If you have been operating in a highly competitive niche and have spent considerable time on building your online presence, hopefully you are achieving some results in terms of your visibility. You might, however, also make your situation worse and lose even whatever unsatisfactory rankings you already had. This can happen due to a variety of reasons, one of which is having acquired low-quality backlinks. Search engines penalize websites with such backlinks in their profile because they view them as such trying to manipulate their ranking algorithms rather than such that were acquired for merit as they are supposed to. In this post we will briefly discuss possible reasons for having acquired low-quality links, list some examples of such, what type of penalties they can lead to and finally how to try and get rid of these. Having in mind the vastness of the topic, I hope that this is a good starting point for your research.
2. Possible reasons for a bad link profile
Everything that has to do with unnatural link building (random sites linking to your stuff for no other reason than manipulating the Search Engine Results Page) is considered black-hat and is penalized by Google. If you did get low-quality links, chances are that you 1) gave in to a suspiciously cheap service, 2) became a victim of “negative SEO” or 3)were not careful to follow best practices when doing your own link building. The first case usually happens due to small businesses who have a limited marketing budget and are trying to cut costs on all levels. The second case happens when someone (probably one of your competitors) paid a company to build these cheap, spammy links for your website with the sole intention of having Google penalize you. The third case happens when someone (the business itself or an SEO company hired by the business) makes a genuine effort to build quality links but they get tempted to push the boundaries of what is “natural” and “over-optimize” the links that they build.
3. Some types of “bad links”
For Google’s list, you can read this support article. Here is a summary of a few types:
Exact match anchor text or no variety in anchor text (1-2 key phrases used only) – it shouts “unnatural” – no bueno.
Links from a “Link Farm” – the most common implementation of automated link building. A Link Farm often consists of gambling sites, porn sites, pages in foreign languages (usually Chinese and Russian) that are full of ads, spammy content and links to other low-authority pages.
No variety in landing pages (external links leading only to Home pages or About Us page even though it is normal some of the main pages to be more often included than others) – a natural links portfolio should include links to a variety of landing pages.
Other spammy links – affiliate links, links to malware, paid links , etc.
There are tools that automate the whole process of finding and getting rid of bad links, such as Remove’em and Link Detox. They are great tools that can help heaps with link profiles made up of thousands of bad links. We advise you not to follow them blindly – if you use them, mix up their usage with manual efforts as described in the rest of this post.
3. How to Check if Your Site Was Penalized Due to a Bad Links Profile?
There are two types of penalties imposed by Google to webmasters who violated Google’s quality standards – manual actions and algorithmic actions. It is important to note that throughout the entire post I will refer to Google’s actions as “penalties” simply because webmasters and SEO professionals all around the world refer to them that way. In Google’s eyes, your site’s rankings are not actually penalized but rather adjusted to their “should be” level (the rankings you deserve based on your natural link profile) in regards to this ranking factor.
Manual actions: this is a penalty that Google’s webspam team informs you about when you tried to reach a top place in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) by utilizing bad practices. If you received an “unnatural links” message in your Google Webmaster Tools’ “Site Messages” section, it means that you have unusual amount of unnatural links that point to your website. Be aware that Manual Actions don’t concern low-quality inbound links only – they might occur due to cloaking, copied or low-value content on your site, user-generated content full of spam on your site, outbound spammy links from your site, etc. In case that the penalty was indeed incurred for low-quality inbound links, you can request a review, so Google’s team can see if you got rid of the spammy links and alleviate the penalty. You should do that only after making an effort to remove the spammy links yourself.
In order to check if your site was manually penalized you will have to go to:
Google Webmaster Tools → Select your website → Search Traffic → Manual Actions
In case that you see a penalty under “Manual Actions” it could be one of two kinds: “Site-wide matches”, affecting your whole website or “Partial matches”, affecting only a portion of your website.
The following image gives an idea how detailed Google’s information on the problematic Partial matches might look like:
Algorithmic actions: this is a penalty that was caused by Google’s algorithmic updates (such as Panda and Penguin). The similarity between manual and algorithmic actions is that in both situations bad practices for link building and achieving higher rankings are used. The difference is that you can get manual actions anytime while algorithmic actions take place during Google algorithm updates. It is important to note that you won’t be informed of the algorithmic actions’ effect in Google Webmaster Tools. If you’ve experienced a sudden drop in rankings when a new algorithmic update has rolled out, your problems are most likely due to actions that are considered spam according to Google’s newly implemented quality standards. You will have to research on famous SEO hubs (such as MOZ, Search Engine Journal, SEO Chat, etc.) whether the new algorithm has a part of it that targets bad links explicitly. Sometimes, for bigger updates, the data is plentiful (especially when Google sheds some light themselves); for smaller updates you may have to wait for more information based on case studies by different SEOs.
Another difference between manual actions and algorithmic actions is that manual actions are imposed for more serious violations that attracted the attention of Google employees and require exceptional measures. Algorithmic actions, on the other hand, usually target techniques that are considered “grey-hat” (activities that fall somewhere between white and black hat) and Google has caught up to them. Also, you will always get a notification in Google Webmaster Tools when a manual action was imposed.
