Many bloggers were hit with “Unnatural Outbound Links” manual actions late Friday night. This manual action is one that doesn’t seem to be sent out very frequently, as link related manual actions tend to target sites that receive the links, not the the sites that are doing the linking.
It seems that the vast majority (if not all) of sites that received this manual action Friday were blogs, and many in the food, decor and craft related market areas. But while it isn’t clear exactly what links Google is targeting, many of these types of blogs use the same link tactics that in a more competitive or e-commerce market would have been labelled as spam.
This also puts responsibility for many of the low quality links on the person doing the linking, rather than the site receiving them, something that some see as a much fairer way for Google to go about negatively impacting these types of links.
Google has revamped the messaging related to this manual action. Here is the notice that many bloggers received:
Google has detected a pattern of links from your site to other sites that is either unnatural or irrelevant. This pattern attempts to artificially boost other sites’ ranking in Google Search results. Such unnatural ranking would cause search results to show preferences for results not relevant to the user’s actual query. It also violates Google Webmaster Guidelines. Therefore, we are discounting the trust in links on your site. This manual spam action has been applied to <site>. To fix this, remove the unnatural links on your site and file a reconsideration request. After we determine that you have complied with our guidelines, we will remove this manual action.
“We are Discounting the Trust in Links on Your Site”
The specific manual action being applied for “Unnatural Outbound Linking” seems to be just that Google is discounting the trust of links that are on the site.
But for people being linked to, there is no way for them to tell if Google has discounted the trust in links from any site.
Are Sites Being Removed?
It seems that Google is only discounting the link trust from a site hit with this manual action, not removing them. For as a site owner, there doesn’t seem to be any real negative impact to the site affected with this manual action. That said, since these manual actions are still so new, there could be a lag and the impacted sites just haven’t been removed yet.
The manual action notice does not state that Google is removing sites from the index, either. The only impact given is about the loss of link trust from links on the site.
In another way, it is unfortunate that sites aren’t being removed from the search results for invalid outgoing links. If they were, it would make it easy for those who are analyzing backlinks and doing disavows to see if Google has taken action on those links.
Checking several of the affected sites with this manual action, a site: search reveals that there still are pages indexed. But since these notices were sent out so recently, there is a chance it hasn’t updated yet.
Could This Affect Ranking?
It is unclear how it affects ranking. Doing some checks on sites that received the manual action, they are showing that they are still ranking for the keywords, according to keyword data from SEMRush. So either ranking isn’t greatly affected, or there is a delay in it.
But it also raises the question if Google is discounting internal links to, or just external ones. If internal ones are discounted as well, then some of those site’s pages that rely on strong signals from internal links might not rank as well.
Types of Links
Google is not including any sample URLs with the notifications, which is different from other link related manual actions where they provide examples of inbound links that are low quality. So there definitely is some confusion about what type of outbound links could be triggering these manual actions.
But Google has always been clear about the types of links they consider problematic when they pass PageRank.
Related to sites not disclosing promotional links?
One of the possibilities is that site that aren’t nofollowing promotional links are triggering these manual actions. Last month Google warned bloggers about not properly disclosing when a product review or even a product mention was paid for, and also stated the need for these types of links to be nofollowed.
On some of the sites that have reported receiving this manual action do have followed links on posts that are sponsored. However, it isn’t clear if it is coincidental or if it was targeted.
At the time, Google said no new manual actions were related to not disclosing promotional links, but this could have changed now, or it could be that while they are not targeting those who aren’t disclosing a relationship, they are targeting the links themselves.
Badges & Embeds
Another possibility is that Google is finally targeting badges. While we have seen sites on the receiving end of badges receiving manual actions – most notably Thumbtack, targeting sites that are posting them could definitely resolve some of the problems with badges.
Badges are still being used by sites as a link building tactic, such as AirBNB which has been making extensive use of embeds for ranking specific keywords recently, disguised as a helpful widget to post specific listings to a webpage or blog post.
Also, if you are a badge owner, you might want to be proactive about asking people to nofollow them. If not, people could begin to publicize that “Example.com’s badge got my site banned”.
Link Parties / Wheels
Link parties are popular on many blogs, such as recipe, craft and fashion blogs, where blog owners will all interlink to a group of other blog posts, and often with an additional badge for the link party “host”. While some site visitors could find them interesting or useful, the reality is that there are links passing PageRank, as seldom are they nofollow.
Many bloggers have also posted tutorials on doing them, and rarely include any kind of disclaimer of the dangers, either because they are looking for links or they just aren’t aware it could be an issue with Google.
There are some who feel that because many sites using link parties were not hit, that this wasn’t what Google was targeting. But since they are manual actions, it isn’t surprising that Google isn’t hitting them all with this first wave, if it is what is behind these manual actions.
Data from Disavows?
While Google has always said emphatically that they do not use data from disavows in any way that would affect the disavowed sites, it would definitely make it easy to identify frequently disavowed sites and pages.
That said, if Google does do this, there could end up being a mass number of disavows being submitted to disavow competitors in a new negative SEO attempt.
