New Penalty Shows Google’s Changing Approach To Paid Links

Outbound matters

This past week, a group of webmasters, most notably bloggers, received a manual action in Webmaster Tools for “Unnatural Outbound Links”. Not links they built to their site, but links from them to others.

This post is about what this penalty means for all SEOs and what you need to do differently because of it.

First, The Good News

I emailed my list a few weeks back about this news from the SEO world, that Google would apparently cease to demote sites for having low quality backlinks. Instead they plan to simply devalue those links, so they contribute nothing to your SEO efforts, rather than applying your site any kind of penalty.

It marked, I think, the beginning of the end for “negative SEO”, and brought a sigh of relief to people like us who are constantly concerned that Google could take a dim view of some backlink we got, and punish us for it.

The Other Side Of The Coin

I doubt coincidentally, a few weeks later, Google started handing out these “Unnatural Outbound Links” penalties to sites in various niches. Just to show us they haven’t started “taking it easy” all of a sudden.

There’s a big breakdown of this penalty here, but to summarize…

This was a penalty given to sites that seemed to have “a lot” (whatever that means) of outbound links that weren’t using the rel=no-follow tag. Google of course didn’t tell the webmasters how many of these links they’d found, or which were the offending links.

Lots of outbound Do-follow links may give Google the impression that you’re not declaring when an outbound link is the result of a sponsorship, that is, it’s been purchased or monetized somehow.

What’s the line on “too many” such links is unknown. Whether Google is looking at all outbound do-follows or just do-follow links to certain kinds of sites is also unknown.

What Google’s Doing Here

Of course the following is my thinking on the matter; my assumptions based on what I can see at the moment.

If you’re Google, on you’re perpetual mission to cut down the influence of paid links, what do you do?

You can punish people for acquiring them, which Google has done for the last few years, in one of the least logical, most hated moves in SEO history.

Or you can punish sites for providing them, making them risky for webmasters to attain.

I’m less likely to rely on a particular kind of link building if I know that at any time those links could get devalued and send my rankings dropping.

That’s what I think Google’s doing here.

What Kind Of Link Building Does This Affect?

Here you have to think about the sites that link to you, that are likely to have given out a high number of do-follow links.

And you have to imagine what it might look like in a few years time if a high number of sites like that, that were linking to you, have their links devalued.

See what I’m saying?

You need to think about guest posts you’ve gotten: If they’re on sites that are publishing tonnes of guest posts packed with do-follow links, those links may end up being devalued some day. If they’re on sites that do a guest post in among their regular content, and have a mix of no-follow and do-follow outbounds, you may never see an affect from this.

If you’ve gotten links from PBNs; low quality sites that are loaded with do-follows, you might see those links devalued eventually (unless the PBN owner were to say, go through and add lots of no-follow links to all the blog posts that had do-follows, to try and even the scales and make it look more natural. But ask yourself how many PBN owners are going to do this for hundreds of sites with thousands of posts.)

What Does This Mean For The Future?

It’s easy to imagine a time in say 5 years where, the effect of this penalty having played out, a “natural” link profile contains only a tiny percentage of do-follow links.

It’s easy to imagine quality no-follow links from authoritative relevant sites being the difference between two competitors’ rankings.

Why Not To Panic

Don't Panic

For this to affect you as someone who has gotten do-follow links, for your site to drop in rankings would require many of the sites that link to you, to all be hit with this particular penalty within a short time. I think you’d be quite unlucky to be affected in that way.

It’s not very likely to “hit” you in a way that would cause your rankings to drop.

To the person with lots of this particular kind of do-follow links, it’s more likely to have a small, very gradual effect on rankings over the coming years. This is good because as you adapt your strategy now, you can compensate for any losses that might occur with new link building work you do.

Oh and there’s this…

Countless sites in countless industries are ranking on the back of Do-follow links. If your site ever does get affected by having some of it’s do-follows devalued, chances are other sites you’re ranking against will be affected too.

You may get some links devalued and see no relative change in your rankings. You may even see a boost if a site above you had a higher number of do-follow links devalued than you.

What Should You Do Right Now?

Two things:

  1. Make sure all of your own monetized or sponsored outbound links (ie affiliate links) are no-followed so you avoid this penalty yourself.
  2. Use a tool like to check what percentage of your backlinks are do-follows. If there a lot (for a benchmark, just for simplicity, not because it’s disastrous if so, use 50%) take a look at the sites that do-follow link to you, and see whether they’re giving out a lot of do-follow links. If they are, it just means you might like to consider adding more different kinds of sites to your link profile. Ask yourself what could replace the weight of those links if in the future, they were to be devalued.

