The Cleansing Of The Links

Over the past several months I’ve had an avalanche of very specific inquiries, all with a related scenario. People are worried that their previous link building activities have hurt their site’s rankings, are going to hurt their site’s rankings at any moment, or are not helping their site’s rankings. When I probe them for more details about their “previous link building activities,” there are several scenarios that I hear:

  • One: The person inherited a site for which he/she has no idea what link building has been done, by whom, when, and in what way
  • Two: The company previously hired one (or several) SEO/SEM firm that claimed expertise in link building, but didn’t, and now they have 7,600 spammy inbound links
  • Three: They’ve done some casual link building from time to time, and now want to go about it in a more strategic manner without antagonizing the engines

The common thread comes back to rankings, and the fear that somewhere down the link building history something bad was done, or not enough good was or is being done now. People are confused. Is our linking strategy sound or is our site about to be penalized? Is our recent rankings drop the result of us taking the wrong advice? Have we done something wrong we didn’t know was wrong, or which wasn’t wrong when we did it?

Many people are guilty of nothing more than taking bad advice, because they truly didn’t know better. Sometimes the people in charge of marketing a web site don’t have the technical expertise to understand algorithms and links. They are at the mercy of an SEO/SEM vendor who themselves might not even know the services they are selling are worthless. Or even dangerous. When it comes to link building, acting on bad advice can have dire consequences. Like a permanent drop in rankings from which you may never recover.

As much as I wish I could tell you there was a quick fix—other than killing off your site and starting over at a new domain—the reality is that your degree of concern must be highly correlated to the extent of the crimes you fear may have been committed.

In simpler terms, you need to know just how big a mess you are in. If your site is brand new and came out of the gate swinging by joining multiple link swapping services, you might want to consider starting all over. If your site is seven years old and the only offense was a few links you bought, all of which are gone now, then you are probably safe. If you have a large and random reciprocal links page, your best course of action may be to cull it down and define a theme. In some extreme cases it might be best to remove your links page completely.

There is no perfect solution that can be applied to every scenario for every site. A college kid using a university provided web space to run a business for which he engages in every spammy and unacceptable link building tactic known to mankind is not going cause the university’s domain to be banned or penalized by Google. Now, if you tried those same exact tactics for your company site, it’s probably a different story. And result.

When I’m doing forensic inbound link analysis (whoo! another new catchphrase), I’ll often see something that looks suspicious on first glance, but further analysis shows it to be nothing to be worried about. Scraper pages are a classic example. You can’t control that someone has a spammy PPC network based on scraped results that happen to have a link to your site on them. Engines know this. But sometimes I find things that look suspicious. Sometimes I do recommend pursuing a “cleansing of the links” that are pointing at your site. And some mistakes can’t be fixed no matter how hard you try.

The wisest course of action that I can recommend for every site is to spend some time looking at your current inbound link profile, before you can’t. If your site has a long and clean link building history, then your first objective ought to be protecting the good reputation you have. Don’t take chances. You already have what many never will be able to get. On the other hand, if you find an inbound link trail that shows evidence of aggressive link building tactics that are commonly thought to be inappropriate, then your objective needs to be damage assessment and repair.

Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Building: General | Link Week Column


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via

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  • neyne

    OK, nice advice, but what do you do if you have an old site, with thousands of spammy links and want to come clean ? And what if killing the site is not an option ?

  • eric_ward

    The best course of action would depend on several factors. I’d need to know a lot more, but some of the questions I’d ask include

    1). How and when did you acquire the thousands of spammy links? Let me have a look at a few of them.
    2). Are any/all still reciprocated?
    3). Are the links all to your homepage URL, or do they point to various pages within your site?
    4). What percentage of your site’s total inbound link profile do these thousands of spammy links represent? 5%? 90%? Unknown?

    The above would all factor into the specific recos I’d have for your site/situation.


  • neyne

    well, i am sure you don’t want to turn this into a private counseling session, so can you give a few tips about what is one to do in worst-case scenario ?

    Lets say the worst scenario is that there are many many links, achieved through automated means, non-reciprocal, pointing all to homepage, spammy links representing more than 60% of the all incoming links.

    And another question, is there any way to block links (any links) from contributing towards my site’s score ? Something like .htaccess where i redirect any traffic coming from back to so that Googlebot does not count that link ?

  • Halfdeck

    If you’re not reciprocating spammy inbounds, I wouldn’t worry about them. Every site that ranks on the first page for any term will gain a bunch of spammy IBLs. My gut feeling tells me Google’s trust in those links will be low, so they won’t have much impact on how Google views your site as long as you don’t link back (and who does?).

  • rishi321us

    I am not sure I understand this concern for IBLs – until and unless a site reciprocates or links back to any of those spammy crappy websites, I don’t see any reason for concern even if all the spammy websites in the world would link to some one.

    The quality of IBLs can definitely add value to your Search rankings but it should no way create a negative impact on your rankings unless you are linking back to them or to their partners ( as in three-way exchange and similar link network patterns).

    If spammy IBLs had a negative impact on search rankings, I am sure some of those extremely intelligent people would get tons of spammy IBLs for their competitor’s site .

    On Internet you really cannot control who links to you, search engines understand that too and so it doesn’t make any sense to be concerned about the negative impact of spammy IBLs ( unless you link back to them !)

  • eric_ward

    Let me clarify…

    It is unlikely that spammy IBLs will have a negative effect, because as you point out, the engines realize that we cannot control who links to us. However, having a bunch of spammy inbound links *could* easily be a red flag any engine could examine, and *if* (and this is the BIG IF), the engine finds additional evidence of intent, like reciprocity, or paid links, or blog comment links, or .gov injected links, or any one of a number of others “signals of intent”, then when taken as a whole, the overall inbound link profile for the site will look mighty unnatural.

    I think the engines tend to take a cumulative look at multiple factors. They can’t rely on any single factor as a determiner of attempted manipulation. People buy links without knowing it’s a no-no every day. People join link farms without realizing it’s a scam. People create massive recip pages not understanding the impact they may have. Then, collectively, there comes a “tipping point” where the algorithms could decide enough is enough, and they penalize a site.

    I cannot prove any of this. It’s speculation based on experience over the years and my own analysis. I’m an extremely conservative link builder, as I work with the type of content for which I simply will not risk a penalty. But I also have many clients who became clients AFTER they were penalized, looking for help cleaning up the mess. Sometimes the mess isn’t bad at all, sometimes it is.

    I believe that Google is far more sophisticated than people give them credit for, and can easily identify signals of intent if they choose to. They have hundreds of PhD’s running around, so if I can think of these things, I know they can :)

    I have two core reasons I wont try to fool Google

    1). It’s simply wrong to try and manipulate the results in your own favor to the detriment of sites that have better or equal content.

    2). It’s just not worth the risk. Google is what they is. The 800 pound gorilla. They earned it. So play with fire, get burned. Why risk it?

    Eric Ward


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