Unnatural Links: What They Can do to a Website and How to Avoid Them

What are unnatural links? What to do if you have them?
Published on 
April 22, 2024
Updated on 
April 22, 2024
Posted in 

Whether you are a pure link builder or are involved in digital marketing more broadly, when it comes to backlinks, there are certain kinds of unnatural links that you should steer clear of. 

If you didn’t know, spammy and toxic links built using black hat link building tactics – i.e., tactics aimed at tricking or gaming the Google algorithm–are worthless at best, potentially harmful if you aren’t careful. 

One such kind of spammy link is what is known as an “unnatural link.” Unnatural links are those that lack any contextual relevance and provide nothing of value to the person clicking on it. They’re just spammy attempts at improving SEO. 

Unnatural links can be both inbound and outbound. 

Any links on your website’s pages that link to irrelevant content outside of your own domain are unnatural outbound links, while any links pointing to your site from irrelevant sites are unnatural inbound links. 

Google doesn’t like when your SEO takes precedence over user experience and when you build unnatural links, that’s what you’re doing. 

To recap: 

  • Unnatural links are toxic links that either point to or away from your domain. 
  • Google can neutralize the SEO value of a link, or hit you with penalties, if it thinks you are too flagrantly trying to manipulate PageRank.
  • Penalties for unnatural links can lead to a decrease in your organic search traffic.
  • If and when you are hit with unnatural link penalties, there are things you can do to recover your traffic and ranking. 

What is an unnatural link?

Google doesn’t like unnatural links because they are, at their core, misleading and manipulative. 

They tend to be built for the express purpose of manipulating your site’s ranking in the search engine results. 

Very often, unnatural links are built by spammy link building agencies and freelancers or they are purchased from places like link farms. 

graph that explains how PBN toxic link scheme works

Links are unnatural when it is obvious that there is no niche or topical relevance between the source and destination page. 

Let’s say you are a company that sells marketing CRM. 

Would it make sense for you, in one of your articles on the benefits of CRM systems, to link to a big mountain biking blog because it has a high domain authority? 

Of course not. 

Or let’s say you are trying to build links to your homepage and increase your domain authority using HARO link building

Would it make sense for you to be trying to get backlinks to your marketing CRM company’s homepage from a big affiliate site that reviews baby toys? 

The answer is, of course, no.

These links are flimsy attempts at feigning authority and tricking Google into thinking a page and site are worth bumping up the SERP rankings. 

Google knows this and is increasingly cracking down on these kinds of unnatural links. 

What is the problem with some unnatural links?

You want to avoid unnatural links for a few reasons. 

Manual penalties

When you build unnatural links, you threaten the integrity of Google’s search engine results page, which threatens its dominance as the world’s largest search engine, and they don’t want that. 

You, therefore, open yourself up to manual penalties when you build unnatural links that can end up having a significant impact on your SERP ranking, organic traffic, conversions, profitability…you get the picture. 

Unnatural links are not accurate reflections of your SEO or the quality of your backlink profile

Because unnatural links are often cheap links that are purchased or built by spammers, they don’t really reflect the strength of your SEO and backlink profile. 

Deceiving Google is never a good idea

Google grows more sophisticated by the quarter (for all we know, by the day). There are (allegedly) some 200 ranking factors that Google takes into consideration when reviewing and ranking a site (factors which it often prioritizes and deprioritizes on a case by case basis). 

That is to say, Google is really good and separating the wheat from the chaff. Try to fool Google into thinking your site is higher quality than it is and adds more user value than it does and you could find yourself penalized. 

What is a Google penalty and how does it work?

Google penalties–also known as “manual actions”--can be handed out at any time, but especially when you have a lot of unnatural links pointing to and away from your site. 

Unnatural links are one of the most common reasons websites find themselves subject to a manual action from Google. 

How do these penalties come about?

Manual actions are taken when a site violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

More to the point, the main reason for a manual penalty usually concerns unnatural outbound links. 

