Over the past week, Google was at it again, challenging the sanity and stress levels of SEOs everywhere. Last week, many Webmasters received a message in Google Webmaster Tools stating:
Dear site owner or webmaster,
We've detected that some of your site's pages may be using techniques that are outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
WHAT? The letter seems to threaten site removal from the Google index by saying, “Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results.” That statement alone is enough to scare the pants off any SEO.
As you can imagine, the reaction in the SEO community was swift and concerned. How could webmasters force the removal of backlinks from sites they do not own? And on the flip side, site owners began charging for link removal. The message quickly set off a firestorm of reaction on many levels.
Panicked yet? Don’t be. My first rule of SEO has always been to remain calm and keep a clear head during any changes. See what the results are, consult with others, and then create a plan of action. It may seem impossible with your job on the line, but remain calm -- there’s always more change brewing.
The reality with Google (as well as other engines and platforms, like Facebook) is that they will often change course if they see public sentiment strongly in another direction. If a change negatively affects users, they may change course, as Google did with this follow-up message:
We've detected that some of the links pointing to your site are using techniques outside Google'sWebmaster Guidelines.
We don't want to put any trust in links that are artificial or unnatural. We recommend removing any unnatural links to your site. However, we do realize that some links are outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole. If you are able to remove any of the links, please submit a reconsideration request, including the actions that you took.
If you have any questions, please visit our Webmaster Help Forum.
While this message still mentions “reconsideration request,” it’s a bit more toned down from the original. Matt Cutts also followed up with a message posted to Google Plus:
If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic. In the past, these messages were sent when we took action on a site as a whole.
Yesterday, we took another step towards more transparency and began sending messages when we distrust some individual links to a site. While it’s possible for this to indicate potential spammy activity by the site, it can also have innocent reasons.
For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. 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 we’ve taken more severe action on your site, you’ll likely notice a drop in search traffic, which you can see in the "Search queries" feature Webmaster Tools for example.
As always, if you believe you have been affected by a manual spam action and your site no longer violates the Webmaster Guidelines, go ahead and file a reconsideration request. It’ll take some time for us to process the request, but you will receive a followup message confirming when we’ve processed it.
Before reacting too swiftly, it’s also prudent to see how the changes will shake out for your website. In some cases, changes may benefit you and hurt your competitors, which actually is a very positive result for your site.
And honestly, is this really anything new? Between algorithm changes and more, Google’s always making our lives more challenging. But that’s what keeps SEO interesting.