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Cleaning up Backlinks: An SEO Guide

Overview of Penguin & Links

Since Google released the Penguin algorithm, websites with spammy backlinks have suffered with drastic drops in rankings. In a nutshell Penguin is designed to find spammy links & devalue the sites they point to. There are many more facets to Penguin, but to keep this guide from turning into a book let’s just stick with this basic definition.

Nearly every website we’ve looked at that was hit by Penguin has hired a less than reputable SEO company at some point. That dodgy SEO company then built an obscene amount of spammy backlinks on message boards & sites no one ever visits (or hired a 3rd party in India or Russia to do it for them).

The sites that didn’t hire an SEO company fancied themselves SEOs after reading some articles and decided to build the spammy links on their own (whether they knew they were spammy or not).

Before Penguin this tactic worked, but now its value is gone. Links are still important, they always will be, but now link building is about getting quality links.

How do I find out who’s linking to me?

Log in to Google Webmaster Tools & Bing Webmaster Tools and they’ll have most of links they’ve found that point to you.

Some of these links may be outdated and not have a link to you any more, or the site may even be gone. You will have to visit each page to see if they actually still link to you & if they’re spammy before you start disavowing sites willy-nilly.

The last thing you want to do is remove links that aren’t actually spammy.

Should I pay a webmaster to remove a link?

From SEO Roundtable during a discussion with Google’s John Mueller:

Question: Re: Link penalty – Should I pay webmasters demanding a fee for link removal?

John Mueller: “Personally I’d recommend not going down that route. If this is something that you want to have removed just for Google’s indexing and crawling then probably it’s ok to just list it in the disavow file. On the other hand, if it is something you want to have removed from the web completely and you don’t want to have this reference on the web for your website then maybe you can talk to those webmasters to see what you can do about having those things removed. But, essentially from our point of view when it comes to unnatural links to your website we want to see that you’ve taken significant steps to actually remove it from the web but if there are some links that you can’t remove yourself or there are some that require payment to be removed then having those in the disavow file is fine as well.”

I must say that if you really want to have a link removed that you added and the webmaster wants a mere pittance for their time and effort then paying them would be the right thing to do. Otherwise I strongly believe that disavowing their site would do the same thing, although the benefit will take longer to kick in.

What should be disavowed & what should be manually removed?

How to tell if a link is spammy

  1. Does the site look spammy? Would you trust it with your credit card?
  2. Is the site or page unrelated to your site? e.g. you sell stationary, but the site is about car repair tips
  3. Is the link hidden? e.g. white text on white background

If you answered yes to any of these then there’s a good chances the link is spammy and it should either be removed or disavowed.

Types of links that seem spammy, but can be safely ignored

Scraper sites

These sites will copy content from your site or another and put it on their site. Did you know that even Google is a scraper site?

Let’s say you’re a local business and you have a listing on a local directory. Google & many others will crawl it and see that you are a real local business and if enough positive signals are found they will automatically add it to their site (Google Places for instance).

This is totally safe and will not hurt your rankings.

Another example are spammy sites that scrape Wikipedia (example). Don’t worry about them, you can’t control them and Google knows that.

Sites with Search Engine Results

There are sites out there that have content and then what appears to be search engine results (example). These can be safely ignored as Google is aware of these types of sites and they don’t really pay attention to them.

What kinds of links are good to have?

The best links are ones that you don’t build yourself. Let’s say someone asks a question on a message board or Q&A site and someone answers the question with a helpful link to your site. That’s a valuable link and you didn’t do anything but produce quality content.

Links from blog posts are great as long as they appear to be natural. We don’t recommend
buying links on blogs though.

If you’re a local business one of the best links you can easily build yourself is adding your listing on local business directories. These can drive traffic, but mostly they are a way that search engines know that you are a real business, what you provide & how customers can find you.

Disavowing Backlinks

As you’re probably already aware Google does provide a tool that lets you list links  you don’t trust or think are spammy. Basically they won’t count those links against you.

Read how to use Google’s disavow tool.

Did you know that Bing released their disavow tool way before Google? Don’t ignore Bing, they can be a good source of traffic & they power other search engines besides their own.

Read how to use Bing’s disavow tool.

How long does it take to disavow a link?

No one truly knows, but it does not happen right away. Google says it could take weeks, but experience says that it usually takes months.

If you can manually remove a link then things will go faster for you.

This is too hard! Can you do it for me?

It’s a lot to take in and do. We know. We’ve done it for sites with over 100,000 back links.
Fortunately we have processes to make this task much more efficient.

Contact us if you would like us to identify spammy links & build a disavow file for you.

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Acknowledgement of Country

We respectfully acknowledge the people of the Yugambeh language region, the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and pay our respect to their elders past and present, and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who now live in the local area.

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