What Are Unnatural Links? (+ How Do They Impact SEO?)
For a website to rank at the top of Google’s search results, it needs plenty of high-quality backlinks.
This basic reality of how search engines work has led countless website owners and so-called SEO specialists down the thorny path of creating unnatural links.
Unnatural links are backlinks that Google interprets as artificial attempts to manipulate a page’s search rankings.
They can seriously damage your SEO efforts, so it’s well worth taking the time to understand what exactly counts as an unnatural link, how you can avoid them, and what to do if you already have them.
What Are Unnatural Links?
In 2012, Google launched its Penguin update that cracked down on artificial link-building practices. A decade later, they’ve become very sophisticated at sniffing out links that exist for the sole purpose of manipulating PageRank.
Going just by this definition, you might wonder how Google can possibly identify all links that are meant to influence how highly a page ranks. After all, just about every business online today spends some time, effort, and resources on link building, an essential component of SEO. Plenty of legitimate SEO companies exist to serve this need. Wouldn’t most links online be unnatural by this definition?
In reality, some types of links and link-building schemes are always red flags to Google, while others represent more of a gray area. We’ll go over the most common types of unnatural links to look out for, but as a general rule, unnatural links
- Are not editorially placed by the website owner
- Do not offer value to the reader
- Exist solely to pass link juice
- Are created using spammy tactics
- Are purchased
- Would not naturally appear in the content
- Use keyword-stuffed anchor text
Unnatural Links and SEO
If you have unnatural inbound links in your backlink profile, the best case scenario would be for Google’s algorithm to identify them as inauthentic and not to pass any link juice to those links. This does sometimes happen, but it’s more likely for unnatural links to negatively impact your rankings than for them to be neutral.
Even if you obtain some unnatural links through the use of black-hat SEO techniques and get a short-term boost in your rankings, it’s almost certain that these will be short-lived. Once Google’s algorithm picks these up, it’s not uncommon for a website’s ranking to plummet, rendering them undiscoverable in search results.
Another possible outcome is that Google will issue you a manual action as a result of one of their employees manually reviewing your backlinks and identifying problematic backlinks. If this happens, you’ll get a report with the list of affected pages and recommended actions to correct the issues.
Once you’ve addressed all of the unnatural links, you can request a review from Google to reinstate your page. However, this can take many months, and in the meantime, your website might be at the bottom of the rankings or de-indexed altogether.
In short, unnatural links simply aren’t the way to go if you want to climb the search engine results pages SERPs) and drive organic traffic to your site.
Any potential benefits will be very short-lived, and you can be left dealing with the consequences for a long time.
10 Types Of Unnatural Links
So, what kinds of backlinks regularly fall afoul of Google’s webmaster guidelines? Here are some of the most common unnatural links.
1. Sitewide links
These are links in sections that appear all over a website, most commonly in the footer. The idea is that if a website has hundreds or even thousands of pages, a link in the footer can result in thousands of backlinks.
The problem is that these immediately look spammy. In general, having thousands of backlinks with identical anchor text from a single website won’t be very helpful to your SEO efforts. It’s clear that these links serve no editorial purpose, and are only there to influence PageRank.
There are some rare cases of natural sitewide links, such as if someone wants to link to a few resources they recommend in their footer. If they are truly natural and not the result of link-building techniques, these shouldn’t pose a problem.
2. Syndicated content
Write one article or press release containing links back to your site, send it to a network of websites that will syndicate it, and you should enjoy plenty of backlinks, right?Unfortunately not. Repeated content is a red flag, as are too many links with identical anchor text. Plus, the websites that publish syndicated press releases tend to be spammy themselves, which can damage your rankings through association with low-quality websites.
3. Promotional product posts
Brands give away products in an official bid to get links from bloggers all the time, so this may seem like a surprising entry in a list of unnatural links.
Even if the blogger willingly writes about their gifted product without the brand explicitly requesting a writeup, the gift itself implies a request and renders the link unnatural. In this case, the link should be appropriately tagged with a “nofollow” attribute, so that Google doesn’t use it to pass page rank. You’ll still get the referral traffic from the link, but no link juice.
