If the latest Penguin updates from Google search were less than kind to you, you may be left wondering what caused your site to take such a hit. One answer could be found in the quality of your backlinks. Google search has increasingly demonstrated it will penalize sites for what it deems as bad or “unnatural” links. If link risk management isn’t a part of your ongoing SEO program, a slew of low-quality links could be the culprit behind your drop in search rankings.
What is a bad link?
Links used to be a straightforward matter. When a site linked to yours, it was a good thing. But this is no longer necessarily the case, as Google and other search engines have become more sophisticated in analyzing links and other factors to determine search rankings.
Backlinks are one of the most well-known signals Google uses to rank sites in search results. The search engine looks at the links between pages to get a handle on which pages are important or reputable—and therefore more relevant to users conducting a search—and which are not. This is the basis of page rank, which is one of the 200-plus factors Google search takes into consideration.
The downside of page rank being so widely known as a cog in the well-oiled search ranking machine is that it quickly became a target for spammers seeking to manipulate the process. This is why Google has greatly stepped up its focus on link spam with both algorithms and manual action.
Clearly, Google isn’t going to hesitate punishing domains for bad links–those it considers unnatural or manipulative–as it determines search rankings. Rather than just evaluating the quantity of inbound links, the search engine giant is looking at the quality of inbound links as well–and increasingly giving more weight to the latter than ever before. If your site’s link profile is riddled with low quality links, that’s a red flag and your ranking will suffer.
Determining a link’s quality isn’t as simple as considering its source. A link that helps one site’s ranking can harm another. How is this possible? When the relationship between the two sites is irrelevant or non-existent, that link action becomes problematic. Some in the SEO industry refer to this as the “porn-pills-casino” or PPC effect, since link spam often originates with such sites. In other words, unless your site is actually selling pharmaceuticals online, a cut-rate pharmaceutical site linking to yours is bad news. In general, any link from a site without a thematic relationship to yours is considered an unnatural link and will bring your ranking down.
Another way links can be seen as lower quality by search engines is when the link anchor text is too keyword-heavy. You can occasionally use keyword-rich anchor text to link to your site, but start going overboard with a majority of your back links labeled that way and Google will penalize you for unnatural links.
Examples of other link types that generally fall into the lower quality category include manipulated or purchased links, those originating from sites you control, links coming from directories where anyone can get a link, and links stemming from a forum post.
Your Link Profile
If you’re making use of Google’s webmaster tools, you may have received a message that unnatural links have been detected on your site. Google sends that notice when it detects evidence of link schemes, such as link exchanges or paid links, that go against Google’s quality guidelines.
There is really no way around the need for a complete link audit of your site, followed by an ongoing link risk management program. There are a number of ways to approach the process, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Unfortunately, it is not a one-stop, clear-fix situation.
Begin by analyzing your site. You can attempt to do this using Google’s webmaster tool, but you will still need to do a fair amount of analyzing. It can also be difficult at times to judge what links are considered unnatural by Google and what links aren’t.
You may view a link as important, while in reality, it is harming your ranking. Another concern over using Google webmaster tools only is that not all bad backlinks will show up in your list of links in webmaster tools, leaving major holes in your attempts to improve site ranking.
To get a clearer picture of your site’s link profile, consider using a link risk analysis tool in combination with multiple data sources. This strategy can provide more relevant information about your site’s link profile, making it easier to monitor your progress over time. A link risk analysis tool can help you identify harmful links, provide feedback on how your site’s link profile changes over time and assist you in identifying and eliminating back links.
Removing Bad Links
While there are a number of aids for analyzing and monitoring your website’s link profile, as noted above, the same does not hold true for actually removing the links themselves. Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy fix.
A lot has been written lately about Google’s Disavow tool rolled out last fall, but this shouldn’t be the only weapon in your arsenal. Instead, think of the Disavow tool as your final attempt when all else has failed. The reason? If you use the tool incorrectly, you can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search rankings. Google recommends only turning to Disavow if you have a considerable number of low-quality or spammy links, and have exhausted all other options.
Instead of launching right into the Disavow tool, begin by manually removing the links. How? By asking. First, if you have chosen a quality risk link management tool, it should be able to provide you with a list of questionable links for further analysis.
You then need to craft an email template to send to webmasters in charge of links you’d like removed. Go ahead and explain in straightforward terms that you are a site owner trying to recover from a Google penalty for unnatural links. Then, politely ask that they remove your link. Be sure to include a copy of your link, as well as the specific URL of the page where it can be found, the URL of the exact page on your site it is pointing to, and the anchor text.
There is no guarantee this approach will work, but there are few other real options available. If they do remove your link, don’t expect them to notify you, which is why ongoing monitoring of link risk is vital.
Of course it goes without saying that if you’ve been involved in building bad backlinks directly, remove them as soon as possible. If you hired someone to do this for you, you may need to track them down and ask them to remove the links.
If you’ve spent considerable time removing all the problematic links but there are some you still can’t get rid of, visit Google’s Disavow links page and carefully follow instructions. Expect it to take a number of weeks before you see results from this request.
Continue to monitor your site using your link risk management tool. If you feel your site is no longer violating Google’s webmaster guidelines, you may even want to send Google a reconsideration request. Use reports generated from your link profile management efforts to show you’ve made every effort to remove bad links from your site.
Using data sources to provide a more comprehensive picture of your site’s link profile, in conjunction with use of a high-quality, comprehensive analysis tool, should be an important part of your SEO strategic routine.
Overall, the process of trying to get rid of bad links can eat up a lot of time. While you may not discover all the results you’d hoped for or as quickly as you’d liked, your hard efforts should be rewarded with improved search rankings.