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Dealing Responsibly with Unnatural Links Messages

John Doherty —  July 23, 2012
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Google recently sent out a new batch of the unnatural links notices. The blogosphere went nuts as usual with very little information. On Friday, Matt Cutts posted on Google+ to try to satiate some of the madness. Here is what he said:

Of course this did not satisfy most SEOs.

People are now freaking out and wondering what to do. People are blaming Matt for not being helpful, though he is not saying that this is actually a step towards Google being more transparent with webmasters.

What To Do If You Received A Message in GWT

When the last batch of these messages happened some months ago, people who saw a drop in organic traffic saw it happen anywhere from 14 to 21 days after the message appeared. That’s two to three weeks.

With Matt’s new statements, you can’t be sure that you will see a drop. My advice, though, is to go about your work now as if you knew that you were going to get a drop in two to three weeks.

Here are the steps I would take:

Find the links that Google probably thinks are bad

I wrote a post about this on SEOmoz about Penguin Strategies to find bad links. An in-depth dive like this may be necessary to find old sitewide links that may be or are becoming a liability, but sometimes all you need to do is look at a backlink report and see your most-optimized anchors. Use the Anchor Text report in OpenSiteExplorer and you might see something like this (this is SEOmoz’s with a bunch of crap links pointed at it by spammers):

Contact webmasters and try to get these bad links removed

Next thing to do is try to get these links removed. Even though some webmasters are now charging to have them removed (according to this report by Barry Schwartz), it might be worth your time to get the most egregious links removed. Not only are you guarding yourself against potential unnatural links penalties and building a case for reinclusion should it come to that, but you are also proofing yourself against further algorithm updates meant to target tactics that may have worked in the past.

Another tool to use to find email addresses was put together by Rob Ousbey using Rapportive.

And finally, Linksy’s Email Guesser tool is a nifty tool that Rand showed me. It uses Gravatar, then uses Rob’s methodology and is very accurate.

Document everything;

As you email webmasters to get links removed, document everything. List out the links you know about, the webmaster’s email address, and the status of the relationship. Also have a column for if the link was removed. This way, should you need to submit a reinclusion request, you have all of your efforts documented.

If you don’t want to build out a sheet yourself, I have made a simple one for you. Simply make a copy of the sheet and you have your own version.

Get the Link Removal Tracking sheet

Be prepared to submit a reinclusion request.

Finally, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility of submitting a reinclusion request if your traffic does indeed drop. This is something that all SEOs should have to do at least once in their career, I think. You must be completely transparent with Google and show them exactly all that you know.

I have heard that Google is getting a lot tougher on unpenalizing sites that manual action has been taken on. So be prepared for the possibility that the first one may not work.

I do not think that you should submit a reinclusion request before you know if you are going to see a drop in traffic. I especially think this after Matt’s statements about this is increased transparency and not necessarily preemptive notice of a drop. But better safe and prepared than sorry.


I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I cannot help but feel that this is a fishing expedition by Google. I don’t necessarily think you need to tell Google about all the bad SEO that has been done on your site in the past, but if you are still doing it you should realize that your reckoning may have come and you will need to come clean to them.

Also, Google is no longer just asking for a show of good faith in reinclusion requests. They actually want the links gone. So if you have not removed any links, but submitted a reinclusion request, all you are doing is asking Google to look deeper at your site, at the crap links that are pointing to it. If this is the case, and I think it is, you may be bringing more trouble upon yourself.

I’m open to what others think.

Oh, and by the way, don’t listen to people who say that reinclusion requests never work:

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

8 responses to Dealing Responsibly with Unnatural Links Messages

  1. Good article John. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the difference between unnatural links warnings and Penguin. I know that the former is manual and the latter is algorithmic. But, it seems that the cleanup/repair is the same. Would you agree?

    • Hi Maria –

      I think there is a correlation between these two, insofar as they are dealing with unnatural links. The messages are manual, though, and Penguin is an algorithm. So with Penguin, you trip a filter and your traffic drops. No reconsideration request is needed – you need to remove the bad links and wait for the next iteration of the algorithm.

      With the WMT messages, you may see a drop in a couple weeks’ time. In this case, if you have made a lot of headway in getting bad links removed, then I would recommend submitting a reinclusion request.

      Hope this clarifies some things.

  2. Solid post John, and thanks for the excel template. I couldn’t agree with you more, right now there is no time to waste – if you own or work on a site that received a warning, you need to do your best to clean up your backlink profile and if you can’t clean up those links you need to keep meticulous records of your efforts to be able to present in a re-inclusion request.

    However, I was recently shocked to see the number of HORRENDOUS backlinks pouring into a site that I discovered using the GWT recent links report. In the past I focused on Majestic exports because I think they pick up a good chunk of the spam out there. But the GWT export opened my eyes to a whole new world of terrible links. I am hoping Google will be able to tell when a site gets scraped beyond belief and it is beyond the site owner’s actual control.

  3. Solid posts of just exactly what I’m doing.

    An alternative is to reach out to content platform providers who host those spammers’ websites – many of which have spam response teams that’s more than ready to help you out.

    Has anyone had any luck with contacting ISPs?

    Better to be safe than sorry!

  4. “I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I cannot help but feel that this is a fishing expedition by Google.”

    It is nothing but a fishing expedition.

    It proves that 1) spam links work, and 2) Google can detect bad link profiles but cannot prevent the spam links from benefiting a site, hence their asking for people to manually remove them.

    Deleting links is about the dumbest thing you could do, spam or otherwise. You delete a bunch of links and then your traffic plummets, hmmm must be a penalty (and not the sudden drop in links…) so you submit a reinclusion request, telling Google you’re a link spammer.

    Doesn’t sound like the smartest plan to me.

    • I disagree with you, Tyler. Google is getting a lot better at detecting bad spam links, and any of these that you have are increasingly becoming more and more of a liability. Google is telling us now “We know you have bad links. We are going to devalue them now, but may take action against your site in the future if you do more.” I think this is a pretty clear sign that removing links could be a good idea.

      Also, if your site is THAT propped up by spam links, you have been doing it wrong for a long time. In this case, work on building good editorial links while you remove the bad.

      Just so you know, I have a client who has removed a lot of bad links, but is also building good whitehat links, and their rankings have never been better. And they’re creating awesome content in a “boring” niche. So yes, this stuff works.

      Also, Google doesn’t care about a single link spammer. They have much bigger fish to fry. And if your traffic has dropped because of manual action, IMO it would be smart to submit a reinclusion request to try to get your traffic back. At least you’re coming clean and come move forward with good SEO.

  5. If a major source of the bad links is scraper sites (as Google has acknowledged) and they know they are bad links then how is it fare to put the time/effort/expense of removing links on the site owners? If your dealing with a medium to large site this effort is enormous. If you bought links your approach is different and your probably not making much noise (you do the cleanup and stop/change your link hobbits). But if you have a larger site, have been building content (it is king right?) you have a large problem that you did not create and you have to cleanup because Google MIGHT impose a penalty at some future date. Is penalizing the innocent really not doing evil…I think not.

  6. Hey John

    I was wondering how long you would think before it takes for a re-inclusion request to either work or be discarded? Would you wait 1 week, 2 weeks etc before trying to submit again?