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Why Backlinks Can Cause Google Penalties
by Dr. William Sen | CEO and founder of blue media

Why Backlinks Can Cause Google Penalties

Why You Should Be Extremely Careful With Backlink Strategies

Buying Backlinks

Backlinks is probably one of the most offered SEO services worldwide. If you looked at your spam folder recently, you will see that people are trying to sell backlinks all the time.

It’s called backlink outreach, blog outreach, guest posting, and so forth.

If you have been working in the SEO industry not for too long, you might have heard that external links to your website is always good for SEO.

What is missed is that backlinks can have the opposite effect, namely getting a Google Penalty on your website.

Because there is one thing Google disapproves the most: Backlinks that have been created for SEO purposes.

Google basically calls any backlinking approach for SEO purposes Link Schemes, below is Google’s statement what they think about Backlink Building:

As you can see from Google’s statement, any SEO agency offering backlinks the way they describe and see it, is violating Google’s webmaster guidelines.

It’s also known as Link Farms; But most SEOs would probably call them artificial backlink building or backlink strategy.

Most if the time, it’s the worst thing you can do.


What’s Google’s Deal With Backlinks?

Since the Florida Update in 2003, Google has declared war on artificial backlinks. Since then, Google has been building and developing control mechanisms specifically designed to undermine such backlink efforts.

Even a few years ago, backlinks still worked fine.

If you are one of the old-school SEOs from 2015, you still might think backlinks are good for SEO. But as it’s already 2022, this could be seen as decades from an SEO standpoint. Consider that every year in SEO is like 10 years in real life. That’s how fast things change in the SEO world.

Fact is, Google is able to recognizes purchased backlinks.

You do not have to be a genius to understand how Google identifies your backlink strategy. And many could actually have known better if they thought about it:

Google knows the history of a website and how backlinks to that website have been taking place naturally over time. If all of a sudden, from one day to another, hundreds of backlinks appear on your website, Google will raise the red flag and that’s where the disaster starts.

Even so, if all backlinks were high quality backlinks, Google would still know that the site owner has initiated a backlink campaign that goes against the Google Guidelines.

What Google wants is simple: Google wants backlinks to develop in a natural way. Google wants users to put backlinks based on their interest and own will, and not triggered by automatic mechanisms or initiated campaigns.

There’s nothing wrong with building a backlink strategy that complies with Google’s policy. However, this endeavor requires a special skill and sensitivity, which I would like to address in this article below.

But before we do this, it’s imperative that you know what happens if you don’t do this the right way  because the consequences couldn’t be more severe.


Consequences of the Google Penalty

Google Manual ActionIf Google discovers that your backlinks that are not kosher, the site receives a so-called Manual Action.

In this case Google sends a warning to the website administrator — which is you — through the Google Search Console.

As a consequence, the website slowly disappears almost completely from the Search Engine Result Pages (SERP). That means, you become less visible. You will see the drop in your analytics that less and less people are visiting your website.

I personally have experienced traffic losses of up to 80-90% on websites that have received a Manual Action notification from Google.

With a Google Manual Action the website can take several months or years to recover from such a penalty.

I have helped many customers over the years to have their penalty removed. If the customer has made use of such services and backlink building strategies as described above, cleaning up the negative backlinks is a very exhausting effort in SEO. Especially because the process can take several months and costs valuable time that could have been spent on positive SEO measures. The cleaning process also tests the patience of the client and the SEO team.

The task of a rescue operation like this is to identify all artificially created links and to create a list. Next, this list is uploaded to Google in the so-called disavow format. Google then ignores these links on that list which basically means they are not being considered as ranking factors anymore. And this is what you want: You want to tell Google not to consider these links anymore.

The last step is to send a personal message to Google called the Reconsideration Request. After this, it can take several weeks or months until a Google employee checks these links and decides whether all existing spammy backlinks have been listed on that disavow list. Usually Google then sends a message that the disavow list is not complete and it cannot remove the punishment — im my experience this happens about 100% of the time when you update the disavow list the first time!

In this case, the disavow list needs to be expanded and the process repeated until Google finally accepts the disavow list as complete and then accepts the Reconsideration Request.

In my 20+ year history as an SEO, I have worked on countless “Reconsideration Requests,” and in all cases, the client had taken a backlink campaign into their own hands, thus putting themselves into this mess. In most cases they had bought backlink campaigns. In some cases their SEO agency had started a backlink campaign on their own.

In my most successful case, I was able to remove the penalty after the third Reconsideration Request, which is very rare. It’s common that 20 or more Reconsideration Requests are necessary until Google acknowledges the list. The problem is that it seems almost impossible to spot all dubious backlinks that Google has discovered. Since Google does not tell us which ones it doesn’t like, an elaborate research process using subscription-based SEO tools are necessary.

The further consequence is that after a successful reconsideration request, the website can take up to a year to recover. The lost keyword rankings are by no means back in the SERP. They usually stay lost and the website has to rebuild the Google Trust from scratch.

An elaborate SEO campaign is needed to position the website to where it was before.

The rule is simple: you should never risk a punishment by Google.

Backlink building is very sensitive matter, and I recommend skepticism if it is being offered as a part of the SEO campaign.

