Is there still a link skeleton in your closet?
Things used to be much easier. The only thing SEOs needed to know was the quickest and easiest way of getting new backlinks. Before Google Penguin, SEOs would have their own net of domains where they could place their links. Some of them still do so by buying old domains and setting up Private Blog Networks. Although this strategy still works, getting caught can put you in big trouble. Others would simply buy new links from webmasters of large portals who even today are willing to take your money in return for a link. You can imagine that these practices are not exactly considered White Hat SEO.
With Penguin, Google rang in a new era in SEO – and the rules of the game had changed for good when they first rolled out Penguin 1.0 in April 2012. Now Google seems to have delivered the final blow with the granular real-time Penguin 4.0 update.
Read on and learn:
- What changed after Penguin?
- Typical patterns of unnatural links
- How to find out what hit you
- Cleaning up: how to find risky links
- Disavow your risky links
- Monitor your backlink profile
1. What changed after Penguin?
Ever since the first Penguin update was rolled out in 2012, Google managed to come to terms with websites that were artificially puffed up by SEOs.
Back in the days, the roll out of every Penguin update had a massive impact on a couple of percent of all search queries. If your site was not affected by an update, you would be safe for a while, but the next update could hit you even harder.
Today, Google Penguin is no longer a filter which is applied once on top of the Core Algorithm, but it is integrated into the Core, working real-time and granular.
This means that not your whole domain, but a single page or subfolder could trigger an algorithmic filter when your backlinks are re-crawled by Google. Since you can’t tell when Google will crawl your backlinks, a Penguin penalty could hit you anytime.
What do we learn from that? We do not only need to come up with a more sophisticated approach to link building but also have to keep in mind that our messy leftovers from the past may lead to Google Penalties.
So the big question is: what can you do if your domain, page or subfolder was penalized and which preventive measures can help reduce the risk of getting hit?
With all the previous Google Penguin updates, Google has made one thing more than clear – the times of the old link building strategies are over. The fact that SEOs were able to outsmart Google – a search engine that for many years based their rankings primarily on their calculations of backlinks – with such simple methods, actually indicates the complexity of this topic.
Today, every link graph looks different in each industry and each language. This results from extensive downgrades and devaluations enforced by Google, depending on the topic and amount of available signals.
The Penguin updates brought downgrades of links that are based on simple rules. Due to these rules, the Google rating now excludes all links that are obviously highly unnatural. It’s not only hard technical facts that determine whether a link is unnatural or not – but this also depends on the environment.
A small site like an online shop that has been bobbing up and down for years with only a few new backlinks per month is not very likely to suddenly become the link target for hundreds of new backlinks within only a short period. If it does, however, someone from the board of management must have decided “Hey, let’s do link building!”
Neither would it be natural for a domain that used to receive highly distinctive backlinks (meaning high diversity of non-commercial keywords or brand names with different strengths, IP-classes, and owners) to suddenly experience a huge rise of links with highly commercial keywords in the anchor text.
There are more unnatural patterns in link building which have led to problems ever since the Florida update was released in 2003, which is why it’s recommended to avoid the following:
- Many links from the same IP-address
- Many links from the same IP-C-Block
- Many links from the same owner (there are exceptions like Amazon or eBay – so if you’re a big brand, you can afford to have more of such links because that will just represent a tiny fraction of their backlinks)
- Many links from (suddenly) de-indexed domains
- New, particularly strong links, like e.g. American .gov domains
- Sudden spikes in link growth (upwards or downwards)
- Links from domains with obviously the mere purpose of link building, e.g. article directories, link directories, expired domain networks, etc.
Search engines can easily reveal and punish such criteria. Before Penguin, Google was very patient about such links and did not punish them at all or only slightly (e.g. not recursive through the link graph).
Unfortunately, it is not that simple to find out all these details about your backlinks. Because how would you know what IP-address your links come from? Or how strong or risky your links are? Or even how many monthly links you get and what is normal for you and your market?
Well, you could get a decent overview over all of your backlinks by using the Backlink Profiler (BLP) for example. You could also check the risk of your links using Link Detox (DTOX) or find out which link growth is normal for you and your market with the Competitive Link Velocity (CLV). We at LinkResearchTools (LRT) have years of experience in the research of backlinks and we are using a very complex AI that is able to crawl millions of links for you.
