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Google wants me to remove links from sponsored WordPress themes

 7:40 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

I like it when Google folks tell you what exactly they find wrong with your site. It happens only rarely (to me anyhow) but when it does, it feels great. Until you realize that you can't do what they're telling you to...

So, I have just been honored to receive another (#2 in my 10+ yrs career) personalized response to a reinclusion request. In it, they provide two examples of links they find "unnatural" ("inorganic" is how the person typing this message called them). One of them is a blogroll links from a buddy in the industry (not SEO industry, mind you, an actual "proper" manufacturing industry) that I can remedy by shooting a quick email, even though I didn't think genuine industry connections may hurt your site in this way. Kinda invalidates the whole point of blogrolls.

But the second one puts me squarely in hot water, I don't know if I can possibly do anything about it: Some 2+ years ago in throws of questionable wisdom I sponsored about 5 or 6 WordPress themes where the "Designed by" link in the footer gets replaced by a link to your site. They were nice looking and "relevant" themes, at least as far as the name and pictures used in design suggest. They were not used much initially and I did not think much of them until these "unnatural links" notices started flying a month ago.

So, now I have a confirmation from G that they do not like these links indeed. Problem is: several of those themes were linking directly to the homepage of the site. In the years past they were picked up by quite a few sites, some very unsavory, sometimes re-designed to look nothing like the original theme (yet the footer links remain). Some of these sites are hosted in faraway lands and I think it's quite obvious I cannot remove them.

One or two of those WP theme links were pointing to subdirectories and I was able to "invalidate" the URLs to which they link by returning a 410 Gone response on these particular URLs. I hope this will take care of those (or will it?). But the ones pointing to the homepage - I can't possibly return 410 on it.

The language of the email response is rather stern and includes a passage like "we will consider reviewing your reconsideration requests only after we see a significant decrease in the number of inorganic links". I am unhappy to report that most of them point to the homepage.

I can't just pack up and leave to another domain for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don't want to look like a flight-by-night operation. It's a good name, took me awhile to find it and besides, I already moved the site once.

So, what would you guys do? Has anyone been to a situation where the links were not removable? Has it been resolved? I'm looking for any comment or suggestions from fellow webmasters on how to proceed best.




 8:29 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

Firstly, anyone ever notice how inorganic the word "inorganic" sounds?

They specifically cited the footer links from a free wordpress them?

That is really hard to believe. Doesn't nearly EVERY wordpress theme have backlinks pointing to the designer's site (or to a sponsor's site)?

That really seems crazy. If anything, those are the types of links that you would expect google would have simply discredited years ago.

Also, what was the anchor text used in the links? Was it branded toward your site name? Or specific keyword? (Or both, if an exact match doman?)


 8:52 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

Thanks, Planet. Yes, they did specifically mention the footer WP theme links.

I guess I should thank the mods for a shiny new title of this message :) but the one I chose originally was Google wants me to remove links I can't possibly remove which I think better emphasizes the heart of the matter: I often find it assumed here in discussions of "unnatural links" that "Google must understand there are links I can't do anything about". Here is an example of when they specifically tell you to remove the links, even though it's quite clear nothing (much) can be done about it.
I realize that I am to blame for those links to be out there in the first place - unlike gazillion of links from various scrapers I did, in fact, have to pay to the designer of the theme. So, yes, they are unnatural. I have to admit though that my understanding of the issue two years ago was not at all as clear as it is now...

Still, I was complacent about these links thinking that site-wide footer links are so easy to identify that they are surely all discarded by now. I guess, it's not so easy after all.

To address your other questions: my buddy's link was the brand name of the site (sans the .com at the end). The WP footer link sounds like "Blue Widget Forums". You may be onto something here: the Google email did include both anchor texts so I think the actual text had *some* significance.

Still looking for ideas on "invalidation" of homepage links. Does everyone else think that 301-ing example.com/ to example.com/index,html is a terrible idea?


 8:57 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

Could you:

1) Threaten to sue them if they don't remove the links? (and then follow through if they don't remove them).

2) Go after their hosting/domain provider with the same threat?