Link Exchanges & Reciprocal Links
While link exchanges have been considered a sketchy link building tactic for years, the page about this particular manual action specifically call out link exchanges as being an issue.
Identify any links on your site that were paid for or that appear to violate our linking guidelines, such as excessive link exchanges.
Google also specifically mentions it in their email, although they refer to it as reciprocal links.
Link exchanges for ecommerce sites have not been popular for years, but some types of sites, particularly blogs, still do it. It is still seen as a viable tactic for food, fashion, makeup and parenting blogs, although this view will likely change pretty quickly.
Did Something Specific Trigger These?
It is hard to be sure what exactly triggered this round of manual actions for this, especially since many of the blogs are participating in multiple things that could be viewed as sketchy in the eyes of Google. But we might learn more in the coming days… if we can definitively figure out what triggered the manual actions, then it can help other sites that just might not be hit with a manual action yet.
Both Site-Wide and Partial Manual Actions
It also seems that Google is sending both site wide and partial manual actions for unnatural outbound links. Their support page for the manual action mentions both.
As a result, Google has applied a manual spam action to the affected portions of your site. Actions that affect your whole site are listed under Site-wide matches. Actions that affect only part of your site and/or some incoming links to your site are listed under Partial matches.
This could also make it more attractive for sites to put all reviews or “favorite links of the week” in a different directory so that only the area of a site would get hit with this type of manual action in the future. Of course, this is always up to the discretion of Google and how they view it at the time.
Finding the Links to NoFollow
One of the big problems site owners are facing is finding all the links on the site. Google does not have any reporting for outbound links (although it is something I have asked for over the years) and especially for long time blogs, going through thousands of blog posts can be pretty time consuming.
An old school solution is one of the oldest tools in the SEO’s tool arsenal…. Xenu Link Sleuth. With it you can crawl all the pages and show all external links. It won’t show if links are nofollowed or not, however, but it should be a good start to flag all URLs connected with paid or compensated posts. For a more robust option, there are multiple paid crawlers.
If you are checking blog posts individually, there are also plugins/extensions for both Chrome and Firefox which will highlight nofollow links in red. This will allow you to quickly scan a page and know what is and isn’t nofollowed, without needing to dive into the source code.
The easiest solution is for site owners to go through page by page and applying nofollow. There is a WordPress plugin which makes it much easier for site owners to individually disavow links.
Alternative to NoFollow
Interesting, Google states that nofollow isn’t the only solution for these types of links. They also suggest a method of using a hoplink for these links, where you redirect these links through a page that is blocked by robots.txt. Some people do this for link tracking, but blocking that hoplink page – or using a specific hotlink directory and blocking that, is a solution outside of the nofollow.
Either remove these links, or change them so that they no longer pass PageRank, for example by adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute or by redirecting them through a page blocked by robots.txt.
Nofollow Meta Tag
One of the solutions many bloggers are suggesting as a quick fix is simply adding a nofollow meta tag to the site’s template, which will automatically nofollow all the links. But do note this will nofollow all your own links too, not just the external ones, and that could have a definite impact on your ranking and how Google crawls the site and discovers new content.
It seems the easy solution for this manual action is just to nofollow all outbound links. But there are two problems. First, automatically disavowing all links is not natural and it also would have an affect on sites ranking, especially in some niches, if many of the sites in that niche start doing it.
Second, we know Google likes to see work going into the issue before a reconsideration request is successful. Is nofollowing all links suitable? Or does Google actually want to see only specific link types nofollowed while the rest remain followed?
But this does seem to be the solution many are recommending on the Google Webmaster Help forums, as a way to deal with the problem and get the manual action lifted.
Link Selling Sites
This could also be applied to sites that are selling links as a way to invalidate the power or “discounted trust” of these links. But again, it is too bad there isn’t a visible way to tell if these links are deemed untrustworthy by Google or not, especially since they don’t seem to be removed from the index for it.
Positive Move for Sites Cleaning Up Backlinks
If you are suffering from Penguin or are trying to clean up a manual action, this is great news since some of those links will now be removed or nofollowed. There has been a general concensus that site owners with low quality sites and problematic backlinks are not motivated to remove them, especially since being disavowed does not hurt a site. Or they will only remove the links if they are paid for it. But now, with Google targeting the sites hosting the links with manual actions, some of these problematic links will likely go away, saving webmasters time with outreach.
Do These Links Still Need to be Disavowed?
From a site owner cleaning up backlinks, there is no clear answer on whether these links still need to be disavowed if they are followed but under a manual action. But since right now noone can tell if a site has one of these outgoing link manual action when the site is still in the search results, site owners should still disavow these links. It isn’t worth the risk not to.
Is This New?
This particular manual action isn’t new, but it doesn’t seem to have been sent out very much at all, especially when compared to the manual actions sent for inbound links.
Submitting a Reconsideration Request
Once you have cleaned up your site and nofollowed all links Google likely is considering suspicious on your site, you can then submit a reconsideration request, and you can detail your clean up efforts as well.
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