Unnatural Links: How To Spot and Avoid Them

What Are Unnatural Links and How To Spot & Avoid Them

Artificially created links can be a significant problem for many. While they may temporarily boost your SEO, this improvement is short-lived because search engines like Google will ultimately detect and penalize them.

Identifying and addressing these unnatural links is vital to protecting your site and enhancing its long-term SEO standing.

What are Unnatural Links?

Unnatural links are those intentionally created to manipulate search engine rankings rather than being naturally earned through genuine endorsements or relevance.

Unlike natural links that arise organically from genuine user endorsements or relevant content connections, these links lack authenticity.

Why are Unnatural Links Bad?

Unnatural links, typically created for manipulative purposes, can have several negative consequences for a website. One of the most severe repercussions is the potential for search engine penalties, particularly from Google.

Google’s algorithms are increasingly adept at detecting and scrutinizing practices involving unnatural links. Penalties for such practices can range from a drop in search rankings to complete removal from search index results.

These penalties can significantly reduce a site’s visibility and diminish organic search traffic. Beyond penalties, unnatural links can damage a site’s reputation, undermining user trust and potentially decreasing engagement and conversion rates.

Why Avoid Unnatural Links?

Avoiding artificial links is crucial for maintaining the integrity and trustworthiness of a website. Search engines aim to present users with the most relevant and informative results, rewarding sites that adhere to their guidelines with better rankings and visibility.

Focusing on acquiring genuine links naturally aligns with search engine recommendations for best practices, establishing a solid SEO foundation that fosters growth and enhances reputation over time.

Moreover, maintaining a clean link profile boosts a site’s credibility with search engines and users, leading to increased engagement and higher conversion rates.

What are the Typical Penalties for Unnatural Links?

The consequences of using unnatural links can differ based on how severe and deliberate the manipulation is. Here are some typical penalties:

1. Manual Actions

These are punishments given by Google’s webspam team itself. They can focus on specific pages or the whole site, and they usually result in a severe decline in ranking.

2. Algorithmic Shifts

An algorithm update that aims to reduce the influence of low-quality linking methods could impact your website’s ranking or visibility.

3. De-indexing

In very severe situations, mainly when there is a clear and strong breach of Google’s instructions, the site could be removed completely from the search index.

To avoid finding yourself on the wrong side of Google’s webmaster guidelines, knowing how to spot unnatural links is crucial.

Identifying Unnatural Links

Most sites have at least some unnatural links, and the funny part is that they often occur naturally. When reviewing your link profile, here is what to consider.

  • Links from Irrelevant Sites

A clear indicator of unnatural links is when they originate from websites unrelated to your content. For example, a link to your gardening website on an automotive repair site could be viewed as an artificial link. The exception to this would be in local SEO link building, where the location of the two sites supersedes topical relevancy.

Search engines like Google expect links to demonstrate contextual relevance, indicating a logical relationship between the linked content. Typically, links to your site from unrelated ones do not represent genuine endorsements and are often created to manipulate search rankings.

Check out our post: “Relevant Backlinks: What Are They and How To Get Them” for a deeper exploration of relevant links.

  • Over-Optimized Anchor Text

Anchor text helps search engines understand the content of the linked page. However, when anchor texts are overloaded with keywords, it may appear as an attempt to manipulate Google search results.

If most links pointing to your page consistently use the exact keyword-heavy anchor text, it does not appear organic. Therefore, search engines often flag it as an attempt to exploit their algorithms through aggressive tactics.

  • Low-Quality Directory Links

Not all directory links are detrimental, but those from spammy or low-quality directories can be harmful since they often host many links with little to no filtering.

These links offer little value beyond trying to pass link equity. Following Google’s algorithm updates emphasizing link quality, such directories were targeted and penalized. Therefore, having your site’s link listed in such directories is not a good idea, as this can negatively impact your site’s credibility.

  • Sponsored Content Sites

Links from sponsored content aren’t unnatural in their nature. However, if they aren’t disclosed as sponsored, this kind of linking could be seen as deceptive.

With Google, you must ensure transparency regarding these links—usually by adding a “nofollow” or “sponsored” attribute so they don’t pass link equity.

Whether or not you should buy backlinks is a hotly debated topic, which we explore in detail here: “How to Buy Backlinks and Whether You Should In 2024

  • Sudden Spikes in Backlink Profiles

Rapid increases in a backlink profile can be unnatural and may result from engaging in link farms or extensive link exchanges, practices penalized quickly by search engines.

However, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, like if a major brand releases a new product or a service goes viral, for example.

So don’t overthink link velocity unless you use automated software to build links. With manual link building, you are not likely to trigger this.