4. Injected links
These are just about as unnatural as it gets: links in totally unrelated content, that do nothing but attempt to manipulate PageRank.
5. Link exchanges
Link exchanges are explicit agreements between parties to link to each other reciprocally. While some degree of reciprocal or mutual linking happens online all the time, you get into the unnatural link danger zone when the links clearly don’t help your reader or exist for an editorial purpose.
This is another one of those gray areas because some directories are excellent, and building listings on them can make a very positive impact on your rankings, especially in local SEO. When it comes to directories, stick to the widely recognized, reputable ones such as Yelp and YellowPages.
Spammy directory listings, on the other hand, are considered unnatural links.
7. Large-scale guest posting
We warned you there would be plenty of gray areas and double-edged swords in this list, and large-scale guest posting is another one. Guest posting can absolutely be an effective part of your overall SEO strategy.
However, you should stick to authoritative, high-DA sites that publish quality content in your niche. If a guest posting website or blog will take anyone who wants to post, it’s probably not worth it.
Additionally, avoid using anchor text stuffed with keywords you’re trying to target in your guest posts. This used to be widely practiced but is now seen as unnatural and spammy by Google’s bots.
8. Paid links
If a link is paid, such as a sponsored blog post or a text ad, it must be tagged with the “nofollow” or “sponsored” attributes.
9. Redirect domains
If a link redirects to a different website, Google’s bots may only register the first URL. Some black-hat SEOs have tried doing this so that Google’s bots see one domain, while users see another. Google has a very low tolerance for this practice, and it’s a great way to get your site de-indexed.
10. Blog and forum comments
Promoting yourself in blog and forum comments with links to your site won’t work, and can result in penalties. It’s another one of those unnatural link-building practices that used to be widely used, and some people still try it although it has long been ineffective.
While there are plenty of different ways to create unnatural links, the pattern is clear now: these links are either purchased or created through manipulative techniques aimed at influencing PageRank rather than delivering useful, relevant content.
Best Practices For Avoiding Unnatural Links
Now that you know what constitutes an unnatural link, hopefully, you won’t try to create them in the future.
But what if you dabbled in shady link-building practices in the past, and want to clean up your record? Or perhaps you’ve been the unfortunate victim of a negative SEO attack, in which a third party tried to damage your rankings by building unnatural links on your behalf?
Here’s what you can do to avoid unnatural links, or the appearance of unnatural links, and to clean up your link profile if necessary.
- Conduct a backlink audit and removal – third-party backlink audits, like the one we offer at Loganix, can identify which backlinks could be potential red flags for Google and get them removed. It’s a highly recommended process to go through occasionally even if you don’t think you have bad backlinks, because it lets you get ahead of anything that can potentially damage your rankings.
- Request takedowns from webmasters – If you spot an unnatural backlink, you can email the webmaster of a site to take it down. This can sometimes work and is the recommended first step to getting a backlink removed if you’re doing it yourself.
- Use the appropriate tags – both for your website links and any inbound links, ensure that “nofollow” and “sponsored” tags are used when needed.
- Disavow through Google – Google does enable you to upload a file with all the links you would like to disavow. However, they recommend doing this sparingly, and as a last resort after trying to get the links removed in other ways.
- Scale matters – a few unnatural links likely won’t have much of an impact, positively or negatively. Don’t stress too much about individual links, but rather about a pattern of unnatural link building.
- Monitor your rankings – a sudden drop in your rankings is likely to be caused by some damaging unnatural links, so keeping an eye on your rankings can help you take action if needed.
- Earn links from safe sources – your overall backlink profile matters. The more links from high-quality sources you have, the less a few suspicious ones will matter.
- Use contextual anchor text – inbound links should use varied, contextual, and descriptive anchor text that makes sense in the context in which they appear. Keywords shouldn’t be used in anchor text unless they would naturally be used in the context anyway.
- Submit Google reconsideration requests if needed – If your site has been deindexed, you can send a reconsideration request to Google. Only do this after you have removed the unnatural links that caused it, and expect that it may take some time and several requests.
Succeeding in SEO is all about creating great content and getting others to talk about it naturally and organically.