Generally Speaking

For people doing SEO, this is a caution against building too many of any particular kind of link. It’s a caution against relying too heavily on one particular kind of promotional strategy in your niche.

And it’s yet another step in the direction of content actually being king. If in some future world, do-follow links are mostly devalued, and all that’s left are no-follows & citations & social signals, then the size, age, depth and relevance of your site and content will be an even bigger piece of the ranking pie.


  1. Davo says

    Very good article Andrew. And this is a very good heads up for anyone that is probably acquiring a tonne of guest posts from a “paid service”. I bet those sites will be concerned but its also a great reminder to keep things diversified so that any hit is not felt dramatically.

  2. says

    This is very interesting. So does that raise the value of nofollow links? Is it worth acquiring nofollow links from high authority sites then?

    • says

      No follow Links from relevant, high authority sites have always carried weight, just not that pagerank passing kind of weight that traditional link building was… “built” on.

      It’s logical that if do-follow links become increasingly devalued, the remaining inbound links (no follows) grow in weight relatively.

  3. says

    Thanks for this post Andrew. I’m quite pleased with these last two updates and how they affect negative SEO. It’s much more fair to penalize the sites giving out the links, rather than the sites the links are pointing to.

    The only thing that worries me is not knowing exactly what Google considers unnatural outbound links. To be safe should we always make our links no-follow now, or is Google smart enough to know we’re just linking to sites for our readers and not profiting from the links in any way?

    • Mike says

      Priscilla, it’s unnatural if it was A) paid for, B) part of a link exchange, or C) goods/services were traded as a result – EG you linking out to a make-up company in exchange for free lipstick.

      Google spots these patterns when they see bloggers with an ‘Advertise’ page that offers text links, reviews and sponsored posts. Even easier when the blogger is daft enough to categorise/tag the post as sponsored.

      If you’re a fashion blogger who is linking out to an online casino, a car insurance company and then to a ‘best lawyer in new york’ – then you can spot it a mile off.

      If you’re a sports blogger linking to a recent match report then nofollow is definitely not needed.


      • says

        Great summary Mike, thanks for chiming in!

        It’s funny with the follow tag for outbound links. I know really well SEO’d sites generating millions of organic visitors/month that no-follow every outbound link, and others that do as we’ve discussed, leaving follow on for relevant, non commercial outbound links. It’s debated but as long as you follow what Mike described here, you won’t see any problems as a result of this penalty.

  4. Brian says

    Why doesnt wordpress editor let you do nofollow when hyperlinking? Do you have to manually add the no follow link in html everytime you creats a link in wordpress?

    • says

      That would be nice Brian. Unfortunately you need a plugin for it. I use one called Ultimate Nofollow, which I would quickly grab the link for if I were less lazy 🙂 A quick Google will bring it up!

  5. says

    Really – what’s the problem – look at any serp now for local businesses and be “completely amazed” at how few organic listings are above the fold, and not pushed down by ads!
    Lead gen Pay per Call sites are down some 30% in clicks and leads generated!
    I wonder who Really wants us to adopt their Adwords platform, and do away with this pesky and unprofitable Organic listings stuff!

    • says

      A lot of truth in that Malcolm. The saving grace is that Google knows the quality of the organic results is at the core of Adwords revenue. If no one trusts the quality of organic results, no one runs searches, and there’s no one for advertisers to target.

  6. says

    Hi Andrew,
    Wonder how this will go for all those article directory sites?
    Our competitor in a local business niche has spent the last few months publishing crap articles written by non-english and posted all over the internet on random directories & blogs. Here hoping they all get devalued 🙂
    Cheers Alison

  7. says

    Good looking out Andrew…but I have a question kind of off topic…..How do you find this information…I know you mention in the beginning of the post…

    “This past week, a group of webmasters, most notably bloggers, received a manual action in Webmaster Tools for “Unnatural Outbound Links”….

    it’s not just this information you have provided but SEO information others give as well….when someone says… hey this is what Google is doing and this is what’s happening in the SEO world…I always wonder….How Do They Know??!!….Where do you go to find this information?….really, really curious….

    • says

      Well interestingly Will, I first learned of this penalty quite early, because a friend of mine has a site that got hit with it. That sent me out trying to see what I could learn about it, and the result of a good day’s reading and thinking is the post you just read. Hope that helps 🙂

      • Will says

        Your “good days reading” is what I’m interested in….I’m always curious to know where someone found their information that brought them to their conclusion…It seems that is a well guarded secret just as much as someones niche…..and yes that did help….but you always help….

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