Google’s Outbound Link Penalties: How to React without Overreacting

Penalties for links usually focus on the inbound kind. So Google’s recent spate of manual actions against websites for having “unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links” was a surprise to many. (If this is news to you, then go ahead and read about it here.)

The quick version: This time, the search engine targeted sites linking out because the links looked like an attempt to boost the destination site’s rankings in search results. Google took action by devaluing all of the linking site’s links as untrustworthy.

Granted, we saw this coming as an SEO services company that’s successfully mitigated countless penalties for clients. But here’s why this outbound link penalty shouldn’t have surprised anyone paying attention.

Warning Signs That Penalties Loomed

Just a few weeks before the penalties came down, Google noted that those receiving compensation for things such as product reviews needed to take steps to call out any links from their site to the product site, page, or supplier.

In a Webmaster Blog post, Google spelled out exactly how to disclose such a relationship, when to use a nofollow tag, and so on — items that are already clearly explained in the guidelines. That was a clear warning sign that a crackdown was coming.

At a more basic level, disclosure is also covered by federal law. In the U.S., Federal Trade Commission guidelines require businesses and individuals to identify when they have been compensated for a review, whether that’s through payment or just free products, for example.

All in all, this outbound link penalty shouldn’t have caught anyone unawares.

Overreacting Can Hurt Your Website

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There is simply no logic behind cutting off all link equity flowing out of your site, and we highly recommend avoiding this action.

Here’s what is surprising: the reaction of some websites to simply nofollow ALL links across their website. (For those not up on SEO lingo, “nofollowing” a link means applying a “nofollow” attribute to the link tag.)

Such a drastic move is an attempt to avoid any problem with Google in the quickest way possible.

Unfortunate reality check: By “nofollowing” all outbound links, webmasters simply create other issues for themselves.

In fact, when he saw this happening last week, Google’s John Mueller posted this urgent advice in a Webmaster Help Forum: “There’s absolutely no need to nofollow every link on your site!” (source: The SEM Post).

The Appropriate Reaction to a Penalty

First, check your messages in Google Search Console to find out if your site received a manual action for outbound linking. If you were penalized, then the best solution is to call out things naturally. For example, wherever you’ve linked to a product you’re reviewing, you should:

  • Explain in the article the relationship with the company supplying the item to be reviewed.
  • State the circumstances (full disclosure).
  • Add rel=”nofollow” to links to the product supplier within the article itself. Many plugins exist for the popular CMS’s to enable on-the-fly editing of nofollow on links at the article/publishing level.

Search engines see the internet as a connected entity. If you suddenly nofollow all of your outbound links, then it makes your site appear reclusive. It also hurts the sites you’re linking to that are natural links, relevant to your subject matter, and qualified to receive your vote of confidence.

There is simply no logic behind cutting off all link equity flowing out of your site, and we highly recommend avoiding this action.

Instead, you need to take legitimate actions to clean up the problem. There are no shortcuts here.

It will pay dividends for any website to be clear about why they are linking to other pages across the web.

Taking time to review your outbound links is good business. Over time, things change, so a page you linked to several years ago may be entirely different in its focus today.

Domains are bought, sold, and then expire, only to then later be purchased, parked, and plastered with ads.

While these normal activities and link-location changes have always been factored into the search engine algorithms, it’s never too late to ensure you’re linking to — and thus sending your patrons to — quality web pages at relevant, related websites.

After you review your outbound links and nofollow the ones that are unnatural, you can submit a reconsideration request to get back into Google’s good graces.

A Sign of Penguin?

A final point to keep in mind. In the past, we’ve seen minor moves like this ahead of more major updates by Google.

Remember that Penguin we’re all waiting to be updated? We’re not willing to say definitively that this outbound link penalty action is the precursor to a Penguin refresh (as many have predicted already).

However, the fact remains that when the teams are working on one portion of the algorithm, the rest is often close at hand. There can be economies of timing when making algo updates, from the search engine’s perspective. So don’t be surprised if the refresh we’ve been waiting for is near.

find out about SEO Penalty Assessments

Duane Forrester formerly held the position of VP, organic search operations at Bruce Clay, Inc. Before that, he was a senior product manager responsible for Bing’s Webmaster Program. He's also the founding co-chair of SEMPO's In-House SEM Committee, was formerly on the Board of Directors for SEMPO and is the author of two books: "How To Make Money With Your Blog" and "Turn Clicks Into Customers." Connect with Duane on social with the links on his author page.

See Duane's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (16)
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16 Replies to “Google’s Outbound Link Penalties: How to React without Overreacting”

well i dont take much stress for links as i personelly feel that if you make genvine and quality links ,it will come out to have a positive result for sure… and if we seo guys use negative tacts then its obvious we are going to have major hurdles through google,sooner or later… so be positive, work calmly on genvine quality links.. and yes all knows links are made through offpage activities like directory blog,bookmark and so… just keep checking which links are working for seo.. thats it…

It seems RankBrain and new anticipated Penguin update won’t be perfect and still need help of Google quality assessors. Interesting to see how many websites got outbound link penalties.


Duane, this got me thinking about internal links. What do you think about no follow on internal site links to pages like contact us, privacy, support pages etc. Is it good / bad practice?

I’d say it’s a reasonable practice when managed in moderation. On a link in a footer that appears cross-site, fine. But always take care to ensure you’re not doing too much obvious sculpting with this approach. In general, the engine *should* be accounting for links like you mention and deprecating the passed value on it’s own. Nothing wrong with some sign posts to help them out, however. ;)

Good tips, I personally use Ultimate Nofollow plugin on my wordpress to take care of my outbound links, even though I feel like it would be extremely difficult for google to penalize sites base on this.

Yes this happens to many of the websites. But I think people from Google should also tell us what types of links are now legal in Google eyes…

Google doesnt know how to fix the problem of blogs and guest posts , so once again they take a chainsaw to try to brain surgery. who and what is deciding what links Outbound are bad? Are they suggestiong the sites they are going to are bad?

A very good step-by-step guide especially for a beginner like me. It’s overwhelming with information, thank you for making it easy and very detailed..

If I have my doubts to the source of the link is always put no follow attribute

Should we remove doubtful outbound links from the site or to nofollow it?

Hi Duane,

Never thought that Outbound Links can also negatively effect and penalise the site. Thanks for explaining how to take the necessary steps and save the website from penalty. Thanks for the sharing this useful post with us.

Should we remove doubtful outbound links from the site or to nofollow it?

There should be no doubtful outbound links on your website. I mean, you control all the links leaving your site, so why would you post links to sketchy destinations? ;) Bottom line, though, is things change over time, so you do have to periodically recheck your outbound links to ensure they still do go where intended.

You can nofollow whatever you like, but it should be reserved for instances where you are linking to a useful, trustworthy resource, but one which is not directly related to your page’s topic. If you sell car parts, a link to auto financing for a new car might be useful for some of your visitors (and lucrative for you if it there is a per lead bounty paid for signups), but it’s not relevant to “car parts”. Therefore you might choose to nofollow the link to that location.

what is the difference between do follow and no follow?

Technically, there is no such thing as “do follow”. All links by default are meant to be followed – that’s the default structure of the Internet and how crawlers approach every link. “Nofollow” is a protocol designed to inform the crawler to “not follow” or “not pass value” across a link. It’s a signal of your intent. You do or do not support the link to the destination at a high enough level that you recommend the engine pass value from your page to the target.


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