The penalty would be delivered by Google’s spam team in the form of what is called a “manual restrictive measure.”

Here’s what a manual action might look like: 

google unnatural outbound links manual penalty documentation screenshot from search console

If you get one of these, you’ve done something wrong. 

Google’s Guidelines

In Google’s words, you can be hit with a manual action or penalty anytime there is “a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to pages.”

Google also states that “any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behaviour that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

What follows a penalty for unnatural links?

The first thing that happens when you have received a manual action from Google is usually an immediate drop in organic search traffic.

It is not the end of the world, however. 

You can recover from a manual action, and we will cover how to do that in more detail a little bit further on in this article. 

How do unnatural links come about?

One of the most common reasons websites find themselves with a lot of unnatural links and/or dealing with the repercussions is that they work with either inexperienced or unscrupulous link builders. 

Because link building is such a vital part of search engine optimization and growing a website, and because so many businesses and websites don’t know how or have the time to do it on their own, there is a nearly endless supply of link builders. 

Many of them don’t know what they’re doing. Others know that actual link building takes time and effort, but don’t want to put either in, so they sell you cheap, spammy links. 

Ideally, if you are not learning how to build links and execute a link building strategy on your own, you’re hiring an experienced link building service to build Google-friendly, user-centric links that add to a healthy backlink profile. 

Negative SEO attacks

You can also, less frequently, end up with spammy and/or unnatural links because of what’s called a “negative SEO attack.” 

This is when someone deliberately sends unnatural links to your site in an effort to get you penalized by Google. 

Some examples of unnatural links

There is a wide range of unnatural links out there and while the following isn’t exhaustive, here are some of the more common kinds. 

Link farms and private blog networks

Link farms and private blog networks (PBNs) are link schemes that involve creating a website for the sole purpose of building links to pass pagerank. 

Link farms are essentially websites that exist to sell cheap links. 

Usually, someone will purchase an expired domain with high residual domain authority, repurpose the content (or create a large batch of new, cheap, low-effort content) and then charge link builders for a backlink to their website. 

Maybe they also accept low-word-count, low-effort guest posts on any topic from anyone. 

Private blog networks are a bit different. They are essentially a network of connected sites which exist to provide SEO value (aka link juice) to a “money site” or a main commercial site. 

There are even services out there that will create private blog networks for you. 

The good news is that if you want to avoid spammy and unnatural backlinks from these places, they are usually quite easy to spot. 

Look for: 

  • A huge number of different niches and categories on the site
  • Very generic content and titles (in this day and age, usually stuff that has very clearly been slapped together by GPT-3)
  • A lot of generic and unthoughtful stock images
  • When you look under the hood using an SEO analytics tool like Ahrefs, the site will very likely not be ranking for any valuable keywords

Unnatural links of this sort have been on Google’s radar since the beginning of SEO. These are links that are not contextually relevant and provide no value. 

All they are designed to do is provide an unfair advantage when it comes to a site’s rankings and organic traffic. 

Low quality directories and bookmarking sites

Getting your site listed on bookmarking sites and web directories is an old school link building tactic that, when done thoughtfully, still works and can move the needle. 

When links are placed on low-quality and spammy bookmarking sites and directories that don’t provide any value to your users, Google could view these as unnatural links. 

Here is an example of a link directory that, depending on your site/company and the niche you are in, could represent real SEO value and be of benefit to your backlink profile: 

link directory website homepage example

This is a construction companies directory in Ireland, and if you were, say, a plumbing company, it would be good for you to have a link to your company website in this directory. 

If you were a VR headset review site, however, a link here would be spam. 

Link injections

Maybe the fastest way to get a Google penalty is to try your luck with that are known as injected links. 

These unnatural links are generated using automated software and scripts that place links on websites but with no oversight. They work similarly to XSS scripts and are unethical. 

Don’t inject links.

Sitewide links

These links tend to be found in website footers and have been placed there by a web designer or developer. 

