How to escape a penalty for unnatural links

By Kerry Butters Posted Jun. 20, 2013 Reading time: 6 minutes

For some web designers, it’s pretty standard practice to place a link back to their own site on the footer of a website designed for a client. Whilst many reputable designers have always avoided it, in the wake of the Panda update, this is something that all really should reconsider.

This is because Google may now recognize these links as being unnatural and hit a web design site with a manual penalty. Google’s webmaster guidelines state: “Widely distributed links in the footers of various sites” may “negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results”. The guidelines also cite this as a “common example of unnatural links that violate [their] guidelines”.

Of course, we all know that the requirements and penalties imposed by Google have recently become even stricter. So how can a webmaster overcome this problem if he has more links scattered around the web than he can possibly remember?


Getting a manual decision reversed

According to many of the SEO guidelines to be found online from SEO professionals, this is no easy task.

However, Google recommends that anyone hit with an unnatural link penalty should address the problem using Lynx text-based web browser to examine the site in the first instance.

This is because Lynx allows a site to be viewed much in the same way that a search engine spider might. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that if a site contains a lot of JavaScript, cookies, session IDs, frames, DHTML or Flash, this will prevent you from seeing the entire site in the text browser. This in turn means that search engines will have trouble crawling the site, in a sense proving that simplicity certainly has its place in modern web design.

For looking specifically at links, it’s also possible to use Open Site Explorer (OSE) to see where they are coming from, along with anchor text variants and link quality. This should give a fair idea of why the site has been penalized.


What to do with the links when found

Once you have identified the links that are most likely causing a problem, you have a couple of options.

  1. Add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag.
  2. Redirect links to a page that is blocked from search engines using a robots.txt file.

This could, of course, be something of a nightmare if you don’t manage all of the sites you have built in the past. The best way to overcome this would be to send a note to the current webmaster or site owner requesting that the footer link be changed. 

It’s also a good idea to remove the anchor text so that it doesn’t say something akin to “Web Design New York” or similar.

Make a note of all of the altered links on a spreadsheet, so that you can keep a record of what’s been done and where; this can also be forwarded to Google when the time comes to resubmit the site.

This should include the following information: 

  • Link from URL
  • Link to URL
  • Anchor text used
  • An email address for the linked from site
  • Details of removal requests, such as dates and number of times the request has been made
  • The status of the link (whether it has been removed/altered or is still live)

It’s also a good idea to set up a dedicated Gmail account to deal only with this problem. You can then back up the actions you have taken by providing the login details when you appeal.


Appealing to Google on resubmission

Once you are 100% sure that all bad back links have been addressed and you’ve double-checked using Lynx and OSE, it’s time to appeal to Google’s better nature.

In order to do this, think out and plan what you are going to say in the request thoroughly before submitting it and include the following information:

  • Who you are, reference to the original penalty letter and what you do
  • The reasons that you believe that you were penalized, leaving nothing out
  • How you have addressed the problem, including the relevant proof on the spreadsheet
  • What you have done to ensure that the problem won’t reoccur
  • An apology to Google, confessing everything in detail
  • Name and contact details of the lead person dealing with the issue

If the problem has been caused by an SEO company, rather than yourself, then it’s wise to state this in the appeal and give their name, site and contact details. This isn’t passing the buck nearly as much as protecting your own company and giving Google full and transparent details.

However, there’s still no guarantee that your request to resubmit will be successful and if that’s the case, the only thing you can do is to keep trying.


Other steps to take to change Google’s mind

In order to further ensure that the risk of penalization will not continue, there are a few steps for consideration.

  • Think about using branded anchor text so that linking looks more natural. This should be something like “Web Design by *company name”. It’s recommended that these be mixed up so as not to appear spammy.
  • Avoid site-wide links where possible.
  • Look at the quality of all back links to check that they are high-quality links; remove those that are not.
  • Remove any dead links and check that the URL isn’t one that has been devalued by Google.

If you really want to, you can always use Google’s disavow tool, but this is really only recommended as a last resort if you’re having real trouble removing bad links or cleaning up footer links.

At this stage, it’s a much better idea to try and improve your site’s worthiness by carrying out some white-hat SEO techniques. Firstly, think about doing some guest blogging to create useful links that Google will approve of. For this, it’s necessary to choose a site with a PR of between 2-6 minimum. Once you have determined some sites that you would like to use — preferably ones that are very relevant to your own site —then it’s time to approach the site owner. Offer articles that are of a very high quality and only include one back-link in the body as anchor text, or at the end of the piece in the author bio.

If you’re unsure how to go about this, you can type the search term ‘write for us’ into Google and this should return numerous results. You can even put something along the lines of ‘write for us *web design*’ or similar to further narrow down the results so that they’re relevant to what your site is about.

Another tactic is to use Blogger LinkUp, which is a free resource that sends an email bulletin three times a week with the names of sites that are looking for guest bloggers. This great tool is run by one woman, Cathy Stucker, and should be on every blogger and back-link specialist’s resource list.

It’s also a good idea to look at the following:

  • On-page SEO on your own site
  • Site-wide content and SEO
  • The use of keywords in meta information and on-page
  • Your social profiles to ensure they are working for you by improving engagement 


How social helps

Whilst there’s no official evidence to say that social improves rankings, or is looked fondly upon by Google, it’s widely thought that social media channels with a high level of engagement fare better.

The same goes for social on your website, which should also include regular quality blogs and content. Social sharing buttons are a must for proving that your visitors value your site and the content that it creates.

When it comes to resubmission, again, you should detail everything that you have carried out to overcome the problem comprehensively. Trying to hide anything from the Google spam team will only antagonize them when — not if — they catch you; so again, be completely transparent and don’t be afraid of giving too much information.

If you’ve done everything by the book, then there’s no such thing as too much information.


Avoidance is the easiest way

Whilst it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the biggest companies have been penalized for dodgy SEO practices, the best way to steer clear of penalization is avoidance. This isn’t always possible if you use an outside SEO company, as Interflora recently discovered to their cost.

Nobody is infallible, and not even the best designers with a high knowledge of SEO could have predicted that footer text might get them penalized in the future. However, it really does flag the fact that all site owners now have to be extra careful when it comes to SEO.

If you use an outside agency to do your SEO, request regular reports and ensure that they have a great reputation for white-hat techniques.  And remember: It’s probably best to avoid altogether an agency that carries out black-hat techniques. It’s hardly worth the price.


Have you rescued a site from a manual penalty? What steps did you take? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, escape image via Shutterstock.