Google Penalties: How To Detect Unnatural Inbound Links

Google penalties are designed to prevent websites from using shady practices to rank their pages higher than others. There are three types of unnatural inbound links Google will penalize:
-Randomly placed link ads that don’t offer anything meaningful for the reader, also known as cloaking or black hat SEO
-An entire website with high quality content but low domain authority that’s linking just enough to pass Google’s filters without actually contributing meaningfully
-Very old articles and sources which have since been blocked by robots.txt

The “your rankings have dropped. how do you diagnose what’s happening?” is a question that SEOs often ask themselves when their rankings suddenly drop. This article will teach you to detect unnatural inbound links, which can be caused by penalties from Google and other search engines.

In 2018, webmasters got around 4 million alerts from Google regarding manual measures conducted on their websites (the data for 2019 has not been published yet). A Google penalty might hit you like a bolt from the blue, leaving you unsure of what to do next.

A Google Spam Team penalty is a manual restriction measure imposed for breaking Google’s Webmaster standards; it causes a website’s organic visibility to plummet quickly. 


1636641547_303_Google-Penalties-How-To-Detect-Unnatural-Inbound-LinksIn February 2020, screenshots showed a website that was struck with a link penalty. Within days, I went from 1.5k monthly views and over 500 keyword ranks to nearly nothing.

Google Penalties for Toxic Inbound Links: A Guide to Understanding

A manual penalty from Google is usually the consequence of using black-hat SEO practices and failing to ensure that a website’s backlink profile is natural and follows Google’s criteria.

Unnatural outbound and inbound connections are among the most typical causes of a Google link penalty. Unnatural links are also characterized as “harmful,” “spammy,” or “poison,” as SEMrush refers to them. Your website might be penalized for both incoming and outbound links.

Outbound links are links that point to other websites from your website. For producing a “pattern of fake, misleading, or manipulative inbound connections,” as Google describes it, you might earn a penalty for outbound links if you link to another website in a manner that goes against Google’s criteria. This form of punishment has its own set of issues that need their own article. 

Inbound links, on the other hand, are links from other websites that lead to your website or particular pages. These are the links that make up your backlink profile, and you should keep an eye on them at all times.

Toxic Score is a specific measure that displays the quality of each incoming link in your profile. 

In a recent research, we collected data for over 830 backlink profiles of SEMrush and industry forums members whose websites had been penalized in the last two years using our Backlink Audit tool.

Our objectives were as follows: 

  • Identify the elements and relationships that lead to fines.

  • Determine the frequency with which each punishment instance happens.

  • When analyzing backlink profiles and designating connections as harmful, put our Backlink Audit’s algorithm to the test.

  • Look on methods to improve the tool so that it can give the best answer for dealing with Google penalties and preventing them in the future.

  • Create a foundation for a step-by-step strategy to recovering from Google penalties and building a strong backlink profile. 

It’s difficult to come up with a full list of elements and their combinations that result in manual penalties based on link “unnaturalness.” It makes it tough for SEO experts and webmasters to pinpoint a backlink profile’s particular weak points.


Let’s explore what we need to detect harmful links, deal with Google penalties, prevent them in the future, and construct a solid backlink profile based on the findings of our investigation.

The Most Important Findings About Unnatural Inbound Links:

1. A penalty is not imposed for a single bad link.

No, a single unnatural link will not result in a punishment. We examined the samples of artificial inbound links supplied by Google to webmasters and conducted a full profile assessment of the penalized sites.

According to this data, fines are frequently triggered by a combination of 2-3 or more manipulation kinds (links). This implies you should audit your backlink profile once a month to look for abnormalities in both outgoing and incoming links.


2. The Toxicity of Links is Unaffected by Link Lifespan

Because Google does not discriminate between new and old poisonous links, poor backlinks generated years ago might still be used against you in a manual action. Websites that received penalties for artificial inbound links in 2019-2020 were punished as a result of links during 2016-2018. 

3. When it comes to determining the unnaturalness of a link, Google doesn’t care about your reputation.

Google doesn’t always consider the source of your incoming links; nevertheless, if a link uses manipulative or unnatural approaches, it will be penalized.

4. When it comes to penalties, Google opts for a full embargo.

Websites and assets as a whole are punished more often than individual pages or site parts.

5. Identical Match Anchor Text Must Be Handled With Extreme Caution

Money anchors, or links with exact match anchor text for keywords a website is attempting to rank for, were found in over half of the instances. Such anchors are easily detected by Google algorithms, which alert the Google Spam Team.

6. In the vast majority of cases, you are on your own.

When webmasters are contacted by Google, they seldom submit instances of unnatural connections. Only when you submit a second reconsideration request can you expect to see a few instances of poor links referring to your website. This is another another reason that makes recouping a penalty more difficult. 


