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Google Manual Actions Related to Unnatural Outbound Links

Recently, Google took what is called a “manual action” against my website due to the fact that they erroneously believed that I was engaging in “link schemes”–i.e., selling links on my site for the purpose of helping other sites increase their domain authority.  I actually wasn’t doing anything wrong, but the process of getting the issue sorted out and getting back on Google’s good side was very eye-opening and educational for me.

If nothing else, the experience hit home the fact that when Google decides you are doing something wrong, you are guilty until proven innocent.  This very topic is actually the subject of a lawsuit against Google making its way through the courts right now–more on that below.

Another thing I learned in the process of researching how to resolve this manual action was that apparently I wasn’t the only one dealing with this issue right now–there appears to be some sort of a crackdown going on regarding outbound links, as this article in The SEM Post points out.

Because link-building is such a huge part of SEO, and because Google’s actions both against me and in the two examples sited above really throw into question what is and isn’t a “legitimate” link as far as Google is concerned, I thought this was an important topic to cover on my podcast.

Use the player below to listen to the episode, or scroll down for the complete transcript of the episode.

Transcript of Small Business Marketing Minute Episode 182 about Google Manual Actions

My topic for the show today is search engine optimization. For those of you who don’t know, this is basically the process by which you attempt to get your website to appear high in the search results, as far high up on page one as you can get for key words that people are searching for related to your products and services. For example if you owned a home improvement business in Richmond, Virginia, you would want your website to show up when people search for the term, home improvement company in Richmond, or something like that.

This is basically search engine optimization. There are very specific ways that this needs to be done both on your website and off your website. We could talk for hours about search engine optimization. There is volumes of material that have been published about this. I want to get a little bit technical today and talk about something very specific that’s recently happened to me and has affected me, and that could be affecting some of you as well.

Bear with me, because I am going to get a little bit geeky today, but this is really important for you to understand and for some of you out there, it may save you from having actions taken against you by Google. What happened to me recently, to be specific, on June 9th, so about 3 weeks ago, Google sent me a message through the webmaster console. For those of you who don’t know, the Webmaster tools is a free service you can set up so that you can get data about your website and how it’s appearing in the search results and the terms people are using to find it.

I’m not going to go into that today, just go Google Webmaster tools if you want to learn more about what that is and how that works. Anyway, Google sent me a message through the Webmasters tool search console with the following note. The subject line was, “Unnatural outbound links from redpointmarketingconsultants.com violate Google Webmaster guidelines.”

The message said: “Google has detected a pattern of links from your site to other sites that is either unnatural or irrelevant. This pattern attempts to artificially boost other sites rankings in Google search results. Such unnatural ranking would cause search results to show preference for results not relevant to the user’s actual query. It also violates Google Webmaster guidelines. Therefore we are discontinuing the trust in links on your site. This manual spam action has been applied to redpointmarketingconsultants.com. To fix this, remove the unnatural links on your site and file a reconsideration request. After we determine that you have complied with our guidelines, we will remove this manual action.”

Now, a little bit of background here. One of the things that determines where a website ranks in search results is the number of links pointing to that website. The logic being that if a site has lots of links pointing to it, it’s probably a good quality website that provides useful content, and therefore should be put higher in the search results.

Since the beginning of search engine optimization almost, various people have tried to manipulate this by either buying links on other websites, or in other ways artificially getting links to their site. In other words, they weren’t letting it happen organically because of the great content they were putting out, they were just paying people to link to their site or using another so called black hat method to get links to their site.

Basically what Google was accusing me of in this instance, is being one of the sites that artificially links to other sites. They are basically accusing me of selling links on my website in return for money or other quid pro quo type of arrangements. Because my site does have a fairly high domain authority, they are saying that I am attempting to help other websites artificially boost their rating. ‘

First of all, I am absolutely not doing this. I have never done this, never would consider doing it. This was sort of alarming to me that I was being accused of this, because I certainly hadn’t changed anything that I was doing lately and I honestly had no idea what links might be triggering this alert on my site.

I went into my site, and I did a complete security analysis to make sure it hadn’t been hacked and that people hadn’t been putting links on my site that I didn’t know about. I determined that that was not the case. I think went through and tried to guess what links might be considered spammy or unnatural by Google. What I found was a plug-in that I was using that put a testimonial from one of my clients in the side bar of every page of my website. In the testimonial, there was a section where I could put a link to the person’s website.

I had done that, I had put in the link. The result was that I had hundreds of links to my client’s websites in the side bar because I have hundreds of pages on my website. I thought, “Oh, okay, maybe it was just a simple mistake. I’ll just take out those links from the testimonials and maybe that will fix it.” I also noticed in the WordPress theme that I use, there was a link to the website of the theme that was automatically put there when the theme was installed. It was a WooTheme, so it was a link to the woo themes website in the footer of the theme. I went ahead and removed that.

