How to Use Link Removal & Google Disavow Tool to Fix Link Penalties

link removal + disavow toolOver the past year, Google has really tightened the screws on what they determine to be participation in manipulative link schemes. This has been tackled from both sides of the link equation; he who giveth, and he who taketh away…

Those who give out links from a site;

Any site engineered to manipulate search engine rankings can expect that the site will be penalised. Manual reviews that see evidence of serious breaches of Google’s commandments may result in excommunication. Yes – banned, de-indexed and sent into galactic oblivion. That might be for the sin of selling page rank via text based-links, giving run-of-site links, encouraging guest blog posts, allowing registration of sploggers, along with and each and every form of manipulative link-building schemes known to man…

The recipients of the links

If you receive links from such a site, you won’t escape Google’s witch hunt for link miscreant’s either! Obviously, bad links lead directly to your website’s front door, so finding you is not at all difficult. On the basis of guilt by association, ignorance is no excuse. You may not actually be burnt at the stake but you may be spanked for even minor link receipt infringements.

In many cases, the impact of bad links will not be dramatic. Instead, it may manifest itself as an erosion rather than an “across the board” drop. Often, a group of important keyword phrases will decline in the search engine results pages, whilst others remain relatively stable. Those that are falling are likely to be caused by incoming links with over-optimised anchor text.

Getting your head around what’s happening can be extremely difficult because Google now has so many punitive facets to its algorithms.  (*1) Incoming link quality and anchor text content, along with on-page content analysis, assessment of percentage of advertising content above the fold, exact-match keywords in domain name and heaven only knows what else! Devising a remedial strategy can be confusing in the extreme!

Basically, your best option is to take an holistic approach and address the various aspects in turn. In this instance, we shall address a mechanism for tackling algorithmic penalties…

Guilty Twinges Notwithstanding

Have you ever been seduced into building links to boost your rankings? Sure you have – hasn’t everyone tried to find a way to improve their position? The spirit of competition in all things is what determines success or failure. Unfortunately, its highly probable that some of the links that boosted your rankings 5 or 6 years ago are now a liability at best. Even more likely, some are now an insidious impediment to your good rankings today. . .

I don’t think anyone in their right mind ever thought Google would actually penalise a website for incoming links. It seems just plain wrong to me, because its not an aspect of website ownership over which the site’s owner has full control. Anyone can make a link to your site without let or hindrance! In most cases, you won’t even know about it!

How to Identify Your Incoming Links

First, you’ve got to assess the big picture on  incoming links, and that requires access to in-depth information. If you have a Google Search Console (Webmaster) account, and your site is verified correctly, Google will give you access to all the links they find pointing to your site. That’s all very well and good, but the last thing you want to do is rush into dumping links that might actually be making a positive contribution to your rankings!

You need a way of determining the quality of those links, and you’ve got at least 2 options;

  1. Manually review every linking site and decide if its delivering a good link or a bad link
  2. Pay for a link analysis that provides a quality score to help with the decision making

There are several commercial services that provide link quality analysis. The one I’ve used is LinkDelete, chosen because it had good online reviews. My own experiences with the service have been positive thus far, with deadlines being met and prompt responses to questions I’ve asked.

Initial payment gets your account established. Within a few days a comprehensive spreadsheet list of incoming links they’ve found via their sources is provided for your review. A link quality score is included with every link, and there are often multiple links found per linking domain. You can request that they include Anchor Text for each link. Do so, because that information is very useful.

You have three tasks at this point;

  1. Select the links to remove
  2. Refine the links to the core link detail / account listing if possible
  3. Provide a text file listing all links you’d like removed

Selecting the Links to Remove

Commence by copying all the spreadsheet data to a new worksheet. In the initial phase, you could opt to eliminate all links with a positive link score, on the basis that they are probably good.  Sort the remaining links by Domain / URL to get a better view of how many links have been found from each domain to your site.

Be aware that the link quality assessment is NOT without flaws! It may not take into account the relationship of your site to the link genre, or that the site belongs to a member of your business network or contacts. Three of the sites I’ve worked on had Open Directory links showing as -100 link quality, which seems a little harsh! Most of us would commit to almost any indiscretion in exchange for a DMOZ link to our site – its always been the holy grail of directory links.

