What I’ve Learned Auditing and Removing Unnatural Links


The past year has meant I have spent a lot of time doing something I’ve never had to do before, and something only a small number of SEO’s specialised in before April 2012. Over the past year I have worked with at least one site per month that has received a link penalty of a manual or algorithmic nature.

When should you clean up?

If you’ve received an unnatural link warning or you have seen a significant decrease in rankings around the time of a penguin update then you need to take action as soon as possible.

google link warning message

If however your site is ranking fine but you are sat on a site with a number of shady links in your link profile then it all depends upon your niche and your risk profile. In these situations I would rather build some more high quality links than start a major link cleanup exercise.

Get as much Link Data as you can

The mistake too many people make is just relying on one or two soruces of data for their Link Audits. Personally I will try to obtain as much data as possible from ahrefs, Majestic, OSE, Google Webmaster Tools and any reports the client might have from past SEO agencies.

I know Google say that the data in Webmaster tools is good enough but let’s be honest for a minute, Google tell us a lot of things that should be the case but I think it’s safe to say that things don’t always work out the way they tell us.

Remove your worst offending pages

If you are in the very fortunate position that the unnatural links are pointing to deep pages then returning a 410 on that URL and moving the content to a new URL does work. The issue you will then have is asking the high quality sites who are currently linking to the old URL to have to make the necessary changes.

It’s not all about the Anchor Text

There have been a number of posts about the correlations between sites with too many commercial anchors and penguin issues. I’ll agree the correlations are very high but guess what sites with a high percentage of commercial anchors also have… lots of crappy links.

Spun content on web 2.0’s, article directories, forum profiles, sponsored posts, blog networks, link wheels etc. Lots of crappy links, this is where a tool such as URLProfiler can really help speed up the process and analyse the types of links that are pointing to your site very quickly. I recommend paying for the premium membership if you plan to be doing a couple of link audits per month.

Be creative at finding contact information for Link Removals

More often than not a client comes to you after receiving an unnatural link message in Webmaster Tools, they probably don’t have too much information on how the links were built and rarely have the contact information for the webmasters they have obtained links from in the past.

As you know I am a fan of automating/outsourcing as many mundane processes as possible so if you are looking for contact then check out URL Profiler which will pull in the whois, Twitter and Linkedin information for the webmaster concerned. Alternatively you can use a paid tool such as Buzzstream to manage the process; this post from Wayne Barker is one I reference regularly when carrying out link removal outreach.

If the links are coming from sites that might have scraped your content and you have difficulty contacting them you can use WhoIsHostingThis.com, who are better known for their hosting reviews, to find the web hosting company so you can contact them to discuss the matter and lodge a request for the scraped content to be removed.

Expect to Pay Webmasters for their time

If you think that a webmaster will be happy to have to login to their CMS back end, navigate to the offending page and edit/remove your links and not deserve to request payment for it then you are very naïve. I’m not saying you should pay the price that they demand, but anything up to $50 for an hour of their time is probably a fair amount to expect to have to pay depending on the number of links they may need to remove; ultimately this is up to your judgement.

If the webmaster advises you they want $500 for their time then make a note of it in your spreadsheet or CRM and move on. Be sure to include this sort of exceptional request in your disavow file.

Build fresh quality links

The problem is a lot of those bad links were helping the penalised site to rank, and now Google have devalued them the site has tumbled down the rankings. You will inevitably remove some links that Google probably hadn’t thought were the cause of the penalty, as Google are very vague with their notices. So as you’re removing links it’s important to be developing a link building strategy and developing more linkable assets for your site to ensure rankings/traffic will return as close to pre-penalty levels as possible.

Assess the Return on Investment

Link removals aren’t cheap… Link Building isn’t cheap… sometimes you will need to advise the client that it might be better for them to start from scratch with a fresh domain. This is never an easy message to deliver but this is where an experienced SEO Consultant can add value to the link audit and removal process to be able to help a business make this difficult decision.

Don’t disavow too soon

A lot of people will dive both feet into disavowing links they feel are unnatural without actually making any efforts to contact the sources to remove the links.

Google will check the notes on the disavow file once you raise a reconsideration request so make sure you include as much data as possible about the links you have struggled to remove. It can take several rounds of link removal/disavow/reconsideration requests before Google are happy with the efforts you have taken. If I have to file a reconsideration request then I will include a link to a Google Doc showing what I have done and screen shots of any challenging email conversations I might have had with webmasters.

I now offer a Google Penalty Recovery Service get in touch if you would like to discuss your options.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned from link removals and link audits?

Image credit carbone14

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8 Responses to What I’ve Learned Auditing and Removing Unnatural Links

  1. Solid advice there, The difficulties I have found really is getting contact information. A lot of the larger scale link networks are registered by proxy or with phoney emails so email bounces are high. When this is the case you would expect Google to accept the disavow file with the reason no contact email bounced errrmm NO 😛

    The Roi conversation is one that is defiantly relevant if there are not many good links pointing to the site vs the bad unmovable because as you say significant link building efforts are needed to tip the balance if reconsideration’s aren’t getting you anywhere.

    Another lesson would be that you have to be very careful paying for link removals especially when dealing with foreign link network owners as paying to remove one link could entice the webmaster to place many more links to your site on other domains to try and extract more money. But obviously here you cant tarr all webmasters with the same brush.

    • RootsWebSol says:


      I really liked the sentiment AJ Kohn made in a recent Max Impact hangout on Feb 14th, about businesses defending their old domain & removing links versus starting over – “…Your brand equity is tied up in a bunch of garbage links…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fIsJNiqL_A8

      And yes you do need to be careful about paying for link removals, but I think a lot of people get quite heavy handed and threaten legal action to hobbyist bloggers rather than acting in a courteous manner.

  2. Rick says:

    What I would like to see is how many people have recovered from taking links down. I have seen very little proof of this happening so far.

    • SneakyMedia says:

      I’ve actually had some good results for 3 clients, with an almsot immediate uplift in visibility. Although, for some clients there was no change at all!

  3. John Hacking says:

    In many cases it is just easier to register a new domain and start again.

  4. Tim Whittingham says:

    I went to The Link Auditors when I needed an audit done. Their services compiled a lot of data, the different tools all gave a list of the links on my site, stating whether it was toxic or not and with a percentage of how harmful it each link was to my site. This meant I knew exactly which links needed to be removed, and I wasn’t about to keep any backlinks that needed action.

    They have a link removal service too! One that is much more effective and reliable than others such as Link Detox and even GWT, with a 75% successful removal rate. They have a team with over five years of experience and are always happy to help with any questions over the phone.

    The Link Auditors are a very reliable service for getting a link audit and getting backlinks removed. I highly recommend them!

  5. J.Shumi says:

    I have already a bad experience with this attack of unnatural backlinks, I used the link detox software to find out the harmful links, then list them and send emails to the webmasters. After some days I found that the links are not removed yet and there was no response from the webmaster as well, then I used google disavow tool. But still our ranking did not recover yet.

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