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

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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 to write an effective link removal request?

1. Don’t simply demand the link to 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.

Post image by istolethetv via Flickr.

Alesia Krush

Alesia Krush

Alesia is an SEO and a digital marketer at Link-Assistant.Com, a major SEO software provider and the maker of SEO PowerSuite tools. Link-Assistant.Com is a... Read Full Bio
Alesia Krush
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  • Reginald


    Thanks for sharing that. Pretty cool information you got there. *p/s I really like the part about the site wide thingy.

    Keep it up Alesia!


    • Sahil

      Post Penguin and Panda, search engines certainly emphasises on building great content which is informative, creative and helpful for the users. Great content helps in earning high quality, relevant and authoritative links which will help negate the effect of spam or automated links which were previously built to manipulate search engine rankings. Its important to be good for the users to be good in search engine’s point of view.

  • Asif Faridi

    Some website demanded money for removing your links, that’s why Google facilities Disavow Tool for Webmaster. We should follow guidelines(First send removal request, wait, checked the site removed your links or not) then its your final step to submit disavow, reconsideration request. If you add that Good back-links in disavow through which you got ranked, you may drop more in Google SERPs. so it wants more cautions and experience to send reconsideration request.

    • Alesia Krush

      Hi, Asif!
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, that’s right, It takes some expertise to use the disavow tool in such a way that it actually works.
      Also, I’d like to mention that you should send a reconsideration request only if manual action was taken against your site. If the ranking sank as the result of a Google algorithm update, one simply need to wait for the algorithm refresh.

  • James

    Option 5 makes the most sense in many cases; if you have removed all the unnatural links, you would need to start from pretty much scratch anyway.

    • Alesia Krush

      Hi James,

      Thanks for the comment. Well, these are quite different things in my opinion. Cleaning up one’s backlink profile doesn’t really equal starting a new website.

      First, a website may still have some “legitimate” links left after the clean-up. And second, building a new site is a lot of work in itself, apart from “link earning”.

      But I hear you, you’re probably saying that a site with no links (especially in a competitive niche) is just as good as a brand-new site, right? That could be.


  • Sumit Dass

    Hello Alesia,

    Thank you very much for sharing this great post and for sharing some tips on How to Remove Unnatural Links to Your Site: Choosing the Best Solution after Penguin 2.0.

  • Jake Bohall

    We’ve seen a lot of companies recover from Penguin, but it has always taken a lot of hard work. The steps laid out here are spot on! I will say this though…. while it is important not to be afraid to file multiple reconsideration requests, I would caution you from sending in requests without having done sufficient work to warrant a reconsideration. In most ever case, we have had to remove 60 – 70% of any “bad” links, disavowing the rest, before we were able to get a successful reconsideration request. It is also important that you correctly identify a bad link, as ANY links that have anchor text with commercial intent that are not no-followed, any sitewides, etc. Many people think their anchor text specific links are “natural”, and unfortunately when you are trying to recover from a penalty, those are rarely considered natural and will have to be removed.

    • Alesia Krush

      Jake! Thanks for taking the time to comment. The part about commercial anchor text was really insightful.


      • Jake Bohall

        Hi Alesia,

        As an update, we recently launched a tool on that will let you look more closely at your anchor text breakdown for issues that may be caused with anchor text overoptimization. Just wanted to share..

  • Ronnie

    Why recommend removing links from new, or low PR sites, I don’t know that it is the most effective because there is a likelyhood that a new site’s traffic will grow or the site will die and the link will go away anyways. It can be a waste sometimes to chase bad links if you know that you didn’t link-spam your site before.

    • Alesia Krush

      Ronnie, picture this. The previous SEO manager was engaging in black-hat techniques. He/she set up 1000 WordPress sites with spun content and pointed them to the “money” site. Or he/she hired someone on Odesk to do it, don’t matter.

      After Penguin, the site sank in the SEPRs. You take over the previous SEO and need to do link clean-up. Before you disavow those obviously spammy links, you need to try to remove them (if you can). If you can’t, then disavow them. In this hypothetical situation I modeled, there is no way the site will just go away, and neither will the links disappear by themselves.

