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What are Unnatural Links, and What To do About Them?

Introduction

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Unnatural links—manipulative or deceitful backlinks—directly affect a website’s search engine ranking. Unlike natural links, which are earned through content quality and relevance, unnatural links are often acquired unethically. 

With search engines like Google constantly updating their algorithms to spot these links, website owners and SEO experts must identify, address and eradicate them. However, that’s easier said than done, as even grizzled veterans in the digital space have a hard time spotting them before it’s too late. 

Therefore, this guide cuts through the complexity, explaining the risks of unnatural links, discussing how they can hurt your site’s ranking and how white label link building services are the best antidote. Bear with us and you’ll learn how to clean up your online presence and avoid penalties with actionable steps. 

What are Unnatural Links

In SEO, links act as bridges between web pages, guiding search engines and users alike through a vast digital landscape. Search engines use links to discover new pages and to evaluate the authority and relevance of a website, using several link-centric parameters.

These and various other variables generally do a good job of promoting valuable content to the top, but as you can see, they’re still numbers and values that can be ‘gamed.’ 

Hence, unnatural links refer to backlinks that are acquired through schemes or practices that aim to deceive search engines and falsely display trust signals that Google is looking for. This includes any attempt to artificially inflate a site’s backlink profile, whether through purchases, exchanges, or automated programs.

Unlike natural links, which are a byproduct of high-quality content and legitimate website interactions, unnatural links are designed to manipulate search engine algorithms for ranking advantages.

The Role of Search Engines in Assessing Link Quality

Search engines, with Google at the forefront, have developed sophisticated algorithms to assess the quality of links. Basically, you can think of Google’s algorithm as a series of questions, with responses as values. These can be: 

  • How authoritative are the sites that link to the domain?
  • How many sites link to the domain? 
  • Are the domains topically relevant?
  • Are the domains known as link farms?
  • Is the anchor text natural or spammy and forced?
  • Is the backlink out of context? 

The goal is to ensure that high-quality, relevant links are rewarded, while manipulative practices are penalized. Immense resources and plenty of time are spent on making sure that search engines can detect unnatural links and content—trying to sidestep these limitations is a fool’s gambit, and shouldn’t even be attempted.

The Consequences of Unnatural Links

Violating search engine guidelines with unnatural links can (and does) lead to severe consequences. Websites caught engaging in link schemes risk penalties, ranging from a decrease in search rankings to complete removal from search index databases. 

To maintain a successful online presence in the long run, adhering to ethical SEO practices, maintaining a natural backlink profile, and making sure that you’re not violating Google’s rules are paramount. Don’t take any risks and don’t even consider offers that seem too good to be true.

Remember, DA/DR metrics are built over years and years of consistent efforts. If there existed a shortcut, everyone would use it. 

Why Unnatural Links Matter

Search engines aim to provide users with the most relevant and high-quality content. When a website’s backlink profile is artificially inflated with unnatural links, it undermines the integrity of search results. 

Consequently, search engines penalize such websites by lowering their rankings or, in extreme cases, removing them from search results altogether. This drop in rankings results in reduced visibility, less organic traffic, and a potential decrease in credibility and trust from users.

Google, through updates like Penguin, has improved its ability to detect and penalize websites engaging in link schemes. Websites identified with an excessive number of unnatural links face manual actions, which are notifications sent through Google Search Console, warning webmasters of detected manipulative practices. 

Unnatural Links Common Types

Understanding the various forms of unnatural backlinks is key to maintaining a clean and effective SEO strategy. These links typically fall into categories that directly contravene search engine guidelines, especially those set by Google. Identifying and addressing these types can protect a website from penalties and preserve its search engine credibility.

Link Exchanges

Link exchanges involve two or more parties agreeing to link to each other’s sites to artificially boost their link profiles. While not all link exchanges are harmful—natural, relevant link exchanges can occur—those done excessively or solely for the purpose of manipulating rankings are flagged by search engines as unnatural.

Three Way Link Exchange

Irrelevant Directory Links

Directories were once a go-to for easy backlinks, but today, links from low-quality or irrelevant directories can harm your SEO. High-quality, industry-specific directories may still offer value, but indiscriminate listing in irrelevant directories is seen as an attempt to manipulate link equity.

Low-Quality Article Directories

Similar to directory links, article directories were used to quickly disseminate content across the web, including backlinks to the author’s website. However, links from low-quality article directories, especially those that host poor content or duplicate articles, are considered unnatural by search engines.

Comment Spam Links

Comment spam involves leaving unsolicited and irrelevant links in the comment sections of blogs, forums, or any interactive platform. This tactic is easily recognized by search engines as an attempt to generate backlinks without providing value or relevance.

Links in comments

Private Blog Network (PBN) Links

PBNs are networks of websites created solely for the purpose of link building to a main site. While they can be challenging to detect, links from PBNs are considered highly manipulative and can result in severe penalties if discovered by search engines.

Negative SEO Attacks

You’re probably wondering “Wait, if the O in SEO stands for Optimization, how can SEO be negative?” 

Well, think about the types of unnatural links mentioned, reconsider the negative effects they can have and you’ll realize how easy it would be to sabotage a competitor. 

Toxic backlinks

Hence, egative SEO involves competitors or malicious actors using black-hat SEO techniques to negatively impact a website’s search rankings. Beyond creating spammy backlinks, tactics can include content scraping, breaching the site to modify or inject harmful content, and creating fake social profiles or negative reviews.