A webmaster in Google Console Help asked the aforementioned issue about a lack of instances of unnatural connections. To view the rest of his inquiry, click here.

7. It Takes Time to Remove the Penalty and Recover from It

It usually takes two to three reconsideration petitions to have a penalty lifted. As a consequence, removing an incoming link penalty might take up to 6 months. You might just prolong the procedure if you are not careful and patient while making reconsideration petitions. Maintain your composure and follow Google’s instructions to the letter. 


Given all of this, doing a monthly audit of your backlink profile is a smart practice to develop, since it may help you identify which connections are giving you problems. 


We’ve improved our Backlink Audit Tool algorithms and the method Toxic Score is determined as a result of these findings. We’ve enhanced the accuracy of detecting pure spam situations and the automated identification of compound and money anchors, among other things.


Aside from that, we’ve created the new Frequent money anchor filter, which allows you to swiftly identify potentially poisonous anchor hyperlinks. These enhancements make it simpler to identify potential website dangers and submit reconsideration petitions based on correct data. 



Let’s take a closer look at the different forms of Google penalties for incoming links.

What Inbound Link Types Cause a Google Penalty? 

Each punishment case we looked at turned out to have phantom intricacies that we discovered throughout our investigation. We go through them in more detail below, as well as how to remedy faulty link penalties and prevent them in the future.

The following punishment instances were investigated:

  • In articles and blog posts, there are sponsored and paid links.

  • Press releases and guest posting

  • Link networks, or PBNs, are a kind of PBN.

  • Spam created by users.

  • Web directories and link directories are two types of web directories.

  • It’s all spam.

  • Advertisements and affiliate connections are also available.

  • Bookmarking sites and business directories.

  • Widgets with links.

  • There are connections that are hidden.

  • Links that span the whole site.

  • Cases of little importance

Note: “Case frequency” shows the net proportion of each penalty case across all the profiles analyzed – one backlink profile might get a penalty for a variety of Google Webmaster Guidelines breaches.

Articles and Blog Posts with Sponsored and Paid Links

Cases occur 53 percent of the time.

Sponsor signals in the form of particular words linked with a keyword-rich dofollow link in anchor text were found on several of the web sites that were penalized.

The following are some examples of frequent phrases:

  • The paper was made possible by the support of

  • The following information was given by

  • Advertisement content

  • On behalf of, I’d like to write an ad.

 This text is not required to appear next to the link.

If you use these phrases without using a nofollow tag or revealing a relationship, they may raise a red signal for the Google Spam Team, resulting in a penalty. In this sponsored links tutorial, you’ll learn how to deal with these types of connections. 

Purchasing and Selling Links

If you are into the Purchasing and Selling Links that are supposed to get link juice flow, be ready to get penalized by Google. Such actions include: 

  • Money in exchange for connections (or posts that contain links).

  • In exchange for connections, products or services are exchanged.

  • Sending someone a “free” item in return for a review and a link to it in an article.

How to Avoid Getting a Penalty

  • Use the nofollow or sponsored characteristics, such as rel=”sponsored,” to avoid explicitly promoting items or services. 

  • When putting a link to your service on another site, ask for the “rel=sponsored” element.

  • Avoid using too many keyword-rich anchors in the text (if you must, attempt to vary the keywords you use so you don’t end up with hundreds of the same anchor text/backlink).

How to Get a Penalty Lifted

  • Set the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” characteristics or request them.

  • If you’ve attempted to contact a website’s administrator but have been unable to locate them or persuade them to add the nofollow or sponsored attribute, disavow.

NOTE ON DISAVOW: When choosing the disavow option, keep in mind that it is not always necessary. Before using it, please read and obey Google’s disavow rules. “If utilized inappropriately, this functionality may impair your site’s performance in Google’s search results,” Google warns.

Press Releases and Guest Posting

45 percent of the time, this happens.


Guest posts that use exact-match keywords as anchor text for the sole purpose of building links are breaking Google’s guidelines, and these links can (and do) result in penalties — an inbound link penalty for the website that the link leads to, and an outbound link penalty for the site that is linking to them.

It’s clear to readers that the link isn’t there to assist them, and it’s clear to search engines that the link isn’t there as a useful resource — it’s a red flag that denotes a link exchange, a sold link, or a link scheme that goes against the rules:


To prevent a possible Google action, most sites nofollow links from guest articles; this should be used in both the text and the author’s signature. According to Google, rel=”nofollow” links “are regarded as indications about which links to consider or avoid inside Search,” as of September 2019. 


How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

  • Examine your existing link-building approach. Putting out hundreds of news releases with links to your website isn’t an innovative SEO technique.

  • Avoid using keyword-rich anchors in the text (if you must, attempt to diversity them so you don’t end up with hundreds of the same anchor text in your backlink).