With the introduction of Penguin, a new type of Penalties was born. But how do you find out if you were affected? The answer is simple: if it’s a Manual Action, Google will notify you through your Google Search Console account. Simply log in and check if you’ve received a notification:
This is how a Manual Action could look like:
If you suffered a Manual Action, it means that a member of the Google spam team came across your website and decided to penalize it for one reason or another. In such case, you need to clean up your backlink profile and then ask Google to revoke the Penalty. This procedure is commonly referred to as “Reconsideration Request.”
If, however, there is no notification in your Google Search Console account, the chances are high that your website’s rankings are affected by an algorithmic penalty. In such case, you can simply check traffic history in Google Analytics. If it looks like this, you can assume that your site is penalized:
What are the effects of risky links?
It was already apparent in 2008 that too many Money Keywords (i.e. those with commercial anchor texts) can make your rankings drop.
Such “Filters” have been around forever. The algorithmic filters mustn’t be confused with Manual Actions. While in the case of Manual Actions there is a real person behind the Penalty, Penguin runs automatically.
Another huge difference between algorithmic filters and Manual Actions is that an algorithmic filter will only discount bad links in your backlink profile. In a Manual Action, however, all links can be discounted, including the good and the bad ones. This will result in a huge drop in your rankings.
Since Penguin 4.0 we have not seen these massive drops due to the algorithmic filter we know from previous updates, but a Manual Action can still be a devastating blow to your website.
The only cure for it was and still is building a better balance – back then only referring to the anchor texts. We have reached a point where link rating means taking even more criteria into consideration.
Its effects are even more significant today as Google marks domains, pages or subfolders and the responsible webmaster with a flag (internal tag) that will not be removed unless Google revokes the penalty.
Since it has now become clear that the sins of the past do have a heavy impact today – a Google legislation introduced retroactively – you obviously need to take care of those negative links. Find the links that harm you and get rid of them.
You should review your entire link profile carefully, meaning all links pointing to your website. You need two things to do that: professional tools that find risky links automatically, and an SEO’s common sense – because there will be a Google employee who will review your work at the end of the day.
On the one hand, you must proactively disavow to
- clean up your sins from the past and
- get rid of new risky links that are built to your site (e.g. Negative SEO).
On the other hand, it’s necessary to use the Disavow Tool after receiving a Manual Action against your site, since the person from the Google Spam Team will want to see your sincere effort to get the Penalty removed.
In the first step, you should gather as many backlink sources as you can. There are professional tools that crawl multiple data sources to collect backlinks to your website. You should then combine these results with the list you receive from Google Search Console. In case you have a list of links that you built in the past, it’s highly recommended to add these links as well. The more data you add, the more accurate your results. Try to create a comprehensive backlink profile to make sure you look at the biggest piece of the cake. No tool on the market will be able to find out all links Google knows about, but combining data from multiple sources will come closest.
b. Look at reliable SEO metrics and analyze every link
In the course of your link audit, you should look at details of each of your backlinks. That includes anchor text, IP-address and Class-C address, domain owner, further SEO metrics to judge the strength and trustworthiness of your link (e.g. Power*Trust), the number of backlinks to the page and domain, link velocity ratios of the domain, and much more. The more criteria you take into consideration, the more precise the results.
You could use a simple Excel sheet to collect this information. Considering the quantity of backlinks and information needed, it might, however, be a quite time-consuming task to gather all important details manually. We built LinkResearchTools (LRT) to help you with that.
Don't waste your time collecting data, but use it for actually analyzing it.
Not only will professional tools make your work more efficient, but they can also process large data amounts (in the case of LRT you can analyze up to 5 million backlinks) very quickly.
c. Look at the DTOXRISK of each link
Regardless of whether you collect your data manually or automatically, your next step should be a deep dive into link analysis. To do so, you can group your backlinks in clusters. You could, e.g. cross-sort your links by risk (DTOXRISK) probabilities or priorities.
d. Look at every backlink to detect “false positives”
A thorough audit of your backlinks will help you detect “false positives” like in the table below. It’ not suspicious to have content links from washingtonpost.com and adweek.com – but it could be if an SEO agency has the same IP-address.
Another special case is free hosts.
If you have a lot of backlinks from typical free blog hosts, like blog spots, then you should make sure that the content was created by real bloggers – rather than automatic spam tools. If your company is actively taking part in blogs, it can have a great deal of good, natural backlinks. If it becomes obvious, however, that a blog post had the mere intent of link building, then this might impact your website rankings in a negative way.
