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How to Remove Unnatural Links to Your Site: Choosing the Best Solution after Penguin 2.0

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How to Remove Unnatural Links to Your Site: Choosing the Best Solution after Penguin 2.0

As you perhaps know, Google’s Penguin 2.0 was rolled out on May 22, 2013. The reaction of the SEO world has been intense – at Warrior Forum alone, dozens of new threads dedicated to Penguin popped up overnight.


By the way, if you read carefully the original Matt Cutts’ post about Penguin 2.0 (especially the comments), you probably saw that this could be just the beginning:

convo with matt cutts

That said, what do webmasters do now? If your website has been affected, most likely it’s because of low-quality backlinks pointing to it. So, you should take a close look at your link profile and weed out any “unnatural” backlink you see there.

If your site hasn’t been affected – good for you; but I’d recommend to perform a backlink scan anyway, because you never really know who might be linking to you (could save you time and headache later on).

Yes, I know, performing a link audit and getting rid of bad links is easier said than done, but the task becomes easier when you have a clear plan. And this is something I’d like to talk about – getting a Penguin 2.0 action plan.

How to Spot Low-Quality Backlinks

Just one day before Penguin 2.0, we shared a comprehensive guide to backlink audit on the Link-Assistant.Com site. It covers the types of links that are likely to be the problem in the light of Penguin 2.0. So, how do you identify the low-quality links? Usually they are the ones that:

  • Come from PR-n/a or PR0 sites
  • Are site wide
  • Come from very new domains
  • Come from domains with little traffic
  • Come from sites with identical C class
  • Are from pages with a big number of external links

If you see those in your backlink profile (particularly if some of those characteristics overlap), you should probably include them into your to-remove list.

You have singled out the bad links, now what?

From what some SEOs and webmasters write on blogs and forums, it seems that many are confused as to what to do with the suspicious links pointing to their site. Will Google just discount them? Would disavowing them be enough? Should they now expect an unnatural link warning or a slap from Penguin?

I must have read close to a hundred unnatural link case studies online, and, distilling the conclusions I drew from them, here are the 5 options you’d probably have (depending on the situation).

Option 1 – Do Nothing

Let me tell you upfront that, if you have some shady links pointing to your site, this option is not for you. ‘Why include it in the post then’, one may ask. OK, here is why.

Some time ago, Ann Smarty wrote on the SEO chat forum that she had gotten an unnatural link warning from Google. Needless to say, Ann was surprised, since she’d never purposefully build links to the site in question. Besides, her rankings and traffic hadn’t changed either. Then how come she got the warning?

ann smarty

Now, you may have heard that there are 2 types of link warnings Google sends out to webmasters. For convenience purposes, let’s dub them type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 – is a kind of link warning that’s sometimes sent for ‘innocent reasons’ and may not require any particular action on behalf of the webmaster.

It’s characterized by:

  • No caution sign in the subject line
  • No obvious change in traffic to your site
  • No low-quality links pointing to your site that you’re aware of

no caution sign

Type 2 – is a link spam warning that means there has been manual action taken against your site.

It’s characterized by:

  • A yellow caution sign in the subject line
  • A drop in site traffic or rankings, or both
  • You can see some shady links pointing to your site.

google webmasters tools

So, going back to Ann’s case, it’s clear from the thread that she received a type 1 warning. If you read it further, you’ll see that many commented that, unless you know there is something wrong with your link profile, this type of message from Google can be ignored.

By the way, does a warning mean you were slapped by Penguin? Type1 warning doesn’t necessarily mean that, and type 2 warning clearly means that there was manual action (as opposed to Penguin, which is algorithmic action) taken.

However, following the receipt of the type 1 message, different thing may happen:

1. You receive the type 2 message – means Google took manual action against your site after all. You will now have to clean up the links and file a reconsideration request.

2. Your rankings/traffic drop, but no type 2 message comes – your site may have been affected by Penguin. You’ll have to clean up the links and wait for the next Penguin refresh.

