What does a bad link look like?

I want to preface this by saying that nobody really knows what is going on at the moment, there is a lot of craziness in the SERPs right now. Anyone who tells you they have the answer or the magic fix is lying. The good SEOs out there (we include ourselves in this group) are currently analysing all the data we can get our hands on to try and figure out how to put our world the right way up again.

Just to give any new readers some context; as a business, the lion share of our work is related to authoritative link building, targeted outreach and content creation but we also have a handful of legacy SEO clients who we provide a range of services to as well as a number of individuals and organisations who count on us for advice and expertise. So we are actively practicing and working on the things I am about to talk about.

On with the post…

The industry thought the over-optimisation penalty had landed, Matt Cutts said there was a bug in the change. Google says bad links won’t hold back your SEO, some forum dwellers think they’ve proven otherwise. There is conflicting opinion everywhere you turn.

One thing is for sure though, don’t panic. Google may make a u-turn and things could return to normal. However, now is definitely a good time to review your link profile and your link building activities.

If you have been hit this last week but you remain confident in the integrity of your link profile and your ongoing link building then my advice as of 20th April (things are moving fast) is that you should sit it out and proactively monitor the situation.

If you’ve been hit this last week and know you need to change your ways then you should really review all the links you presently have, analyse their usefulness in a “here and now” context and also review future link building activities. Notice I said review, not torch everything. Hitting self-destruct is unlikely to do you any favours.

If you’ve not been hit but know you still need to change your ways, again the above advice is applicable.

If you’ve not been hit and you’re confident in the links you have then Thank Crunchie it’s Friday – go enjoy yourself! :-)

Link Profile Risk Assessment

Based on the link profiles we have analysed, here are some of the types of links that we’d look out for. Some of these are just common sense but it is important to be thorough even on links built ages ago by a different agency…

  • Links from de-indexed pages or banned domains – there is quite a bit of discussion here as to whether a link from a page which has been de-indexed or from a domain that has been completely banned can actually harm your site. Our advice is usually to seek removal of these since in most cases they are likely to be holding your site back. Additionally, links from de-indexed pages often have other “red flags” such as a high number of unrelated other outbound links etc, which in today’s world aren’t going to be doing your link profile any favours.
  • Links from sites that overtly sell links – if you know you paid for the link and it looks and smells like a paid link then now is going to be a good time to review whether or not this aligns with your current position and future strategy. I’m not here to pass judgement on how you choose to get links but those painfully obvious paid links could see you landed in hot water and prevent you from climbing out.
  • Low trust domains – another common theme we have seen across sites that we have analysed is that they have links from websites are potentially low-trust in the eyes of Google. We categorised a link as low-trust when it had a very low percentage of pages indexed relative to the number of pages a we believe a site actually has. Obviously this is a rough approximation given that websites might prevent Google from indexing certain sections of their site. But we have been basing our numbers on pages in Google’s index versus Blekko and Majestic SEO’s reported figures to try and identify the pages and domains which would appear to lack enough trust from Google to warrant complete or largely complete indexation.
  • Links from low PageRank sites – yes it can often be a misleading metric but when you are faced with a massive list of links to categorise, it can be very helpful to break it down according to PageRank to better understand the health of the site’s link profile. Richard Baxter from SEOgadget covered how to do this using Excel.
  • Lots of links from the same/similar IPs – nothing smells as fishy as a clear lack of diversity in a link profile. Having numerous links from the same IP or interlinked sites on a similar IP could see you being flagged as part of a network. The key consideration here seems to be the volume, clearly there are legitimate reasons to link certain websites together but if you are doing this on a large scale it might be a time to review this practice. This in conjunction with the fact that a link profile with a high number of links but relatively low number of different IPs linking could infer site wide links with less than honourable intentions – like you bought them to increase rankings (see my next point).
  • Site-wides – if you are unsure, a site wide is a link on many pages of a domain. Site wides are typically found in the footer, sidebar or header navigation and for years have been the staple of the spammy link profile because of the volume they deliver. These may be holding your site back now for two reasons because Google may be taking action against the linking site since (as very often they’ll be selling more than one sitewide, and who knows where all those links point!) and Google may carry that action onwards to your site. Additionally, having hundreds or thousands of links from the same site is unlikely to be doing your profile diversity much good. Furthermore, having loads of links with identical anchor text is probably going to trip a keyword level penalty if not worse.

