At SEOmoz we do virtually nothing in the way of active link solicitation. We're living what I would call an SEO's dream: we've already put a great deal of effort into building a community of passionate, engaged, thoughtful people who care about the industry (that's you guys!), and we devote a ton of time and resources to creating awesome content and sharing it with you guys. The result? We've got the best kind of links: the kind that build themselves.
Imagine the sinking feeling I got in the pit of my stomach, then, when a Google Webmaster Tools check on Thursday revealed that we'd incurred an unnatural link warning:
When I saw this, I was pretty sure I knew what had happened. A few months ago, just as I was coming to work at SEOmoz, there was a discussion in the Traffic Planet forums about negative SEO and whether pointing a bunch of spammy links at another site (like, say, a competitor's or rival's site) could actually harm them, SEO-wise. The guys who started the thread claimed they had successfully performed negative SEO on Dan Thies' website, he disagreed that their tactics had been effective, and the debate raged.
Post-Penguin, there's been a lot of concern about links that are beyond one's control doing irreparable damage to one's site. But surely Google will put in place some algorithmic defenses against this sort of underhanded webspam attack! Rand felt so confident in this being the case that he hopped into the forum discussion and challenged the spam community to point black hat links at SEOmoz.org in the name of science:
(Personal anecdote time: This was happening after I had accepted the offer at SEOmoz, but before I'd started working here. I was sitting at my old job getting emails from Mozzers being like "just so you know, this is happening." Never a dull moment!)
Rand also discussed these efforts in a Whiteboard Friday video, Negative SEO: Myths, Realities and Precautions.
Needless to say, the spam community was like:
We did see an increase in the number of spammy and black-hat type links, including links from sites with "black hat" in the name - but we also continued the regular link growth through our usual content sharing and community outreach that we love so much.
We didn't see any traffic or ranking impact.
To be honest, I wasn't too worried about it - until we saw the unnatural link warning.
It turns out that we needn't have worried - the warning came from an update to how Google is surfacing unnatural link warnings in Google Webmaster Tools. Matt Cutts has the scoop, over on Google Plus:
"If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don't panic. In the past, these messages were sent when we took action on a site as a whole. Yesterday, we took another step towards more transparency and began sending messages when we distrust some individual links to a site. While it's possible for this to indicate potential spammy activity by the site, it can also have innocent reasons. For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it's not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.
If we've taken more severe action on your site, you'll likely notice a drop in search traffic, which you can see in the "Search queries" feature Webmaster Tools for example. As always, if you believe you have been affected by a manual spam action and your site no longer violates the Webmaster Guidelines, go ahead and file a reconsideration request. It'll take some time for us to process the request, but you will receive a followup message confirming when we've processed it."
TL;DR: You may see an unnatural links warning if Google detects unnatural links, but it's more of an FYI - as long as you don't see a concurrent drop in traffic, you should be just fine. Phew!
We'll be continuing to test the effects of spammy links on SEOmoz, and we'll keep you guys updated as we learn more. In the meantime, if you see an unnatural links warning, don't panic. Many sites have attracted lots of black hat links without intent to manipulate Google's rankings. If you're in that group and still receive the warning, you should watch your traffic and rankings, but unlike the past, when these warnings were more directly impactful, it may simply be a "heads up, you've got some spammy links," message.
If you've received the warning or have insights, we'd love your feedback and opinions, too!