How To Remove Bad Links And Recover Your Rankings

SEO May 7, 2014

Remove Bad Links And Recover From A Penalty

Sheer terror and alarm.

That’s what I felt like the first time I got a penalty.

It was back in my early days of SEO and I made some stupid decisions on what strategies and tactics to employ.

Sure, I shot up in rankings pretty quickly, but that glory quickly turned into dust when I got penalized.

It seems easier than ever to find yourself in the cross-hairs of Google’s webspam team.

SEO strategies and tactics we took for granted are no longer viable.

So, if you do get penalized, how do you recover? Can you even recover rankings?

Yes, you can.

The Penalty Box Is Pretty Big (You Can Fit Easily)

You know there are 2 kinds of penalties, yes?

In general, you should prefer an algorithmic penalty, but sometimes a manual one can be a gift as you have all the more reason to submit a reconsideration request once you’ve cleaned up your act.

Here are the two penalties:

  • Algorithm Penalty — An automatic, robot-inflicted penalty (loss in search engine rankings) that’s caused by a number of possible factors on your site. If it doesn’t live up to quality standards in the algorithm, you’ll be penalized. Often, an algorithm penalty can flag your site for further review.
  • Manual Penalty — This happens when an actual person (yes, alive and breathing human being) penalizes your website. While no one outside of Google knows the exact procedure, your site is most likely flagged for review and looked at by someone from the webspam team. You will receive a message via the Webmaster Tools.

If you’ve succumbed to either penalty, fear not– you can still save your site from being fully exterminated from Googles omnipresent robots and crawlers.

What Do Bad Links Look Like These Days?

I know, how could you possibly spot, identify, and make note of “bad” links when it’s a bit hazy as to what, exactly, they might look like?

To begin with, you should export all the backlinks from your link checker of choice (see below), and look for these characteristics:

  • Links from websites that are unrelated to your market, niche, and topic. I can’t stress how important this is.
  • Links with the exact same anchor text from multiple websites. This is not always bad, but if they make up a large percentage (over 15%) of your backlink profile, then consider getting these removed.
  • Links from any website that has had security and safety issues, as well as malware warnings.
  • Links from sites that don’t show up in Google’s index or appear to be penalized (if they don’t even show up for their domain name, something is fishy).
  • Links from sites that look and feel like link farms and article directories.
  • Paid or sponsored links (in sidebars, sponsored posts, bios, and so on).
  • Spammy-looking links from forum posts, blog comments, etc.

Makes sense, right?

Good. Now let’s take a look at few tools that help you audit these links.

Great Tools For Link Auditing

Some links are obviously bad, others might be harder to figure out.

It will take some time to analyze those links, but it will be worth it (especially if you have a manual penalty against you already).

Let’s talk about some tools you can use to analyze those backlinks of yours.

  • Open Site Explorer — This tool will give you URL, domain authority, page authority, and title of your links. You can also check for and analyze recently discovered links, top pages, and linking domains.
  • Google Webmaster Tools — Yep, you can use this Google tool for this (you are doing something Google wants you to do).  Go to the “Traffic” section of your site and download any inbound link data.
  • MajesticSEO — This nice link profile analysis tool shows you things like anchor text and types of links, and also assigns a trust score.
  • AHrefs  — You can view inbound links according to domain, type of site, TLD suffix, IP, as well as types of links, such as: redirects, nofollow/dofollow, sitewide, and more).
  • Link Research Tools — All kinds of tools, ranging from link profilers, missing links, checking and monitoring of links, and a link detox tool that scans for suspicious or bad links for you.

The main goal is to compile a list of current backlinks that have the following information, at a minimum:

  • Page linked to (on your site, that is).
  • The URL linking to your site.
  • Anchor text used in the link.
  • Anchor text distribution for your site (brand, long-tails, URL, etc).
  • If the links are nofollow or dofollow.
  • Home page links.

As a side-note: if you only or mostly have links to your homepage, you need to build links that go deeper into your site (sub-pages) and if you hardly have any “brand” links (like your website name, business name, etc.) then you should beef up on that end, too.

And this might seem like SEO 101 but it happens more often than not: improper use of 301 redirects. If one version of the site uses ‘non-www’ in the URL, but does not redirect to the ‘www’, take care of that ASAP.

How To Recover From Any Penalty (Manual Or Algorithm)

1. Clean up your site — Sure, Google won’t give you exact details as to what’s wrong, other than a general “unnatural links” and not meeting quality guidelines. Regardless, just stop doing everything and clean house — any 301/302 errors, duplicate content, 404s–and do a thorough on-site audit and refresh.