In my opinion, this is the case backlink building: You are basically just waiting to get this manual action from Google one day. It might take weeks, or years. 

I can’t stress the risks of backlink building strongly enough.


How to Build a Clean Backlink Strategy

Meanwhile, it should be clear that massive entries in directories, guest books and anything similar is an absolute taboo. A backlink on a website only makes sense if the content really has a need to link to your website because it would helps the user and it’s relevant.

Here is an example: if your website is about Artificial Intelligence and a blogger writes an article on that topic and links to your article, that’s considered a thematically relevant backlink and is viewed positively by Google.

But beware: If every one of this blogger’s articles deals with different topics and each time links to a thematically relevant website, Google already knows that this blogger sells its backlinks services. In this case, the blogger’s website might already be flagged as such, and the backlink can be classified as negative SEO. That’s how you risk a Manual Action.

Backlinks should not be placed on websites that have basically made backlinking a concept. Brian Dean of Backlinko, one of the leading experts in backlink building recommends to create a list of potential backlink partners, while at the same time to avoid big hubs that also monetize articles and backlinks from external sources. This also includes websites like Forbes, Times, Money, BusinessWeek, and many others.

For a healthy backlink strategy, you have to make sure the website has all of these features:

  • Backlink Virgin
    Setting backlinks is not part of the concept and is not a product of the website.
  • Topic Relevance
    The website should be relevant to your topic — the closer the website is to your topic, the better.
  • Low Spam Score
    It pays off to have a look at moz.com to see what the spam score of the website is you want to place a backlink on. If the spam score is high, setting a backlink there is ill advised.
  • Domain Authority
    And while you’re at it, check the Domain Authority (DA) of the website and see if it’s worth the struggle.
  • Consequences
    Be aware of the consequences, that all your efforts might still lead to Google Penalty nevertheless.

In most cases, a backlink is motivated by contacting the website’s administrator. The cover letter is also a communication process that needs to be prepared. They are many ways to motivate other website administrators to place a backlink for you. Also remember, you want to control how the backlink is being used. The use of the backlink should look as natural as possible.


Successful SEO Without Backlinks

In my experience, backlinks might still help with your SEO a little, but they are not as much important as they were years ago. Because of the populairy the backlinking still has today, it is mostly being offered by traditional SEO agencies that has been around for some while, and are still following the same or similar processes from years ago.

In 2022, websites without backlinks can easily have very high rankings. For example, good SEO strategies, which include high-quality content, have the opportunity to be very successful even without even having one backlink.

I’ve been able to see great success from clients as well as competitors who could achieve astronomical growth, high traffic and conversions without a any backlinks.

Backlink building can be a success factor, but is not key to SEO anymore as of 2022. As always in SEO, they are so many other factors that can lead to a successful SEO campaign.

My personal rule of the thumb: If it is a process rather than an tailored measure, it can’t be good. 

Last but no least…

Backlink building at the beginning of an SEO campaign is not recommended at all anyways, because Google knows that no website can get backlinks overnight. Especially websites with little content but with many backlinks will arouse Google’s suspicion.

About 7-8 years ago, I would have said that backlink building should only be tackled once all other SEO measures have been successfully exploited and backlink building is the only thing left to do.

But in 2022, I can’t see any reason why a serious SEO campaign should engage in backlink building at all.

Instead of risking the downfall of your website, it makes more sense to put your efforts to creating dignified and solid SEO strategies, by creating well-structured and outlined pages and content that people are interested in.

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CATEGORIES Search Engine Optimization
About the Author
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr. William Sen CEO and founder of blue media

William Sen has been an SEO since 2001 and is a Software Engineer since 1996, and has been working as an Associate Professor in Germany for the University of Dusseldorf and Cologne. He has been involved in developing custom SEO tools, large website and software projects. William has a PhD in Information Sciences and has worked for brands such as Expedia, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Bayer, Ford, T-Mobile and many more. He is the founder of blue media.

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DW 1 year ago

Good article.

What would interest me is roughly how many backlinks those websites that you helped clean up generated – and how frequently and fast they purchased them. I work in a digital marketing agency and we have seen clients purchase backlinks but to this day have practically never seen a Google penalty. The backlinks we generate are usually high quality (we use Majestic for the evaluation of the sources). Of course, we never start generating hundreds per month or even per year, but maybe 1-3 per month or even fewer. Thus, I cannot confirm anything you say in this article but that's not because I think it's wrong but rather this is mostly due to having no clue about what kind of dimensions you talk about when discussing purchased links. Are those websites that have hundreds, thousands of backlinks? Do you consider all of them spammy, even those that actually come from clearly trustworhty sources?

I wonder what it takes to actually get a penalty and if those cases might happen more often in, say, the US than in Europe where I work and where consequently all our clients are based.

Shayur Maharaj 1 year ago

Great piece with some insightful points. I look forward to seeing how the tools are leveraged

William 1 year ago

Hi Shubham,

You can't influence how Google arranges their autocomplete feature. Usually when lots of people search for a term, Google will anticipate the question based on their data. That's how the autocomplete works.

I hope this helps.

Have a wonderful day,

Shubham 1 year ago

Can you tell me how can I insert my keyword in the Google Autocomplete results?

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