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
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.