How Do You Get Unnatural Links?

Yet again, the irony is that some sites that get penalized for unnatural links had nothing to do with their creation.

We have been contacted by major brands that didn’t engage in any link building and still ended up with a link spam penalty.

Most commonly, they just picked up a lot of bad links because low-quality sites used them as the “authority” outbound links in the content. In other cases, it could be something more malicious, like a deliberate negative SEO attack.

Here are some of the ways you could end up with unnatural links:

1. Negative SEO Attack

What is a Negative SEO Attack?

Negative SEO involves deliberate actions aimed at damaging a competitor’s search rankings. These attacks often include creating numerous unnatural and spammy links that point to the targeted website, potentially triggering penalties from search engines.

This tactic exploits the adverse effects of Google’s penalties for improper linking practices as a weapon to undermine a competitor’s SEO standing.

2. Circular Link Schemes

Circular, or reciprocal, link schemes are a type of link exchange where sites have an arranged agreement to link to each other.

This method can turn unnatural when used only to increase PageRank and not to give real value to users.

3. Links from Low-quality Directories and Bookmarking Sites

Links from low-quality directories or bookmarking sites are seen as unnatural because of these platforms’ low quality and relevance.

Usually, these sites have no strict criteria for accepting inbound links, resulting in the gathering of spammy ones that do not provide value to users.

4. Link Exchanges Done Solely to Boost PageRank

Link exchanges in large quantities, especially when they include unrelated sites and are done purely for SEO using link manipulation, seem unnatural.

This may negatively affect how genuine and trustworthy the website appears to be. 3-way link exchanges are much safer, minimizing the footprint and appearing more natural.

5. Injected Links

Injected or hacked links are added to a website without the owner’s knowledge, usually through security weaknesses.

These can be found in different sections of a site, such as blog comments, forums, or even within the website’s content itself, and they are a frequently used method in negative SEO assaults.

6. Over-optimized links in Press Releases and Syndicated Content

Anchor texts that are too optimized, especially in press releases and other syndicated content, may appear manipulative.

In general, press releases should only be used for local SEO or to share newsworthy information from your company, including a no-follow link.

7. Paid Link Spam That Passes PageRank

Purchasing links that pass PageRank is an action that directly violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

This situation occurs when someone pays for links, but they are not marked with a “nofollow” attribute and are purposely intended to transfer PageRank and manipulate rankings.

8. Links from Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

PBN links come from a group of websites formed to link either among themselves or leading toward one central site.

The links from these networks are tagged as unnatural because they often have clear footprints, offer little value, and serve only to send link equity to the sites.

9. Spammy Followed Links in Comment Sections

Links in blog or website comment sections can be considered unnatural if they are unmoderated and used to spam keywords or promote irrelevant services, often accompanied by overly optimized anchor texts.

Such practices can dilute the quality of a discussion and potentially harm the credibility of the website hosting the comments.

10. Spammy Links from Blog Posts and Product Pages

Hyperlinks that seem spam-like in blog posts or product pages, mainly if they appear out of place or are included just for SEO manipulation, are deemed unnatural.

Some early link insertion or niche edit services would just put a list of random and unrelated links onto a page to capture link juice. Modern niche edit services prioritize a natural appearance and relevancy.

11. Spammy Links from Forum Posts, Profiles and Signatures

Forum-related links become unnatural when used solely for SEO manipulation, such as placing optimized anchor texts in forum posts, profiles, and signatures without contributing meaningful content.

With the prevalence of Reddit posts, this may become more of an issue in 2024 than it has been for the past few years.

12. Spammy Sitewide Links

Sitewide links found in the footer or sidebar of numerous pages on a site may seem unnatural if they lack usefulness to users or connection with the content.

13. Spammy Widget Links

Widgets that create links across numerous sites can sometimes lead to unnatural links. These links could be seen as unnatural if they are hard-coded and not voluntary endorsements.

14. Unnatural Links from Redirected Domains

A technique for sending link juice from unnatural links through redirected domains to a desired site, this method involves manipulating search rankings and is seen as inauthentic by search engines.

If you find unnatural links, don’t worry; with the proper steps, you can clean up the link spam and get better rankings.

Removing Unnatural Links

The first step in getting rid of unnatural links is to contact the owner of the sites linking to you and ask them to remove the links. This step will be required even if you get a manual action link penalty.

