By John Thyfault, Vice President of Search & Social Strategy, Beasley Direct Marketing
In Part 1 of this topic, we discussed why Google may deliver a manual warning about unnatural links. And, the devastating consequences of a Google penalty (up to and including losing ALL of your of your traffic from Google). In Part 2, we discuss how to regain Google’s approval.
Examine Inbound Links to Your Site
Google doesn’t tell you which links are suspect. You must determine this yourself—and there are no easy answers. You must examine the links. Determine which are problematic and try to get the toxic links removed by their owners. Also, file a disavow report with Google specifying which links to ignore when evaluating your site.
Some have merely listed all links they were unfamiliar with and filed a disavow report (known as the nuclear option in SEO circles). We don’t recommend this approach. Once you have filed your disavow report, you cannot change it even if you—oops!—discover you have included valuable links in your report.
Case in Point
In one case with which we are familiar, an SEO consultant grabbed 600 or so links at random and filed a disavow report. Because none of the links were examined individually for their merit or lack of merit, the company received the response in Figure 1, denying the company’s request for reinstatement.
Figure 1: Random Disavowal of Links Is Not an Effective Means of Making Google Happy
Unfortunately, the only way to effectively discover and disavow links is to weigh each link (or group of links) on its validity. (For a more detailed discussion of Google-approved “natural” link-building, please download our free white paper, “Link Building: Staying Current in a Shifting Landscape.”) Fortunately, there are a number of tools that can help.
Using Tools To Examine Links
You might assume, because Google is the entity handing out penalties that Google Analytics would be the solution to your problems. But Google Analytics really looks only at what someone does once they come to your site. Fortunately, there are many other tools you can use to research and evaluate links. Some excellent providers include Majestic SEO, MOZ.com and Link Research Tools. Most make some limited capability available for free. But if you want the big guns (and for our purposes here, you do need big guns), you’ll need to subscribe to get full functionality.
Using one of these tools, you can go through your inbound links much more quickly. Link Research Tools offers a specific report, called a detox report, that outlines which links are deadly, which are suspicious, and which are moderately suspicious. Some tools will provide an analysis of the linking page. Figure 2 shows part of a report from Link Research Tools, indicating that a particular link is at the highest level of toxicity.
Figure 2: Tools Help To Purge Toxic Links
Source: Link Research Tools
What Will the Tools Do?
These tools will examine a number of factors that determine whether a link is good or bad:
- How long the linking site has been up
- How Google ranks the site
- What kind of “neighborhood” the linking site lives in—are its neighbors spammy or low-quality link exchanges, or are they legitimate sites?
- Does the site have lots of outbound but few inbound links?
- Are the links from the same or related domains? Are the domains owned by the same entity?
- Are the links from blacklisted (known bad) domains?
- Are the links from sites that were all built on the same templates with different (and usually poor quality) content poured in?
- Is the anchor text (the clickable text in a link) identical?
There are more indicators, but these are the top signs that a link is toxic.
We recommend that you go through the “toxic”, “suspicious” and “moderately suspicious” categories. Look at the links one by one and make your own decision. If this sounds tedious and time-consuming, it is. But you’re dealing with a life-threatening issue here. It’s worth the time and effort to be certain that you are eliminating truly toxic links and keeping the healthy ones. If you fail to purge the bad links, Google will refuse to reinstate your site. If you accidentally disavow valid links, it may hurt your Page Rank.
In particular, watch for:
- Article distribution sites
- Pages visited by article distribution sites. There could be hundreds of these for each article distribution site.
- Link exchange sites
There will undoubtedly be some links that you are still not too certain about. Are they good links, or are they toxic? It isn’t always crystal clear, so you may elect to retain some of these. One criterion you can use is content quality. Is the content original, well targeted (to your market), and well crafted? If so, you’re probably safe to retain. If not—be ruthless.
Purging Bad Links
Google expects that your first step will be to ask the owners of the bad links to remove them. This involves sending out a barrage of emails and contact form submissions to the undesirable sites, requesting link removal. Save copies of everything you do. You will need to send them to Google later on to document your efforts and prove your goodwill.
It is likely that these requests will be largely ignored. So the next step is to go into your Google Webmaster Tools account and submit a disavow list for the remaining bad links. Once this is done, write a reconsideration request to Google (also submitted through your Webmaster Tools account).