  • In an author’s signature or text description, use rel=”nofollow.”

  • Avoid promoting your goods or service directly.

How to Get a Penalty Lifted:

  • Set the rel=”nofollow,” rel=”sponsored,” and/or rel=”ugc” attributes to nofollow, sponsored, and/or ugc.

  • If the nofollow or sponsored attribute does not function, disavow or delete the link. 

Link Networks and PBNs

27 percent of the time, this happens.

Building private blog networks and link networks is another harmful technique that has the reverse effect of improving your SERP rankings.

Free blog services and standard templates are often used to construct PBNs. Although the content varied to some degree from one blog to the next, the anchor texts tended to include exact match keywords with little modifications.

In this instance, the only method to avoid a Google penalty is to delete or disavow these links. 


A typical PBN domain has few inbound connections and performs poorly in search engine rankings.

How can you tell whether a site is a spammy PBN?

  • It was either newly launched or the owner just changed.

  • It performs poorly in terms of traffic.

  • The PBN does not get you much traffic.

  • Its Authority Score is poor.

  • Privacy Policy and Contacts are missing from the domain.

Spam created by users

16 percent of the time, this happens.


The following are examples of hazardous links:

  • Spammy forum posts with spammy links.

  • Signatures and profiles with links

  • Spammy URLs were followed in comment areas.

Tips for Getting the Penalty Lifted:

The easiest way to maintain your backlink profile clean is to disavow UGC spam links.

Despite Google’s claim that links in forum profiles are ignored, we found similar forum connections in profiles among the penalty instances we investigated. In this situation, we discovered that a website is frequently punished for the following:

  • Spam that was clearly posted utilizing spam-posting applications.

  • Links that aren’t obvious, such as product promotions and contact information. 


How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

  • The rel=”ugc” property should be used.
  • Please refrain from spamming.

Getting a Penalty Removed Tip: 

The easiest way to maintain your backlink profile clean is to disavow UGC spam links.

Link Listings and Web Directories

16 percent of the time, this happens.


In this situation, your website must have hundreds of hazardous backlinks dispersed among online directories and listings to get a penalty. We’ve discovered that 3-5 links are generally insufficient for a penalty, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t examine such connections on a regular basis.

Pay attention to the traffic and performance of directories and listings in the SERPs while monitoring them. 

How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

  • Audit backlinks from Link Listings and Web Directories frequently.

  • Keep track of how much traffic these directories and listings send your way, as well as how well they rank in the SERPs.

  • Ask the webmaster of the site where the link is located to apply rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attributes on the link if it provides meaningful referral traffic.

  • Only connect to high-quality websites if you’re going to use this link-building approach.

How to Get a Penalty Lifted

Pure Spam

Cases occur 14% of the time.

When it comes to pure spam links, Google is quite sensitive; they just have no tolerance for such search optimization tactics. 

The following are examples of pure spam:

  • Keyword stuffing is a technique used to increase the number of (in anchor text).

  • Redirects that are deceptive.

  • Links that are unrelated to the page’s subject.

How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

How to Get a Penalty Lifted:

  • Remove the link from the page.

  • Disavow the connection.

Affiliate Links and Direct Ads

10% of the time, this happens.

Even whether it’s in the guise of a coupon banner, Google likes detecting all those “Buy now,” “Sign up now” links and discount offers.

Google recommends using the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attributes when advertising other businesses’ goods or services (adding an affiliate’s compensation declaration is strongly recommended). 

The following is an example of a penalty applied despite the fact that a disclosure was shown on the page (the links, however, were dofollow.)


How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

Getting a Penalty Removed Tip: 

  • If the nofollow or sponsored attribute does not function, disavow or delete the link.

Bookmarking Sites and Business Directories

10% of the time, this happens.

Don’t get us wrong: business directories aren’t all awful. What’s unusual about this example is that we didn’t find a single popular directory among the ones we investigated; instead, they were all of poor quality. If you have your website listed in directories that fall within this category, you should delete those links (or disavow them if you can’t). 


Widget Widget Widget Widget Widget Widget Wi

7 percent of the time, this happens.


If you enable third-party sites to publish widgets with embedded code referring to your website, always include the rel=”nofollow” tag, and if you can’t get one added, disavow.

The only exceptions to this rule that we found were links to a topic-related page on your website (for example, rating widgets leading to a specific company- or user-related section on your website).

Keep in mind that certain free widgets require you to link back to the provider that supplied the widget without using the nofollow attribute, so keep that in mind.

Links that aren’t obvious

4% of the time, this happens.


You have to deliberately use a Links that aren’t obvious strategy to get penalized for this. The cases that we discovered usually had links disguised as plain text.

How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

  • Set the rel=”nofollow” tag and make the links accessible.

