Earlier this month saw scenes of confusion as Google dished out a manual penalty for “unnatural” links to an unknown (but apparently large) number of webmasters.
A manual penalty (as opposed to an algorithmic one) is a penalty which was individually applied to sites the Google found to be violating one of their policies, in this case, failure to disclose the receipt of free products for the purposes of review, and further failure to “nofollow” links back to those product sites.
Manipulating Site Authority
As you probably already know, one of the (still) most important ways of determining how credible and authoritative any given site is, is by looking at the number and quality of the links from other sites that point to it.
In the past, this led to a wide proliferation of link spam, and subsequently Google has tried to put all sorts of measures in place to ensure these inbound links are legitimate, and not an attempt to manipulate Google into ranking a site higher than it deserves.
One of these measures was the implementation of “nofollow” links.
In the simplest form, adding a “nofollow” attribute to a link tells Google not to pass any authority from the linking page, to the page that is being linked to. And according to their guidelines, this attribute should be added to any link which has commercial intent.
By definition, Google considers a free product review that links back to the product page or site to have commercial intent, and to stop people from artificially boosting their rankings by giving out products and asking for reviews, these links are supposed to be “nofollowed.”
After a recent warning by Google that these type of links should be “nofollowed” and the relationship disclosed, (see this March post on the Google Webmaster Central blog) Google followed up by slapping the manual penalty on bloggers who hadn’t followed their recommended best practice.
Since it was a manual penalty, sites that suffered from it have the opportunity to go and edit those links to add the “nofollow” attribute, and then submit a reconsideration request to try and get the penalty removed.