Contacting website owners

  1. Identify Unnatural Links: To identify potentially harmful links, start by using tools like Google Search Console, Ahrefs, or SEMrush.
  2. Document Each Link: Record each link you plan to remove, noting its source and why it is considered unnatural.
  3. Reach Out to Webmasters: Draft a polite and concise email to the website owners hosting the unnatural links. In your email, clearly identify yourself and your website, specify the exact URL of the unnatural link, and kindly request its removal.
  4. Follow-up: If you don’t receive a response within a week or two, it’s worth sending a follow-up email.
  5. Document all correspondence: This will be helpful if you decide to use Google’s Disavow Tool.

Once you have removed as many links as possible, you will add the remainder to a disavow file.

Using The Google Disavow Tool

The Google Disavow Tool allows you to ask Google not to consider certain links when assessing your site.

This tool should be used cautiously and is generally recommended only if you have a manual link penalty.

If that’s you, here is what to do next.

Preparing a disavow file

  1. Create a Text File: Your disavow file should be simple (.txt).
  2. Format Your List: List one URL or domain per line. To disavow a single URL, type `domain:example.com` to disavow all links from an entire domain.

Submitting the disavow file

  1. Go to the Disavow Links Tool Page: You can find this page by searching for “Google Disavow Tool” or navigating through Google Search Console.
  2. Select Your Website: Choose the website you are working on from the dropdown menu.
  3. Upload Your File: Click on the ‘disavow links’ button and upload your .txt file.
  4. Submit: Review your file one last time, and if everything looks good, hit the ‘submit’ button.

After submitting your disavow file, Google can take several weeks (or longer) to process these requests.

To assess the impact of your actions, it’s important to continue monitoring your link profile and search engine rankings.

Remember, the disavow tool is a powerful feature that should be used responsibly and typically as a last resort when all other efforts to remove harmful links have failed.

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and your link profile is no exception.

Preventing An Unnatural Links Penalty

Since you don’t control everyone who links to your site, you will undoubtedly encounter some links that you would rather not be associated with.

Mixed with proactive outreach to ask for them to be removed, here is what you should do to help prevent an unnatural links penalty.

Monitoring for New Unnatural Links

To safeguard your website against unnatural links, setting up monitoring systems that alert you as soon as new backlinks are detected is essential.

Utilizing tools such as Google Search Console, Ahrefs, and SEMrush can help you keep track of your backlink profile. These tools can be configured to send notifications under specific conditions, like the acquisition of new links or the loss of existing ones, and alert you to unusual spikes in link activity that could indicate spammy practices.

Conducting Periodic Backlink Audits

Regularly scheduled backlink audits are crucial for maintaining a healthy link profile. These audits help you assess incoming links’ quality and relevance and identify patterns that might suggest manipulative tactics.

The frequency of these audits can vary depending on your site’s size and the volume of incoming links but should ideally be conducted monthly or quarterly. During these audits, pay special attention to:

  • The authority and relevance of new backlinks.
  • Any sudden, unnatural spikes in link quantities.
  • An abundance of overly optimized anchor text.

Gaining High-Quality Links to Your Site

Acquiring high-quality links is one of the most effective strategies for avoiding penalties associated with unnatural links. Engage in legitimate SEO practices emphasizing content quality and relevance to your niche.

Strategies include creating compelling content that naturally attracts backlinks, participating in relevant industry forums, and collaborating with reputable websites within your sector. These efforts help build a robust link profile that enhances your site’s authority and credibility.

Educating Your Team on Best SEO Practices

Ensure that everyone involved in your website’s content creation and SEO strategy understands the importance of ethical link-building practices.

Regular training sessions on the latest SEO guidelines and the consequences of black-hat techniques, such as link schemes, can prevent unintentional violations. Encourage a culture of transparency and adherence to search engine guidelines within your team.

Choose Your Link Building Service Wisely

While many link-building services promise to boost your SEO through backlinks, not all can deliver.

Be cautious of services that offer quick gains through dubious means. Always prioritize quality over quantity in your link-building efforts to prevent potential penalties.

We have built and executed custom link outreach campaigns at Stellar SEO for over a decade.

We have helped our clients dominate hyper-competitive verticals, including personal injury law, real estate, finance, and more.

Whether you’re looking to accelerate your company’s growth while avoiding unnatural links or trying to recover from a penalty for unnatural links, we can help.


Travis Bliffen is the founder of Stellar SEO. His background as a U.S. Army combat veteran and a dedicated business owner has shaped his approach to SEO, blending discipline, thorough research, business acumen, and a deep understanding of the evolving SEO landscape.

Travis Bliffen's expertise and contributions in the field of SEO have earned him recognition and features in several prominent publications, such as Search Engine Journal and SEMrush, where he has shared his insights and strategies for effective SEO practices. Since launching Stellar SEO in 2012, he has been committed to crafting tailored link-building and SEO campaigns for clients across diverse niches.

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