2. Get a list of all those backlinks — Webmaster Tools and other tools listed above are great for this.

3. Audit and identify potential low-quality backlinks — Make use of the checklist above to look for potentially harmful links. Google values what “neighborhood” you’re in, so any link from a site that’s even remotely suspicious should be exterminated. Links from unrelated, irrelevant websites are a red flag. Anchor text distribution and link profile matters a ton; don’t use the same anchor texts or keyword-stuff them.

  • Start with “low quality” sites: You can use BulkDAChecker to check your low DA links (a spreadsheet of your backlinks is useful here. Export the links and find all the links that have a DA below 25).
  • Check for other spammy websites: Take all the links with a DA above 25 and visit as many of them as you can, or at least those you don’t recognize. You’re looking for sites that look spammy, like: directory sites, gambling, porn, bad code or site errors, different language, completely unrelated in topic and market.
  • Anchor text check: Your site needs “good anchor texts”, such as URL, brand name, business name, a sentence with few to no keywords, very few exact match anchors, if any. In general, “bad anchor texts” would be: too many exact match anchors where the URL and anchor text matches exactly, and over-representation of keywords (including long-tails).

4. Remove all the bad links — Once you’ve compiled a list of bad and questionable links, it’s time to get rid of them. Request a removal by contacting the webmaster of a website. Give them some information about where the link is on their site, and the link to your site.

Try this before you submit a link disavowal to Google. They need to see that you’ve spent some time trying to clean up this problem.

And when you’re done, submit a link disavowal!

You Can Recover From the Link Hangover

It’s not at all unusual that websites have penalties lifted (manual and algorithmic). It’s absolutely possible and do-able, so don’t just throw in the towel.

Sure, the process is time consuming. It can take 2-3 months to complete (and if you have thousands of links, even more), and you can probably expect on average 6 months until you see an increase in rankings again.

It can also get a bit complicated with analyzing backlinks and deciding on which links are “good” and which are “bad”. It’s not always as clear as a DA ranking or anchor text distribution.

Also, it will require many hours in front of spreadsheets and manually looking at websites that will make you think you’ve scanned the entire internet. Prepare to get sick of keywords, anchor texts, PR, link structures, and more.

But, you know what? It’s worth it when you get those rankings back.

3 comments
  1. Kenal

    This is very insightful. The fear of being banned from the world’s number one search engine is a big deal. I have crossed the line before with Google and lost the benefit of my Adsense account, which I’ve appealed for, but no luck. However, that was about 2-3 years ago. Since then i’ve worked on really focusing on publishing press releases and also generating content my pears close to me can enjoy. In everything having a respect for what they are trying to do, which is make the search engine more credible with information is also a key factor to all of these rules. This is a great blog post, I look forward to reading more. I’ve been blogging for 4 years and still waiting for my breakthrough, until then will continue to follow HitTail for great suggestions.

  2. Rachel Hazan

    Would you get a message from Google if you got an ‘Algorithm Penalty’? Or is the only way to know that by checking your rankings and if you dropped a lot for many words, then you probably got the penalty?

  3. John Greig

    Good thread! My recommendation is to leave this process to a professional if possible.

    My primary business these days is to work with site owners who have had “bad” SEO performed in the past. Unfortunately the things that worked in the past are now causing a world of issues for site owners all over the net. Over-optimization and low quality links are one thing but if you don’t know example’s of links that Google’s called unnatural you are behind the game in link analysis.

    It’s not as simple as removing low quality links and seeing recovery, it’s about targeting the right links to make sure the job is done properly and you aren’t removing the good links.

    These days there are tools that help make my life a lot easier in this process. From linkdetox.com who can help me perform audits better. For MOST SEO’s they don’t have the resources to check the link metrics on all of their backlinks properly. It’s more than just removing low DA scoring links that have optimized anchor text.

    Another service in my arsenal that seems to go overlooked on many of these guide posts is http://linkdelete.com who takes cares care of the link analysis and link removals for you. When I first started removing links I attempted to do this process myself and quickly learned that wasn’t a smart idea. Managing link removals takes a ton of time. From documenting the process to follow ups and clarification to Webmasters that need it. There’s no sense wasting my time doing this when services like this exist.

    The most important takeaway is be careful with link removals and be sure you know what you are doing before removing and disavowing links. Don’t screw up the long term SEO of your site by trying to save a few bucks.

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