Earlier this week, a website owner based in New Jersey received a notification via Google Webmaster Tools that his Google penalty reconsideration request notice in reference to a set of inbound links to his site that violate Google’s quality guidelines.
This isn’t noteworthy in itself, but this particular case has initiated a debate as to what exactly constitutes an ‘unnatural link’, and why the site in question received the penalty in the first place. Previously, I have discussed how site owners have received similar warnings from Google, but in this instance the warning message referenced a website (moz.com) that could not in any way be classed as poor quality, which begs the question – how does this link violate Google’s quality guidelines?
Before I dive into the reasoning behind this particular penalty, it is worth noting that (as the title suggests) the link we’ll be focusing on here is from the highly regarded digital marketing software company, Moz. Google’s response to the webmaster’s reconsideration request, which highlights Moz.com as an example of an unnatural link, can be seen below:
The link in question came from a post about Building Relationships, Not Links on Moz’s user generated content subsection, YouMoz – which is pretty ironic. In my opinion it is a good quality article that adds value to the subject via the provision of highly useful information and examples. Within the article on Moz, the author (Scott Wyden) pointed a link back to his own website, using the anchor text ‘books for photographers‘. I believe that using descriptive anchor text is perfectly acceptable in this case – it helps inform a reader what they’re going to find on the page they’re being signposted to. However, the anchor text used for this link just so happens to overlap with one of the keywords the webmaster (Scott) is attempting to get his website to rank for, which is the factor that triggered Moz.com to be flagged up as an example of an ‘unnatural link‘.
Moz.com isn’t a bad site, it’s part of a pattern of ‘unnatural’ links
Many experts within the SEO industry have suggested that Google are saying that links from YouMoz (the user generated content section of Moz.com) violate their quality guidelines, which is not the case here. Moz.com is a well respected site, and the website that is the source of the link is not the issue here. Additionally, I do not think Google want quality, informative sites like YouMoz (who have a stringent set of guidelines for would-be authors in place) to nofollow all outbound links, like they have previously suggested for links that display ‘intent to manipulate rankings’ within guest articles.
If Moz.com was the issue here, they would have received a penalty or seen some decline in their rankings, which hasn’t happened.
Moz has featured hundreds of guest writers over the years, but this is the first reported instance of their website being flagged up as an example of an unnatural link by Google. The real problem is with the website that is being linked to via YouMoz, scottwyden.com. Google have implemented a manual penalty on Scott’s website because they have identified a pattern of unnatural link building activity to his site. In this instance, the Moz link has been flagged up as Scott used keyword rich anchor text within the link he placed within his article on Moz, which just so happens to be the same keyword rich anchor text he has been using to link to his website from numerous other websites.
What constitutes an ‘unnatural link’?
To better explain how Google identify ‘unnatural links’ as opposed to good quality/perfectly natural links across the web, Google have provided a definition of unnatural links here, in which they explain:
“creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.”
Over-optimised Anchor Text
As I’ve already outlined, in Scott’s case it is not the source of the link that makes it unnatural. It’s the fact that it is part of a large pattern of similar links across other websites. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of Scott’s inbound links were built using over-optimised (keyword rich) anchor text.
The example below shows that 95% of the domains (websites) linking to Scott’s photography site used the phrase ‘new jersey photographer’ as the anchor text of the link. I haven’t been through and assessed the quality of each of those links, but it’s extremely unlikely that a website naturally earns links with anchor text featuring it’s primary target keywords.
Google see anchor text over-optimisation as intent to manipulate their search results and have therefore flagged up any links pointing to Scott’s site that use keyword rich anchor text. Having your target keywords within the anchor text of the majority of the links to your website is not at all natural and suggests to me that this is the primary reason Scott’s website was flagged for a manual review by Google. Google’s webspam team will not manually work through each link to Scott’s website and assess whether the websites are good or bad. Instead, they will look for patterns of links which may be visible and list a few examples of those links within their penalty notices.
Now I’m sure that the owners of Moz will be frustrated that their website has been flagged as an unnatural link. However, when you look closer into the site in question, it is clear that there are plenty of other links that fit the same pattern. Should you stop posting on Moz and Youmoz? No. However, you need to ensure that if you’re including a link in your post, it is always a link that makes sense for users to ensure you’re not being perceived as building unnatural links in the eyes of Google. In Scott’s case, it is absolutely logical to link to “business books for photographers” – links do a good job of drawing the users attention to a specific topic. If Scott were to have used generic anchor text like “click here”, I don’t think the article would have been as user-friendly.
Google are obviously penalising webmasters that over-optimise the anchor text of inbound links to their site, but I still think that keyword rich anchors are OK in moderation. Surely this is why Google incorporated anchor text into their algorithm in the first place?
If we are to use the example highlighted in this article to learn more about how Google deal with unnatural links, then we should note the following points:
- Moz (as a website) isn’t less trusted by Google than any other site, in fact it is an incredibly authoritative website which still ranks extremely well in the digital marketing space
- Guest bloggers who are writing for exposure, and providing good quality content, (rather than writing purely for links) don’t need to panic
- Webmasters that have blogged in the past using keyword-rich (over-optimised) anchors may well see it catch up with them – just as Scott has. This will no doubt frustrate many, as Google used to have a completely different stance on this. However, the rules have changed, and with this in mind you need to ensure the links to your site cannot be perceived as unnatural in the eyes of Google and other search engines, by cleaning up your inbound links.
I can sympathise with any webmaster that has been in Scott’s situation, as it is frustrating to see the rules changed so often by Google. However, this highlights how important it is to keep up to date with the constant developments in Google’s algorithms, to avoid your site being penalised due to practices that may well have been acceptable in previous years. It can be extremely confusing for webmasters who aren’t well-versed with the latest developments in the SEO industry to receive notifications such as the one Scott was sent by Google. Indeed, there are so many parts of the manual penalty process that are poorly worded, and (as a result) we as an agency are experiencing an ever growing number of clients coming to us for help in getting Google penalties overturned.
With this in mind, do you think it’s possible to stay completely within the Google Quality Guidelines when trying to get your website to rank? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts below.