How to avoid an unnatural links penalty

Editor’s note: The Unnatural Links update would later become known as Google’s Penguin update. Also, this post received 100+ comments when it was originally published on the now defunct

Google is constantly adjusting its search engine algorithm in an attempt to serve up the best websites and most relevant results to searchers.  They’re at it again, and this time it’s a doozy.

What’s being called the Unnatural Links update is rocking the SEO world.  In March 2012 people started receiving warnings from Google about “unnatural links” and then many of those sites’ rankings in search results have taken a nosedive.  Some sites have been de-indexed, which means their site’s pages no longer show up in Google at all.

The scary part?  Unlike other Google algorithm changes, you can’t respond to this one by changing things on your site. This time, it’s about links to your site from other websites (commonly called backlinks) that you most likely don’t have control over – including sites you may never have asked to link to you.

Wait! I thought backlinks were good.

The number and quality of backlinks to sites has always been one of the most important search engine optimization (SEO) factors determining how high a web page will rank in search engine results pages (SERPs).

A paid link ;-) (Photo by Kristina Weis)

With the Unnatural Links update, Google has made it clear that backlink quality is of paramount importance. The Google algorithm has been modified to detect – and devalue – low-quality links, or links that are determined to be spammy or paid for.

In other words, Google is trying to distinguish “natural” links – the kind that people make to other sites because they think the content of the linked site is relevant to their own visitors – from links created solely to boost a site’s rankings.

Many SEO experts believe Google is going one step further and actually penalizing sites with links that are determined to be “unnatural,” because some sites appear to be ranking lower than they would if they had no backlinks at all. (source)

So, how can you avoid a penalty and make sure your links don’t look unnatural?

  • Pay attention for an “Unnatural Links” notice in your Google Webmaster Tools. If you get one, your rankings are doomed to slip if you don’t do get those unnatural links to your site removed.  It’s important to note, though, that you may not get a notice before your site takes a dive (or you may not get a warning at all), so don’t assume you’ll be fine if you haven’t received a notice.
  • Make sure you don’t have any paid links.  Buying links or selling links that pass PageRank (meaning they aren’t NoFollow) is against Google’s webmaster guidelines. If you are found to be paying for links, or if it appears you’re paying for links, your site’s rankings will suffer. To be safe rather than sorry, you should ask for any paid links to be removed or made NoFollow. Contact the linking site’s webmaster or customer service department and hope they’re listening.
  • Make sure you don’t have links from blog networks. Google has cracked down on blog networks (like BuildMyRank), which are typically basic-looking WordPress blogs with low-quality content and keyword-infused links to other sites. For more information about blog networks and Google’s update, read this article.
  • Sites with lots of links with keyword-rich anchor text look suspicious.  If the vast majority of the links to your site just happen to use one of a few keyword phrases as the anchor text, they aren’t going to look very natural to a person, nor to Google’s algorithm.  What are the odds someone would choose one of your top keyword phrases when linking to you?  Odds are, most people will use something like your business name, the title of your blog post, your business name, or “click here” as the anchor text when linking to you.  Make sure that the anchor text in your backlinks looks diverse and not like you asked or paid people to give you links with SEO-perfect anchor text.
  • Try to have a balance of high-quality and lower-quality links.  Many sites will have a few low quality links that they never asked for, but it becomes a problem when the majority of your backlinks look iffy. Look at the root domains (like that are linking to you: What is their PageRank? Do they have a decent social media following, or are many people sharing their content in social networks? If most or all of the websites that link to you seem low quality, you may be in trouble.  It’s time to build up some quality backlinks and/or try to get rid of some of the low quality links.
  • Avoid site-wide links.  These don’t look too natural, and many sites that sell links will put the links on all their site’s pages.  See the keyword-y links on the middle right of this site, for example.  There’s even an “add your link here” link right by them that goes to a page where you can pay – DoFollow links costs 20% more than NoFollow links, of course 😉

How can you see and analyze your backlinks?

  • On your site’s page on we have a free lookup that will show you how many backlinks Google and think you have, and then that number will link to a list of the web pages they note as linking to your site.  To use this, go to, search for your domain name (like in, and then click “Web Presence” on the left-hand side of the page.  Click “Refresh the numbers” to get numbers as of today.  Note that Google should only list backlinks from sites that it does value – so you probably don’t need to worry about those backlinks.
  • Open Site Explorer is a free tool from SEOmoz that shows you the backlinks they’ve detected, along with the links’ anchor text and their estimate of the linking site’s authority.
  • Google Webmaster Tools has a “Links to your site” section that shows you which sites link to your site and how often, which pages on your site have the most links, and what anchor text people tend to use to link to you (they call this “How your data is linked”).

The lesson here is that Google is constantly refining its algorithm, and before you employ a new SEO tactic you should give it a sniff test.  Does every aspect of it result in better content for searchers and the Web? Or is it just a self-serving tactic for making your site rank higher?

A better use of your time is building good content on your site, and cascading it to your social network. This is unlikely to make you rich overnight, but truly useful, well-written content will produce a more secure and sustainable ranking that improves over time.  Plus, more people will want to link to excellent content in natural ways 😉