What are Link Penalties and How to Avoid Them

Kendall Brennan
By Kendall Brennan

If you are doing any online marketing, it is common knowledge that incorporating links into your site can help increase your ranking Google’s search results. What might not be as commonly known, however, are the guidelines which apply to using links. Even less known are the penalties for breaking those rules. If you’re going to use links on your site, which is likely a vital component of your site, you need to be prepared with the proper knowledge to do so in order to avoid any problems in the future.

What Is An Unnatural Link?

An unnatural link, much like it sounds, is a link which violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. These guidelines can be tricky to follow so let’s take a closer look at a few.

  • Product Review Links   Providing a link to an external review may seem like you’re just trying to help your customer evaluate the quality of your product, but this is a common link violation that many webmasters commit without realizing. If you’re going to provide a product review, you must add a nofollow tag which tells search engines that the link should not pass any authority to your site. When linking to these reviews it is best to exercise caution.
  • Directory Links   A website directory is typically a list of links to other websites which can be sorted into various categories. Webmasters have the option to submit their sites to these directories in the hopes of creating more backlinks to their site. While some of these sites are free to add a listing, others require payment. However, this type of link building is generally frowned upon and best to be avoided entirely.
  • Anchor Text Over Optimization   Anchor text is the text that links through to another site. For example, “exercise caution” is the anchor text for the link provided in the Product Review Links section above. Search engines use this text to figure out what should be expected when they follow a link. Most often, anchor texts are simply the brand name of the site you’re clicking through to. Anchor texts that are keyword rich can improve rankings, but must be used with caution. Over-optimized anchor texts violate Google’s guidelines, so be careful that your links don’t use too many keywords in the anchor text.
  • Text Ads Which Pass Link Authority   Displaying ads on your site is not against Google’s guidelines. Displaying ads which influence your ranking, however, is. Any advertisement which passes link authority is against Google’s guidelines. These paid links or ads must have a nofollow tag associated with them as a result.

Related: The Ultimate Guide To Internal Link Building Strategy for SEO.

  • Forum Link Building   The method of using forums to drive authority to your site is no longer just seen as spammy, it is now against Google guidelines. This is the act of placing links to your site on other forums around the web. Typically, forum link building is done on low quality forum site by placing hundred of links to your site in the comments.

This is by no means a complete list of unnatural links which can be penalized by Google, but it is a start. I highly encourage you to become familiar with all the methods of link building which breach Google’s rules so that you have a more complete understanding of what is expected of webmasters.

What Happens To Your Site When You Have A Link Penalty?

If your site is found to be breaking any of Google’s guidelines, a number of things may occur as a result. First, your site will likely experience a demotion in ranking and possibly even completely removing a page from search results. Second, as a direct result of the first, you will see a decline in traffic to your site. Finally, you will need to address the issues Google found.

The good news is, these penalties aren’t permanent as long as you make the necessary adjustments. Once you have remedied all problems, you can submit your site for reconsideration.

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Different Types Of Link Penalties

Generally speaking, there are two main types of link penalties: Penguin Algorithm and Manual Link Penalties.

  • Penguin Algorithm   Originally launched in April of 2012, Penguin is an algorithm aimed at fighting webspam. It’s initial launch primarily affected sites that utilized keyword stuffing to an extreme and participated in link scheming. As of September 2016 with the launch of Penguin 4.0, the algorithm is now real time which means a bad link can affect your site faster than ever before. Google won’t notify you if you’re being hit by Penguin, but you’ll notice its effects through declines in both ranking and your traffic to specific pages on your site that have bad links. However, the real time nature of Penguin 4.0 means you’ll be able to recover faster once the problem link is addressed.
  • Manual Link Penalty   Unlike Penguin, a real person must file a spam report against your site which then triggers another real person from Google to review your site in an effort to determine the report’s validity. If the report is found valid, Google then decides whether to move forward with a manual penalty or not. You can find and learn more about any manual penalties by logging into the Google Search Console.

How To Avoid Link Penalties

Now that you know what can cause a penalty, what happens to your site as a result of those penalties, and the different types of penalties you can incur, let’s talk about how best to avoid them before it ever becomes a problem.

Practice Good Link Building Tactics

It’s clear that improper and spam-like link building tactics are one of the primary reasons your site might be flagged. One of the easiest ways to avoid a penalty of unnatural links is to not have them in the first place. You can do so by creating high quality content that is likely to be shared. If you’re not doing anything wrong, the links that come back to your site won’t cause any problems. Google recognizes that great content is shared frequently and will reward you for that. Content based link building is just one of many respectable tactics that you can use on your site. Other tactics include guest blogging, ego baiting, broken link building, and link reclamation.

Related: Top Local SEO Ranking Factors.

Regularly Analyze Your Link Profile

Even if you aren’t currently in a link clean up, it is important to regularly analyze your link profile to ensure that it’s healthy. You can do this by performing a link audit in just a few simple steps:

  • Export the list of all links pointing to your site. You can do this using Google’s Webmaster Tools.
  • Manually analyze each link to determine if they are in compliance with Google’s guidelines or whether they violate them.
  • Finally, reach out to all of the sites containing a link to your site which violate Google’s guidelines and ask them to either remove the link completely or add a nofollow tag.
  • Disavow any sites that don’t remove or nofollow the link to signify to Google that they should not consider those sites when looking at your link profile.

Be Sure Your PR Agency is Aware of Google’s Guidelines

If you work with a more traditional Public Relations (PR) agency you’ll want to make sure they are explicitly aware of Google’s guidelines. Many of the manual actions we’ve seen were due to legitimate PR efforts, not manipulative ones. Unfortunately, search engines don’t care about the intent behind infractions, only that they are violations. Our best advice is to think big picture and ensure everyone on your marketing team knows the difference between a good and bad link in order to avoid any unfavorable situations.

 

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Kendall is a Senior SEO Strategist at Power Digital. She specializes in SEO, but also has a passion for the holistic view of digital marketing and seeing how all channels work together to create a strong digital presence.