into the legacy backlinks of years I had to re-evaluate my convictions.
3. Forget “innocent until proven guilty” on Google
When it comes to search the market dominant Google is judge, jury and executioner in one person, or rather in one entity, you won’t even get in touch with a person. Only high profile international brands can get a reply from Matt Cutts.
You get the penalty first and then you may try to prove your innocence.
Unlike the witch hunts of the middle ages where the heretics affected at least theoretically had the chance to prove their innocence before they got burned on Google you get penalized on suspicion of breaking the rules. No proof will be presented. Additionally you don’t even know what the rules are, you can only guess. You are in the dark. It’s a lot like the prison in Guantanamo Bay.
4. Talking to the anonymous confessional feels bad
The only way to get your unnatural links or other penalty removed is the so called reconsideration request. It’s basically a Web form you send to an anonymous entity. You don’t know who your judge is. You don’t even know whether it’s the same person each time. Heck, you don’t even know whether a real person will read it at all, you might as well just “speak” to an algorithm.
I was raised as a Christian, a Catholic to be precise. Catholics confess their sins in a so called confessional. It’s a cupboard-like box with two parts, in one sits the sinner (you) and behind the wall with a semi-transparent window where you only see the shadow there is the priest. Then you have to confess your wrongdoings. Sending the reconsideration request is very similar.
The almighty Google makes you repent your sins.
It feels awful to even write into that form. I felt like a wretch. A murderer who visits the confessional feels better I guess, at least the priest is a real human being you talk to and will reply immediately.
5. Removing links is a tedious process
You think link building or earning links is hard? You haven’t tried locating unnatural links and removing them yet. It’s tedious like hell and time consuming like no other SEO task. I’ve spent weeks and months just dealing with that task. It made me really depressed.
I often wished I would have simply bought links for the client then removing them wouldn’t be that bad.
I was trying to optimize the ethical way so I really didn’t know which links were unnatural. I tried to find them quickly but to no avail. Google wants you down on your knees and rooting out all the weeds one by one.
6. SEO and link removal tools can help or can’t
I checked Google Webmaster Tools and Open Site Explorer initially and tackled the links that looked suspicious on the outside like sitewide links or links with matching anchor texts. That wasn’t enough.
All these tools have helped to some extent but there is no replacement for common sense and SEO expertise with a sense for details.
Each tool added another layer of false positives and otherwise irrelevant links I had to check.
7. Contacting webmasters often doesn’t work
Some people are friendly and forthcoming, others are ignorant or downright annoyed. Contacting webmasters is perhaps the most difficult part as many people won’t even read your email it seems. In case you don’t care for them and dislike them in the first place
you don’t have to feel bad about disavowing the links. That will save you time in many cases.
Try to contact legit webmasters first but don’t obsess about it. Some even don’t care about Google at all so you can’t really hurt them.
8. You have to try several times
Somehow naively, I believed at first I will remove and disavow some obvious unnatural looking links I wasn’t even responsible for and Google will gladly welcome me back with open arms. Some sites had linked thousands or hundreds of times to us by automatically duplicating pages etc.
Apparently it’s the SEOs job to fix external site linking to us too now. Of course as noted above it took us numerous reconsideration requests in a row, my appeals becoming more desperate each time and my client becoming less confident in me with each try.
I later looked around the forums and many webmasters had the same dire plight to report.
It seems getting away after one reconsideration request is the exception not the norm.
I should have communicated to my client from the start that we need several attempts. That would have resulted in a lot less frustration due to lower expectations. This way it looked as if I didn’t know what I was doing, especially as I advised at first not to remove links unless we are really sure.
9. Removing and disavowing links all day does not suffice
Removing and disavowing links is not enough. I don’t mean that you have to explain yourself and beg for forgiveness, you have to but that’s not my point here. As the whole unnatural links debacle continued my client, a small business btw. – who doesn’t pay me full time or even part time, just a fixed number of hours a month – was so keen on getting the penalty removed that he literally stopped all other strategical SEO initiatives.
Of course the tedious process has taken almost all of the time I was working for them anyway.
Checking hundreds of links one by one isn’t a 15 minute task.
Also it’s tiresome and frustrating: I was often unable to do any other work afterwards.
It wasn’t even a full penalty, they still ranked with many of the “smaller” keywords, so I advised them to implement some UX changes to get the people arriving to see the other items as well. The client ignored that suggestion and was even angry. He assumed that I give up instead of fixing the penalty.
10. A lifted penalty doesn’t mean the rankings are back
After several months of hard work the penalty has finally been lifted and… nothing happened. In the ensuing weeks the fluctuating rankings have stabilized at first at a low level first and then started to grow with 5%, 10% to 15% per week but sometimes also remained the same for a week.
We are still not seeing the rankings we had before the penalty.
It’s not clear now whether the dozens of links we have removed or disavowed had pushed us artificially in the rankings. In my opinion most of them were so bad they most probably weren’t really supportive of our Google rankings in the first place but who knows, only Google probably.
Putting all your eggs in the Google basket backfires for sure. It’s about time to become independent from Google and establish an audience instead. You need people who visit your site despite Google not because of it.
One day a Google penalty might hit you and then it will be too late.
Cut out the middleman! Engage and entice people directly and on social media. Get the permission to contact them in the future again.