Penalties are never good.
No matter how you end up with one.
Whether it's a red card, a hefty fine or a link penalty from Google, nobody likes being in the penalty box.
It always means a disadvantage for you (and often an advantage for your competitors).
Google gives out link penalties when it sees bad backlinks in your backlink profile.
Beyond that, you can be penalized any time your backlink profile isn't up to scratch in terms of their quality guidelines.
There's a range of things you can do to attract this kind of negative attention, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Luckily, there are also things you can do to avoid suffering a penalty.
The best, easiest way to avoid any sort of link penalty is to keep a close eye on your backlink profile at all times.
This isn't exactly easy—not without help, anyway.
We'll walk you through link penalties, how to avoid them and how to escape the penalty box in case you're already stuck.
What Is a Link Penalty?
Link penalties are the result of spam, low-quality, irrelevant, unnatural, repetitive or otherwise bad links in your website's link profile.
Google deems these types of links as violations of their webmaster quality guidelines, and as attempts to manipulate your site's rankings to your advantage with artificial link schemes.
This is very bad. Google is all about organic. Anything artificial in your link profile will raise a red flag.
They'll investigate. If they don't like what they see, they'll either give you a penalty or remove you from the Google index completely—which means your website will never be seen anywhere on Google.
So while you'd prefer a penalty in this scenario, it's still not a great outcome.
A penalty means Google will push your site down in the rankings, resulting in a significant drop in your visibility and organic traffic—everything that you were trying to counter with your SEO work.
How to Detect Link Penalties
Links can often appear and disappear without any warning.
Without a proactive tool doing the monitoring for you, it's likely that you'll miss things every now and then.
In the same way that you'd rely on security cameras to keep an eye on a large property, you should be relying on a backlink monitoring tool to keep an eye on your link profile so that you can prevent any problems—before they result in a penalty.
Take Advantage of Link Monitoring Technology
Anyone who takes their SEO seriously uses a link monitoring tool like SEOptimer to keep a close eye on their backlink profile.
Your handy link monitoring tool can really make a difference. SEOptimer will actively scan your link profile and alert you to any links that may be potentially harmful, making it easier for you to check out each new inbound link and analyze its relevance and value to your site.
Stay Updated on Bad Links That Might Lead to Penalties
Once you've plugged in your domain, our tool will keep an eye on the links pointing back to you and alert you to any potentially bad links. The tool will pick up on signals like unnatural anchor text and a high number of external links.
You should always carefully analyze these potentially bad links. You'll find that some of them are perfectly fine—but it's the ones that aren't that will result in damaging link penalties.
Run Site Audits?
Yes, you'll want to audit your site's overall performance and SEO on the regular. The good news is that, if you've decided to take advantage of SEOptimer, you can easily run the audits yourself.
It provides you with a real-time snapshot of your website which covers your Link profile, On Page SEO, Usability, Performance, and a few other important SEO aspects of your site.
This tool gives me everything I need to know about the current quality of my site and its link profile, including domain authority, total number of backlinks, number of spam links, new links acquired and much more.
So, you'll always know how your site is doing!
The Algorithm Behind Links and Link Penalties
Google uses a highly complex, intelligent ranking algorithm to determine SERPs and where your website sits on them. This is an algorithm that's being updated 500-600 times a year.
This means that Google is always evolving and getting smarter. So, SEO has to keep evolving too.
Penguin and Link Penalties
The part of the algorithm behind links is called Penguin, and it's what's responsible for detecting links that Google deems manipulative. The goal is to spot links that are spammy, irrelevant or over-optimized.
Penguin penalizes you for links like these by down-ranking you—sometimes dozens of pages down. On Google, that's pretty much the same as not existing at all. Users rarely scroll beyond the first page of search results.
Penguin works in real time, so it's constantly monitoring websites and their backlink profiles, all the time. This is all the more reason why you should be constantly monitoring your website and backlink profile, too! Using SEOptimer can help you stay ahead of Penguin and on Google's good side.
The Difference Between Manual and Algorithmic Link Penalties
If you're hit with a link penalty, it'll be one of two types: a manual penalty or an algorithmic penalty.
Manual penalties are applied by a member of Google's webspam team. A real person manually reviews your link profile and gives you the penalty.
These types of penalties can be triggered by any number of things, including a spam report from a competitor, being in a competitive niche that Google actively monitors and sometimes just random bad luck.
Algorithmic penalties, on the other hand, are applied automatically by Google's Penguin algorithm, without any human intervention or review.
These are more common simply because Penguin works in real time (and much faster than humans), always scanning link profiles and weeding out the ones it doesn't trust.
But at the end of the day, both types of penalties are just as bad for your website. You should be actively working to avoid both of them. That means using good, organic link building tactics to secure only high-quality and relevant links.
These are strategies that Google deems manipulative or spammy.
They're the ones that you should be avoiding at all costs if you don't want to get penalized.
Remember that securing good links is supposed to take time. If a link opportunity ever seems far too easy and too good to be true, it probably is.
1. Link Spam
This should be obviously bad when you see it.
Link spam includes ugly URLs or overly-optimized hyperlinks dropped in comment sections of random and irrelevant blogs and forums. Sometimes with a short, pointless comment that adds no value to the discussion.
These sorts of comments can be posted with automated software, and it's something that still happens regularly in black hat SEO.
It might sound productive to post so many links, but don't be fooled—comment automation leaves footprints of duplicated content all across the internet for Google to pick up on, and the spam links won't help your website in any way.
They won't give you any value because they're forced, not natural. They're often highly irrelevant to both the blog/forum and your own website.
In fact, you're highly likely to be hit with a penalty instead of seeing an SEO boost.
Alternatively, commenting selectively on relevant, authoritative blogs and forums in your niche works. It can be an effective way to earn backlinks when backed by white hat SEO and a wider link building strategy.
