Google Penalty: How to Avoid It for Unnatural Inbound Links

Google Penalty: How to Avoid It for Unnatural Inbound Links

That is why one of the important elements of an SEO strategy is getting high-quality backlinks. You can read more about in the article Build High-Quality Backlinks in a Scalable Way in 2020. Inbound links can carry a potential threat to any site. You can get under Google sanctions and even get Google Penalty because of them. Read the relevant article on the topic – Google Algorithms That Affect SEO. We will talk about what types of links lead to a penalty, how to avoid risks, and what to do if a nuisance does occur.

What Are Inbound Links and Why Sometimes Are They Dangerous?

An inbound link is a link that leads from another site to your resource or its pages. Inbound links form your backlink profile, so they should always be treated with care.

According to the Google Webspam report 2019, it was discovered that about 25 billion pages are flagged as spam every day. The company claims that 99% of clicks on the links that show the result of Google’s search results leads to pages free from spam.

Google Webmaster Central Blog

With such an active fight against spam, it is not surprising that Google sent over 186 million messages to site owners about possible problems in 2018.

They affect the presence of sites in the SERP. Google also gave recommendations on how to optimize and improve sites.

Of these, about 2% (approximately 4 million emails) were sent to webmasters with information on the use of manual actions due to violations of Google Webmaster Guidelines. They received Google Penalty.

The Google Penalty is a restrictive measure from the Google Spam Team that is manually entered into the site system and leads to the fact that the resource partially or completely loses its visibility for the search engine. This immediately affects traffic and organic search results. In these examples, you can see how the indicators of a site that has fallen under Google sanctions for violations change:

Traffic & keyword trend in March 2020:


Traffic & keyword trend in September 2020:


If you see a sharp drop in traffic and a failure in organic research and keywords during the verification of the data on the site, this is a reason to ask the question, is my website penalized? It is possible that you or your webmaster already received an email from Google about the use of manual actions, but it got lost in the mail. One way or another, you should conduct a thorough audit of the site, specifically inbound links.

In May 2020, SEMrush conducted a large-scale study, which analyzed 830 backlink profiles of sites that received penalties over the past 2 years.

The SEMrush Backlink Audit tool was used. This made it possible to obtain data on incoming links and reasons for Google Penalty. Take a look at the results of the SEMrush research and analyze what needs to be done to avoid Google Penalty for unnatural inbound links.


What Are the Reasons for the Google Penalty for Inbound Links?

The question of how to get inbound links is one of the most popular among SEO professionals. While working on building link mass, it is very important to monitor the quality of backlinks. Product Marketing Manager at SEMrush Elena Terenteva emphasizes that the Google penalty for unnatural links to your site is one of the most common causes of getting penalties from Google.

Such links are often called harmful or spam. They are one of the serious problems that threaten the reputation and safety of the site. Of course, you can also get penalized for outbound links if the site owner or webmaster posts them on other sites. This violates Google’s rules, but the responsibility lies with them in full.

When talking about inbound links, you have to take into account that spam or harmful links can sneak into your site unnoticed and cause a lot of harm if they are not detected in time and taken action.

According to SEMrush, more than half (53%) of penalties are due to a sponsored or paid link. In second place among the reasons for receiving a penalty are guest posts and press releases (45%). The top three anti-leaders are closed by PBN and link networks (27%).

Among the reasons for falling under the sanctions are the following:

  • User-generated spam (16%)
  • Web directories (16%)
  • Pure spam (14%)
  • Direct ads & affiliate links (10%)
  • Business directories & bookmarking sites (10%)
  • Links in widgets (7%)
  • Hidden links (4%)

How Does Google React to Unnatural Inbound Links?

1. The reputation of the site does not matter

For Google, the level of authority and reputation of the site does not matter if the link that came from it looks unnatural or manipulative.

2. The limitation period does not matter

Google doesn’t care how long ago the unnatural inbound link was created. If it is harmful, the sanctions will be found appropriate. SEMrush’s research found sites that were hit and penalized in 2019-2020 for links created in 2016-2018.

