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Risk Management for Links – How To Prepare For The Next Penguin Update
After 2012 being dubbed the “Year of the Penguin,” Google’s Matt Cutts has already hinted that the next “Penguin 4” update will be bigger and more devastating than ever. We have seen big brands like Interflora get penalized and bounce back pretty fast. But how did that work? And what’s coming up for the rest of us? After the havoc wreaked by previous Penguin updates, how should webmasters prepare for what Google has in store next?
Toxic Link Cleanup Phase
Over the past year or so, webmasters began getting bombarded with “unnatural link” warnings in Google Webmaster Tools. Understandably, this caused somewhat of a panic, and webmasters began making frantic efforts to clean toxic and suspicious links from their sites’ link profiles.
These “unnatural links” had become a much bigger problem than most webmasters even realized — after running more than 100k Link Detox reports (which are designed to help webmasters identify and disavow unnatural links), we were surprised by how many really bad links were out there. Google truly did need to implement some way to force us, the webmasters, to clean up the link graph mess.
Many webmasters have reported successfully revoked manual penalties after cleaning up their link profiles and submitting their sites for reconsideration (typically a month-long process). Some have even experienced penalties being lifted after simply disavowing or removing enough links; doing so lifted automatic filters without the need for a manual reconsideration process — which is great.
But what’s next?
Enter The SEO Risk Management Phase
Unfortunately, recovering from a Penguin penalty once doesn’t immunize your website against future penalties.
In fact, as I pointed out last year, many of the penalties imposed by Penguin were a long time coming — and this suggests that there’s a lot more to come. Thus, webmasters must be conscientious, actively monitoring their sites’ ongoing link growth for anything that might be construed as “spammy” or “unnatural.” While a suspicious inbound link may not trigger a warning now, that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future — all Google has to do is flip a switch.
Risk management for your links is both an ongoing process and a mindset. While there are programs out there that can help you identify “risky” links, running these programs and disavowing the suspicious links is by no means a “one and done” kind of deal. We’re not talking about a singular event where you clean up your old sins and are safe for the future — risk management for SEO and links entails assessing the risk of potential new links, as well. After all, if you have acquired “bad” links in the past through active link building efforts, you don’t want to risk additional harm to your site by continuing to build similarly “bad” links.
A Link Is A Link — Not
The big shift in mindset here is that the old saying, “a link is a link,” is simply no longer true. Search engines have increasingly put measures in place to evaluate not just the quantity, but the quality of inbound links, meaning that an inbound link profile consisting mostly or entirely of these “low-quality” links triggers a red flag. What’s more, a link that helps one website could hurt another one. Some examples of this include:
- The website being linked to already has inbound links from the same network or owner.
- The sites being linked are thematically unrelated — in other words, one website is linking to another website that is not thematically relevant. For example, a “Buy Viagra” link to a tax adviser website is problematic; whereas, it would be considered thematically appropriate if linking to a site where one could actually purchase Viagra. The same is often true for other verticals, but the “porn-pills-casino” (PPC) links are specifically bad for most sites.
- The link anchor text is too keyword-heavy. While it is acceptable to occasionally use keyword-rich anchor text to link to your site, it begins to look unnatural if the overwhelming majority of your backlinks are like this. A healthy backlink profile contains a wide variety of links, including homepage links, subpage links, links with missing anchor text, links with “Click Here!” anchor text, links with keyword-rich anchor text, contextual links, links with the brand name as anchor text, etc. If your backlink profile leans too heavily toward keyword-rich anchor text links, this may trigger a red flag.
From these brief examples, you see that there’s one important thing that’s changed with the Google Penguin updates: you have to look at your link profile as a whole and review each new link in the context of your existing links.
Do You Overlook All Your Link Campaigns?
Julie Joyce wrote about the issues that occur when clients hire multiple link building companies; and I can confirm that dividing link building responsibilities in the name of diversification has the unwanted side effect of “diversifying” the responsibility for bad links.
For example, if client X hires three link builders — we’ll call them Tony, Fred and Susan — to build X links per month, s/he’s already in deep trouble if s/he doesn’t review their plans before they actually build those links. Chances are very high that each will secure link spots on websites that are somehow related (especially if we are talking paid links), because those are often sold from the same networks and/or same owners to many agencies.
Thus, the process in link building often goes something link this:
- Client X tells Tony, Fred and Susan: “Get me 20 great links!”
- Tony, Fred and Susan reach out to their network for quick/paid links for links that are thematically related to Client X’s website. Of course, those are often unnatural links because they are paid or swapped, but let’s assume for a moment that they would be so well camouflaged that Google could not detect it as such (rare, but possible).
- These webmasters separately respond to Tony, Fred and Susan to present them with potential linking opportunities.
- Tony, Fred and Susan each pursue the strongest links available and manage to get Client X linked there.
- The result is something like this this Venn diagram:
As you can clearly see, these three link builders would inadvertently work to create a very unnatural backlink profile, due to a lack of communication and oversight. And, we haven’t even taken into account the thousands of links that Client X could already have! Can you imagine what further conflicts might exist?
Performing What-If risk checks for new links
The solution to the problem of overlapping link-building efforts would be to carefully review all link opportunities in advance, prior to actually building the links.
Every webmaster should therefore do the following:
- Review all existing backlinks for toxic and suspicious links, and note any that you plan to disavow or have removed.
- Examine your link builders’ list(s) of potential link building opportunities.
- Check to see if the links your link builders have identified are coming from the same IP network, same domain owners, or same Class-C blocks as any of your existing back links. (This requires gathering domain information for every potential link from their respective data sources.)
- Create an overall SEO risk assessment for the potential links your link builders have identified.
- Decide if that link is worth getting based on its risk for your site.
While gathering all those metrics for potential links and checking them against your existing links can be tedious, it’s mandatory in a post-Penguin world. Link Detox eases that process with a feature called “What If” Checks, and other products will likely offer similar functionality in the near future.
When doing such a simulation, make sure you ignore those links that you potentially disavowed. Keeping track of previously disavowed links is another story and a crucial detail in an ongoing link risk management. You would have to remove all disavowed links from your profile, just as you assume Google does to not interfere with your audit results. We also call “Round-Trip Disavow” in Link Detox, and I’m looking forward to seeing other products adopt that crucial methodology.
Better Safe Than Sorry — Conclusion & Proposal For SEOs
The above example is just one of many issues that can arise from a lack of proper SEO risk management. Every webmaster must be engaged in the link building process, and they must understand that every potential new link poses a risk — be it today or tomorrow.
I recommend the following solution:
- Review your backlink profile regularly for “risky” links. You can automate that with software that generates recurring reports; creating a manual process will work, as well.
- Perform ongoing link cleanup. If you find fishy links in your backlink profile, get rid of them ASAP — don’t wait until Google “asks you to” by slapping you with a penalty.
- Keep contact records of all link sources. Whenever you do receive a penalty or warning, you should be able to react just as quickly as Interflora.
- Keep your contacts “warm.” In other words, ensure that you can easily reach out to any link sellers/traders you work with in the event that one of your backlinks needs to be removed urgently.
Some of the above might sound like recommendations for link buying or unnatural link building. But in fact, these are just typical examples of what is (still) going on in the SEO industry — especially putting link building tasks into the hands of many companies.
Having reliable risk management processes for SEO in place will go a long way in future proofing your site(s) against future Penguin updates. Be proactive and start putting your process together right away — don’t wait until it’s too late!
(Disclosure: Link Detox is a product of CEMPER.COM)
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.