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For the past few months, the SEO world has been buzzing about two major developments. First there is the comment that Matt Cutts made at South by Southwest about a new over-optimization penalty. While that potential hammer is looming over the heads of many sites, Google Webmaster Tools’ warnings are already taking the SEO world by storm. Barry Schwartz wrote a post about this on March 5 at Search Engine Land. He started out by saying

“At SMX West last week Tiffany Oberoi from Google shared that Google has sent over 700,000 messages to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools in January and February 2012. That is more than the total number of messages Google sent in 2011.”

This influx of messages seems to indicate that Google found some way to scale their messaging system, but there is no indication as to what percentage of these messages is manual vs. automatic. One of the notifications that seems to be getting sent out the most frequently is Google’s unnatural link warning:

“We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.”

So now that an “unnatural links” warning has been issued what is a webmaster to do? For the first time, webmasters and SEOs are getting warned before a penalty or a drop in ranking occurs. In the situation where a warning has been sent out but rankings have not dropped, there are a few basic strategies a webmaster might employ:

  • Change the way you are link building moving forward to avoid getting penalized
  • Identify potentially bad links and send a reconsideration letter to Google to show you are trying to remove them
  • Ignore the warning, continue poor link building practices, and know you’re working against Google’s next algorithm update

As the last option is one that few people would ever consider, I want to go into greater detail on the first two strategies and compare potential thoughts on the pros and cons of each. If you had the same resources to dedicate to each of these two solutions, which would give you a better outcome?

Whether or not you’re innocent of the links that got the warning sent, there are reasons for choosing both options. Here are some questions you might be asking yourself along with potential answers for each strategy:

What is the best use of time moving forward after receiving this warning?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
“I will set about to repair these bad backlinks and send a reconsideration letter because I don’t want a penalty.” “I am going to continue link building because I can find links that can potentially drive traffic to my site, regardless of whether a penalty comes or not.”

What should I do if I feel this is a manual warning?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
“With a manual review I want to be sure I jump in, create a spreadsheet of all the potentially bad links, and send a reconsideration letter to Google. If I don’t, I am sure I will get a penalty.” “Hopefully this is not manual warning, but if it is, they noticed some bad backlinks in the past and are letting me know. I will continue to build good links to show I am trying to operate within Google’s guidelines.”

What should I do if I feel this is an automatic warning?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
“If this is an automated warning, I risk triggering a penalization and a manual review if I don’t send a reconsideration letter.” “Google can’t manually send out 700,000 messages, so sending a reconsideration letter will likely put me under manual review with a penalty. Manual reviews take time so my rankings will suffer for a longer period of time.”

What should I do if I was guilty of the links?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
I did it. I know I can’t fool Google any longer. Here are the links that I used to game the system. I have removed them and I will not do this again in the future. Devalue the links and let’s move on.” I did it. If I am able to remove large amounts of links quickly, it will indicate to Google that I had control of them all along and prove that I am guilty. They will see that and penalize me.”

What should I do if I was not guilty of the links?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
“It wasn’t me! I don’t know how these got here. Did XYZ company I hired several years ago do this? Maybe it was one of my competitors. I found a few suspicious links in digging through my backlinks that were listed in webmaster tools that may have caused the penalty, here they are. If I had done it you would see a much more extensive list. I have worked to get these removed.” “It wasn’t me! I don’t know how I got bad links pointing to me. I am not currently doing any risky link building, so I will pay attention to the warning and move forward with more careful link building.”

Regardless of how I choose, Google will see a change in the number of new links being built or the overall number of links. Which is better?

Send a reconsideration letter
Continue link building
An innocent person: “Getting the negative links removed is more important than continuing to show links being built.” An innocent person: “I want to show Google as natural movement of links as possible. Any sudden change in linking or stopping link building could show guilt. By focusing on great links moving forward, I will shift the balance of my link portfolio towards better quality overall.”
A person who gamed the system: “Even though my overall links have decreased, my links look more natural, and I will not look like I have been gaming the system in the future.” A person who gamed the system: “There are not very many low quality links so their chance of hurting me is limited. I feel confident in my ability to promote my site through quality link building. This continued movement in the right direction will build a natural-looking link portfolio.”

Whether you choose to submit a reconsideration letter or not, one of two things is going to happen: your rankings stay the same or your rankings will drop. Google will think you were gaming the system or Google will figure those links were out of your control. It could end up good or bad for you either way you go.

Google has not given this much clarity into what they are doing, so the search engine optimization marketing world is in somewhat new territory.

These warnings are just one more reason why you need to have your Google Webmaster Tools set up properly and verified. If you don’t have a verified webmaster tools account for any site you run, do so as soon as possible.

If you’ve received this warning recently, your situation is a bit like one of those “Chose Your Own Adventure” books—Which door will you choose?