Google’s growing focus on penalizing sites for “unnatural” backlinks could shine some light on what just may be the weakest link in your overall SEO strategy.
Even if you haven’t taken part in link buying or similar manipulative tactics, you can still take a hit in search rankings for having too many low-quality backlinks if you aren’t doing enough to manage risky links. If unrelated or low-quality sites have linked to your site without your knowledge, your ranking can suffer a hit.
Although addressing the issue is no simple task, benefits over time can be worth it. Ridding your sites of what Google search has determined are low-quality backlinks will improve your standing with search engines, as well as with visitors who may otherwise have a poor perception of your site because they see your URL associated with poor quality websites or those with an irrelevant relationship to yours.
Shift in Link-Building Practices
Google search becoming more sophisticated with its calculations in recent years has greatly impacted how it uses backlinks as one of a couple hundred factors taken into account in determining search rankings. The result has been a seismic shift for many site owners and SEO consultants in how they approach link building. Those who made use of what Google search labels “link schemes,” have suddenly found themselves with a whole host of backlinks that are attracting penalties and raising havoc with their site rankings. While most people working in SEO can readily list the types of links that have fallen out of favor with Google seach, here’s a short primer of some of the more notable, in bullet form:
- Backlinks originating from sites you control.
- Backlinks from forum comments and discussion boards.
- Purchased links.
- Links from large-scale article distribution with keyword-rich anchor text.
- Excessive link exchanges.
- Low-quality bookmark or directory site links.
- Widgets embedded with irrelevant links.
- Over-use of keyword-rich anchor text in media releases and articles.
- Backlinks between sites that have an irrelevant relationship or none at all.
You can read plenty of online opinions about Google search not placing as much emphasis on links as a factor in determining search rankings and how this is transforming approaches to SEO. But in essence, links still hold value. It’s just that Google has turned its attention from quantity of links to quality of links, with emphasis on valuable, relevant content with naturally occurring editorial links and incidences of social sharing. Consistency in acquiring high-quality backlinks in this manner only add to the site’s authority and reputation.
It’s no coincidence that Google’s own advice to webmasters is to wean themselves from traditional link-building activities and concentrate instead on creating high-quality, relevant content that naturally gains an online following. The backlinks you attract become more like true votes of approval for your expertise on the topic area. The greater the volume of high-quality content you produce, the more votes by way of high-quality links you should be able to gather.
Managing Your Link Profile
For most site owners, Google’s increased focus on spammy links is a wake-up call to analyze site link profiles and take control of managing link risk on a more ongoing basis, beginning with a link audit. There are several ways you can go about it. Using Google webmaster tools to gather information on what backlinks exist for your site is a logical place to start. However, there is strong evidence that not all bad links may find their way to the list generated within the tool. In addition, you may find you aren’t able to get enough backlink-specific analysis or support for identifying and eliminating unnatural links using Google webmaster tools alone.
There are plenty of link risk tools available online that can give you more in-depth information and analysis, as well as provide greater support for reducing the number of less-desirable backlinks affecting your site over time. Your best bet for link risk management is to use a combination of things. You can also use Google webmaster tools along with one or two additional data sources, such as SEOMoz, Ahrefs or equally effective service, to get a more solid picture of backlinks for your site. Then, choose a second online or downloadable tool that delivers link profile auditing and risk management information so you can continue monitoring your site over time.
The data source sites will help identify links while the link risk management tools can help you prioritize and manage backlinks while giving you the supportive analysis you need to get rid of low-quality links. Look for a link risk management tool that can also easily identify links that use manipulative anchor text. Some of these tools will also provide some automation to the multi-step backlink removal process.
Back to Basics
While online and downloadable tools can assist by automating some parts of the backlink removal process, the basic steps necessary for removing undesirable backlinks remain the same. Of course, you want to begin with the low-hanging fruit: those backlinks you put in place previously yourself and have direct control over. For example, your ranking may be negatively impacted because you’ve linked too many times from other sites you own or you may have used far too many keywords in anchor text with articles or media releases you’ve posted.
Once you’ve used your tool of choice for identifying, grouping and prioritizing low-quality or unnatural backlinks for removal, you will need to go through the time-consuming, mostly manual, task of locating contact information for webmasters or owners of the originating sites and sending requests for removal. It’s probably easiest to create an email template that can then be customized as needed. In the email, explain that you are focusing more on link risk management after seeing your site ranking drop with the latest release of Google’s algorithm. Politely request that your link be removed.
Remember to provide a copy of the link in question, as well as the URL from your page and the originating page. Although you shouldn’t expect a reply, some of the link risk management tools you come across will offer an automated way of tracking responses and actions for you. Over time, you will be able to see how successful your efforts have been.
Keeping a Clean Slate
Once you’ve followed these steps and provided enough time to adequately monitor progress, including responses to link removal requests, you may consider using Google’s Disavow to clean up what is left. Just be sure to follow the instructions carefully so you don’t unintentionally harm other areas of your site.
In addition, Google offers a reconsideration request form. If your site has a history of unnatural back links but you have now addressed the issue and your site is now following Google’s quality guidelines, you may want to complete this form asking for a re-evaluation. Expect the process to take several weeks.
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