“Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to . . .“
Roughly 700,000 webmasters received this notice in their GWT account this past January and February according to Tiffany Oberoi of Google!
Were you one of them?
So what’s going on here?
Some in the SEO community thought this was a lure or phishing attempt on the part of Google to get webmasters to unwittingly rat themselves out. Cause enough of a scare with an ominous warning providing little or no specificity and see who scrambles to bear all in the hopes of getting back on Google’s good side. According to this line of reasoning, you might say Google’s purpose behind the message was akin to a massage (as their original name “BackRub” connotes) with the goal of releasing toxins, unwanted sites and networks of sites polluting their system.
Google is going after certain kinds of sites and networks of sites created for the sole purpose of link building. The Build My Rank link network was de-indexed by Google and as a result, all the links received from that network were affected. If you had all your eggs in that basket, your traffic and the visibility you enjoyed in the search results would have suffered greatly. Other link networks have also experienced partial or complete de-indexing, affecting the sites and pages receiving links from them. Some of these were public blog networks similar to BMR. Sites using certain autoblogging plug-ins were also negatively affected. This has had a huge impact on some forms of article marketing. It’s another episode in the long story of alluring tactics with the promise of quick gains.
“The dark side of the Force
is a pathway to many abilities
some consider to be unnatural”
- Supreme Chancellor [Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi]
What does “(un)natural” mean?
This is one of Google’s criteria for determining which links pass muster and which ones don’t.
Whatever works: Applying Sheridan’s quote to the current topic might result in view that reduces to pragmatism; if it works, do it. Is that good enough?
Obviously not. I’m sure Build My Rank worked for quite a while before it was de-indexed. You can’t just look at whether something got results to discern whether you’ve met Google’s criteria for naturalness. You need to actually understand what is meant by it.
No real difference: How about another often heard sentiment. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s all the same. White hat, black hat, grey hat; who cares? If you define black/grey hat as intentionally trying to manipulate the search results, then many tactics that often are labelled white hat would fall into that category – even something as simple as optimizing your Title tag.”
This comes across as a plausible argument to some. However, it is disastrously flawed and depends on either a loosely or ambiguously defined notion of the critical term “manipulate”. If “manipulate” simply means intentionally influencing, then having a website at all fits the bill. If “manipulate” requires deception to be at work, then optimizing a Title tag or simply having a website at all doesn’t deserve that label, but making it appear as though there are more separate individuals linking to you than there actually are does deserve that label.
What you need to know about natural links
There are many things which make a link natural. Some can be quantified while others are qualitative. In this post I’m going to talk about one example of each.
LINK DISTRIBUTION: This is one of the many quantitative components of link naturalness. One of the things I actually go over with students is exactly how to quantify this which would be too much for a blog post, but I will cover how to understand this properly. There is actually a serious debate in some circles over what the distribution of your in-bound links should look like in order for it to be considered a healthy profile or natural. As an example, let’s discuss the distribution with respect to PageRank.
One camp believes the distribution should resemble a bell curve. This would mean you should have:
- a small number of high PageRank pages linking to you (say 6 and above)
- a small number of low PageRank pages linking to you (say 0 to 2)
- and a high number of medium PageRank pages link to you (say 3 to 5)
If that’s what your distribution looks like, then you’re sitting pretty.
While another camp insists that the distribution should resemble a power law. This would mean that you would have a small number of high PageRank pages linking to you, a larger number of medium PageRank pages linking to you and a much larger number of low PageRank pages linking to you.
So which do you think is correct?
Well, some interesting research in the area of link spam detection makes it pretty clear that the correct, or natural, distribution of in-bound links with respect to PageRank is one that resembles the power law. The study actually says most web pages have in-bound and out-bound links that follow a power law distribution. It also claims that a major deviation in PageRank distribution is an indicator of link spamming. It even offers a mathematical formula by which it can calculate the degree of “spamminess” for a distribution of in-bound links to a site.
This is just one quantifiable component of link naturalness, one that deals with link distribution with respect to PageRank. There are many others and it really does make a difference how you understand this.
QUALITY OF THE LINK SOURCE: There are many important components of quality. A very straightforward one is taking a look at the page giving you the link and asking yourself whether you would find the content useful or interesting if you had a genuine interest in the subject area covered by the content. Then ask whether the site itself is one you would bother to come back to and visit; or if it was a blog, would you even consider subscribing to its RSS feed after scanning through a couple of its posts. You also need to keep in mind that it’s not enough merely for the page with your link to be of high quality. If too many of the other pages on the site are of low quality, then your link will be devalued too. You can thank Panda for that.
What you need to do
Realize that the rules are changing and you need to adapt. You need to learn as much as you can about what “natural” links are so that you do not fall prey to tactics that will be detrimental to your visibility in the search results, your traffic, and your business. It’s not enough to use trendy tricks or tools. Choose your link partners wisely. Go for the right diversity and distribution with your links and look for quality in the page linking to you and in the site the page is on. Refer to Google’s Panda quality guidelines if you need to. Learn how to use a tool like Majestic SEO to keep tabs on bad links coming in from scraper sites and so on and to watch out for an unnatural looking distribution of in-bound links.
“Many years ago, a mentor told me that understanding “why” something is done, is far more important than knowing “how” it is done. Knowing “why” gives people the ability to be innovative and the creativity to improve how something is done to get even greater results. Those only knowing “how” are doomed to repeating what they’ve always done.
- NEIL SALERNO