By now, you’ve probably heard that Google sent out a batch of manual penalty notices for what they called “unnatural outbound links” directly related to a warning they issued a few weeks ago for bloggers to disclose reviews published in exchange for free products.
Google warned bloggers to use a nofollow link if you decide to link to the company’s site, the company’s social media accounts, an online merchant’s page that sells the product, a review service’s page featuring reviews of the product or the company’s mobile app in an app store, because the links wouldn’t exist if the company hadn’t provided a free good or service.
As expected, lots of bloggers logged into their Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) after ignoring that warning, only to find they had received a manual penalty. This particular penalty is too new for anyone to have recovered yet, but if it’s anything like we’ve seen with Penguin-related penalties, the recovery process is probably not going to be quick or easy.
If you’ve already been penalized, you’ve got a tough road ahead of you. If you know you’ve violated Google’s guidelines on product reviews but haven’t received a penalty yet, you need to clean things up immediately. (Instructions below.) And if you don’t know whether you’ve violated Google’s guidelines or just want to make sure that you don’t, read on below to learn how to avoid a Google penalty for compensated product reviews.
Product or service review best practices
Use the nofollow attribute where appropriate
Links that pass PageRank in exchange for something (tangible or intangible; money, products or services, exposure, etc.) are a violation of Google’s guidelines and can get your website penalized. It doesn’t matter where you’re linking; any website, social profile, product page, reviews, apps, etc.
Here is an example of link code for a normal link without the nofollow attribute:
<a href="https://spartanmedia1.wpengine.com">Spartan Media</a>
And here is an example of link code with the nofollow attribute:
<a href="https://spartanmedia1.wpengine.com" rel="nofollow">Spartan Media</a>
To be safe, you should include the nofollow attribute on any
- link (including links to website, social profiles, and apps) in a review for which you received anything in exchange
- affiliate link
- linked banner ad
- text link ad
- theme or web site design credits in footer
- links embedded in plugins
- links in guest post bios
Note: If you’ve purchased the product or service on your own, you don’t need to use a nofollow tag. An example of this is our review of the social media software, Edgar, which we currently have several paid accounts under. (We had one account with them prior to publishing the review.)
Disclose the relationship
You should already be doing this, according the the FTC, but now you have one more reason. Many ethical brands will encourage, perhaps even require disclosure, because it strengthens trust. An outstanding example of this done right is Pat Flynn’s resource page. The link to his disclosure notice is prominent, near the top of the page, and is clearly worded.
Create compelling, unique content
Visitors come to your blog for something you provide that no one else can—your perspective and opinions, right? So give them what they’re looking for when writing a product review instead of just following what someone else said. Find a way to present your review in a way no one else has and make it completely your own. Both visitors and search engines will reward you for this.
How to fix a product or service review penalty
The first step is to find out if you’re affected. Log into your Google Search Console and navigate to Search Traffic > Manual Actions. If it looks like this, you’re good. (For now.)
On the other hand, if you see a message stating “Unnatural outbound links from [http://yourdomain.com/] violate Google Webmaster Guidelines.” then you’ve received a manual penalty from Google.
It’s okay to be upset, but there’s no use in panicking. This penalty is 100% caused by activities taking place on your site, so fixing it is completely within your control. (Unlike Penguin-related penalties.)
All you need to do at this point is:
- Fix the problems
- Submit a reconsideration request to Google
Make sure everything is fixed before submitting a reconsideration request, otherwise, the process will take longer because Google will tell you to pound sand until everything is 100% fixed.
I’ll give you a perfect real-world analogy…for those who don’t know, I served in the Marine Corps, and if you’ve ever watched a movie about the military, you might get the impression that we were a bit OCD about the condition of the barracks. Every Thursday evening, we would conduct the kind of cleaning that most people might do once a year. Literally every surface would be scrubbed, carpets would be removed, hell, air conditioning vents would even be removed to clean inside the ducts!
Now, most of my Marines were squared away and got everything pretty damn close to perfect, even by Marine Corps standards, but we can find something wrong in every room. If I found something wrong and instructed them to fix it and make sure there were no more discrepancies, I damn sure had better not find one when I come back.
Unfortunately, every platoon had at least one shit bag who failed to meet standards, and when I returned to their room and things were still not in order, I would find as many reasons as I wanted to come back until they got the point. Even if it meant unscrewing the threshold of the door to find dirt!
Here are a few things to avoid in your reconsideration request:
- Denial or blame. It’s your site and it doesn’t comply with the guidelines they require to be listed in their results. That’s all that matters.
- Whining about the guidelines being “unfair” or “difficult.”
- Whining about the penalty’s impact on your traffic, income, reputation, etc.
- Anger or sarcasm.
Don’t repeat them in the future
Google will keep a closer eye on your website going forward, so don’t give them anything negative to find.
Wait for the penalty to be lifted
If you’re the type who prefers to pay someone to do this kind of work—just remember, there is nothing they can do in this situation that you can’t. They may be faster and more efficient at the tasks, but there is no secret trick here. It’s a simple matter of fixing the problems, notifying Google, and waiting.