Asking Google for Reinstatement
You need to take a hat-in-hand stance when asking Google for reconsideration. First, acknowledge that you understand you have violated Google’s terms of service (TOC). Let the know you are doing your best to address the issues—and promise not to do it again. (By the way, it doesn’t matter to Google whether your company violated Google’s TOC, or a contractor. Either way, it is your organization that Google regards as the violator.) If you are successful in achieving reinstatement, you are on probation moving forward. For the next three or four years, Google considers your organization to be a sort of a career criminal that could re-offend in a heartbeat. Upload copies of everything you’ve done to clean up your site to a Google Drive account and share these with Google as part of your reconsideration request.
Make a serious effort with your disavowal report and request for reconsideration. In one case, we were asked to come in and fix a situation where an SEO contractor had:
- Engaged in unnatural link-building.
- Thrown out a few hundred links at random and asked Google for premature reconsideration (not successful!)
- Been rejected by Google because the links to the site still did not meet Google’s standards.
The company fired the contractor and revoked his access to the site. But, by that time, considerable damage had been done. Google is not inclined to be lenient the next time around. The reconsideration request has to be full and complete. You need to demonstrate good-faith efforts to correct the problem, or your site may be permanently blackballed—a true disaster.
What IF My First Reinstatement Request is Denied?
What to do if your first request is denied. Don’t hesitate to go back and reexamine your inbound links and try to identify those that are toxic. More than half of all initial reconsideration requests are said to be denied. They need to have follow-up work done to bring the site back into Google’s good graces.
When we constructed the second disavow request in the case above, we took care to outline the mistakes that had been made in the past. We included reassurance that the perpetrator had no further access to the site. Additionally, that all unnatural link-building efforts had been discontinued. We uploaded documents to the Google site to demonstrate the efforts that had been made to sanitize the site. We included link reports, copies of emails and web form submissions asking for link removal. Anything that would prove to Google that the company had made its best effort and gone as far as it could go to clean up its act.
One week later Google responded, rescinding the penalty and reinstating the site. There were sighs of relief all around, but the job doesn’t stop there.
Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Again
Once your site is back in Google’s grudging good graces, develop a program to monitor the site to assure it doesn’t happen again. The previous efforts to build an unnatural set of links may still have an inertial effect going forward as Google discovers other sites not seen previously, with new toxic links taking the place of the ones that you purged. Some article distribution companies operate on contracts up to a year. They may still be pumping out articles linked to your site. Scrutinizing new links is an ongoing challenge—made simpler by using some of the tools we talked about above.
Assure that your link-building is natural and organic (according to Google’s definition). To assign a high Page Rank, Google wants you to have lots of links to your site. But, you have to play by Google’s rules to avoid a penalty.
Remember that the best way to ensure your site stays in Google’s good graces is to create high quality, useful content that attracts visitors because of its value to them, not just because it is crafted for the search engines. Announce your content and share it with your outbound marketing efforts, letting your current and potential site users create their own links to the site based on how useful it is to them.
Finally, make your site search engine friendly, avoiding technical and structural issues that can block search engines from fully crawling and understanding your site. For more detail on how to improve your site’s performance and “Google-friendliness,” please download our free white paper, “Boosting SEO with an Organic Site Review.”
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About the Author
This post was authored by John Thyfault, Vice President of Search & Social Strategy, of Beasley Direct Marketing. Contact John at: jthyfault (at) beasleydirect (dot) com.
John has more than 18 years of marketing, sales and product development experience, and he brings a proven track record of successful campaign, program and product development expertise. His knowledge of search engine optimization and marketing, combined with an in-depth understanding of customer identification, market analysis and segmentation, allows him to deliver high returns on our client’s marketing investment for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets.
Prior to working with Beasley Direct, John was Senior Client Services Project Director at ThirdAge.com, a first wave baby boomer lifestyle and community website. At ThirdAge he successfully led major client sponsorships for Fortune 100 companies in healthcare (Tylenol), financial services (American Century), technology (Intel & IBM) and consumer products areas (Revlon & Viactive). He was responsible for strategic and tactical goal setting, project management, new product creation and web site production. John previously worked in Channel Marketing and National Account Sales for IDG Books Worldwide, the publishers of the immensely popular “…For Dummies” book series. Additionally, he managed the wholesale distributor sales channel for Tor/Forge Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
John is active in local marketing associations, including the Direct Marketing Association, the Business Marketing Association and is currently serving on the board of directors for the Silicon Valley American Marketing Association.
John has taught search engine marketing fundamentals extensively. He has led workshops for the Silicon Valley American Marketing Association, Northern California Direct Marketing Association (DMAnc.org) and the Business Marketing Association. He also teaches Search Engine Marketing at UCSC’s Extension in Silicon Valley.