Sometimes it’s not a big deal and Google won’t flag them if they are natural. 

There are companies, however, that will pay for sitewide links on other websites, which Google really doesn’t like. 

Syndicated content and press releases

Syndicated content, and press release links are usually ok, so long as you are using branded and exact match anchor text in them. 

A lot of people still incorporate keyword stuffing into these kinds of links to game the rankings. 

It’s an instance of keyword stuffing–using a keyword so many times and inorganically that the content is essentially unreadable. 

Ideally, you want to write press releases that have readers in mind first and SEO second. 

Blog comment spam

Blog comment spam is where you include a link to your website in the comment section of a blog. 

A few years ago it was quite common, but it quickly became an issue, given the sheer number of link builders who abused it. 

It is still abused to this day. 

These links usually don’t offer any value to users and the vast majority of the time Google ignores them–if they aren’t immediately deleted or sent to spam by site moderators...

...or automatically nofollowed by default. 

Forum links

Forums can be a fantastic way to increase brand awareness and drive traffic, but forum links are very often just pure spam–bios, profiles and even signatures stuffed with keywords. 

A lot of the time, people simply create a user profile, include a backlink, stuff their bio with keywords and then never post or contribute anything. 

This unnatural link tactic is sometimes called “user-generated spam.”

Like blog comments, the profiles, bios and their automated posts are usually ignored and provide no value to forum users. 

Links from redirected domains

It is easy to get a manual action against you for unnatural links that coming from old domains that have been redirected. 

These are some of the most common unnatural links in the current era of SEO. 

People buy expired domains that have good backlink profiles and domain authority and then point those links towards their current domains. 

The idea is that you transfer old SEO value to the new site, giving it an artificial boot in the rankings. 

Google has gotten very good at spotting and neutralizing this tactic and it’s very hard to make it work. 

Excessive link exchanges

Very often spammy links come about as a result of relying too much on link exchanges. 

This is where two websites trade links–I provide a backlink to your page you provide a backlink to mine. 

Very often these exchanges are on a 1:1 basis–article A links to article B and article B links back to article A, which is bad editorial policy. 

They also, frequently, are more concerned with SEO value than user experience. 

That is to say, they don’t consider whether the links provide real value to readers. 

Do this too often and Google could penalize you. 

How search engines treat unnatural links

If you want to avoid penalties for unnatural links, then you need to know how search engines interpret them. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

Quantity matters in almost any link scheme

When it comes to unnatural links, one link usually won’t do anything. Google will probably just neutralize the link, and you will get nothing out of it. 

Once the links start to pile up and spammy link building looks like it might be a habit of yours, that’s when Google might decide a manual action is in order. 

The age of unnatural links is irrelevant

Google doesn’t care whether your unnatural links were built two months ago or two years ago. You can find yourself subject to a manual action penalty at any time. 

Authority doesn’t matter when it comes to unnatural links

Novice link builders are sometimes under the impression that as long as they are building links to and getting links from high domain authority/domain rating sources, it doesn’t matter how the links are built. 

Not the case. 

As long as a search engine like Google concludes that a link is unnatural, that’s all it needs to potentially penalize you. 

Unnatural links can harm your entire website

Typically, a manual action penalty affects an entire website, not just an offending page. 

Just because you have unnatural links to a handful of different pages on a 500-page site, doesn’t mean your entire site won’t be hit. 

If that is the case, it’s not just a single page’s traffic that hangs in the balance, but site-wide traffic. 

Google is good at identifying keyword optimized links

People often try to build backlinks using keyword-rich anchor text. 

For example, let’s say you run a real estate agency and you have a service page on your website offering home staging. 

You’re based out of Seattle, Washington, so your SEO is mostly localized and your target keyword for this page is “house staging seattle.”

Anytime someone searches this in Google, you want your service page to appear as near to the top of the search engine results page as possible so that you capture the organic traffic and sell more of your house staging services to the residents of Seattle. 

search engine page result example

Now, let’s say that in order to build the page authority of your house staging service page, you hire a link building agency to do some guest and sponsored blog posts link building on websites in your niche to build your service page’s backlink profile. 