Reviewing such links manually will make you understand the quality of such links for sure, but in many cases, this is not even necessary. In the case of such links, it is usually sufficient to look at the technical criteria, like the amount of links on the site.
The famous, but no longer available PageRank, however, is definitely not a criterion you should look at. Google’s Toolbar PageRank is officially dead. In March 2016, Google confirmed that they will remove PageRank from the Google Toolbar. PageRank is no longer available since April 2016!
— John Mueller (@JohnMu) March 9, 2016
Looking at outdated metrics never helped SEOs judge the quality of a link. We have a reliable metric called LRT Power*Trust that measures the power (like Google PageRank) and more important as second dimension also the trust of a link.
e. Check your website site for typical link spam methods
It is important to check a site for typical link spam methods like link or article directories. Many times you will notice that there are links between such sites because they are usually operated by people who simply copy or mix DMOZ entries for the mere purpose of producing a lot of content quickly.
If such directory sites offer advertisement (being the link entry) against money, it looks very much like spam, and will thus not help you.
If it is as obvious as in the example above that the mere purpose of a website is selling links, then this website cannot be considered a good link source – regardless any other criteria.
f. Check the quality of every backlink
This is how you should review your entire backlink profile (see step 1 about gathering as many backlink sources as possible). You should also review your backlinks individually, meaning check link after link for their quality and clear indications for link purchase.
It’s needless to say that checking hundreds or thousands of links will involve a heavy workload. However, it is also possible to conduct such reviews automatically (see Link Detox). Such tools will not replace manual reviews. In fact, manual reviews are indispensable. But you need the tools to cope with the heavy workload. They will speed up the review considerably and help you take important decisions like whether a link should be disavowed or not.
g. Make sure that you cleaned up everything
Let’s assume the mess has been removed from your actual “main domain,” meaning the money maker site of a company, but it’s still there in the history of the webmaster or even the business owner of the company. In that case, you should watch out for the following:
- old “test” domains obviously connected to your identity
- old Adwords and/or Adsense-accounts
- previous Google Penalties in an organic field or in the Adsense/Adwords-field
- involvement in link networks or via outbound links of your domain
- And anything else that Google might not like…
After you have cleaned up everything, it’s Google’s turn to revoke your Penalty – or not. This depends on how well you did your job. In the case of an algorithmic Penalty, you will have to make sure you cleaned up everything so your rankings can go up again with the re-crawling of your backlinks. In the case of a Manual Action, however, you will have to show some more efforts.
As mentioned above, Google wants you to beg for mercy in the course of your Reconsideration Request. Show that considerable measures have been undertaken to fix the mess from the past.
Prove that you are sorry and that you have learned your lesson. Make them believe it won’t happen again, and if you’re convincing enough, your sins will be forgiven, and your penalty revoked.
Since Google released the Penguin 4.0 update, rumors have spread that Google has very little need left for you to upload Disavow Files. Although the new update is supposed to devalue spam signals instead of demoting the whole rank of a site, this is not a sufficient measure to fully get rid of the Disavow Tool.
These rumors have gone so far that some SEOs have been thinking about fully removing their Disavow File after the Real-Time Penguin launched. John Mueller has shown a quite clear reaction to that in the Webmaster Office Hours: “[removing your Disavow File] sounds like a particularly bad strategy”. The overall résumé of this session was that you should especially use Disavows when you know you or your SEO has built spammy links to your site in the past. On the other hand, he also claimed that any average business site has no need to use the Disavow Tool because Google can take care of the little amount of spammy links by themselves. You should only use it when you are aware that there is a lot of spam towards your site. This is one of these declarations by Google which we prefer to take with a grain of salt.
In fact, what Google does is that they mark your links with different labels. These labels give information about the value and meaning of a link. When the manual actions team looks at these labels, they then decide whether to take a closer look at your site or not. The labels on one of your backlinks could look like this: “Penguin RT (Real-Time)”; “Footer”; “Disavow”.