I thought, okay, one of those two things is probably what’s doing it. I took care of that and submitted a reconsideration request to Google. Much to my surprise, the reconsideration request was denied and Google offered further clarification and said, “No, an example of a link that’s unnatural on your site is the one on this page.” They linked to a page on my site that was a guest blog post.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, a guest blog post is when a blogger like myself has someone else write some content for their blog and then post it on our blog.  Usually, when you do that you will put a link to the person’s website who wrote the content. That’s sort of why you do guest blogging, is so you can get some nice, quality links back to your site. In this case, the guest blog posts Google referenced had two links to the person’s site. One at the beginning, and one at the end. Both of them were just links pointing out that the person who had written a guest blog post from my site, you can learn more about them at “theirwebsite.com.” That was the link.

This was very, very surprising to me because I had been not only using guest blogging myself, but also advocating guest blogging as a legitimate approach to search engine optimization. I had been using it with my clients. Every SEO consultant that I know had been using it. It was generally accepted as a good way to do SEO. It was very concerning and alarming to me that Google was saying, “No, this is not okay.”

I did a little research and I found an article that had recently been posted on the SEMpost.com with the title “Unnatural outbound link manual actions from Google”. It was posted on April 11th, 2016. I’ll put the link to that article in the show notes for this episode. But the article began with this paragraph. “Many bloggers were hit with unnatural outbound links manual actions late Friday night” (again, this is in April of this year). “This manual action is one that doesn’t seem to be sent out very frequently as link related manual actions tend to target sites that receive the links, not the sites that are doing the linking.” The article goes on to describe that more and more sites are being hit with this manual action.

Now, a manual action, just to clarify, is when a site is on the surface in compliance with Google policies and they are ranking in a certain position in the search results, but Google takes a second look at them either because of a tip or because of some other red flags that come up and they say, “No, this site actually should be bumped further down in the search results.” Or, “This site should not be trusted anymore.” They actually have to go in and override their own algorithm in order to do that. That’s the manual action part of it.

Long story short, this article is basically saying that Google is taking more manual actions against bloggers, specifically about this issue of unnatural outbound links. That was one thing I found.

Another thing I found in my research into this issue is a federal lawsuit that is currently making it’s way through courts alleging that Google improperly censored search results. In this particular case, the company filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, is a company that provides search engine optimization.  What they are basically accusing Google of is actually removing all of their websites from the search results despite the fact that the websites really were not violating any Webmaster guidelines.

In fact, in some cases, just as a test, this plaintiff would publish a new website with really no content on there at all and Google would immediately remove it from their search results. He is basically alleging that Google is motivated to do this because the service that he is offering, search engine optimization, helps companies avoid paying Google through the Google Adwords platform in order to appear in the paid search results.  He is saying that it’s to Google’s advantage to not have him appear high in the search results where people can find him. You can read more about this article on the Wall Street Journal website, and I’ll also post a link to that article in the show notes for this episode.

The bottom line here is I don’t know what’s going on. It seems that Google is taking a stricter interpretation of links in guest blog posts specifically and taking a harder look at whether links are natural or unnatural. In my case, what I finally ended up doing was going through every guest blog post that had ever been posted on my website, and removing all the links from them.  Then I submitted a second reconsideration request to Google and it was approved.

I don’t know if I needed to do that extensive of a revision to my website; I just didn’t want to mess around with it anymore. I basically told Google, “Look, I still don’t know exactly what I did wrong. If you want to tell me more, I can fix the problem, but until you give me more information, this is what I’ve done.” They approved the request, so I guess I fixed the problem.

It is very frustrating though to be accused of something you are not doing, and also not really be told what you are accused of but to already be guilty of it before you have a chance to defend yourself. Why am I telling all of this to you today? Well, a couple reasons. Number one, I just want you to be aware of the fact that Google does seem to be taking a closer look at outbound links from sites.  If you do have an authoritative website, a website with a high domain authority, you should probably be a little bit careful about the types of sites that you link to.

Number two, I think it’s just important for anyone that has a website, even a local business owner, to be aware of the basics of how search engine optimization works, and some of the things that affect where you appear in the search rankings.

Without going into a lot of detail about the previously mentioned lawsuit, if the plaintiff is, in fact, successful, it could have a major impact on how we as marketing professionals and search engine optimization professionals go about doing our work, and what Google can and cannot do to a website that they feel, based on criteria that sometimes is very subjective, is violating their Webmaster guidelines. It’ll affect what Google can and cannot do in certain circumstances.

I’ll keep a close eye on that lawsuit, and let you know what happens with that. If I find anything more out about this issue, I will be sure to update you. Again, I apologize for the somewhat geeky episode today, but I did feel like it was an important subject to cover as it does affect us all. It is one of those things that what you don’t know, or don’t pay attention to, certainly can still hurt you.