It just needs to be done manually and only on hyper-relevant sites where you can add real value to the online community with your link.
And quite simply, spamming your link on every blog and forum you come across is not the way to add any sort of value.
2. Some Paid Links
Notice I say some, not all, because not all paid links are bad.
There are some, like premium directory listings and relevant editorial links, which are usually fine. But the paid links that are bad are very bad.
In general, Google hates the practice of buying and selling links.
It acts very aggressively against any websites that do it unethically. It has temporarily banned a number of established, well-known organizations from SERPs as penalties for doing exactly that, including J.C. Penney, Forbes, Overstock and even itself—Google Japan, in fact, was banned for 11 months for this.
So I'm not exaggerating when I say Google will come down hard on you if you're caught buying and selling links in a way that passes on ranking strength.
Technically, you can buy as many links as you want, but they should be nofollow links that don't pass you any link juice.
But as a general rule of thumb, just don't buy links. The exception might be a link from an extremely relevant site with a good domain authority that will include your link in a natural, valuable way.
Definitely don't go paying for links anywhere they're offered. That's exactly how you get penalized.
3. Private Blog Networks
Private blog networks (PBNs) are part of a very high-risk, grey hat link building strategy that I would recommend you quite simply just stay away from. The potential rewards aren't worth the risks.
A PBN is essentially a network of websites all owned by you, which you use to link to each other and funnel link strength to the sites you make money from.
Sites in the PBN won't have any value to your money-making sites unless they themselves have their own inbound links.
So SEOs insisting on using this strategy will usually pay to acquire newly-expired domains with already existing inbound links, and then add fresh content on to them.
This is a bit shady, and while there's still a niche of SEOs who advocate the use of PBNs for link building, there are no two ways about it. It's a pretty manipulative tactic.
Google hates manipulative tactics—this is exactly what link penalties are there for.
4. Links from Low-quality or Irrelevant Sites
This is another pretty obvious one. It goes against the whole concept of organic link building.
Google wants links to be earned. They want to see that your backlinks come from reputable sites that genuinely want to link to you because you provide some sort of value.
That means you need to have some sort of real connection with them, usually through outreach and relationship building—or through content that's so valuable it attracts links.
That basically means links shouldn't be easy to get. Seeking links from low-quality and/or irrelevant sites is too easy.
These sites that give easy links away could be used solely to pass on ranking strength, and Google doesn't look upon that favorably.
And speaking of irrelevant websites, I should mention here that foreign websites usually fall into this category too.
If you're a US site, Google would expect that most of your inbound links are also from the US—or certainly English-speaking, at least.
There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as a large multinational brand with multilanguage sites for its customers in various countries.
In general, having a significant percentage of your inbound links coming from foreign language sources (.ru, .cn, .su and .ua domains in particular, which are known as usually being spam referrals) is another big red flag for Google.
5. Excessive Reciprocal Linking
Reciprocal linking is another one of those grey areas.
It's likely to happen naturally over time. It makes sense that websites in the same niche would talk about and link to each other the longer they're around.
But as a link building strategy it has become more about simple link swapping than a reciprocal benefit and value exchange.
This is problematic for Google because it's extremely artificial—there are thousands of pages that exist on the internet purely for swapping links rather than for users.
A lot of these are standalone and non-niche-specific, which makes them an irrelevant addition to your link profile.
So as a general rule, I'd recommend that you don't contact websites asking to exchange links because it's not an organic link building strategy. If you're not careful, you may attract a link penalty for all your efforts.
Recovering from a Link Penalty
If your site has been hit by a link penalty, it means you've got too many bad links in your link profile and you'll need to either remove them or disavow them to recover.
You'll need to clean up your link profile.
Then, if you received a manual penalty, you can submit a reconsideration request to Google.
If you got an algorithmic penalty, you should see your site recover pretty quickly now that Penguin is in real time.
Reach Out to Webmasters
For some bad links, you may be able to contact the site owner and ask them to remove their link to your site. In some cases, it might have been an honest mistake, so they'll simply take it down and that's the end of that. Nice and easy.
Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, you won't get a response if you reach out. You'll be left with only one option: manually disavow these links. You'll need to ask Google to not take these links into account when assessing your website.
Disavowing Bad Backlinks
Luckily, I've been able to do this neatly with SEOptimer.
Firstly, you want to navigate to the Backlink Research section. Here you can plug your domain in to pull up your backlink profile.
Next, you want to toggle to the Backlinks tab to view a list of backlinks pointing to your domain.
Then you're going to need to comb through your list and identify any spammy or unnatural links that could lead to a penalty.
Add these bad links to a text file and submit it to Google Search Console.
Check Your Outbound Links
On top of removing and disavowing bad links, it's also a good idea to go through your website and look for any potentially bad outbound links where you might be linking out to a bad website.
These can negatively affect your link profile too, and could play a part if you've received a link penalty.
Remove any that aren't relevant and that you don't need. If there are some that you must keep, set them as nofollow links so that Google understands not to consider them when reading your website.
Once you've done all this, you should see a recovery from your link penalty. Hooray!
Final Thoughts on Link Penalties
The idea behind backlinks is simple, really.
Do it properly and as organically as possible. Be proactive and realistic about the nature of backlinks.
Whether you mean to or not, you may acquire bad backlinks that put you at risk of penalty—or that result in a penalty. Even if you do everything right, you can still get slapped with nasty link penalties.
You can save yourself a lot of time and headache by using a proactive link monitoring tool like SEOptimer that will help you spot bad links as soon as they appear.
If you're unfortunate enough to get penalized, this tool will help you recover with as little hassle as possible.
Trust me, escaping the penalty box isn't a task you want to tackle on your own!