What Are Unnatural Links & Why Should You Avoid Them?

What Are Unnatural Links?

It’s common knowledge you need links pointing to your blog for search engines to start taking notice of you. Inbound links help to bump your blog posts up the search engine results pages (SERPs) so more people find you when they makes searches. But not all links are equal… there are natural links and unnatural links.

Today I’m focussing on unnatural links, which can land you in hot water. They can have the opposite effect of helping your posts to rank and can get you a Bing or Google penalty, which drops your blog out of the results completely.

Before I delve into this, let’s take a look at links and what they do.

Links, PageRank and Search Results

In 1996, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the concept of PageRank while studying at Stanford University.

The concept was based upon ranking pages in search results according to link popularity, whereby links are votes for a page. The more links that point to a page, the higher a page will rank.

Today there are many factors that contribute to how high a page ranks for a given search, but links and the PageRank algorithm are still significant signals.

What Are Unnatural Links?

Google explains what unnatural links are in a description of “link schemes”:

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 behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

Source: Google

The key part of this quote is the bit about violating of Google Webmaster Guidelines… because all link building practises are really an attempt to influence PageRank and site ranking. As I said in my preamble, not all links are equal especially in search engine terms.

Google tells us explicitly how it determines unnatural links falling into the link scheme territory.

11 Unnatural Link Scheme Techniques That Google Penalizes

1. Buying or Selling Links that Pass PageRank

This is pretty clear. If you acquire or publish links on your blog through a direct exchange of money, services or product giveaways, Google sees this as breaking the rules. As PageRank rewards naturally occurring votes for a site, Google says paying for links in this way is an attempt to game the system.

2. Excessive Reciprocal Linking

Reciprocal linking does tend to happen naturally to be honest. For example, someone sees you’ve added a link to their site from your blog might be mightily flattered and decide to link back to you. This is quite innocent. Google becomes suspicious when it sees large numbers of reciprocal links, since this looks like an active attempt to generate links in this way.

3. Excessive Article Syndication and Guest Posting

If you’re producing articles on large-scale to syndicate them across hundreds of sites, Google believes you’re doing this only to try to create link value for yourself rather than value to the Web. Years ago article marketing in this way worked well to build inbound links and PageRank. Nowadays it’s policed and penalized actively, especially when anchor text links are heavily optimized for specific keywords.

Excessive guest posting too can signal to Google that something unnatural is occurring. As with mass-article syndication, Google’s algorithms get twitchy when over-optimized links appear in a glut of guest posts.

4. Inbound Unnatural Links Created by Automation

Using programs or services to mass-create inbound links will certainly create an unnatural link profile. Since Google has a clear picture of how links grow naturally, anything outside of this profile will raise an alarm. Excessive blog commenting or forum profile links can suggest an automated process is behind it. A verdict on automation might extend to paying someone to generate these types of links for you.

5. Requiring Links as a Term of Service

If you have a plugin or other such code you allow people to use, and include links within it, you might appear to be using an unnatural link building technique. The point here is the link back to your blog is unnatural because the “vote” is enforced.

6. Advertisements that Pass PageRank

If you buy advertising space on a website and benefit from the linking site’s PageRank, you run the risk of unnatural linking. Google views this in the same way as buying links and applies the same view to both the linker and the linkee. Paid adverts must clearly state the ad and link are sponsored.

Google advises it’s just text advertisements it considers here, but it’s obvious to me we should extend this to image ads too.

Paid Advertorials or Native Advertising with Links Passing PageRank
Google considers product or service ads as a paid placement, styled as an editorial article with links passing PageRank as unnatural. It also views paid ads matching the look and feel of the hosting site in the same negative light. In Google’s eyes, this is buying a link.

7. Syndicated Press Releases with Unnatural Link Text

For a start we know that Google doesn’t really like duplicated content, and certainly doesn’t reward it. As with syndicated articles that have over optimized keyword anchor text, Google views the links in such press releases as an attempt to manipulate results against its Webmaster Guidelines.

8. Links from Low-Quality Directory or Bookmarking Sites

Another old-school link-building technique was to submit your blog to as many directory and bookmarking sites sites as possible. Some of these sites are respected by Google, others are seen as low-quality. Mass submitting links to directory type sites, without regard for their quality is a risky business.

9. Heavily Optimized Hidden or Low-Quality Links in Widgets

This is a strategy whereby multiple sites have embedded widgets with multiple links. The links will be keyword rich and likely unrelated to the hosting sites, which Google believes is unnatural.

10. Footer Links

As with the widget example, sites built with templates that include links are not considered as votes for a site by the site owner, since it’s the template designer who added them. More than this though, Google determines that this practise is actually unnaturally manipulative.

11. Forum Posts and Signatures

Have you ever read a forum thread and seen a user signature dropping a link with optimized anchor text clearly targeting a keyword phrase? That’s an unnatural link.


  • An unnatural link is ANY link that attempts to manipulate PageRank or ranking in search results in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
  • All SEO is an attempt to manipulate PageRank and ranking in search results… it’s just that Google accepts some techniques and penalizes others.
  • Google is very good at spotting unnatural links and is swift to impose penalties after a manual review.
  • If you feel a link is unnatural, then it probably is.

Thanks for reading!


Unnatural Linking

Let’s talk! Drop a comment below, ask me a question or let me know your thoughts.

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