  • Request that the link be taken down.

  • If your request was unsuccessful, disavow the link.

Links Across the Site

4% of the time, this happens.


Typically, these links may be found in the blogroll, bottom, or sidebar. If an incoming link includes terms like “Powered by,” “Website Designed by X-Company,” or keywords, we strongly advise dealing with the connection as soon as possible. 

How to Avoid Getting a Penalty:

Minor Disputes

In our study, the following instances accounted for less than 1% of the total.

  • This is an old job advertisement. Normally, Google issues warnings to job site owners, but you are liable for not deleting an old job ad, which will result in a penalty. 

  • Links to product reviews.

  • Podcasts with links. Money anchor links, a description with keyword stuffing, and a connection to the firm (branded, naked links).

  • Links to scholarship opportunities. These links are intended to drive traffic to your site resources. You will almost certainly be punished if your offer is unrelated to the subject.

  • Hotlinking. A direct connection to another website’s content (pictures, videos, documents, audio files, and so on), leading in bandwidth theft and copyright infringement for the website hosting the material.

  • Links to adult material.

  • Links in material that is created automatically.

  • Links that are reciprocal.

  • Links to infographics It might be regarded manipulative by Google if there is an excessive use of infographics that provide minimal value to consumers and were made for the aim of getting links in bulk. 

How Can You Avoid a Google Penalty for Unnatural Inbound Links?

Always examine your backlink profile if you want your link-building approach to pay off. To check for faulty links, use the SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool. Here are a few steps to take:

  1. On a monthly basis, do a complete backlink assessment of your profile (at least once a month).

  2. Keep an eye on your backlink profile for an unusually high number of questionable incoming link kinds. 

  3. Always analyze and revise anchor texts; avoid using the same anchors again and over. If you’re utilizing money anchors, use the SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool to change them up. Use terms that are comparable or relevant. 

  4. Always use the rel=”nofollow” tag if in doubt.

  5. Remove or disavow links that are clearly spam. 

How to Get Rid of a Google Penalty for Unnatural Inbound Links

1636641611_674_Google-Penalties-How-To-Detect-Unnatural-Inbound-LinksFollowing a penalty, an example of a traffic decline.

Wait patiently! Do not attempt to deceive Google. Simply take these few instructions.

1. Gather the following information:

  • What impact did the punishment have on you? Was it a site-wide issue, or did it affect simply a certain property, page, or area of the site?

  • Google URL examples that aren’t natural. 

  • Rankings, traffic, keywords, and pages on your website with noticeable ranking reductions. 

  • The speed of your website’s links. Pay attention to data surges that aren’t regular. 

Our Backlink Audit tool keeps track of new backlinks and verifies profiles for them. It warns users if their projects have undergone any questionable modifications. This data is based on updated data from a user’s interaction with GSC or Majestic, as well as fresh data from Backlink Analytics.

  • Backlinks data from many sources, including Google Search Console data, is required (you can easily upload the data to Backlink Audit Tool).

2. Perform a thorough examination of your backlinks.

Analyze all of your incoming backlinks and sort them into the following categories: 

3. Make contact with the people who are in charge.

Request that they remove a harmful connection to your website. If you believe a link is useful, contact the webmaster and request that the rel=”nofollow” tag be added to the link.

Note: Go to the “Remove” portion of our Backlink Audit tool if you’re using it. We attempt to discover contacts linked to the specific website automatically, which saves a lot of time. 

1636641614_50_Google-Penalties-How-To-Detect-Unnatural-Inbound-LinksAn example of an email that users may send to request link adjustments.

4. Disavow with caution!


Prepare a.txt disavow file (you can use the SEMrush Backlink Audit to achieve this) and submit it to Google.

5. Submit a Request for Reconsideration.

Submit your request for reconsideration to Google along with a full explanation of the procedures performed and what was cleaned up.

The key to success is prevention.


Dealing with Google penalties is a complex business, which is why it’s critical to do regular backlink audits, maintain your backlink profile clean, and keep an eye out for strange data anomalies.

You may believe that a Google penalty would not affect you, but according to SEMrush’s study, even a dozen unnatural links may cause your website to be punished. So, err on the side of caution (and always use white-hat approaches)!

The “unnatural links” is a term that has been used to describe links that seem to be too good, or too fast. It can also refer to the use of spammy tactics. There are a few methods for detecting unnatural inbound links.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you find unnatural links?

What actions carry a Google penalty?

A: Malicious actions such as the following will be met with an automatic Google penalty.

How do you find out if Google has penalized my site?

A: If you have been issued a penalty by Google, you will know as it is listed on your websites Google Search Console.

Related Tags

  • google search console
  • how do you recover from a manual link penalty
  • remove google penalty
  • paid links google
  • semrush link network

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