— Bruce Clay, Inc. (@BruceClayInc) October 10, 2016
We are convinced you should use the Disavow Tool in any case. Not only is it the single way to recover from a Manual Action in a Reconsideration Request, but it is also the best way to recover from a Penguin Penalty or simply take precautions of not getting penalized. Now that the Real-Time Penguin has come, every SEO and webmaster will at some point be required to submit a Disavow File. Remember that Google Penguin will check your backlink profile on an ongoing basis. No matter if you want to get rid of your bad backlinks from the past or you’re receiving risky links due to Negative SEO, you will have to disavow those links before Google finds out about them. This leads us to our last point:
As a clever SEO or webmaster, you should always keep an eye on your backlink profile and not only start disavowing links when it’s already too late. Link Alerts (LA). All you need to do is to enter your domain and you will get alerted via e-mail when you are receiving new links. In every Link Alerts (LA) report, you will be able to see the link’s SEO metrics like Power*Trust or the status (e.g. No Follow, mention, redirect, etc.) and then balance the pros and cons for these links.
The monitoring of your backlinks is often referred to as Link Risk Management. Every new link that is pointed to your website, as well as every potential new link you want to go after, should be reviewed. You can proceed with using some of our other tools after receiving your Link Alerts (LA) report. You could, for example, look at each potential link individually with the Link Simulator or have a closer look at your new links with Link Detox (DTOX).
Have you also thought about analyzing your competitor’s backlink profiles? After all, it is not only you but also your competitors who receive new backlinks constantly. Even if they have thousands of backlinks more than you, you will still be able to outsmart them with the right tools. Link Risk Management is also about understanding your market. Comparing the risk of your backlink profile to your competitors with Competitive Link Detox (CDTOX) would be one good way to do that. You can also set up a Link Alerts (LA) for your biggest competitor’s domain and go after the good link sources every time they get a new link you want to have too.
Last but not least, a good SEO is always prepared for the worst: Negative SEO. These malicious tactics can reach from the crude building of toxic links to your site, all the way up to very smart strategies like making your pay for the exact money keyword you want to rank for. This is why investing in SEO-Protection is always worth it.
Protection against toxic links is like a health insurance for your website. When you quickly identify what is putting you at risk and start proactively disavowing all those risky links, then you have taken the first step to keep your backlink profile all nice and tidy in the future.
It’s no longer about the “price per link” – it’s all about the risk!
Today, it’s no longer about cutting the “price per link” to a minimum – it’s all about the risk. After years of disgracefully spamming the Web, cleaning up the mess seems to be a lost cause.
But shutting down the website and starting all over seems even worse.
If you find yourself in such dilemma, you should weigh up the risk carefully. If you do decide to start all over on a new domain, make sure you proceed with caution. Most likely, you will be able to transfer your top backlinks to your new domain, but make sure you select them carefully – you don’t want to pass on you bad, risky links just because they were such a bargain!
Indeed, the appearance of Google Penguin 4.0 has opened a lot of new questions in the SEO industry. Luckily, we collected and answered many of them in a Penguin 4.0 Q&A article.
And remember: after cleaning up your link profile from all the old and dusty link skeletons, the work is not done. SEO is an ongoing process and you will still need to keep an eye on every new link and proactively defend yourself against every future risk.
Some tips for backlinks
Everyone wants to rank, but most of them can’t
Of course, when you create a post or an article, you want it to get ranked and receive traffic. Unless you’re creating your own diary you want it to be famous and have comments. Comments give life to it, and traffic motivates you to go pro and keep blogging. And if a post like the ones I was trying to rank can generate leads and money, then you’ll try harder, like I did.
However, let’s not mistake that “everyone wants” with “everyone can“. Some people can rank an article and some people just don’t. There are a lot of factors Google is counting to define its listings, and some people know how it works. Those are the ones who will probably rank even when others try to work hard to beat them. (Note to self: Work Smart, not hard).
I landed on this great post while searching for false positives in the backlink profile. It is still debatable whether false positive backlinks in GSC affect the search rankings. A couple of our websites seem to have been affected but what role did the false positives played in demotion, that we are still not very sure of. It was a good read Christoph. Thanks!
Christoph C. Cemper, thanks Sir, for this brilliant post. I am in SEO industry since quite a long time but have never seen such a complete and actionable post on this topic. People are arguing whether disavowing is still effective or not, but according to this post, it still works but may not be fully sufficient for this real time Penguin update, and may be because as it is now a part of Google’s core algorithm. Thank you Sir for this highly valuable post. Lots of things to learn and execute from this article.