I don't even know if that's possible but it seems like the legal route might be the only way to get these links removed. However, I do have a hard time seeing how you could convince a lawyer/court/jury that linking to a website caused you $$$ in "injury". I also see any kind of threatening letter to be somewhat laughable and could backfire with your site targeted for negative SEO. Just throwing it out there though - comments?


 8:59 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

Unfortunately WordPress footer links have been so thoroughly and widely abused that they don't pass the sniff test anymore. Even if you had the best of intentions at the time, unless they're NOFOLLOWed it's still going to look like it's an attempt to grab PageRank.

If you can't figure out a way to redirect those links in some way, I dunno what to tell you.


 9:06 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

@errorsamac: legal - I don't have any ground to stand on nor any moral right. The sites using the themes did not do anything wrong - there was a free WP theme available, they picked it. In fact, some of those blogs are rather nice. In other circumstances I wouldn't mind getting a link from them (perhaps not sitewide tho as latest events indicate). And some of the worst ones are hosted in other countries, a legal nightmare. Anyway, none of that makes any legal sense, again, because no one did anything wrong.


 9:10 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

@1script - I don't think a 301 would work because it's not getting rid of the links.

Regarding legal - how are targets of negative SEO supposed to respond? Just give up on their domain and hope they aren't targeted again? While you're in a slightly different situation, there is nothing you can do to remove the links. If emailing them doesn't work, I don't see what other options you've got? Maybe CC Google on all legal threats too so they know you're serious? I know it all sounds ridiculous but again, I don't see any other options.


 10:18 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

Great so if I picked your wordpress theme I now face being sued if I don't remove a link my template came with. Not that I think we have yet reached the day where its illegal to link anyway. The whole thing is farcical.

I think the best way to approach this is simply to ignore it as its impossible to control who links to you. Google can allow a facility in WMT to reject a link and that would allow control otherwise webmasters are going to waste a lot of time over this and as usual the lawyers will get rich.


 11:30 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

The only thing I can think of - and this is a poor idea at best but it might be your last resort - is to redo the templates without the footer links.

then try and contact the website owners and notify them of an "update" to the template and how important it is for security reasons to keep their templates up to day.

Otherwise... I got nothing...


 11:30 pm on Apr 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

How about you reply to the RR as honestly as you posted here. Tell them exactly what you did as described here and say that there's nothing you can do to remove those particular links. (Remove the other they mentioned) Demonstrate to them how your site has moved past shady tactics.

I was in a similar position once and they understood. Penalty was lifted and rankings eventually returned since they weren't even counting the bad links in question.


 12:21 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

@Planet13: this is not a bad idea at all! The only thing is: I'm not sure how to scale it well and, also, some webmasters modified their instance so heavily that my link is pretty much the only thing left. I think the original designer encrypted the link ...

@klark0: That's my only hope. In fact, I have already told them about these links in the RR which I sent after receiving the "unnatural links" notice. So, judging by the time of this email response, they already knew that I'm working on it. At the time I submitted the RR, I "invalidated" the non-homepage links by removing their target URLs and did honestly say that I had no idea what to do about the homepage ones. It seems like it didn't fly...


 12:39 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

I agree with Klark0. You might also get your back links list and try to identify the WP footer pages, then send them a form email to info@ requesting they remove the links. Post those emails all on a password protected directory on your site and send the link and password to the RR dude. At least it will look like you tried.


 3:32 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

I am sure that it has to do with the anchor text. As long as it is a domain name in the anchor text, it shouldn't look evil to google. But if it has keyword(s) in it then you have a problem as it is obviously done for SEO benefits.


 3:57 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Seriously? I know Google sent out the bad links emails, because I got one too, but why would they really act on it? Now that you've pointed out that they care, I could work my way back to the top just by link spamming the heck out of the people above me in the SERPS.

I mean, if this is true, I'm absolutely cr*wed. I sponsored a writer who was riding across America for charity, and he put my site as a sponsor in all his articles. Heck, if you search for his name and my website, it now comes up 473,000 times in the SERPS. How the heck am I supposed to remove 473,000 backlinks?

And don't laugh, I'm not making that number up, it's really 473,000. Can you say "Holy Scraperfest" Batman?


