Google’s policy that linking should be for editorial purposes only, and not to improve your search engine rankings, has been pretty consistent for nearly a decade. There have always been gray areas that have been open to interpretation and debate. Sometimes tactics that were perfectly fine and considered acceptable will be abused and be frowned upon by Google. These edge tactics can put you on the receiving end of an “Unnatural Links” warning letter in your inbox, followed by dramatic decrease in traffic. In this article we’ll take a look at how to examine your backlinks, perform a backlink risk assessment, and what are some warning flags you should look out for.
The easiest place to start is in Google’s Webmaster Central. Inside Webmaster Central you can see a list to your most popular links:
If you click the “more” link at the bottom Google shows you a list of your top 1000 links. You can download this list of links so you can use them in a spreadsheet or some other program. It’s also a good idea to use one or more commercial back linking products such as Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer, A Hrefs and SEMRush. Unless you are in a position where you already have been banned webmaster central, one or two commercial services should be adequate.
Once you have all of this data you are going to need merge it into a useful format. Every project is different but some things you’ll want are as follows:
- Root domain
- Page link is located on or is link site wide
- Strength or trust rank, each commercial service has it’s own metric which is different so this may require more than one column.
- Anchor text
- Anchor URL
- Is The link no-followed
- Domain IP
- Domain Age
- Alexa Rank and/or Compete Score
- 1-3 additional fields for your notes, observations, and overall feeling about the domain/page the link is on
What Does Google Consider a Bad Link
Unfortunately there isn’t a tool we can use that will instantly tell us if Google thinks this is a good link or a bad one. The best way to understand what Google is looking for is to read the Google Guidelines, especially the part about link schemes. As a rule of thumb Google wants links to be given for editorial purposes because they are helpful to the users. Links that were placed in exchange for cash, cash in kind (i.e. a gift like an iPhone), in exchange for past service or service to be performed in the future, or any other bad faith transaction, results in the link being created primarily to influence search engines. It is then considered a “bad link” and against their guidelines.
Yes the definition is a little loose and fuzzy, but Google is giving itself some wiggle room for interpretation. There’s simply no way they can spell out and plan for all of the ways people are going to try and game the system. The second part of this is sometimes policies need adjusting and fine tuning over time due to abuses, but we’ll talk about that a little later.
Assessing Your Backlink Data
Once you’ve merged all of your sources into one sheet and created all the necessary columns you’re going to need to fill in as many of the empty spots in your spreadsheet as possible. There are some crawling tools like Screaming Frog, Website Auditor, and SEO Spyglass which can help you complete your worksheet, but you will also need to do some manual investigating. If you have an exceptionally large back link profile to review, a service like Mechanical Turk or Upwork can help with a lot of the grunt work.
What Makes a Link a Bad Link
Simply put, it’s a link that either is in direct violation of one of Google’s guidelines or is in violation of the spirit in which the guideline was written. For example: if you link to part of a 500 page link exchange that’s trying to pass itself off as “directory” that’s “helpful to the users” or if your link overly commercially motivated with anchor text that’s not keyword focused and not at all “natural”. Site owners struggle a lot with this concept because they want to rank well for commercial keywords, however if 50% of your inbound links use anchor text like “buy cheap car insurance online” it’s not going to look natural at all to Google. As a site owner you may think it’s helpful to create a dozen different sites about home maintenance tips, and each of those sites links back to your Aluminum siding website. Google, however, considers that a link network or links scheme.
So when you have all of the data in a spreadsheet, sort it by different factors, like domain name, IP, anchor text, and so on. If you see any of the data that “clumps together”, it’s probably a warning flag you need to look a little closer to see if you are violating any guidelines.
If you’ve actually gotten a message from webmaster central that your website has been penalized for unnatural linking, it’s a safe assumption that you’ve probably got quite a bit that’s “wrong” with your back link profile. You don’t want to try and only get rid of the really obvious ones and see if you can sneak a few of the others past Google. In fact, it’s unlikely at this stage you’ll sneak anything back in. Google knows a lot more about your back links than you ever will, and once you’ve been penalized you will be looked at with a much more critical eye. Take a good hard look at your links and try examine them from Google’s perspective and not your own when deciding which links you would like to try to remove.
What to do About Bad Links
Once you have identified what you think are “bad” or unnatural links, you’ll want to get started removing them. Create a list of sites that you want to remove your links and which page(s) the link(s) are on. If the site has a contact form, use it and politely ask the site owner to remove your link(s). If there is no contact form, try to locate an email for the site owner. While this may be really important to you, this isn’t a priority for the person on the other end, so it may take a few days for them to get back to you. If your request goes unanswered, make a note of it, and move through the rest of your your list. Once you’ve attempted to contact everyone on your list, keep track of which ones were successful and which ones weren’t. Next step is to move on to the Google Link Disavow Tool. Follow the instructions and create a file of links/domains you want Google to ignore, and submit it using the disavow tool. I like to submit an entire domain as opposed to listing each URL one by one, but that’s more of a personal preference. Check back in a few days to make sure Google has processed the file and there aren’t any errors.
Now that we’ve identified, and tried to remove as many links as we can and disavowed the ones we can’t it’s time for the next part, the re-inclusion request, which will be covered in our next article.