What is a given is that a link showing up as -500 quality rating is highly suspect! A link showing a positive link value is most likely a good link that you’d want to retain. Link quality is a factor of trust + relevance and automated assessments may throw up a few false negatives. Regardless, its up to you to review the list with due diligence! (*2)

Tools of the Trade

Mastery of Excel spreadsheet commands is a handy skill if you want to refine lists because you can identify and remove duplicates, search and replace to drop portion of URLs and much more.

I also use LinkAssistant SEO software to review additional linking elements such as anchor text. It also tests if links are alive or dead, and if they are Nofollow or Follow.

None of the services are flawless, and LinkAssistant shows up false negatives in terms of Nofollow links. Google Webmaster Tools does give you the most detailed lists of domains / links to your website. However, GWT also seems to include links that have are no longer present.

 

Link Quality Assessment

Carefully scan through the list looking for;

  • sites you know are good
  • sites you know are relevant to your industry / genre
  • sites that are part of your network of business contacts
  • local or regional directories and country-specific local businesses

Remove all the “probably good” links from the remove list. To verify an individual domain’s perceived quality, check it on Google by searching for the domain name. If the search results show the site in first position, with a number of the site’s pages listed as a sub-menu, its very likely to be a ‘good’ site.

 

If the domain name search does not show the site in top position, the chances are high that its either;

  • been taken down
  • been penalised by Google
  • been de-indexed by Google

If its in top place with no sub-menu pages listed, check how many pages its got indexed by changing the search parameter to “site:www.domainname.com”. Zero pages indexed may mean its been blacklisted by Google and you don’t want it in your link portfolio!

Linking Page Content

Open the linking page’s URL in a separate tab or window and review the page content and the actual listing for your site. Not all links pages are created equal, and some give clear indications of quality, or lack thereof;

  • If the page has 100’s of miscellaneous links, you should mark the link for deletion
  • If the page has few (+ or -30) links and all are closely related sites associated within a correct category, its probably a keeper
  • If the site’s clearly advertising itself as offering fast, SEO-friendly PR links and the design is cheap and nasty, lose it!
  • If its a directory site that’s smartly designed, stated as human-edited, and there’s a backlog of submissions, its possibly a keeper

If the page does not open, but a custom 404 Page Not Found error page displays,  it may be that the linking page has already been taken down by the owner. I’ve observed many directories that have deleted ALL listings, but the base site still loads, indicating a possible ‘start afresh’ approach.

If a domain registrar’s page opens, showing the domain as available for purchase, you can cross it off your link removal list on the basis that the link has already be taken down.

Link Anchor Text

If the initial indicators are positive, look at the link’s anchor text. This is possibly the most serious aspect as it appears that a modest percentage of over-optimised anchor text can quickly cause you harm.

  • If there’s a branding element included, such as your business or domain name, this is a link you’d probably want to keep
  • If the anchor text is stuffed with exact-match keyword search phrase/s, the link may be a liability

Some experts suggest you retrieve the anchor text for every link as part of the review process. If there’s only a few links, that’s something you can do quite quickly. However, if there are 5,000+ links to to be reviewed and sorted into good and bad, finding and checking individual anchor text would add a huge burden to an already time-consuming and tedious task.

LinkDelete can provide that information for you. Even better is using LinkAssistant which can import the GWT “all links” .CSV file, and then check for dead links, anchor text and a range of other indicators.

In the overall scheme of things, it is important to understand that Google is assessing you on multiple fronts. Keep in mind that not only are the quality of the links to you assessed, Google also analyses the keywords within the anchor text for manipulative efforts.

Thus, a link from an otherwise good site which has over-optimised anchor text can still harm your rankings!

Stages 1 & 2: Link Quality

I’ve settled on a system of making the first pass through the Removal List and eliminating potentially good links, at the same time confirming those which are clearly suspect and possibly toxic.  I get link removal requests underway as Stage 1, with a follow-up in the second month where requests were ignored.  Stage 2 is using the Disavow Tool to distance the site from potentially harmful links.

