Google has issued new manual penalties for unnatural outbound linking

18 April 2016

In the last few days Google have targeted brands giving away products in exchange for reviews and links. Google’s team issued numerous outbound linking penalties, directly related to the warning recently issued for bloggers to disclose free product reviews, and utilise nofollow links.

What does this mean?

Google previously provided guidelines to ensure brands do not abuse their power to gift bloggers with free products in an effort for quick and easy link building. They have now enforced these guidelines, by issuing penalties in order to clamp down on this sort of activity. Google have always been clear that buying links is an absolute no go, technically it’s a form of bribery, so in the same vein exchanging links for products is thought of as bribery too. It is no secret that the best, and most natural, method for earning links is through creating something genuinely interesting/shareable/newsworthy, that sites want to talk about and link to – not because they have been paid to (whether in money, or products).

How are these penalties given?

Google give penalties for any webmasters violating the engine’s best practice guidelines, and take a particularly strong stance on any activity that appears to ‘game’ the algorithms. Receiving a Google penalty could mean your brand is no longer visible in the search engine results pages, usually for a particular content theme, but occasionally on a site wide basis. Generally, any site hit by a penalty will experience significant organic traffic drops; the traffic unlikely to return until the necessary steps are taken for the penalty to be lifted.

Links remain a key element of Google’s algorithm. However, in 2016 more so than ever, it is essential that these links are relevant. Links are no longer a numbers game as they had been in years gone by, but rather links must be relevant.

Whilst a blogger linking to a relevant product may seem like a legitimate reason for gaining brand coverage, it is clear that this method has begun to be abused by brands aiming to grow their organic visibility through building relevant links. This is exactly why Google have taken a stance that blogger reviews must be declared, both through a declaration, but also through a nofollow link.

Am I in danger?

If your brand has been relying on blogger reviews as a large-scale link building tactic, then yes you may be at risk. Google will be reviewing sites with significant volumes of links from blog sites, if these links are not nofollow, a flag will be raised, and a manual action may cause your site to be penalised. In order to reduce the chance of a penalty, it’s advisable to contact bloggers and ask for the link to be updated to a nofollow, and it is certainly best practice to ensure the blogger has declared a free product, or gifting.

Finally, if you are concerned, do check there are no new messages within your webmaster console; if you have been hit, you will have been notified.

It is typical of Google to issue a best-practice warning, and then follow-up with manual actions to any non-compliant parties, so this won’t be the last time we see something along these lines. Following best practice techniques and creating strategic and long-term genuine value exchanges, through the likes of content marketing, in order to earn natural links, will future-proof your brand and ensure it is continually rewarded with appropriate organic visibility.