 3:58 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

@indyank: out of the two examples they gave me, one was the domain name (sans the .com) and the other (the WP theme link) was I'd say "very lightly" keyworded. Very lightly because it is, after all, a forum and it is about Blue Widgets. So, Blue Widgets Forums would be a rather natural way to describe it. Also, I don't remember it ever ranking for Blue Widgets Forums - not that I ever actually checked, but I don't believe that's how people would land on it. It's way too generic for any practical search. Most of the keywords I could see were always rather long tail. Sometimes entire full sentences describing what's wrong with the person's particular Blue Widget.


 4:00 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

A $200 billion company can't figure out how to devalue wp-theme links that are probably on millions of sites.

I think they're getting overwhelmed right now with the immense variety of backlinks they're having to police and are slowly losing it at the plex.


 4:04 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

@Regular_Joe: don't panic. First of all, by the time the "unnatural links" notice arrives, they've already acted on it. Or not. I have a site that got one and nothing happened before or after (about a month since now).
Besides, if I understand you correctly, you've got 473K links from one site. I got approx 40K, give or take, from 20+ sites (and that's only what I can see in WMT). I think you're pretty safe. Cheers!


 4:26 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Nope 1script, 473,000 backlinks from 200,00-400,000 sites. LOL

Like I said, they scraped the heck out of those articles.


 6:01 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

This is just ridiculous. All these requests from Google to remove links are just ridiculous. What if these links were placed by your adversaries?

Hell, I am frustrated by the thought where the internet is heading now. Negative SEO has always been present, but it was nothing comparing to what we are going to see now after Google starts communicating messages like that hinting that such links can hurt your rankings.

I can't even believe it is true that these links cause damage, may be it is just an intentional disinformation by Google to discourage this sort of SEO.


 6:41 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

What if these links were placed by your adversaries?

Or just someone using your site as a guinea pig?

If G intends on becoming the backlink police, I don't think things will go well for the SERPS. Anyway, I have to laugh at all the 'guru's' who said "backlinks don't matter anymore"!

Robert Charlton

 7:30 am on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

I guess I should thank the mods for a shiny new title of this message :) but the one I chose originally was Google wants me to remove links I can't possibly remove which I think better emphasizes the heart of the matter

1script - You can thank me for the title change. I changed it for a number of reasons which I'll get to at the end of this post, but mainly I changed it because it described a specific situation about sponsored WordPress themes, on which Google had historically taken a position. Including the specific nature of the problem is intended not only to help you get some feedback; it's intended also to help others searching for it, either now or in the future.

Sponsored themes were mentioned in this discussion, from April, 2008....

Penalized in Google - blog theme links and selling paid links
http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3638078.htm [webmasterworld.com]

...Matt Cutts' comment on this...

By the way..
http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/by-the-way-2/ [mattcutts.com]

By the way, in case it isn't clear from my previous post about hidden links and disclosure of paid links, I agree 100% with Matt Mullenweg’s post about sponsored themes in WordPress.

If you'd seen the discussion back in 2008, or when you looked into whether paid links would fly, it might have helped you avoid the situation you're in now.

I think the issue of these links vs other designer links is that these links are hidden. Google is big on intent. The intent here was unquestionably to deceive.

As to why Google won't just discount the links and just let it go, that clearly hasn't been a sufficiently inhibiting factor, so they're taking further steps.

...redo the templates without the footer links.

then try and contact the website owners and notify them of an "update" to the template and how important it is for security reasons to keep their templates up to date

This is an excellent idea, and it's in fact what I would have suggested. From what you've described of Google's response, it sounds like Google might ease the penalty if you could demonstrate substantial effort and sufficient degree of success. I think Google does want to make it painful enough that the penalty has real teeth.

Further regarding my title edit... if I'd left the title as you'd submitted, it would not have identified a unique situation. I'm sure that lots of folks are going to be complaining that they "can't possibly remove" all the backlinks that they thought Google would forget. Without further differentiation, some of those complaints most likely belong in our active thread on this topic...

Google WMT notice of detected unnatural links. So, what now?
http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/4430985.htm [webmasterworld.com]

The question "what now?" in its title suggests that we should include some general thoughts about follow-up. Since your question was more specific, I changed the title to keep it as a separate discussion.


 1:36 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

...but why would they really act on it?

Maybe because of the upcoming over optimization penalty (which apparently has yet to happen, according to search engine land).