3. Often Google Penalty leads to a complete loss of site functionality

According to Google spokesman John Mueller, there are two types of penalties: complete and partial exclusion of a site from search and indexing.

Search Engine Journal

Often with a manual action, the entire site falls under the sanctions, not just its individual pages or sections on which unwanted links were posted.

4. One unnatural inbound link will not be penalized

After examining examples of unnatural inbound links that Google cited as examples for webmasters and conducting an audit of sites that received penalties, SEMrush made sure that one link would not become a reason for sanctions. To receive a penalty, you need a combination of 2-3 or more links and manipulative activities.

5. Completely matching anchor and keyword texts require special attention

According to SEMrush, almost half of the money anchor use are using the same keywords that the website uses to get organic traffic. These links are potentially dangerous. Google’s algorithms easily track actions like this, and the Google Spam Team is immediately informed about this with all the consequences.

6. Typically, the identification of penal links is your own business

When communicating with webmasters, Google does not provide examples of unnatural links that led to a penalty. Therefore, you or your webmasters will have to do this work yourself. You can only get a couple of sample links from Google after re-requesting to restore the site, which takes additional time and complicates the process.

7. Removing a penalty and restoring a site takes a lot of time

SEMrush notes that it takes six months on average to remove the penalty and get the opportunity to restore the site. This is due to the fact that the review of the penalty decision occurs only after Google has reviewed 2-3 submitted requests. Therefore, the best thing to do is to be patient and follow the directions of the search engine.

Which Inbound Links Can Trigger Google Penalty Service and How to Avoid This

After reviewing the main results of the research, a question arises: how do I find Google links in order to create a strong backlink profile on my site. To do this, study the detailed information from the study on how Google behaves and what it perceives as a reason for a penalty. It should also be noted that the search engine accepts positivity and loyalty.

Consider the features of the above links that most often cause a penalty.

1. Sponsored and Paid Links (caused 53% of cases)

It is not uncommon for do follow links sites to receive penalties that contain content with sponsored signals in the form of certain phrases. These are complemented by a dofollow anchor link saturated with keywords.

Some variations of similar wording that may be found in articles or blogging posts:

  • Information was provided by
  • Advertorial content
  • The article was sponsored by
  • Advertorial post on behalf

When using such phrases, you need to properly format the sponsored link in accordance with Google guidelines. If used without specifying partnerships, it would be a compelling penalty. You can read about how to design links according to Google’s requirements in their recommendations.

When buying or selling links, you need to be ready to receive a penalty at any time. Such activities include buying or selling links for money, exchanging goods or services for links, and providing a product for free in exchange for a review and a link on a blog, etc.

To avoid penalties for commercial activity, SEMrush experts recommend using the nofollow attribute or rel=”sponsored” attribute. Google still allows both options for link attributes, but rel=”sponsored” is preferred.

Google Search Console Help

Nofollow Google links are not working like backlinks. Do not expect sponsored posts to be useful for filling backlink profiles. As noted by Google`s John Mueller, they are seen by visitors, supplement the content, and continue to appear in links report on the Google search console. Google takes note of these links but doesn’t transfer PageRank across these links.

Do not overuse keywords in anchor links. If you use them, choose those that are not often found in your texts.

2. Guest posting & Press releases (Google penalty rate – 45%)

The most common reason for receiving penalties from Google for guest posting or press releases is for the use of keywords in anchor texts solely for link building purposes. Links like this are not beneficial to readers and violate the rules of the search engine. Google gives an example of using keywords in anchors:

Google Search Console Help

In order to avoid a penalty, SEMrush recommends the following:

  1. Don’t use keyword-rich anchor texts. If you do want to use keywords, make sure they differ from those you use frequently.
  2. Use the rel=”nofollow” attribute in the text description or in the signature of the guest post author.
  3. Avoid overly straightforward promotions for a product or project.
  4. Analyze the link-building strategy, evaluate the methods, and discard the risky ineffective ones.