If, while including a link to your home staging page in a guest post on “The X Best Things to Do While Selling Your Home,” the anchor text simply read “home staging seattle,” Google would immediately spot that and categorize it as spam. 

Google is not going to help you fix unnatural links

Google will penalize you, but it won’t do anything to help you lift the penalty. 

You are in charge of handling this on your own, which means figuring out what’s happening.

If you are at a loss (because Google doesn’t usually tell you exactly where the offending links are), you might have to submit a second reconsideration request to Google. 

unnatural link manual action warning on google search console

You can see in the above image that Google doesn’t tell you anything specific. 

Depending on how large your site is and how old it is (i.e., how long you have been collecting outbound and inbound links), this could amount to pouring over thousands of links. 

What’s more, Google doesn’t usually comply with your first reconsideration request. 

You typically need to send two or three to finally have the manual action removed, all of which can take up to half a year or more. 

What happens to a website when Google levies a manual action?

If you receive a manual action against your site, there are a few things you can do before asking Google to reconsider. 

Do a backlink audit 

The first thing you can do is a backlink audit using an analytics tool like Ahrefs, the Semrush backlink audit tool or Majestic to try and narrow down the culprits. 

With Ahrefs, you would link your domain and perform what is called a “site audit,” filtering by backlinks:

You would then export your list of backlinks as an excel file and categorize them based on a toxicity score. 

The next step would be to visit each site where the analytics tool has indicated there could be unnatural links and manually review the site 

See if you can determine any patterns in the URLs that are being flagged for unnatural links. 

If there is a pattern, you are probably being targeted with link spam. 

After you’ve categorized your links based on the action you want to take–further review, leave as is, and include on your disavow list–it’s time to create a disavow file. 

Creating a disavow file for Google

Once you have the list of links that you would like Google to disavow, you need to upload the file to Google Search Console. 

It’s a good idea to make a note on your Google Analytics so that you can keep tabs on traffic fluctuations. 

This process takes a lot of time, but you need to do them before asking Google to reconsider and review your manual action. 

Ideally, what you want to do is request that any links be set to nofollow if they are: 

  • Press release link
  • Paid link
  • User-generated spam
  • Third-party widget links
  • Sitewide links

If you have reached out to webmasters on the offending sites and requested nofollow links but they won’t comply, then you should include the link on your disavow list. 

You should also try to get rid of unnatural links that are listed on bookmarking sites and low quality directories. 

If you simply cannot get unnatural links removed, they should go on your disavow list. 

Preventing unnatural links penalties

When it comes to unnatural links, the best offence is a good defence. 

Here are some of the things you can do to avoid manual action penalties altogether. 

Stay on top of your backlink profile

You should regularly review your backlink profile by doing an audit using an SEO analytics tool like Ahrefs or Semrush. 

Do this every quarter and pay attention to any suspicious inbound links. 

Use a variety of anchor text

Keep track of the anchor text you use so that you are not constantly reusing the same combinations of words, and to make sure that you are not engaging in spammy anchor text optimization. 

Disavow spam links

It’s always a good idea to disavow as much spam as possible. 

When you find unnatural links and other spam in your backlink profile, try to remove the offending link or disavow it as quickly as possible. 

Dealing with Google is tedious and can take a while. It could end up resulting in major revenue loss if you heavily rely on organic traffic. 

Preventing unnatural links from piling up is key. 

Protect yourself by building links the right way

The best way to avoid falling victim to manual action penalties is to eschew any link building strategy that results in unnatural links. 

Every site ends up with one unnatural link from time to time, but a link building strategy that looks for easy spammy links and link scheme opportunities will come back to bite you. 

If you want to work with an experienced link building agency that builds links the right way, get in touch with dofollow and find out more about our transparent, contract-free, performance-based pricing. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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