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INTERNATIONAL: Google Link Warnings Simplified

by Adam King, August 24, 2012

Audience: SEOs

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Takeaways:

  • If you or your clients have received a Google warning message with the yellow caution sign next to it on 19 July, then your site will be affected.
  • If you or your clients have received a Google warning message without the yellow caution sign next to it, know that some backlinks have been discounted and no longer pass PageRank.
  • The recommended course of action if you or your clients have been affected is outlined in this article.

Unnatural link warnings sent out by Google recently alerting webmasters to bad link profiles have contained confusing mixed messages.

Mass notifications began in February 2012 when Google decided to become more vocal about linking schemes outside of their Webmaster Quality Guidelines. This message was reiterated by Matt Cutts at SMX Advanced in June 2012, saying “not to ignore” Google messages, and warning that failure to take action would probably result in further penalties.

However, it was the Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) warnings in July 2012 that have caused angst and confusion amongst webmasters.

History of Link Warnings

In February 2012, Google started emailing webmasters regarding bad links (unnatural or artificial links) and cloaking, both of which are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

From February to April 2012, Google sent more than 700,000 messages via Webmaster Tools (WMT). This was the first mainstream worldwide link warning notification.

On 19 July 2012, Google issued notifications via Webmaster Tools to numerous webmasters advising that their website was in breach of Google’s quality guidelines.

This second round of Google warnings was sent in with an identical message to the February notification. Receiving one of these messages previously would most often result in severe penalties, with a decrease in rankings and traffic; hence, the concern. What few people were aware of was that there were two meanings to the notification.

Another round of messages sent on 19 July:

second_round_mssg

After much debate in the webmaster and SEO communities, Matt Cutts wrote "ignore these messages" on his Google+ profile.

mattcutts_message

Following this post, more confusion ensued. How serious was the warning that was received in WMT? Was it a warning or a penalty?

On 23 July 2012 Google rephrased the second message to make it clearer and more transparent. This warning indicates that certain pages or links on your site have been affected. For example some links that Google deems to be manipulative have been ignored and no longer counted. This may result in a rankings decrease.

Here's the rephrased link warning message from Google sent on 23 July:

rephrased_mssg

What to Do About the New Link Message?

This warning is seen as the more moderate warning. It is the “advisory” warning. This is the one without the yellow exclamation mark next to it. So to be clear, webmasters who received this rephrased message from Google on July 23 without the yellow warning icon seem to be safe from a site-wide penalty, for the time being. However, rankings may still be affected due to unnatural links being ignored.

Google Warning Message Examples

From 23 July within Google Webmaster Tools:

no_yellow_warnings

How Serious Is the Original Link Warning?

This is a very serious warning. The one with the yellow exclamation mark next to it indicates that the site in question has a clear pattern of link manipulation. A warning of this type will affect the entire site (i.e., the entire site will be penalised within Google).

The fallout? After this communication stumble, Matt Cutts posted to the Google Webmaster Central blog outlining some history on Google's handling of inbound links.

Summary:
  • If you or your clients have received a Google warning message without the yellow caution sign next to it, know that some backlinks have been discounted and no longer pass PageRank.
  • If you or your clients have received a Google warning message with the yellow caution sign next to it on 19 July, then your site will be affected.
Recommended course of action:
  • Start the link pruning process. See Bruce Clay Inc.'s link removal process.
  • Download all backlinks to your site sorted by date from WMT. You may want to start checking your most recent links to see if you can spot anything unusual.
  • Build up a full documentation. Examine your backlink profile, looking at each link one by one, and ask yourself one question: Would this link hold up to a manual review by Google? If the answer is no, then remove it.
  • Contact webmasters and ask for removal.
  • Submit reconsideration request to Google with the document proving that the offending links have been removed.
  • Let Google know about any links you have been unable to remove. Keep them listed in your document, with evidence you have attempted to remove them.

“The bottom line is, try to resolve what you can,” says Cutts.

There is potentially more to come from Google with regards to this; however it is always beneficial to understand the types of links that are pointing to your site, so undertaking this practice now can be beneficial.

Why is Google so vocal all of a sudden? Google is making a statement, again warning those who use unnatural linking that they will be caught. Google has also taken it a step further by helping and strongly encouraging "White Hat" sites and agencies to clean up link profiles, or penalties will occur. There is also obviously a need to reduce the fear and uncertainty expressed in the SEO industry about negative SEO. By providing new tools, Google is trying to reassure that negative SEO may not be effective.

Negative SEO: Can Your Competitor Hurt You with Links?

What is negative SEO? It is the process of pointing low quality, paid or spammy links at your site in an attempt to decrease your sites in the ranking. This is based on the perception that low quality links are now being punished by rankings penalties by Google.

Google is sending out page level link warnings as a result of “artificial links pointing to it (widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc.).” It could open the door to competitors building these types of links to your site; in an attempt to acquire a warning and possibly a demotion in the SERPs.

However, we do believe that highly trusted websites with a high domain authority may not be affected in the face of negative SEO attempts. So, domain authority may have an impact against negative SEO. This does leave smaller sites much more susceptible to damage.

The SEO blog SEOmoz invited people to point a large amount of low-quality “spammy” links to them to test negative SEO. The community obliged and there was a significant growth in low-quality links aimed at their site. As a result, they received a link warning but they did not receive a traffic reduction or lower rankings.

From SEOmoz (click through to the original post):

google traffic graph

Takeaways:

  • Take heed of all warnings.
  • Negative SEO may not be possible -or-
  • A robust site like SEOmoz that has authority and trust will not suffer a penalty from this action; however smaller sites that don’t have the robust link profile and high authority of SEOmoz may be in danger.

Recommended course of action:

Once again the steps are quite similar to those above. If you suspect a competitor is conducting negative SEO on your site, then the steps above are also relevant here:


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