In case of penalties, rel=”sponsored”, rel=”ugc”, rel=nofollow attributes should be used for links to guest posts. If these measures do not work, it is worth to removing those links to your website. This is an advanced path for resolving link problems, so take a responsible approach to the process to avoid harming the site, as Google warns in its guide:

Google Search Console Help

Before removing the links, you should carefully read the recommendations of Google.

3. PBN and Link Networks (accounts for 27% of penalties)

These methods are Black-hat SEO and naturally lead to penalties. Read more in the article – White Hat VS Grey Hat VS Black Hat SEO: Differences and What to Choose? Recently, they are used less and less, which explains the relatively low percentage of cases. However, no one is safe from the introduction of such elements on the site. During their research, SEMrush noted a number of characteristic features of PBN and link networks:

  1. PBNs are usually created on free blogging platforms. The content can vary slightly from blog to blog but the anchor texts contain the same keywords without variations.
  2. A typical PBN site can be distinguished by the fact that it was recently created or recently changed ownership.
  3. The site does not contain contacts and also does not contain a privacy policy.
  4. Weak traffic and a low authority score

The only solution to this problem is to have every link removed. If you can’t remove the link, you should do it using disavow. For more information on the topic, see the Google Disavow Tool. How Do I Use the Disavow Links Tool?

4. User-Generated Spam (accounts for 16% of penalties)

Found on sites where users can be active:

  1. Spam account on free sites
  2. Spam posts in threads on forums
  3. Spam comments on blogs
  4. Links to spam posted in the profile or signature

As Google notes, links with spam can appear on a good, trustworthy, and reputable site as a result of the actions of unscrupulous users. Google also says that the appearance of this type of spam will not lead to sanctions. They believe that there is no particular danger in this, and if the site owner as a whole monitors security, they will quickly take action. If there is too much such spam on the site, sanctions will be introduced in the form of manual action:

Google Search Console Help

SEMrush recommends using the disavow function to combat spam like this. While Google says they don’t pay attention to such links, some types of spam links were observed on forums and profiles of sites that were penalized. This happened in the following cases:

  1. Explicit spam that is spread by applications.
  2. Disguised links with a product promotion or under the guise of data with contacts.

For those who practice this type of content distribution on their site, forums, or comments, there are two ways to avoid the penalty. Use the rel=”ugc” attribute or just stop spamming.

5. Web Directories & Link Listings (16% of penalties)

Sites in the form of directories and lists of links are still quite popular, especially those dedicated to a specific topic or providing a large amount of useful information. For example, this directory offers a selection of sites and resources on the network for different areas:


The PubMed directory is an authoritative resource for medical publications. Depending on the entered search, it displays a selection of publications on the topic:


For example, for this request, the system selected more than 2.5 million publications with references to various materials, from 1911 to the present day.


At the same time, many directory sites and link lists often become carriers of spam and bad links.SEMrush expert Elena Terenteva states that in order to get a penalty in this case, dozens of bad links from catalogs and lists must be present on the site. Read the related article – What Are Bad Links? Google, SEO, and Disavow Tool.

With 3-5 links,  nothing happens. This does not obviate the need for regular monitoring and auditing. To avoid the trouble with inbound links from web directories and link listings, SEMrush recommends the following:

  1. Pay attention to traffic and SERP position of all web directories and link listings from which inbound links come to you.
  2. Do not apply a strategy of getting backlinks from directories and listings too intensively and only interact with high quality and reputable sites of this type.
  3. Track the amount of traffic that comes from directories and listings to your website.
  4. If the link gives too noticeable traffic, it is worth contacting the webmaster to be marked with rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attributes.

If you find unwanted links, remove them from your site. If this fails, mark them as disavow.

6. Pure Spam

Google has a very tough attitude towards this type of spam. There should be no talk of any possible indulgences. Therefore, if you have pure spam links on the site, the chances of getting a penalty are high.

