Everything you need to know about SEO, delivered every Thursday.
Link Risk Management: Are You Using This Critical SEO Tactic?
Columnist Stephan Spencer warns that if you don't regularly monitor your backlinks and proactively get rid of spammy ones, you could be risking it all.
Over the past five years, Penguin is arguably the Google algorithm update that’s had the greatest impact on webmasters. Since Google launched the first Penguin update in April 2012, hundreds of thousands of sites around the world have been penalized and have virtually vanished from the Internet (or at least their traffic has).
Webmasters the world over scrambled to clean up dubious links pointing to their sites. Even after going through this stressful, time consuming, and oftentimes frustrating experience, webmasters continue to search for more efficient and effective ways to keep their websites from getting caught in Penguin’s crosshairs as Google continually re-defines what constitutes a “good” link.
One vital concept in keeping your sites or your clients’ sites safe from the dreaded Penguin is that of managing the levels of risk within your backlink “portfolio.”
Introducing Link Risk Management
Link risk management is a natural outgrowth of the changes that have affected SEO in the last few years.
SEO is not just an investment in better visibility and higher rankings. SEO is the primary way to protect your Internet “assets.” Unfortunately, just like in most other spheres of life, people tend to wait for something bad to happen before they do something to protect themselves.
Do you really want to go through all the stress, time, and cost of recovering your site from a Google penalty? My advice would be, “better safe than sorry.”
You can insure your home or your car against damage, but how do you protect your organic web traffic? Link risk management is one of the ways you can insure your organic traffic — and the income that results from it — against Penguin-related damage.
Link risk management includes:
- Recovering your site from a Google penalty (if necessary)
- Protecting it from bad backlinks and “negative SEO”
- Building safe backlinks
- Making steps 2 and 3 a continuous process
Only webmasters who were hit by a Google penalty know the stress and desperation one experiences before seeing a penalized website return in the search results. Many sites that depended primarily on organic traffic for revenue lost everything they had overnight, and their companies have vanished from the Internet.
Is it possible to recover from a Google Penalty?
Yes; whether you were hit by a Google manual or algorithmic penalty, it is possible to recover.
Google gives you an “appeal” with their Disavow Tool. In theory, the procedure is actually pretty simple. Find all of your existing spammy or poor quality backlinks, put them in a disavow file, and upload it to Google Webmaster Tools. After some time, your site should recover, and you will get some of your visibility and visitors back.
As I said, in theory, recovering from a Google penalty is pretty simple; in practice, it takes a lot of time and effort on your part. You could be looking at countless hours of work and frustration, which could extend to months of tireless effort, particularly if your first disavow attempt is rejected.
Following is the procedure for recovering from a Google penalty:
Step 1: Collecting Your Backlinks
This is not always easy because even Google provides only a portion of all your backlinks. The Google Webmaster Tools backlinks information is never comprehensive — so, if all you do is analyze just those links, you will never get out of the penalty box.
To collect and summarize all of your links, I recommend using multiple tools, because each tool covers different (though sometimes overlapping) parts of the link graph. I would include link data from LinkResearchTools (in particular, the Quick Backlinks Tool), Majestic, Ahrefs, Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Bing Webmaster Tools, and Google Webmaster Tools.
Download links from all of these sources and then remove the duplicates before analyzing each link.
Step 2: Analyzing Your Backlinks
Before you even start analyzing your backlinks, you should learn which links violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on linking. After that, you can start with your personal analysis.
This is not a huge job if you have just a few hundred backlinks. You can check each one manually, taking note of which ones come from spammy or irrelevant sites.
The problem gets serious when you have thousands — or even millions — of backlinks. There are tools available to help automate this process. My preferred solution is running the Link Detox tool from LinkResearchTools, then confirming its determination by hand-checking a random sample within each of the risk levels. I manually analyze a larger and larger sample size of links as the rating gets less “risky.” In other words, I look more closely at links rated “moderate” risk than those rated “deadly” risk.
Step 3: Get Rid Of Low-Quality Links, Disavow The Rest
Once you’ve put together a list of “risky” backlinks, you should make every effort possible to get those links removed from their respective websites. This could mean manually removing links over which you have control, or reaching out to webmasters to remove links over which you do not have control.