Stage 3: Anchor Text Assessment

As a Stage 3 process, you could go through every remaining link and assess the anchor text content for keyword variation and branding inclusion. This might be the time to extract the list of links to your domain from your Google Webmaster Tools account, and match those up with the link’s anchor text using a tool such as LinkAssistant. LinkDelete can also provide you with the Anchor Text for each link with the initial link report.

Rather than attempting to remove potentially good links which have over-optimised anchor text, it would be best to try and get the link amended! Many webmasters respond more positively to a polite request asking for a link edit than to a request for a link deletion.

As is usual in SEO circles, there’s a range of conflicting advice on what’s the best format for anchor text! Overall, it seems Google expects that a natural link profile would show far more domain name and/or branded links than exact-match, high search volume keyword-rich anchor texts. Any potential imbalance can be at least partially addressed by addition of new “branded” links, and amendment requests on otherwise good link containing over-optimised anchor text.  (*3)

Refine the Link Removal List

The LinkDelete process has a limit on the number of link removal requests per month, so targeting the primary link from a domain can reduce your overall list significantly. Look carefully at the links, and try to spot the core account link. For example, a directory may have your core listing, along with links to it from several category pages. Eliminating the core listing will automatically remove it from all other pages, as per this directory listing example;

– http://www.somedirectory.net/detail/link-47231.html

You should spend time trying to find the account listing URL. It may be found as a link on the “More Info” button, you may even need to search the site for your domain the track down that primary listing.

Rather than have the “Please Remove Link” request list all the pages the link was found on, simply requesting the deletion of the primary account / listing link also helps the webmaster quickly identify the source to remove, and increases the chances of a positive outcome.

LinkAssistant & Link Removal Requests

You can also generate a contract list on links using this software, and use it instead of, or in addition to, the LinkDelete procedures.

You might also use the additional link data you’ve extracted from GWT and processed through LinkAssistant to refine / expand the link deletion list you would submit to LinkDelete for removal requests.’

Submit a Text File listing Links for Removal

After reaching the end of that marathon effort, you now need to copy and save the  list of links you’d like removed into a simple text file.

Log into your LinkDelete account and reply to the Project’s link list message, and attach your Links to Be Removed text file.

Link Removal Report

Approximately 3 weeks after your link removal list is submitted, the first month’s process will be completed. You will receive a report outlining which links have been successfully removed, and which remain. At the same time, you will be billed for month two of services.

The amount of links  you’d like removed determines your next step. A single site has an allocation of 400 link removal submissions per month. None of the sites I’ve worked on have exceeded that, so a second batch of new removal requests was unnecessary. Instead, a followup contact with those sites that had ignored the first round of removal requests was the correct option. If you have no further new links to be processed for removal, you should now cancel your monthly subscription.

Towards the end of the 2nd month, you will have the final list of links removed from the follow-up campaign and are ready to take the next step.

LinkDelete have provided you with the evidence of two months of remedial efforts to remove links you don’t trust. You now have a list of links you’ve successfully removed, and a list of sites that have not responded to two consecutive requests to delete the link.

The Disavow Tool

link-removal-disavow-toolThis was provided in late 2012 for site owners to “disown” links that might be hurting them. Its important to heed Google’s instructions, here’s what they say about the use of the disavow tool! (*3)

If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site. You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.

However, you’re now good to go! You’ve already done the hard yards and can back that up with demonstrable results from 2 months of link removal efforts. The links you are disavowing are owned by someone who steadfastly ignored your polite removal requests over 2 consecutive months!

When you submit a disavow request, it will be processed much like a sitemap is processed. Google will flag the disavowed links pointing at your site as if they have the rel=”NOFOLLOW” meta-tag attached to them. Effectively, in the context of both link counts and anchor text analysis, they will be treated as if they did not exist. On the Disavow Tools page, Google provides a link to detailed instructions.

Having determined that a potentially toxic domain is linking to you, its sensible to simplify the process by dealing with links at Domain Level, rather than individually specifying each link.

Basically, you need to;

  1. Copy your final file of non-removed links into a worksheet
  2. Remove all the multiples so that you are left one link per domain
  3. Search and replace “www.” with “domain:” because Google does not need the canonical version
  4. Trim the page file names off the end of all the domains to ensure all links are disavowed

Save the list of domains to be disavowed as a text file (use Wordpad or similar) – the file  needs to be in UTF8 format, with a .txt extension.