  • Sneaky redirects is a prohibited technique. It is somewhat similar to cloaking. When different content is shown to the user and search robots using redirects. Google provides the following examples of Sneaky redirects:

Google Search Console Help

  • Keyword stuffing (mainly in the anchor text)
  • Links that are not relevant to the content

SEMrush recommends that you never use promotion tactics that are related to Black-hat SEO. In the event that links of this kind appeared on your site as a result of hacking, they should be immediately removed or designated as disavow.

7. Direct Ads and Affiliate Links (account for 10% of penalties)

Google normally accepts content in the style of Buy now, Hot proposition, Sign up now, etc. but only if it is designed as a coupon banner. This immediately makes advertising and commercial components clear. In the case of promotions of products, services, brands, etc., in accordance with Google’s rules, rel=”nofollow” and rel=”sponsored” attributes should be used. SEMrush highly recommends adding an affiliate’s commission disclosure.

In her article about the SEMrush study, Elena Terenteva gives an example of a case of a penalty that was received despite the note, which said about affiliate links and the commission that the author of the content will receive. An important point is that all links were dofollow (which, apparently, led to the penalty):


In order to avoid penalties, it is important to supplement such links with rel=”nofollow” and rel=”sponsored” attributes. In case the attributes are not activated and do not work, the links must either be removed or marked as disavow.

8. Business Directories and Bookmarking Sites

As with directories, Business Directories can also be useful, trusted, and quality resources. SEMrush mentions a case where a site was penalized for posting links to poor quality directories. Therefore, after finding a link like this on your site, you need to delete it.

9. Links in Widgets (7% penalty rate)

When working with widgets located on other sites that have embedded code that leads to your site, you should always add the rel=”nofollow” attribute. If this option is not available or the attribute does not work, you should abandon this idea.

SEMrush notes some exceptions to the rule, such as cases where links from widgets that lead to thematic or specialized pages of sites to custom sections of the resource, etc.

SEMrush also warns that free widgets may include mandatory links to the service that provided it, without including the rel=”nofollow” attribute. Before installing the widget, you need to check whether there will be provocation on its part.

10. Hidden Links (4% penalty rate)

In the cases found in the study, hidden links were disguised as plain text. They managed to get to sites unnoticed. In order to resolve the issue SEMrush recommends:

  1. Submit a request to remove the link.
  2. Make the link visible and add the rel = “nofollow” attribute to it.
  3. If the request was not ignored, mark the link as disavow.

11. Sitewide Links (penalty rate – 4%)

These links are most often placed in the footer of a site page, in a sidebar, in blogs, or in sections of the blogroll. If these links contain keywords or phrases such as Website Designed by X-Company or Powered by, etc. SEMrush recommends that you process them as soon as possible.

To do this, you can replace the anchor text. This works in some cases. Like other unwanted inbound links, they should be supplemented with the rel=”nofollow” attribute. If these measures did not help, the links should be removed or marked as disavow.

The study also mentions a number of minor cases that accounted for less than 1% of penalties. This list includes:

  1. Old vacancies: This applies to sites that post job ads. SEMrush notes that usually Google sends reminders to webmasters of such resources to remove irrelevant information, but it is better not to lose sight of this moment.
  2. Product review links
  3. Links in podcasts: Penalties can be received for placing branded and naked links, and for oversaturation of links with keywords.
  4. Scholarship links: Such links must refer to .edu resources, so posting irrelevant, non-educational links may result in a penalty. Read the related article – What Is . Edu Domain: Registration, Links, and Google Juice.
  5. Hotlinking: Direct links to content on another site that may lead to copyright infringement (most often, these are links to images, videos, audio, books, documents, etc.)
  6. Links to adult content
  7. Links to auto-generated content
  8. Reciprocal links
  9. Links to infographics: This case refers to infographics, which are not useful or high-quality information for the audience and are created only for the accumulation of link mass.