We have also been helping clients to understand their anchor text portfolio and gain a clearer understanding of how this may be impacting their visibility at a keyword level and often a domain level. There appears to be a clear correlation with sites that have experienced drops and limited anchor text distribution, correlation isn’t causation obviously but given that Google has said there will be “tweaks to handling anchor text” (source) it would seem more than a little bit coincidental. See Tad Chef’s post on anchor text best practices for more guidance in this area.

Take from this what you will, please remember these are just my sentiments based largely on gut instinct from anecdotal evidence we have so far. Once we have more comprehensive data I will be providing more data here on the blog but in the meantime these judgements are based on the work we have been doing and the analyses we have performed on a number of client and closely related SERPs that we monitor.

How to get links removed

We’ve managed so far somewhere in the region of a few hundred link removals for various clients, as you’d expect some are much easier to get removed than others.

Some quick wins are:

  • Identifying groups of domains owned by the same individual or organisation – you can do this by grouping the links by IP and then sourcing contact details so as to kill loads of birds with just one metaphorical stone.
  • Contacting the hosting company – I’m not advocating spamming all those poor hosting companies who are soon likely to be buckling under the pressure of high volumes of content takedown requests but a clearly presented, correctly addressed email is perfectly justifiable after all other avenues have been explored.

We’ve been using a lightly customised email template for contacting webmasters and for contacting hosting companies. Our email to the website owner is usually short, courteous and firm without being overbearing. Our email to hosting companies is quite formal and discusses the possibility of further action should the request to take down the page not be complied with.

In many standard TOS templates you find online, there is a clause in there which makes it a breach to link to the site in question without written permission, this kind of seemed like a stupid clause but it looks like the saving grace now if it is enforceable. I’m no legal expert so it would be interesting to get some expert opinion on this if there are any lawyers reading this?

I don’t wish to publicly share these templates since it would likely reduce their effectiveness but I’m happy to offer a few points of guidance to anyone in need of help – just fill out the contact form and I will make sure I pick up these kinds of questions.

Once you have tidied up the misdemeanours of the past and if you need to file a reconsideration request, then this post is definitely a must-read.

Cleaning up your act

Start re-building your link profile with trusted, authoritative links, think about diversifying your traffic sources and looking for links that will not only ensure Google trusts your website but also have the potential to offer revenue and masses of visitors.

Here’s what we look for in link opportunities, my stock advice at the moment is ensuring you are worthy of ranking

I will leave you with this from Carl Hendy from Ayima <- who says Twitter doesn’t get you links?!

10 Comments

  1. avatar
    Iain April 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    It’s been interesting this week because I really haven’t noticed much unusual, in fact any unusual, activity at all. Fascinating to watch people panic, react, caution and advise, kinda like being in the eye of a tornado.

    Will certainly be interesting to see how things go over the next six weeks or so.

    • avatar
      James Agate April 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet by any stretch so as you say the really interesting times are yet to come

  2. avatar
    SEPo April 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Great post James – you know when Seer Interactive gets hit for their brand name – Google has cranked the dial up way too far :)

    • avatar
      James Agate April 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Maybe they’ll crank it back then, that would be nice :-)

  3. avatar
    Damir April 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Excellent post in right time. These are really hard days for all SEOs, no matter are they 110% white hat or something else. The only sure thing is that this is not over yet. We can follow your advice from above and hope that tomorrow will be better.

  4. avatar
    Jeremy McDonald April 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    I’d been noticing a decline in one of my clients’ rankings shortly after the 18th, but it took awhile to cotton on to this being the case. Looks like I need to tidy their link profile up!

    Thanks for another good post!

    • avatar
      James Agate April 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

      Thanks Jeremy – give us a shout if you want a 2nd opinion.

      Have a good weekend.

  5. avatar
    Axel Toivonen April 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Nothing special on my site, organic traffic is increasing like it normaly does. If you keep your links good and don’t overdo it you will never have big problems with Google.

    • avatar
      James Agate April 20, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

      Without a doubt Axel, but the trouble is that so many have overdone things hence all the panic right now

  6. avatar
    Kumail Hemani April 23, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Hi James,

    I am enjoying Happy Friday :P Link spams, content junks, keyword stuffing couldn’t help any website – we should understand it. We have to do real things and SEOs who are still involved in such activities either banned or will go ban soon.

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