After you’ve done all you can to clean up your spammy backlinks, you can put the remaining ones into a file and “disavow” them using the Disavow Tool in Google Webmaster Tools. This will signal to Google that you do not wish for these links to be taken into consideration when assessing your site.
Step 4: Waiting For Google’s Response
If you’ve receive a manual penalty from Google (i.e. a “manual action”), you will have to file a reconsideration request and wait for them to review it. This can take anywhere from several days to several months.
If you were hit by a Google algorithmic penalty, you will have to wait for the next Google algorithm update — which can take even longer than a reconsideration request response. As you may recall, we all waited for more than a year for the last Google Penguin update. Fortunately, it appears that Google now updates their algorithm continuously, or at least more frequently.
Recovery is possible, but it will cost you money, time, and stress. And even if you achieve a recovery, don’t bank on returning to pre-penalty traffic levels right away. Thus, your company may continue suffering significant financial losses. You may even face bankruptcy if your business only has an online presence and it depends primarily on Google organic traffic for its customers.
Just like with any kind of insurance, you hope that you never need it, but it’s better to be prepared than not. For webmasters, the “insurance policy” is to protect your site from the possibility of Google penalties — versus trying to recover from one after you’ve been hit.
The only way to keep your website safe and Penguin-proof is by proactively engaging in proper link risk management. This means keeping track of your backlink profile, regularly checking it for new links and removing or disavowing the spammy ones.
There are many reasons why you should constantly monitor the risk level of your backlink profile:
- Even if you have successfully recovered from a Google penalty, your site is not immune to new Google penalties.
- Your site gets new backlinks every day, and many of them come from bad neighborhoods.
- Despite some controversy, negative SEO is real and is happening all the time. Someone determined enough to hurt you can destroy your reputation with Google — and thus, your organic traffic.
Building New Links
Monitoring your backlink profile and disavowing or removing poor backlinks is not enough. In addition to those bad links you remove or disavow, you must always be building or attracting new links.
By and large, we are responsible for most of the risky links in our own backlink profiles. The kind of link building Google has always wished us to engage in has always been difficult and time-consuming, and many webmasters didn’t have the time or patience to build high-quality links.
For years, SEOs built links that, while they may have increased rankings in the short term, were never intended by Google to benefit rankings. Many sites are now paying the price for that kind of shortsighted link building.
Basic safe link building techniques are:
- Create and promote: great content; revolutionary business models; stellar products, prices, or services; interesting news stories, etc.
- Find your competitors’ strong and healthy links. Analyze locations, connections and techniques they used. Replicate their experience and build safe links.
- Analyze potential backlinks and great places from which to get a link using professional tools.
Review Your Work
Link monitoring doesn’t have to always lead just to disavowing poor quality links. A good SEO will know when to disavow or undisavow a backlink. For any given subdomain, you can have only one disavow file in Google’s Disavow tool, but you can change it whenever you want. You can add new links or remove old ones that maybe were bad a year ago but now they are actually good (though this is fairly rare).
Your backlink profile is like a living organism. A bad backlink from yesterday could be a good backlink today. For example, if you disavowed backlinks from de-indexed, infected, abandoned, or spammy sites, the link may no longer be considered spammy. De-indexed sites could now be indexed again. Infected sites may have recovered from malware. Abandoned and spammy sites could become clean and safe again.
It may be you have disavowed backlinks from link networks or from fresh sites. The the web changes constantly and it may be that from the day you disavowed a fresh link on a brand new site until now, many of these links could have become valuable (or at least not risky/spammy looking). Sites from link networks could change ownership and host location and no longer be part of the “network.”
It’s difficult enough to obtain new links. If you engage in effective link monitoring and you notice that a backlink is safe again, just undisavow it (remove it from your disavow file).
It’s no longer optional to monitor the risk of your backlink profile continually. Yes, it can be extremely difficult and time consuming (especially if you do it manually), but I assure you that dealing with the fallout of a manual or algorithmic penalty is a lot more difficult and time-consuming.
The web is ever evolving. Google regularly changes the rules of the game. You can choose to adapt, or you can stand by and watch your organic traffic disappear. You can’t afford to be blind to the risks. Insure your organic traffic by instituting link risk management.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.