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.
How to identify bad link profiles
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:
- Who is acquiring links?
- What links are they acquiring?
- When are they acquiring links?
- Where are they acquiring links from?
- Why are they acquiring these links?
- How are they acquiring these links?
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”
- These are not always easy to identify, but look for any page on a site that is an obvious “buy a link from me” page.
- To identify a paid blog post, look for multiple followed links to the same website that have been placed using keyword-rich anchor text.
“Exchanging goods or services for links”
- This happens a lot in certain industries, such as the health and fitness industry. Free samples will be given in exchange for a link, or other free products will be given in exchange for a link. Alas, it is usually not possible to identify such an affiliation because the blogger doesn’t point out their affiliation with these types of links.
“Sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”
- This is not only a violation of Google’s Guidelines, but if the fiduciary relationship is not disclosed properly, it is also a violation of FTC guidelines per their “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Guideline violation: “Excessive link exchanges”
- Basically, a link exchange means “link to me and I’ll link to you.” These also include partner pages created exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
- A good example of this is any site in any industry that acquires links from partners who also link back to the blog just for the sake of links, and nothing else that may add value from an SEO perspective.
Guideline violation: “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”
- One way to identify these types of links is to look at whether they come from an obvious article marketing site (anything with the word “article” in the main domain is usually a good guess). Guest postings will be a bit less obvious and mostly cannot be identified, unless the guest comes straight out in the post and says, “I am a guest of so-and-so’s blog.” It is impossible to catch everything, but the likely situation is that links like these are so minimal that they may likely never be a problem. But if they are, they will show up and be obvious when you put together your link profile.
Guideline violation: “Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
- This Google Webmaster Guideline includes using anything like ScrapeBox or similar services to create thousands of spammy links (often in a short period of time).
- Common types of links that are indicative of this kind of violation include forum profile links and blog comment spam. Identifying these should be fairly simple when performing a link analysis on your backlink profile.
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.”
- For example (from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines): There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need tobuy flowers and a wedding dress.
Guideline violation: “Low-quality directory or bookmark site links”
- This includes any link from any directory that was done just for the sake of the link, without adding any value from an SEO perspective. Most all directories created within the past 10 years that feature only links without adding any other value can be considered a violation of this guideline.
- The major exceptions, however, are local SEO directories. If the link is added to these types of directories as part of a local SEO campaign, this should only affect the local part of the algorithm and should not impact normal algorithmic link acquisition activities, unless something else is seriously wrong with your link profile.
Guideline violation: “Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites.”
- For example (already available on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines): Visitors to this page: 1,472 car insurance
Guideline violation: “Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites.”
- The key here is “widely distributed,” meaning that it’s done on such a large scale as to outnumber all other links that have value in that link profile.
Guideline violation: “Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature.”
- For example (already on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines):
Thanks, that’s great info!
paul’s pizza san diego pizza best pizza san diego
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.”
Examples of bad link profiles
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.
Setting up a workflow to manage your brand’s linking activities
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.
The process of 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:
- Export links from Google Search Console, Ahrefs, SEMrush, and/or Raven Tools to multiple Excel spreadsheets.
- Compile all of these links into one Excel spreadsheet.
- Remove duplicates. For sites with thousands upon thousands of backlinks, using the “Remove Duplicates” function in Excel tends to break down. In this situation, I suggest using conditional formatting and filtering as suggested by Marie Haynes in her article, “5 Spreadsheet Tips for Manual Link Audits.”
- After compiling the spreadsheet, import it into Cemper’s Link Detox tool. This tool will acquire useful data for each link and compile it into one easy-to-use report. For example, HTTP-Code lets you see the HTTP status code that is being output by the page the link is on. Link Loc (or Link Location) tells you the location of the page it is on (footer, content and so on). This is very useful for quickly identifying bad links without having to visit the site. However, it is always a good idea to visit the site manually.
- Using this information from Link Detox, you are now prepared to begin your analysis. It is recommended to perform a manual link review in order to rule out any small errors the tool may have missed or to find problems the tool may not otherwise have identified. Make your audit detailed, and categorize bad links based on spam and other obvious issues, including the way in which they violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
- The next phase of link remediation is link removal. Once you have identified all of the bad links in the last step, it will now be necessary to move forward with contacting the webmasters of these links one by one. Remember, Google wants to make sure that you spend as much time removing links as you did acquiring them. Be sure to keep a log of the sites that you contact so that you can show it to Google should they ever request to see the log. As a general rule, you should contact webmasters two or three times per round of link removal. After the third attempt to contact them, if you have received no response, you can then proceed with disavowing that link.
- After having contacted all of the webmasters behind your links, it is now time to proceed with disavowing any you could not get removed using Google’s disavow tool. Please note that you should only be disavowing the links that are spammy and considered bad links for your site’s link profile. You should not be disavowing any good links unless you found later that your good link turned out to be spam.
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.