Google sent out a pair of confusing messages in recent days alerting webmasters to the fact that other websites are linking to theirs, and as a result, their site may (or may not) be penalized. But don’t panic, says Google’s Matt Cutts. Confused? Join the club.
Google Issues New Unnatural Link Warnings
Starting on July 19, Google’s Search Quality team sent out alerts via Webmaster Tools, informing site owners and webmasters:
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.
Naturally, the SEO World Freaks Out
With major algorithmic updates like Panda and Penguin fresh in everyone’s mind, as well as the giant batch of unnatural link warnings sent out in March, the panic was immediate. Fearing demotion in the search results sometime within 7-10 days by Google, some SEOs got busy looking at their link profiles – no easy feat for sites with thousands of links.
Meanwhile, there was also the lingering paranoia among smaller sites that their rankings could be tanked if a competitor invested in some negative SEO and pointed a bunch of spammy-looking links at their site. Add in the fact that some less scrupulous people aren’t above charging money to remove links.
SEOs and businesses were left with more questions than answers.
Was action needed now to avoid a penalty? If so, how long did they have to fix the issue? And how does the average person know which links are the bad ones and avoid doing accidental harm by removing a quality link?
Or was it just a notification with no action needed? And if so, what was the point of sending a message?
Google’s Clarification on Warnings
After successfully scaring the crap out of many business, along came Google’s Distinguished Engineer, telling everyone not to panic and assuring everyone this was just a case of Google trying to be more transparent and not a warning that a penalty is nigh, via a Google+ post:
“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.”
OK, so Google distrusts links pointing at your site (but they won’t share those offending URLs with you). Then why is Google urging webmasters to make changes? The comments on Cutts’ post filled up with people demanding more clarity from the messages Google sends out.
Also note the “not necessarily” there? Apparently that’s for those who may have received the warning in conjunction with a noticeable drop in search traffic.
Over the weekend, Google worked on it more and Cutts announced a couple changes to differentiate “individual links aren’t trusted” from “our opinion of your entire site is affected” messages – individualized messages and the elimination of a yellow caution sign in the WMT console for these new messages.
Just as with weather, there are tornado watches (less serious, as the conditions are right for a tornado but none have formed) and tornado warnings (more serious, as tornados have been spotted). Perhaps we should call this new Google Webmaster Tools message an “unnatural link watch” – at least until you’ve spotted a penalty in the form of missing search traffic and it's upgraded to a warning.
Google Issues New Unnatural Link "Watches"
Yesterday, a new message was sent via Google Webmaster Tools. Surely it must be more helpful?
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.
So now can people who received both messages ignore the first message? Who knows.
If Google is discounting some “unnatural” links, why should the site owner have to remove any links (on an external site they most likely don’t control) and submit a reconsideration request, especially if this is just a “notification” that won’t result in a penalty? Google has admitted can ignore links from certain sites, so if Google doesn't want to "put any trust" in artificial links ... don't!
Or could “targeted action” really mean a “penalty” on individual pages?
But why would Google penalize a site being linked to rather than the linking site in question if it’s the guilty party? Isn’t Google's algorithm supposed to sort out the good links from the bad, and give more weight to the good and essentially ignore the least valuable?
What Google is doing is overcomplicating links with this faux transparency attempt. Why is uncertain.
If Google’s algorithm can truly detect “bad” links, then Google should just ignore or discount those links and quit using threatening language that makes it seem as though they’re doing you a favor by not penalizing you.
Otherwise, we’ll see more stupidity involving threats of lawsuits over linking, such as this one HubSpot reported on.