Maybe they are trying to warn sites that are going to get nailed unless they clean up their link profiles?


 2:10 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Were you targeting any specific anchor text with the footer link? I'd like to think if you didn't that should be totally within reason.


 2:15 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

but why would they really act on it?

Because in this case, they're not going after the links, they're going after what they perceive to be the behavior (or the intent, as Robert Charlton points out)

This situation is not at all the same as the negative seo situation, or even the mysterious thousands of backlinks showed up and I have nothing to do with it, situation.

It's based on an unfortunate decision the OP made a while ago (all you have to do is add a NOFOLLOW to the link and I bet a lot of this goes away) and that is coming back on him now. Both Google and WordPress themselves had pretty clearly stated positions on WP footer links and how they should or shouldn't be done.


 4:13 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Great discussion, guys!

@Robert Charlton: no trouble about the title change. Had I realized WP themes specifically have had a history of their own in this respect, I would have worded the title differently myself. Indeed, had I known back in 2008, none of that nonsense would have happened.
Regarding my options and specifically the template update: I don't think I have that option. Not only I have no control over the theme whatsoever, I don't even know how exactly the links were encoded although I would have figured it out eventually, of course. Additionally, I don't know exactly how it was distributed and I don't have access to the author accounts on those WP theme directory sites if I were to identify every one of them. And it just snowballs from there.

I'm going to try and approach one of those sites (one that looks like a legitimate blog in contrast with most of them) and see how it goes but I don't hold my breath.

Also, regarding intent: actually, most of the themes had my links in a section called "Sponsored by" and only one (I think) had it labeled as "Designed by". Do you think they took an especial offense to the "Designed by" 'cause they think I took additional steps in deceiving them? Should I go after the "Designed by" specifically?

@linkbuildr: I didn't target specific keywords, just a short phrase describing what this site really is and a couple of permutations thereof.

may be it is just an intentional disinformation by Google to discourage this sort of SEO.
Oh no, it's painfully real. And it's not entirely new either. The site in question has been heavily penalized for the last 8 months. I've sent two more RRs before, all rejected without the reason given. It's just this last one which was sent after the "unnatural links" notice that appears to have helped me to narrow the issue down to these links.

By the way, regarding that second sitewide link from a Blogroll section of a blog that they gave me as an example of "unnatural". I gotta tell you: asking an actual offline contact of yours to remove their link to your site is every bit as painful and embarrassing as un-friending someone on Facebook and then meeting them at a party and trying to explain why. He removed my link but now he thinks that I have precipitated some of his own problems with Google traffic, and I can't blame him. There goes my good industry contact...


 5:38 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Can anyone help me understand why anyone at Google would contact any of us about removing bad links?

I have had to contact them in the past and EXTRACT the info out of them. Although I doubt if it was reliable info because after reviewing my Adwords campaign one guy recommended working on the quality score of the landing pages while another could only suggest increasing my budget(!)


 6:12 pm on Apr 26, 2012 (gmt 0)

Can anyone help me understand why anyone at Google would contact any of us about removing bad links?
It was a response to my reconsideration request which I sent right after I received an "unnatural links" notice in my WMT. I've cleaned those bad links I could and wrote about it in the RR. Their email response is basically saying that I need to clean some more.

I have no idea exactly why I have received an email response in addition to a "normal" WMT message saying "we've reviewed your RR but one or more pages of your site still violate ..." which I also got a couple of hours after the email. I don't know what to tell you except that I am really glad that I got that email because it is clearly steering me toward a (probable) resolution of the issue.


 12:57 am on Apr 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

What Google wants to see is hard work and acknowledgement that you tried to remove those links.

You may be able to find the owners of those websites via whois, contacting the website, etc.

Its not going to be fun, but chalk it up to a good learning experience. I would go that route rather than throwing away a decent domain with some age.


 1:43 am on Apr 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

Ok, thanks. My next question is how does one get that quote box into a message?


 1:50 am on Apr 27, 2012 (gmt 0)

Ok, thanks. My next question is how does one get that quote box into a message?

[quote*]text[/quote*]..remove the * from each "box"..or type ..hit preview..highlight your text..and then click the appropriate button for the "effect" you want :)

This 70 message thread spans 3 pages: 70 ( [1] 2 3 > >
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