It can be hard to escape your past, especially if you’re a website with a history of sketchy backlinks. Ever since Google launched its Penguin update in 2012, it has cracked down hard on websites found to have “unnatural links”. These links hail from the old days of SEO, when backlinks were a numbers game and quality didn’t matter. It was standard practice to buy backlinks in bulk, submit links to questionable directories, and even develop your own link-building network. Unfortunately, these outdated tactics can come back to haunt you: Google is known to penalize sites for old junk links that you probably didn’t even know existed. Let’s take a closer look at Google’s policy toward inbound links, and learn how to clean up your link history and protect your website’s ranking.
Penguin and Unnatural Links
The goal of Google’s Penguin update was to launch an attack on web spam in search results. A major component of that spam seemed to be links from poor-quality link networks, so Google set out to target links that have been deemed “unnatural”.
Unnatural links can take several different forms. For example, paid links that feature exact match anchor text have gotten many websites in trouble since the debut of Penguin. These links exist solely to manipulate a page’s ranking for the search term found in the anchor text: Google determines this to be against their guidelines and will penalize a website accordingly.
Spammy tactics in comments also result in unnatural links. Using a signature in comments that contains exact match anchor text might have been a valid SEO strategy in the past, but is likely to earn a penalty today. Inbound links from suspicious sites that seem spammy or trigger malware warnings are usually considered unnatural by Google, and can hurt your rankings. In today’s SEO environment, the quality of the links is far more important than the quantity.
Even guest posts, while widely known to be a valid way to build links to your site, can raise a red flag with Google. Guest posts on dubious sites that were filled with poor-quality, spammy articles have gotten many websites into trouble.
Identifying Google Penalties
How can you tell if your website has been hit with a Google penalty? There are a few telltale signs. If your site has experienced a sudden drop in traffic, your ranking may have suffered as a result of a penalty. The best way to confirm this is to check your profile in Google Webmaster Tools. A message stating that you’ve been affected by “Unnatural inbound links” will let you know for sure that you’ve been penalized.
If you haven’t received a message in Google Webmaster Tools but you still suspect that your ranking has been hurt by a penalty, it’s wise to contact Google and inquire about it. Google will respond within a few days with a status of either “Reconsideration Request” or “No Manual Spam Action Found”. A response of “Reconsideration Request” means that a cleanup effort will be necessary before Google will review your appeal.
Cleaning Up Your Link Profile
In order to ensure that you don’t get penalized for long-forgotten junk links, you need to do a thorough link audit. Utilities like Google Webmaster Tools and Open Site Explorer can help you gather link data. It might be impossible to review every single link; in that case, it’s best to focus on site-wide links: Attacking those first will help you eliminate large numbers of bad links at once. Once you’ve identified a list of junk links to clean up, you can use the following methods to get rid of them.
• Remove junk links yourself: Any link-building sites or networks you may have built in the past need to be taken down immediately. Similarly, any links you added to low-quality online directories should also be removed, if you have control over them.
• Remove the linked page: You may find there are quite a few unnatural links pointing to a page that isn’t even significant on your site. In this case, it’s easier to remove the page itself than to track down all the bad links. This solution certainly wouldn’t work for your site’s homepage; however, if there are pages on your site whose rankings came mainly from unnatural links, you can have the URL return a 404.
• Reach out to webmasters: There will only be a certain amount of links you can remove yourself. For those that are beyond your control, you’ll need to contact the webmasters of the sites containing the bad links. You won’t be able to guarantee that every webmaster will honor your request, but you can increase the likelihood of success by making the webmasters’ job easier. Providing webmasters with the exact URLs of pages that have the unnatural links can help tip the odds in your favor.
• Use the Google Disavow Links Tool: In addition to the manual methods listed above, you can also use a utility called the Google Disavow Links Tool. Requesting that links be “disavowed” is akin to asking Google to ignore certain links and not use them in calculating search result rankings. When you use the Disavow Tool, you will be given the choice of disavowing either single URLs or entire domains. Disavowing individual URLs is an appropriate choice in many cases, especially when you’ve already taken care of most of the bad links and know exactly which ones remain. However, it’s often helpful to disavow whole domains, just to be safe.
If you’ve already been hit with a Google penalty and are trying to recover, the Disavow tool should be used judiciously. Google expects you to do most of the cleanup manually, and save the Disavow tool for cases where webmasters didn’t respond to your requests for link removal. In fact, many SEO experts recommend sending three link-removal requests before resorting to the Disavow tool. Google is more likely to honor your reconsideration request if you’ve proven that you’ve exhausted your traditional link-cleanup options.
As you can see, it’s important to be proactive when it comes to your website’s link profile. If you’re still practicing some of the outdated link-building tactics, it’s time to stop. Your present link-building strategy should focus on developing inbound links naturally, from high-quality sites. The days of paying for huge numbers of dubious links are over; the best backlink profile is one that’s created naturally over time. If you plan to continue utilizing article directories, be selective and only submit to those that manually review submissions for acceptance. Directories that automatically accept all submissions aren’t worth the risk.
In addition to modifying your current SEO tactics, it’s also critical to look back at your existing link history. Links that were built years ago in an effort to boost your SEO can have serious consequences on your ranking today. While it’s possible to recover from a Google penalty, it’s easier to avoid one in the first place. Don’t wait until it’s too late and your ranking has sunk into oblivion: Take charge of the situation now, and clean up your old junk links before they cause a problem.