The importance of a link clean up before it’s too late

While the SEO world is holding its breath waiting for the “next generation Penguin update” or “Penguin 4”, I want to put the spotlight on the importance of a thorough link clean up. Not after you get the warning from Google but in good time before you do. Cleaning up your link profile might save you from a lot of work and lost business when the big update rolls out.

Step 1 – Admitting you might have a problem

So you did a lot of link building. Some of it a little dodgy, some of it totally clean. Who hasn’t in their past? Some of this link building worked, some of it did not. Some of it might even have hurt your rankings already or maybe you are lucky and have dodged the Google radar. Maybe you hired an agency claiming to do smart things for you or maybe you did all of the above yourself.

If you got the warning for unnatural links in Webmaster Tools, it might already be too late. But if you didn’t  now is the time to confess that you have a link problem and start the clean-up process.

Step 2 – Backlink report(s)

The first part of the clean-up process is the backlink report. This can be done using many different tools. Personally I prefer to use the backlinks report in Webmaster Tools, OpenSiteExplorer, Majestic or Link Detox from Linkresearchtools.

Bas wrote an article about LinkRisk a couple of weeks ago and gave them good reviews as well. Either way, use a tool, get a report of all your backlinks and start working your way through them.

Step 3 – Get a good overview of the links

The next step is to sort all of the links into categories to get a good overview. You might choose to sort links by page authority, date, region, anchor text or other criteria, but the importance is that you get a good overview.

Lately I have used Link Detox for most of my backlink reports, as they sort the links for me, by risk level or what kind of suspicious or toxic group they are in.

link-detox-risk-levels2

link-detox-risk-levels

linkdetox-link-list

In LinkRisk you can do the same, and get all of your links sorted out based on link groups or risk levels:

linkrisk-stateofsearch

risk-levels-linkrisk

Step 4 – Ask yourself important questions

When you have got your links in order, start asking yourself a number of important questions:

  • Do some of these links look suspicious? Some hints could be words like “link”, “seo”, “top 1000”, “backlinks”, “exchange” in the URL or domain name.
  • Have (too) many of them got similar anchor text?
  • Do many of them come from the same domains?
  • Do many of them come from the same kind of website? Like a blog? An advertorial? Newspapers? PR hubs? Link hubs? Directories?
  • Are the links relevant to your site and your products?
  • Do the links seem like they are generated from link building, or naturally?
  • Do they seem unnatural in any other way?

Step 5 – Start cleaning up!

When you have got a good overview of the links, either manually or by using a tool, start sorting out the ones you need to look further into, and start researching them. As you dig your way through the links, ask yourself: Does this link add any value to my site or my users? If the answer is no, put the link in a list, for example in an excel sheet. You will use this list in step 6.

Step 6 – Removing of bad links

When your bad links are sorted and put into a list, the real work starts.

Google recommend removing bad links manually, by contacting the website owner and asking them to remove them:

By removing the bad links directly, you’re helping to prevent Google (and other search engines) from taking action again in the future. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links pointing to your site on the web and jump to conclusions about your website or business.”

Another option is to ask the website owner to attach a nofollow attribute to the link. This can for instance be smart when you have links that violate the Google quality guidelines, like  links from advertorials or ads; links that your users need, but that should not pass pagerank. Links from advertorials without a nofollow were a big reason behind the Interflora penalty case.

If contacting website owners doesn’t work (it rarely does), another alternative is to use the Google Disavow Tool. You simply upload a plain text file with the links you want disavowed. This file can also contain comments on what you have tried to do before asking Google to disavow them. Google currently support 1 file per site, but the file can be updated later on if needed. Both Link Detox and LinkRisk support the correct format for Google Disavow, and you can upload links directly to Google Disavow through both of these tools:

disavow-link-detox

By uploading the disavow file (…)Google will typically ignore those links. Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive—Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example—but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.”

I recommend reading this article by Gianluca Fiorelli about the disavow tool, before making a decision to use it.

Step 7 – Wait for a while, and then start from the top

Of course Google claim that most website owners do not need to think about link cleaning or the use of the disavow tool. I disagree, although I have some issues believing that the disavow tool can solve everything. Either way, don’t stop researching your link landscape, it can change drastically in a short amount of time.

SEO is an on-going process, and link cleaning should be a part of this process. Cleaning up your backlinks profile might not be necessary too often but at least you should do step 1-5 as often as you feel it is necessary, and especially if you don’t completely trust the people doing your link building.

Or maybe you suspect your competitors are doing some black-hat on your behalf to get your website penalised? Either way, do the research as often as possible and you might feel a little bit safer.

Spring cleaning? Start with your backlinks, it can save you lots of time and money when Penguin 4 hits websites worldwide.

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About Agnete Tøien Pedersen

Agnete Tøien Pedersen is Head of SEO in iProspect Norway and has years of experience within SEM, SEO, web publishing and journalism. She is also chairman of the Board of Ethical SEM in Norway, BraSøk. On a daily basis she is working with customers of all sizes, in Norway, the Nordics and internationally.