How to escape a penalty for unnatural links

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.

  • Arshad Ansari

    I feel leaving a “Designed By…” link on the footer of a client’s website is not professional since we (web designers) are providing custom solutions. Thats why I have never including it in any websites designed by me, commercially. But I include it when I design free templates or themes. But that is my opinion, so no offense to people who support the designed by links.

    Thanks a lot Kerry for posting such valuable information :)

  • Caleb O’Loan

    I can see how Google might not like links in the footer, as it gives web designers an advantage that other businesses would not have. Also it gives an advantage for those that add links rather than those who add no advertising to a client’s page.

    However… if leaving a link at the bottom of a website you have created is not natural where is?
    The website, created by the web designer, is very relevant to the web designer!

    I get a lot of my work through Google, spending no money on advertising. I am pretty sure that these links in the footer are the ones that are helping me be on the front page for local searches, though I suppose I am also high for Google Maps locally which is nothing to do with these links (I’m guessing). I don’t really want to remove the links to be honest. Not sure where I would go in Google.

    • Benjie

      I think Google’s attitude would be that a site created by a designer is relevant to the designer, but the designer isn’t relevant to the site, and almost certainly not to the site’s visitors; only a very small portion of whom would ever be interested in the build history of the site.

      So a designer linking to their work is a natural link, but the work linking to the designer is not.

      Unless of course you’ve built a site for another designer.

      • Caleb O’Loan

        OK I see what you mean, but I think it is tough to come down hard on it. Most products are branded in some shape of form, and yes, it is so the producer can get more work – but what is wrong with that. It’s nothing worse than what happens throughout a consumerist society and it is a lot less in-your face than many other forms of advertising.

  • Benjie

    Interesting, I actually take the opposite view. Adding a credit as a comment in the source code is fair, but I don’t like to see designers appropriating parts of a client’s site for their own ends.

    • Arshad Ansari

      Yes thats the point. We design a custom website for a client so it is not appropriate to add our logo or name at the footer. Adding a comment is really a great way. Another way to attribute the designer is in the about section of the website if the client permits.

  • Arshad Ansari

    You absolutely have a valid point. But as I said it was just what I think. I am also a new designer (2 years in this business) and I know how hard it is to get work, but I feel by not including my branding or just a logo in the footer of my clients’ websites make my clients more happier and coming back.

    Including a comment though is a really great alternative. It’s like when you get a dress tailored, you only get a tag inside the dress not on the outside to make everyone know who tailored it.

    • kodeable

      I can see both sides of the coin, if I had a big corporate site done by someone else for my business – I’d probably not want that in the footer.

      I think it depends on context, if I was doing a huge site for let’s say Microsoft (not a great example but stay with me), I’d leave it off because that’s not the image they’d want to portray. Whereas if I’m designing for an independent blog then I’d have no problems putting it on there unless specifically requested by the client to leave it off.

      • Arshad Ansari

        Yes you are absolutely right, if the client is okay with the link in the footer or even the about section, it is a good way for getting business.

        But I mean that we as designer should first ask for permission if we want to add such parts to our client’s website. But usually designers just include it and only remove if the client specifically asks for it.

  • bgbs

    Are you also bothered that the Stabucks cup from which you’re drink sometimes does not reference its designer?


    • Tim B

      Now that you mention it :)

    • Guest

      Again, you dont pay for a custom designed cup. It is a product that you purchase and everyone purchases the same product. It is not custom designed product.

      I hope you get my point

  • Chris Homan

    I’m wondering how Google views the ‘Powered by WordPress’ footer links that appear on so many websites. Will they be treating those differently and if so, why?

    • Benjie

      That’s a very good point! In theory they should be treated as the same as a designer linking to his/her own site.

      • Tim B

        It would be interesting to see WDD dig deeper into all of this in a blog post. Just sayin ;)

  • abdulalim64

    Actually the post is excellent and wounder. I was looking this idea. Thank you to the writer to write about this. I follow this post.

  • Sova Infotech

    Can you please tell me how Google view websites containing lot of affiliated links?

  • Guest

    I am working as an SEO. For the large site it is very difficult to find out the unnatural links and make it no follow. For the small site it is easy. According to me it is most important to check the links before doing any off page activities. Web Designers who know seo can check it .

  • Russel Frank

    Links are important for a website to get rank on Google search page. But we should build the links naturally. If we try to get the links from other bad sites which is not at all relevant to us then no use of such link. Now days most of the website development companies provide SEO services along with web design service to their clients. So it has become easy to avoid such penalty.

  • Richa Nautiyal

    Thanks for writing the great post. I think instead of giving links in footer section of the website, web design company can mention only name without any hypertext links. This will uses will be able to see the web design agency name and also can get few clients (may commentators mentioned that , and also Google will not take any actions.