How to Control Inbound Links and Avoid the Google Penalty?

After examining the results of the SEMrush study and the different types of links that can lead to penalties, it is worth understanding how to control your inbound links and what to do to avoid penalties and penalties from Google.

The best way to prevent penalties is to regularly audit your site, especially your backlink profile. SEMrush recommends auditing backlinks at least once a month in order to spot an unwanted link and take action.

In order to monitor the status of your site, there are many tools that webmasters and SEO specialists use. The most common of these is the free Google Search Console. You can read about how to work with it in our tutorial – What is Google Search Console, and How is This Tool Used?

When talking about the safety of the site, this service provides a warning system about the occurrence of potentially dangerous situations:


Having received a message about the presence of a number of issues in the system of your site, you need to start fixing them as soon as possible. You can read about how to do this in the article Google Security Issues in 2020: How to Use Google Search Console to Protect for Your Site.

Of course, the free services, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics are excellent tools where you can solve many problems. However, for effective audit and monitoring of the site’s status, it is better to use professional services that have a wide range of tools and powerful functionality.

To conduct a backlink profile audit, an effective solution would be to use the SEMrush Backlink Audit tool, which was specifically designed to audit backlinks and identify dangerous ones among them. In SEMrush terminology, this is called toxic.

As an example, we audited the site of a well-known publication that has a large number of backlinks. The result looked like this:


In the Overall Toxical Score of the site’s backlinks, it was rated medium. The program found 69 toxic domains, which accounted for 1.3% of the total number of backlinks, 566 potentially toxic domains (11%), and 4.5K non-toxic domains.

In order to calculate the most dangerous links among the mass of links that need to be removed or deactivated, SEMrush has a special tool. To use it, go to the Audit section and select the advanced filters function there:


Next, go to the Select toxic markers menu, and select frequent anchor from the list provided:


This will identify toxic links, after which they can be removed or disavowed. With Backlinks Audit, you can use the Remove and Disavow functions. This will automatically find the contacts of the sites that sent you unwanted links. For more information on the topic, read the SEMrush Review article.

In order to ensure effective site protection and prevent the likelihood of getting a penalty, SEMrush recommends:

  1. Conduct regular audits of backlinks.
  2. Monitor the backlink profile in order to detect an excessive number of suspicious backlinks in time and get rid of them in time.
  3. Always check anchor texts carefully, and avoid the frequent use of repetitive anchors. If you want to work with money anchors, pay attention to the selection of keywords that should not repeat those with which you are promoting your site. You can find words using the SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool.
  4. If you find pure spam, remove it or designate disavow as soon as possible.
  5. In case you are not sure about the reliability of the link and its quality, use the rel = ”nofollow” attribute.

If you make it a habit to regularly conduct a careful backlink profile audit, you can minimize the risk of being noticed by the Google Spam Team.

If you still received a penalty, you should be patient and prepare for a rather long recovery process.

SEMrush recommends the following steps:

  1. Evaluate how exactly the penalty affected your site. It either touched it entirely or it touched certain pages and sections.
  2. Analyze the state of the site such as its ranking, traffic, keywords, and determine which pages have lost the most in their indicators.
  3. Analyze how the process of getting links is going. It is Important to track the atypical bursts of activity on the part of inbound links.
  4. Track examples of Unnatural URLs.

Next, you should analyze all backlinks and separate them according to the principle: good, paid, or spam. After, you need to send requests to the sites that sent you unwanted links, with a request to remove them. Send a reconsideration request to Google to start the process of moving towards canceling the penalty and restoring the site.

In conclusion, it should be said that SEMrush research showed that Google penalties are much more realistic and more common than many people think. Auditing, monitoring, and playing by Google’s rules is the surest way to ensure the successful existence and development of your site.

About author
Leyla is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience. She also worked at marketing - PR and advertising (about 7 years). She was so interested in IT, especially SEO. Now Leyla is deep in SEO, this sphere inspires her for new issues and researches.