Unnatural Links is what Google calls all links they don’t like - violating the Google Webmaster Guidelines.

Unnatural inbound links occur when somebody puts a backlink on your website to manipulate search engines and you pay them with whatever incentive.

Unnatural links are either purchased links or exchanged links. They are sometimes bad in quality, but sometimes help improve the rankings of a website a lot.

With the help of manipulative measures like buying links a webmaster can increase its search engine rankings, acquire more visitors and increase their advertising revenues.

Unnatural inbound links can either:

  • be not detected (yet) - then they help you
  • be detected by Google and ignored/demoted - one position Google takes on unnatural links
  • be detected by Google and cause algorithmic filter
  • be detected by Google and cause a Google Penalty for your website, AKA manual action

Most commonly know as unnatural links are

  • mass article submissions
  • private blog networks
  • paid links

creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines. Google Guidelines

Unnatural links are also sometimes just to as Manipulative Links.

Unnatural links are also described as being acquired in a deceptive manner. When you take this thought further, a lot of the idea of SEO is unnatural, and deceptive, as those with the bigger link budgets (or marketing budgets in general) often win the top positions.

Also advertorial links are “Unnatural Links” for many years, causing penalties like the famous Interflora link penalty.

Google’s advice to avoid the links being manipulated, and thus not counted as “Unnatural Links” anymore, is to add a qualifying NoFollow attribute to the links in question.

TL:DR Manipulative Links are links without NoFollow link tag, created by webmasters or consultants hired by the webmasters. These can become toxic links, or helpful links.