Over recent years, Google has rolled out several algorithms that changed the landscape of online marketing forever. There were three “biggies,” and they were given very unassuming, cute names like Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird. As cute as they sound, they weren’t really all that cute after all.
Penguin was the “grim reaper” of algorithms. It was released in April 2012 and focused on penalizing sites that used manipulative techniques to get ranked better in search results. The “black hat” SEO techniques Penguin focuses on are keyword stuffing, backlink schemes, hiding links and text on web pages, cloaking, and duplicate content.
Today we’re going to focus specifically on backlinks. Backlinks are links that reside on someone else’s website and point to yours.
Back in the day, pre-Penguin, the greater number of links you had pointing to your site, the better your chances of ranking with the search engines. As a result, it was common to use a variety of strategies to get these links, such as:
- Buying them outright or exchanging them for goods or services
- Swapping links (“I’ll link to you, if you link to me”)
- Submitting spun or duplicate content to large article farms with a link to your site
- Building links with automated software
- Submitting to directory sites
- Embedding a high number of links in widgets, footers, sidebars, templates, etc.
- Linking in the signature of forum comments or guest blog posts
It didn’t matter where those links came from, even if they were low ranking, low-quality sites. Back then, it was quantity, not quality. As a result, these strategies were pretty effective. However, with the implementation of Penguin, these strategies are now considered “black hat” techniques and will result in penalties.
Bottom line, Google frowns on you building links to your own site through manipulation. And it’s now almost impossible to manipulate your way to the first page of search engine results.
Instead, Google insists that you earn your way to the top with techniques and strategies that are natural and organic.
And links are still an important component of Search Engine Optimization. But, the links should come organically from someone else. It’s an indicator that your site is seen as a trusting, authoritative site that’s adding value.
What backlinks are considered high quality and natural? Examples of a high-quality backlink is a link that comes from a site that:
- Is related to your niche
- Has high page rank
- Has high trust and authority
- Adds value to the web and visitor
- Provides positive user experience
- Is included in semantic or synonym anchor text
- Is relevant to, and flows naturally in, the content provided
Now the focus is on quality, not quantity.
High-Quality Links Are Good; Low-Quality Links Are Trouble
So, as a result of Penguin, it’s really important that you eliminate all of the low-quality backlinks to your site. (If you haven’t been impacted yet, rest assured, it will catch up to you eventually.)
Now, where do you start?
You’ll need to conduct an audit to determine if backlinks are an issue for your site.
By following the steps below, you’ll be able to identify what sites are linking to yours, determine whether they’re helping you or harming you and, for those that are harming you, get them removed or disavowed (a term I’ll clarify a bit later).
So, let’s get started. (I’ll use one of my sites as an example.)
1. Identify Links to Your Site
There are several tools you can use to accomplish this step. I recommend you use at least one so you can cross reference your data and get the full picture.
Google Webmaster Tools (GWT)
Goes without saying (yes, I’m saying it anyway!) that GWT should always be your starting point when doing website analytics.
If you have a website, but don’t have a Google Analytics account, I recommend you get one. They provide a wealth of information, analysis, and reports that are very useful in optimizing and managing your site and … it’s free!
Login to your account and go to the “Search Traffic” section and select “Links to Your Site.”
Before we do a deep drill down, let’s download some data. In this case, you’ll want to “Download this table” and “Download latest links.”
You can download this data into Excel, as a CSV file, or directly to Google Docs.
As you review the “table” download below, you’ll see a list of each site that has linked to me, how many links they have in total, and how many go to my pages.
The “latest links” download gives you a list of the specific page that’s linking to you and when the link was first discovered by Google. Once you download it, sort it by the links column (column A). This provides a complete list for each domain and which page on that domain has the link.
Now it’s time to drill down using GWT. When I looked at my “table” download, I noticed the top linking domain is one I’ve never heard of before called Askives.com. When I click on that hyperlink, I can get some valuable information.
This page tells me that Askives.com has a total of 70 links to my site and links to 28 of my pages. Also, by looking at the “links” column, I can that this domain has 8 links to my depression hotlines page, 7 pointing to a Lexapro page, 7 pointing to a Cymbalta page, and so on.
Now, I want to see which pages from the Askives.com domain are pointing to each of these pages, so I simply click on the respective hyperlink. In this case, let’s take a look at which pages on Askives.com are linking to my depression hotlines page.
I can then click on each hyperlink to view the specific page to check it out. This is where some evaluation will take place … but, hold on, we’re not there yet.
Last but not least, go to the “Manual Actions” section.