Strategies for Detection and Mitigation

Unfortunately, unnatural links can often be hard to discern, especially when you’re in the midst of a large-scale, comprehensive white hat campaign. It’s not 2005 anymore and spamming pornographic and casino links is too obvious and black hat SEOs nowadays use even more sinister tactics. To fully protect yourself, consider: 

  • Conducting regular backlink audits: Using tools like Google Search Console, Ahrefs, or Moz, website owners can monitor their backlink profiles for any sudden spikes in backlinks or the appearance of backlinks from low-quality or irrelevant sites. These could indicate a negative SEO attack.
  • Monitoring anchor text distribution: An unusual concentration of keywords or phrases in the anchor text of incoming links can signal an attempt to manipulate search rankings through anchor text spam. Keeping an eye on anchor text distribution helps identify these efforts.
  • Utilizing google search console: Google Search Console is an invaluable resource for detecting potential security issues, manual actions taken by Google against the site, and to keep track of the site’s overall health. Setting up alerts for any issues can ensure prompt action is taken.
  • Implementing a strong security protocol: To prevent hacking and content modification attacks, maintaining strong website security is essential. This includes regular software updates, using secure passwords, and employing security plugins or services.
  • Engaging in proactive reputation management: Monitoring online mentions and reviews of the website or brand can help identify any potential unnatural links penalty and get to the source of the issue at once. 

How to Deal With Unnatural Links

Addressing the challenge of unnatural links is crucial for maintaining a website’s search engine ranking and overall health. This section outlines strategies for detecting unnatural links and the steps necessary for their removal.

Effective detection is the first step in dealing with unnatural links. Indicators of unnatural links include:

  • High concentration of specific anchor text: An unnaturally high presence of specific keywords or phrases in the anchor text of incoming links may suggest manipulative tactics aimed at gaming search engine rankings. 
  • Backlinks from unrelated or low-quality websites: Links coming from sites that have no topical relevance to your site or that are known for poor quality content can be harmful.
  • Sudden spikes in backlink acquisition: A rapid increase in backlinks over a short period can indicate unnatural link-building activities.
  • Absence of “nofollow” attributes in paid or sponsored links: Legitimate paid or sponsored links should include a “nofollow” attribute to signal search engines not to pass on link equity. Their absence can signal an attempt to manipulate link equity.
  • Google search console warnings: Receiving notifications of manual actions for unnatural links in Google Search Console is a direct indication of a problem that needs addressing.

Removing Unnatural Links

Once unnatural links are identified, the next step is to attempt their removal:

  1. Reach out to webmasters: Contact the owners or webmasters of the sites hosting the unnatural links and request their removal. Although this process can be time-consuming and not always successful, it’s a necessary step before taking further action.
  2. Use the Google disavow tool: For links that cannot be removed through outreach, Google’s Disavow Tool allows webmasters to ask Google to ignore those harmful links when assessing the site. It’s important to use this tool cautiously, as improper use can negatively affect your site’s ranking. Compile a list of the links or domains you want to disavow, format it according to Google’s guidelines, and submit it through the Search Console.

Conclusion

Navigating the complexities of unnatural links is essential for any website aiming to maintain and improve its search engine rankings. Unnatural links, defined by their manipulative or deceptive acquisition methods, pose a significant risk to a website’s SEO health, potentially leading to penalties and a loss of organic visibility. 

For those looking to mitigate the risks of unnatural links, fiddling with SEO reports, webmaster emails and strategies can be time consuming and end up doing more harm than good. If you want to focus on growing your business, book a call with BlueTree and find out how outsourcing your link building efforts can insult in natural, organic and PR-boosting backlinks. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are unnatural links in SEO?

Unnatural links in SEO refer to backlinks that are created or acquired through manipulative practices rather than earned through the natural merit of content. These practices are intended to artificially inflate a site’s backlink profile and manipulate search engine rankings.

How do unnatural links differ from natural links?

Unnatural links are typically characterized by their intent to deceive search engines into ranking a website higher than it deserves. They often come from low-quality or irrelevant sites and do not result from genuine user interest or content value. In contrast, natural links are earned due to the quality of content, relevance, and the organic interest of other site owners who choose to link back to it as a resource.

Why do unnatural links matter in SEO?

Unnatural links matter in SEO because they can lead to search engine penalties, including reduced search rankings and even removal from search index listings. Search engines, like Google, aim to provide users with the most relevant and high-quality search results, and sites attempting to manipulate rankings through unnatural links undermine this goal.

What are common types of unnatural backlinks?

Common types of unnatural backlinks include bought links, link exchanges, links from low-quality directories or article directories, comment spam links, and links from private blog networks (PBNs). These types of links are generally easy for search engines to identify and penalize.

How can negative SEO attacks harm a website?

Negative SEO attacks can harm a website by deliberately creating unnatural backlinks to the site, scraping and duplicating its content across the web, or generating fake social media profiles and negative reviews. Such attacks aim to decrease a site’s search engine rankings, damage its reputation, and reduce its online visibility and traffic.

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Dan Fries

Dive deep into the mind of BlueTree CEO Dan Fries and explore a wealth of knowledge on the nuances of link-building and digital marketing.

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