Google Link Warnings: Should We Worry?

“If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic.” These words, coming from the Google+ feed of Matt Cutts, should perhaps be reassuring. But they aren’t. In fact, to judge from some of the comments in SEO Chat’s forum, they only serve to make SEOs question Google’s motives.

You can read the full Google+ post from the search engine’s head of webspam control. The gist of it is, in the past, Google sent out these warning messages when they were taking action against a site as a whole; this latest batch of messages, however, got sent out for more innocent reasons. “For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site,” Cutts explained. “The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it’s not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.”

If you’re a regular reader, you won’t be surprised to hear that this inspired a busy thread on our SEO Chat forum. Dr.Marie, who started the ball rolling on this thread, linked to Cutts’ post and bolded the interesting parts. The problem is that the way Google went about this isn’t really making their actions more transparent, or helping webmasters. “It’s like Google is saying ‘HEY! We noticed something unnatural in your link profile, but don’t worry – you don’t need to do anything about it. But hey, if you suddenly lose rankings then yeah, you should start doing something,’” she noted.

A number of our forum members immediately checked to see if they’d received the notification alluded to by Matt Cutts. Most of them hadn’t, but at least two had – and one of them noted, “Haven’t done anything but traditional link building for THREE YEARS and have put very little effort in that.” He was so annoyed at receiving the Google message, in fact, that he started his own thread about the issue.

Incidentally, one of the SEO Chat forum members who reported receiving the warning from Google also cut and pasted it into Dr.Marie’s thread. You’ll find it at the top of the thread’s second page. What’s particularly annoying about the letter is that it encourages the recipient to make changes to meet Google’s quality guidelines, and then resubmit the site for reconsideration. That’s not helpful if the recipient’s website is one for which changes aren’t truly necessary, as Cutts implied would be true for many of them.

But continuing with the original thread, KernelPanic framed the apparent cavalier attitude coming from Google in the perspective of someone receiving the message: “Yeah if you get a message from the Google spam team, don’t worry about it, you might lose your house and your family might starve but it’s okay they changed the rules and now you’re screwed.”

Some of our members, in fact, seem to think it might be some kind of conspiracy by Google to spread fear and encourage SEOs and site owners to stop trying to build links at all, so the search engine won’t have to work as hard to distinguish the good from the bad. One forum member noted that he’s “Getting to the stage with Google at the moment where I no longer want any kind of link from anybody to be on the safe side,” but also observed that his competitors were writing bad articles and still managing to get to the top of Google for their keywords; he felt that Google needed to sort itself out because “this is getting stupid.”

Dr.Marie came up with the most cogent-sounding conspiracy theory, complete with a time line that started last year with Google sending out a bunch of unnatural link warnings (thus getting people to talk about what that could mean), continuing through penalizing those sites that got warnings a few weeks later, unleashing Penguin a few weeks after that (thus raising concerns among site owners that they might get penalized next), and finally sending out lots of unnatural links warning – thus making the entire SEO world pay attention. “The result – Google may succeed in changing the entire SEO mentality out there. People will stop getting cheap, self made links. The only people who will succeed in the SEO world are those who can help create great websites and then spread the word to get others to link to it,” Dr.Marie concluded.

As much fun as it is to come up with conspiracy theories – and I’m certainly not immune to their charms myself – I don’t think that’s what is going on here. It is certainly true that Google only wants to reward those who can build great websites and spread the word in a white hat manner. But I think they sincerely want to be transparent; they’re just going about it badly.

To Google’s way of thinking, if they let site owners know that they’ve spotted some unnatural links, and will be devaluing them, it will make the owners more aware that they CAN spot and devalue suspicious links. We’ve always known that, of course, but we’ve never been told directly. Google must figure that if we see it for ourselves, directly, with a warning, we’ll realize we can’t hide our suspicious link building activities from them, and choose to stop doing what they hope to discourage.

Here’s the problem: since Google works by automating as much as possible, it sent out the same automated messages they’ve used for unnatural links before, even in cases where the owner really didn’t have to do anything. Unfortunately, the message they used implied that the site had received a serious, site-wide penalty. After getting lots of comments, Cutts updated his post to note that Google appreciated the feedback and is changing the way it’s doing the new link warnings. But it’s still confusing, at least to some of us. Join us in the forum discussions, and we’ll try to sort it out together.

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