4. How to Identify the Bad Links?
There are various ways to check the incoming links to your website. While Google Webmaster Tools works fine on some levels, we would also recommend supplementing it with other tools that give even more information such as the Domain Authority, Page Authority, etc. of the links’ origin.
Google Webmaster Tools – you will have to research manually each link that points to your website (this is valid for all other methods as well). Do you know the source of the links? Is it a reputable website or just a random page with lots of spammy outbound links? Does it have “dofollow” (passing Page Rank) or “nofollow” (not passing Page Rank) attribute? How about the diversity/non-keyword-stuffiness of anchor text? These are questions your research should aim to answer and then decide whether to leave or get rid of the links.
MOZ Open Site Explorer – this is another tool for identifying links to your website. You will have to enter the URL of the website you would like to do the link check for. Then from the drop-down menus select “Show All”, from “Only External”, to “Pages on This Root Domain”.
Now, you will be able to see the page and Domain Authority of the linking page. As a rule of thumb, links from pages with domain authority lower than 30 should be avoided. Also you can go to the “Anchor Text tab” and inspect for “naughtiness” there.
Majestic SEO – this tool also gives a lot of valuable information such as when the link was first indexed, last seen or lost. The link profile chart on the right side of the screen gives an insight to how authoritative your website is (“Citation Flow”) and how trustworthy the links are pointing to your site (“Trust Flow”). Make sure that the trust flow is more than half of the citation flow – that is an indicator of a natural link profile.
Ahrefs Site Explorer & Backlink Checker – similar to all of the abovementioned, this tool provides really nice graphical representations such as an “anchors cloud”, social media prominence of the linking websites, etc.
Whatever tool you are using, never worry about “no-follow” links to your website – Google doesn’t use them to pass Page Rank. In fact, these are good for your link diversity and make your profile look more natural.
5. How to Clear Your Backlink Profile
Google wants to make sure that you’ve put some effort and tried to get rid of the spammy links yourself first. This is because the people at Google are very busy, they receive thousands of requests and want to see that you at least made an effort yourself. Also, when looking at your request, they should be able to say “Ok, this webmaster made some mistakes in the past but he took a note and at least tried to get rid of the spammy links”. Effort to clean your profile yourself resonates well with Google – it distinguishes you from outright “black-hatters” who usually cannot be bothered to make such efforts. Only after you’ve tried to reach and reason with the webmasters of the sites where the spammy links come from, should you use the disavow tool.
Create an email template and try to reach the webmasters of the sites where the links come from: ask them politely to remove the links to your site, don’t threaten or insult them. Create a spreadsheet and write down what sites you’ve contacted, when and what the outcome was (were some links removed, did you receive no answer, did you get rejected by webmasters, etc.). Follow-up a couple of times every 4-5 days if no answer was received from the webmasters. Documenting your manual actions towards bad links removal is important later on in your efforts. In case you bought the links from an agency, try to contact them and explain your situation. In some cases, they might remove the bad links for you.
If your non-disavow efforts were unsuccessful (you received no reply from the webmasters of the pages that link to your site, they asked for money or they denied your requests) as Matt Cutts says in one of his videos, that’s the perfect time to use the disavow tool.
You will have to create a .txt file with only the links you want to disavow – only one link per line. You can also include your efforts for manual link removal on a separate line with the # symbol in the beginning, followed by a space (all lines with # symbol will be ignored so make sure that you don’t have a link you want to disavow on the same line with the # symbol).
The process of disavowing the bad links is as follows:
Logged in to your Google Webmaster Tools account, go to: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main
Choose the website for which you want to disavow the links
Click “Disavow Links”
Click “Disavow Links” again
Choose the .txt file with the links
Click “Submit” and then “Done”
6. Submitting a Reconsideration Request
Note that reconsideration requests only work for manual actions, not for algorithmic actions. In case your site was under a manual actions penalty and you’ve done everything described above, as a final step you will have to submit a reconsideration request to expedite the process (Go to “Search Traffic” – “Manual Actions”).
You will have to explain that you’ve stopped violating Google’s quality guidelines and did your best to get rid of the bad links. You must honestly convey that you’ve learned your lesson and it won’t happen again, be as detailed as possible in the reconsideration request and ideally give a link to a spreadsheet in Google Docs with the manual efforts you did trying to get rid of the bad links.
I would advise on submitting the reconsideration request at least one month after receiving the “unnatural links” message because after all, you are supposed to spend some time trying to remove the bad links first.
7. Future Precautions
After you got your ears pulled by Google, chances are that you will be much more cautious towards every single new link that points to your website. There are some tools that track these new links once they go live.
Linkstant! – you can immediately see links from reviews, tell if your content is hot on social media, contact linking sites to correct anchor text or link destination. It alerts you promptly via email, text message, etc.
Linkody – it keeps track of your backlinks every 24 hours, sends you email alerts and new links notifications.
Fresh Web Explorer – it can send you daily alerts, e.g. rd:example.com will give you results with links to the entire domain “example.com” and will also include all the links to any page that is on that domain.
Ahrefs – you can use it for free on your website by adding their meta tags. You can also go to their Site Explorer – Backlinks – New and discover the newly acquired links by the day.
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