      But, of course, this is just an example, there are many reasons why new/low-PR sites could be linking to you. They could be legitimate, too (as you pointed out). One can generalize only up to a certain point, but we can’t really arrive at precise conclusions without knowing the exact situation.


  • Ainhoa Julián

    The task of removing links you have created another SEO is very tedious. I am now in the job and it is really difficult because inbound links are often automatic, and some are so old that the site from which do not have an administrator. I tried several times disawow tool google links, but after review, the notice still appears unnatural links. Have you ever managed to eliminate this kind of penalty? I can not find anyone that yes I have solved correctly. Thank you for your attention 🙂

    • Alesia Krush

      Ainhoa, have you seen this video with Matt Cutts – – in which he talk about some common mistakes people make when using the disavow tool and/or submitting reconsideration requests? I think the video clarifies quite a bit about why one’s reconsideration request may bounce.

      Also, if your site was affected by algorithm changes (as opposed to a manual penalty), you might have to wait a certain number of weeks or even longer before the changes are reflected in the SERPs. However, submitting another reconsideration request never hurts.


      • Ainhoa Julián

        Hello Alesia! I managed to remove a penalty. Thank you very much for your post, it helped me get. Here explain the real case

  • Sanjeev

    I have found myself in a very interesting situation. I did the backlink analysis as mentioned in the post and checked that there are links (thousands of them) pointing to my sites from almost dead sites or development locations…
    I do provide custom code snippet on my site and people have used it to develop the site (including my links)…now these development boxes are of no value to Google but they are listing these links in webmaster tools, which means they are checking it.
    I have tried contacting the site owners but to no avail looks like I need to use Disavow tool…
    Also a lessen learnt, never use live link in code snippet, it can create a lot of issue if people doesn’t know how to use them….

  • Tim Harris

    Good post. I think it’s very important to choose the right tools when cleaning up your site and getting rid of bad links. I’ve been told of lots of different companies that say they can detox your site and remove the harmful links, but many of them when I actually used them didn’t help at all. I heard about The Link Auditors on a forum and obviously I was unsure if they were to sort my situation due to my bad experience with other companies, but when a friend told me he used them I decided to go ahead with them.

    They were amazing at what they did; they offered expert advice, answered all my questions, they didn’t cost too much and best of all, they cleaned up my site completely of the unnatural links. They told me about all their tools, and what they did and I was shocked how well they worked, after using other tools like Link Detox and them not working!

    They were very knowledgeable and told me all about Google Penalties and PR values. Once, I saw my site was cleaned of bad links, I noticed it climbing back up through the ranks of Google and I am so pleased with the results! I definitely recommend The Link Auditors to anybody with a Google penalty, harmful links on their sites and other such problems as they have really helped me!

  • Alise

    I have faced with a very strange situation. I have cleared up my site completely from any low-quality links. Any positive response fallowed from Google team. Any explanation comes neither. Any thoughts on such case…? Would be grateful for any advice.


    These are great tips. One thing that I would like to note is that you REALLY have to show proof to Google that you actually tried to have the backlinks removed and document your efforts. Unfortunately, you can’t just do disavow requests.

  • Tim Whittingham

    The first thing to do in removing unnatural links, is to identify which links are the ones that need to be deleted. One of the best ways to do this is to get a link audit. At The Link Auditors, we have a suite of online tools, designed by us, specifically designed to find unnatural and low trusted links. We also have tools for finding duplicate IPs, Site Wide links and key word density,

    We have another tool, our email tool. This tool, once all your unwanted links have been found, will automatically send removal requests to each webmaster linking to your site. Our removal tool has a higher success rate than other names such as Link Detox and Link Delete. Link Detox have a 5-25% removal success rate, while our tools average a 75% success rate.

    Our tools give a list all the important data, unlike GWT. Our tools list whether the link is toxic or healthy, and a percentage to how bad it is, to each specific link. Our tools are the best on the online market for identifying and removing backlinks. With over five years of experience in the industry, and a fully qualified team on hand to answer any questions and give you advice on your audit and what is best for you. Feel free to give us a call on +44 (0)208 123 9429 with any questions about our service.