In this section, Google will notify you if they found any unnatural or spammy links. You’ll want to pay special attention to these.
Note: There are other tools I use to get this information as well. Majestic SEO is a good one. You can get a lot of data with the free account. However, you will have to verify ownership of your site, which is really simple. Ahrefs is also very good, but you’ll need a paid subscription to get the most of out of this one.
Alright, now that you found the links to your site, let’s move on to the next step.
2. Evaluate the Links (Find the Good, Bad, and the Ugly!)
You’ve identified all of the sites/pages that are linking to your site. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get busy.
Using your downloaded “latest links” spreadsheet, add an extra column and title it “Category.” Then you’re going to go through your list and categorize each link pointing to your site.
The Categories are as follows:
- Red = Links that were built by youExamples include:
- Links listed in your “Natural Actions” report in GWT
- Commenting in blogs, forums, guest books, Yahoo Answers, etc.
- Submitted to Splogs (fake blogs designed to promote affiliate sites)
- Duplicate, spammy, or spun content submitted to sites such as eHow, EZine Articles, GoArticles, iSnare, Squidoo, and Hubpages.
Note: The only exception would be a few original, high-quality articles submitted to a reputable distribution site.
- Any links you purchased from other sites
- Links you obtained through directory submission packages
- Black = Links others added without your permission and are low qualityExamples include sites or specific pages that:
- Have been penalized by Google
- Are in other languages, focus on porn, illicit activity, or gambling
- Have duplicate, spun, scraped, or spammy content
- Have poor quality, limited, or no content
- Are not relevant to your niche or to content surrounding the link
- In your eyes, do not look like a professional, trustworthy site
- Has low page rank, low perceived authority
- Intentionally linked to you to boost their own site or sabotage yours
- Gray = Links you are unsure ofThere will be cases where it just isn’t that obvious whether a link from a site is one you should keep.Questions to consider are does it feel spammy? Is it adding value? Does it have a domain extension other than .com? Are they bringing you any traffic? Are they a high-quality, trustworthy site? There are two sites you use to check this stuff out.
- http://google.com/safebrowsing/diagnostic?site= XYZABC.com
In both cases, replace XYZABC.com with the domain you’re researching.
3. Take Action!
It’s clean up time, ladies and gentlemen!
Here are the steps to take (in order).
- Sort your spreadsheet by “Category” in descending order so the Reds will be listed first.
- Red Category: Remove them … all of them!
- Black Category: Ask the Webmasters to remove the links. You can identify them a few different ways.
- Find their contact information on their site
- Check out betterwhois.com or whois.domaintools.com
- Search social media pages for contact information
- Gray Category: Your call, depending on what your research uncovers
Also, be sure to document any action you take to try and have bad backlinks removed! This is very important as it feeds into the next step.
4. If All Else Fails …
As an absolute last resort, you can use Google’s Disavow tool and/or file for reconsideration, but it depends on your situation.
The Disavow tool allows you to notify Google that you’ve done all you could to get bad links removed but some still remain. As a result, you’d like Google to ignore these links when assessing your site.
A reconsideration is a request made to Google that everything, including the Disavow request, was done and you’d like Google to review your site and consider lifting any penalties.
So, when to use these last resort strategies?
- If you received a Manual Action notice from Google warning you of unacceptable backlinks, you must disavow any of the remaining links in their notice by using the Google DL Disavow tool AND, several days later, file a request for reconsideration.
- If you did not receive a notice but feel strongly that some remaining links are hurting you, then disavow them. In this case, Google didn’t find them, the Penguin did, so you can’t file for reconsideration (and, in essence, you’d be tattling on yourself! You don’t want to do that … right?!).
- If you did not receive a notice, and you’re on the fence about some of the backlinks, no action is needed at this time!
Note: With A and B, to satisfy Google, you will be required to provide documentation of all actions you’ve taken. This is where the documentation from your work in Step 3 comes in handy. Also, this is a complicated process, so do your homework before using these methods.
5. Wait, Then Reevaluate
At this point, you’ve done all you can, so you need to wait for the next recrawl, update, or refresh so Google can incorporate changes into their index. I’d give it six weeks or so, then use your tools again and see how all that hard work paid off.
Phew! That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? Believe me, it will pay off and it’s much better to do it sooner rather than later.
I recommend doing this process every quarter so you can stay on top of it and avoid any surprises. The good news is that the first time is the most time-consuming. Future backlink audits will be a breeze!
With the ongoing audits built into your schedule, it’s time to focus on building high-quality links to your site so you can increase your traffic, your rank and, ultimately, your business!
Go get ‘em!