Columnist Brian Harnish tackles how to analyze links from a Google Webmaster Guidelines perspective, and how to make sure that your client’s linking activities don’t cause them to lose everything they have gained.
As most SEOs know, links are still extremely important to ranking highly in the Google search results. In fact, a recent study performed by Backlinko showed that “the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor.”
Thus, it makes sense for most all large companies with a significant website presence to implement a regular link pruning schedule. At ymarketing, we call our process of link pruning “link remediation.”
The normal way most sites handle a penalty is reactionary in nature. The SEO wakes up one day and finds the scariest of emails an SEO can receive in their inbox: They have been hit with a manual penalty.
Once they notice the manual penalty email, they scramble to analyze their site’s backlink profile. They find they have indulged in one too many link exchanges or article marketing techniques.
Depending on how bad it is, it can take weeks or even months to clean up the link profile before submitting a reconsideration request. At a past employer, I spent almost eight months helping to remove or disavow over 260,000 backlinks to remove a manual penalty. The effort was successful, but it was an astronomical undertaking, and the business lost untold revenue from organic search traffic during those eight months.
Usually, a manual penalty is only reserved for the worst of the worst in violations of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. A majority of sites affected by ranking issues related to bad links will be faced with an “algorithmic penalty” instead, meaning that the site will lose search visibility as a result of an algorithm update such as Penguin. In these cases, the SEO will not receive a notification from Google.
One way to identify if your site’s been hit with a Penguin penalty is to check your traffic in Google Analytics (or whatever your primary Web analytics platform is). If you see a sharp drop in just organic search traffic one day, it can be cause for alarm. You can use a tool like Panguin to overlay your Google Analytics data with major algorithm updates to see if you’ve been affected.
There are ways to keep issues like this from happening, so let’s take a look at what you can actively do to make sure that your link profile is always in tip-top shape. One of the first steps I recommend is creating a regular link remediation schedule that will help you identify and eliminate problem links before they become an issue.
Setting up a regular maintenance schedule for checking your link profile is always a good idea, especially if you are working for a large national brand. When you work on huge sites, it can be a challenge to monitor all the resources in the company, including:
All of these can impact how Google perceives your link profile. In order to keep manageability to reasonable levels, I recommend having one person in charge of this process from month to month or quarter to quarter (however you want to do it).
The following is a brief listing of what constitutes a bad link based on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, as well as examples of each:
Guideline violation: “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank”
Buying or selling links for the purpose of impacting search engine rankings is considered a “link scheme,” and Google frowns upon this. The buying and selling of links can take several forms.
“Exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links”
“Exchanging goods or services for links”
“Sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”
Guideline violation: “Excessive link exchanges”
Guideline violation: “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”
Guideline violation: “Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
Guideline violation: “Text advertisements that pass PageRank”
Guideline violation: “Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.”
Guideline violation: “Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.”
Guideline violation: “Low-quality directory or bookmark site links”
Guideline violation: “Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites.”
Guideline violation: “Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites.”
Guideline violation: “Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature.”
Google further advises in their Webmaster Guidelines that PPC (pay-per-click) advertising links that don’t pass PageRank to the buyer of the ad do not violate their guidelines. They recommend using nofollow to prevent PageRank from passing. In addition, they also recommend “redirecting links to an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.”
Furthermore, their main recommendation for avoiding bad link profiles that can cause a penalty is to “get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours.” The way they recommend doing this is to “create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the internet community.” Their very definition of this kind of content means that you get links from people who create editorial content “vouching” for your site “by choice.”
While there are many ways to gain bad links, it is not always obvious what is a good profile and what is a bad profile. Let’s take a look at the following examples. See if you can identify bad link profiles.
Here is our first example:
It is pretty obvious that the above is a bad link profile. The vast majority of links to this profile are composed of article marketing site links with keyword-rich anchor text pointing back to the website.
This does not bode well for the site. Even if they are not currently under a penalty, chances are high that they will eventually lose rankings in Google, either algorithmically or through a manual penalty if the article marketing sites are far too excessive.
Let’s take a look at the next example:
Now, this is a bit less obvious. Here, we have a site that has a bunch of random links with branded anchor text, and no discernible pattern, comprising about 40 percent of the link profile. In most cases, SEOs would consider this to be a potentially healthy link profile, right?
Wrong. See, we have 10 percent low-quality directories, 10 percent partner sites just for the link, 10 percent article marketing sites and 30 percent excessive link exchanges. This now comprises 60 percent of the entire link profile, compared to 40 percent of all the good links.
It will be necessary to perform link remediation and removal on the bad links just to make sure the 60 percent does not impact the site in a negative way.
Let’s take a look at the next example — it’s a tricky one:
This is a bad link profile. It has 50 percent of its links coming from article marketing sites and 50 percent coming from .GOV links and .EDU links. Though links from these sites are often considered to be good, the fact is that even without the questionable links from article marketing sites, this link profile looks completely unnatural. You want to have a good variety of backlinks coming from a variety of different sites.
Ideally, you should be performing regular link remediation in order to find and remove bad links from your site’s link profile. This activity will help you find links that are harmful to your site’s rankings. It’s crucial to find and remove these links to ensure that your site never falls under a penalty. To that end, establishing a workflow structure that works for you will be important to ensure the longevity of your website.
Your workflow should contain the processes and tools that you expect to follow and use on a monthly, quarterly, or even yearly basis for link remediation. If you do not have a process in place, expect to spend some time creating the proper process documents in order to achieve the optimal workflow desired from your ongoing link remediation efforts.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a high-quality link profile. A general rule of thumb is that Google will expect you to spend at least as much time removing the bad links as you spent creating them.
In addition, I recommend setting up your link remediation activities to occur in regular intervals. If you find that your link profile is getting massive amounts of links every month, you may want to set it up monthly. If you find that your link profile is not getting that many links, you may want to set it up for quarterly or yearly. It all depends on what you find most effective for you in the long run, and this will require some experimentation on your part.
Excel will be an important tool for managing your links and creating client-facing documents they can use to examine your efforts in link analysis and cleanup.
First, you will want to compile a list of all your links from at least three different tools in order to find and identify all of the links impacting your link profile. Please note that just exporting links from Google Search Console will not identify every possible link that is impacting or will impact your link profile.
Following is the process I use. Yours may look a little different, depending on what tools you use and have access to:
Identifying and removing bad links can be a time-consuming process. However, through setting up a link remediation process, you can quickly and easily deal with any bad links that may be a part of your link profile. By being vigilant and watching your link profile like a hawk, you can prevent issues that may otherwise wreak havoc on your clients’ search performance.