3. Nothing happens, and your metrics stay the same – it would still be wise to audit your backlinks, just to be on the safe side.

Option 2 – Can you just 404 the linked-to pages?

Most often, SEOs are in a rush to recover from Penguin (or lift a manual penalty), because clients are waiting, bills need to be paid, etc. Hence, some folks are tempted to simply get rid of the pages, to which the low-quality links are pointing, instead of trying to remove the links.

Does this actually work? Well, John Mueller of Google did confirm at Google Webmaster Forum that, if a page is made 404 or 410, links to such a page are not counted by Google.

However, what might have been a viable solution before Google’s disavow tool, is probably more of a bad idea these days, because the method has 2 essential drawbacks:

  • Most likely you can’t afford to remove the linked-to page, since it’s either your homepage or some page you’d like to rank in the search results.
  • Having 404/410 pages on your site doesn’t make for a search engine-friendly site structure.

Option 3 – Request a link removal

Digging up webmaster’s contact information and asking them to remove the links you put to their site (well, most likely) can be a daunting task. Some SEOs outsource it on Fiverr or Odesk. Alternatively, you can use a link management tool that has a built-in email client (for instance, LinkAssistant) to have better control of which person you email about which links.

How do you write an effective link removal request?

1. Don’t simply demand the link be removed (the mistake someone made with Josh Marshal, a popular political blog editor).

2. If it’s a comment link and you are not the person who left the comment, mention it in the email. Because if you are the spammer who put it there in the first place, why would they want to help you?

3. Alternatively, you could mention that Google just penalized Sprint over spam comments.

4. If the linking site does look spammy, you could tell the webmaster you’ll be forced to disavow their links if they don’t remove them, which could actually hurt their site.

Then, if you’re still not able to remove some of the links, don’t wait for the next Penguin refresh – use the disavow tool (the option coming up next) for the ones you were not able to remove.

*If it’s a manual penalty, file a reconsideration request before you disavow the links. In your request, provide a list of sites that couldn’t be contacted/refused to remove the links. Tim Grice from SEOWizz wrote a great post with examples of how being persistent, trying multiple approaches (manual link removal + using the disavow tool) and not being afraid to file several reconsideration requests works out in the end.

manual link spam penalty

Option 4 – Use Google’s link disavow tool

One thing to note right away about Google’s link disavow tool: don’t use it before you try to remove the bad links by other means. I believe many have been doing it, that’s why Google now even has this warning right next to the disavow button.

disavow links

Another potential danger is that, if your site is slammed by Penguin and you just go ahead and disavow some links to your site (without any evidence of having tried to remove them), this could invite a manual penalty from Google (just my supposition), because there’ve been rumors online that real humans are actually looking at link disavow requests.

Option 5 – Ditch the affected site

Around the time Penguin 1.0 came out, Matt Cutts said that, for some webmasters affected by Penguin, it probably made sense to start a new site. Well unfortunately, if you are an SEO consultant it’s not you who needs to start a new website, but your client. And they may as well just want a new consultant altogether.

So, it’s a tricky question. I think starting with a new site could only be justified if the site in question is either brand-new, or you haven’t really invested in it.

In any case, you should do a careful evaluation of what it would take you to recover from Penguin (or come out of the manual penalty) and what it would cost you to set up a new site. You may find that the latter is even more preferable. As Mike Friedman’s wrote in Warrior Forum:

warrior forum

By the way, I like Mike’s idea about doing both: starting a new site and trying to recover the one that got hit at the same time.

In the long run, it is possible that Google will change the set of messages it issues to webmaster. We’re likely to see more examples of low-quality links that could be affecting the site, and more. For now, though, we’ll have to live with what we have and use the means available today.




Featured Image: Deposit Photos


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Alesia Krush

Alesia is an SEO and a digital marketer at Link-Assistant.Com, a major SEO software provider and the maker of SEO ... [Read full bio]

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