  • Go to Webmaster Tools / Disavow: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main
  • Select the correct Domain name that you wish to disavow links to, and upload the text file…

Wait patiently – potentially for a quite a long time. Google may process the list quite quickly, but it may be weeks / months before the impact of the changes appears in a future iteration of the Penguin update process.

The Webscape Changeth

After months of link deletion efforts across websites in different genres, its clear that the impact of Google’s efforts to cleanse the web of link manipulation, is having a broad impact.

“Bad” Sites Are Being Turned Off

While reviewing lists of links to assess quality, I’ve been surprised by the numbers of sites that have been taken down. Lots of cloned versions of dodgy SEO-friendly directories now have their domains parked, or have had all content deleted.

  • If your *.blogspot.com site was created solely to improve SEO ranking of your main site, then there may no longer be any point in retaining it because its likely doing you more harm than good.
  • If its a link-scam directory, all its potentially good for is negative SEO. Its output is now harmful to the sites that are listed, or to unwitting sites innocently submitting links in future.

Of course, at the point where link removal requests exceed link submissions, running a directory becomes a pointless waste of time and money.

1st Month Link Removal Results

Of the sites I’ve worked on, the lowest removal success rate was 24% in the 1st month. Most achieved between 27% and 36% removal of unwanted links. The highest success rate was 100% removal of all unwanted links, albeit on site that had a modest 81 domain links targeted for elimination.

2nd Month Link Removal Results

The follow-up emails achieved a 5% – 10% return, but provides additional supporting evidence to Google that we’ve tried to “make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site.

How Rankings Improved After Link Removal

Across the board on all sites, demonstrable improvements to rankings were evident. Sites with 30% removal of poor links responded progressively, month by month.

 

Even the site with the lowest percentage of links removed also responded positively;

 

 

Conclusion on Initial Link Removal Efforts

Clearly, the results of cleaning up potentially harmful links are positive. The task is relatively modest in cost and therefore well worth the effort. Like much of the work involved with SEO, its tedious and requires attention to detail.

The impact of the Google Disavow Links submissions remains an unknown quantity at the moment, and it will be interesting to see if there’s an incremental improvement as disavowed links are removed from the equation. There’s little in the way of online case studies as to the effectiveness of disavowing links and the timeframes for seeing results.

Stages 1 & 2: Link Quality

I’ve settled on a system of making the first pass through the Removal List and eliminating potentially good links, at the same time confirming those which are clearly suspect and possibly toxic.  I get link removal requests underway as Stage 1, with a follow-up in the second month where requests were ignored.  Stage 2 is using the Disavow Tool to distance the site from potentially harmful links.

A bad link is a bad link, no matter if the anchor text is good, so the priority should be eliminating the low-quality links first.

Stage 3: Anchor Text Assessment

As a Stage 3 process, go through every remaining link and assess the anchor text content for keyword variation and branding inclusion. This might be the time to extract the list of links to your domain from your Google Webmaster Tools account, and match those up with the link’s anchor text.

As is usual in SEO circles, there’s a range of conflicting advice on what’s the best format for anchor text! Overall, it seems Google expects that a natural link profile would show far more domain name and/or branded links than exact-match, high search volume keyword-rich anchor texts. Any potential imbalance could be addressed by addition of new “branded” links, rather than removing otherwise good links from trusted domains. If an otherwise good link contains over-optimised anchor text, you could try politely requesting if the webmaster or site owner could revise the link using the text you provide.  There seems to be some consensus that targeted (exact-match keywords) anchor text should be not exceed 30% of your overall link portfolio. (*4)

There’s no magic bullet, no quick and easy shortcuts. However, those prepared to put in the time and energy required will reap rewards commensurate with the efforts they’ve expended. If you need help fixing Penguin link penalties on your site, contact me!

References:

*1 – www.seomoz.org/blog/the-difference-between-penguin-and-an-unnatural-links-penalty-and-some-info-on-panda-too

*2 – www.seomoz.org/blog/identifying-link-penalties-in-2012

3* – http://searchengineland.com/how-google-disavow-link-tool-remove-penalties-154928

*4 – www.seomoz.org/blog/click-here-seo