Time & Value Of Link Cleanups: Should You Even Bother?

Link cleanups are all the rage right now, rightly so if you can judge by the number of webmasters who received Google warnings or had their sites tank. Strategies for effective cleanup have been outlined, tools to help you find contacts for cleanup have been unveiled, but there isn’t much information out there about the bottom line: are link cleanups worth the time and effort?


Who Should Cleanup?

Now a caveat…if you’ve received a warning from Google, I don’t think that you have a choice here. You need to clean up your links. If you haven’t received a warning, let’s put you into two camps:

  1. Your site still performs as well as ever, if not better. Like everyone else, you have some crap links in your profile.
  2. Your site’s performance has decreased in rankings, traffic, or both. Again, like everyone else, there are some bad links lurking in your profile.

This is all predicated on my assumption that all sites have bad links in their profile of course, but it’s one that I’ve made based on the sheer number of link profiles that I’ve analyzed over the years, and on the very recent realization that many people either don’t know what a bad link is or they haven’t paid enough attention to be able to find them.

Trust me, they’re there. The thing is…they may be ok.

I wish I had a percentage I could give you, one that said “if you have 45% low-quality spammy links, you need to clean them up before you lose everything” but as you probably know by now, not all niches function in the same way. Some industries overwhelmingly buy links or rank off the backs of irrelevant spammy links. Some don’t.

Risk can also be determined by factors like the industry, the brand, or just personal preference. My point here is that if we have to take things like this into account, why make broad generalizations that say you have to clean up your profile even if nothing bad is happening? And yes…I realize that I’ve been guilty of promoting link cleanups. I just think that like almost everything else, they’re starting to become something that may not be worth the time and effort we put into them.

We’ve always done link cleanups, from major year-long efforts to the “here’s the list of the 10 I hate so get rid of them” jobs. Without fail, link cleanups require a massive amount of labor hours.

For example, for one client, a link builder sent out over 1000 emails during one month and you know how many links were actually cleaned up off that list? None. The next month, 500 emails landed us around 50 cleanups. This was the same client, remember, so you’re looking at a 0% success rate one month and a 10% success rate the next month.

When we’ve done in-house studies about link success via emailed link requests, 10% is a typical success rate for some link builders. What would you prefer, 50 removed links (that may have never hurt you) or 50 good new ones? I’d take 50 good new ones.

Also, you need to consider the old “dilution is the solution to pollution” idea. If you have 1000 links, 250 of which are poor-quality, you have a 25% low-end link percentage. If you concentrate on building links instead of removing them, you’re steadily diluting your percentage.

Roadblocks to cleanup

Roadblocks To Success

There are of course some major roadblocks with link cleanups, too.

First, if you weren’t the person responsible for securing the link originally and you are contacting a webmaster to have it removed, you don’t have any history with that webmaster and your request can easily come across as being very rude.

Secondly, some webmasters have no desire to do anything without being paid and will offer to comply with your request for a fee. If you’re opposed to buying links, think how you’ll feel when you’re asked to pay to not get links!

Finally, link cleanups can require more labor hours simply because of the follow up required. Did the webmaster get the cleanup request? When should you follow up? How much time are you wasting when you get an email stating that the link is down but when you check, it’s not actually down and you have to email again to point this out?

Let’s analyze another cleanup job that we’ve done. We had the list, we compiled all of the contact info, and we were ready to roll but you know what? These were old links that had been up for years in many cases. Many of them were sitewides. Many webmasters required more than three follow up emails before they responded. We used social media to try and approach some that we couldn’t get a response from and that was just an extra labor step in my opinion.

By and large, the webmasters who did respond had no desire to take the links down, asked lots of questions (that we had to answer of course, taking more time and trying very hard not to inadvertently insult their site), and a lot of them wanted compensation for the trouble. Let’s say that the typical amount a webmaster wanted was $100 and that we need to remove 100 links. That’s $10,000 if you play their game. Wouldn’t you rather be able to spend $10,000 on something else?

It is a fact that cleaning up bad links can help your rankings at times, though. In a few cases, we’ve seen some pretty dramatic improvements after removing loads of bad links. In these cases, there weren’t those Google warnings going out. It is also my typical practice to do what clients ask as long as what they’re asking isn’t something that I think will be detrimental, so if they want to pay for the labor involved in this, I’m happy to do it.

There just have been times when we’ve done cleanups on sites and didn’t see much of a difference in rankings or traffic and a lot of money was spent in the effort, so I think that it’s truly something that needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Link Alterations: The 3 Main Types

I’d also like to bring up another type of link cleanup other than outright link removal: the link alteration. Like removals, alterations take time and effort and also tend to have a fairly high labor/success ratio.

1.  Sitewides To One Page

When I look at link profiles, I usually immediately hone in on sitewide links (bear with me…it’s just my thing) that I think aren’t very valuable. Some people think that sitewides can hurt you, some think they may be treated as less important than a regular in-content link, and some seem to love them judging by the continuous new ones that pop up.

I tend to think that they can be a part of a natural link profile but are also potential red flags. If you have a lot of sitewides, it looks like you’ve gone out and paid some person or company to throw links up on the sites that are part of their network. Since we know that some networks were hit a few months back, I just don’t like to see these kind of links if they make up the bulk of a profile.

Some sitewide links are on amazing sites, which is why I hesitate to just say “don’t do them, ever.” I’ve seen many sites that linked to a client on every page and these were ones where I thought “wow, sure would be nice to have a link on just one great page here.” Since sitewide links were something that a lot of link builders worked on, they are found just about everywhere. They’re on blogrolls for one thing, and to me, those can be very legitimate links. They have also been abused, which is why so many people think differently about sitewides.

Here’s one thing I think we could all (or mostly) agree on: a profile made up of almost nothing but sitewides is not a strong profile.

If you already have links on a site, it can be easier to go back and have them changed as you theoretically could say that there is a relationship to help you out, but just as with any type of link alteration, it can also be a big timesuck and you can run into the same issues you do with asking for a link removal. If your sitewides were ones thrown up by an automated network, you could be looking at a massive effort.

2.  Anchor Text Changed

This is a type of link alteration that has been happening for a long time and we still see conflicting advice about it. We’ve seen exact match anchor text being all the rage, we’ve seen noise anchors enjoy their day in the sun, and currently we’re focused on brand/URL anchors as they seem the most natural.

If you have some great links, you may be tempted to go back to those partners and ask for a change in anchor text but while this may seem like a smart move, and one that I have previously thought might be helpful, currently I wouldn’t advise it as we don’t know what will fall out of favor and what we’ll all be told to do in 6 months.

We have had good response to anchor changes but it’s not a sustainable practice, as making changes every time there’s a big update takes time away from the goal of building new, quality links.

3.  Target URL Changed

This is actually a type of link alteration that I think can be the most valuable. Sure, you can handle link target changes with a redirect on your end, but you could be losing link juice that way. It may not be enough to matter, but it then again, it may.

Common reasons for target URL changes are:

  • you moved to a new URL
  • the page linked to no longer exists
  • the page linked to is no longer the best target

From my experience, these types of changes are the easiest, but that is if you’re dealing with good links to begin with. If a webmaster of a relevant site has linked to a certain page on your site that he or she thinks is valuable to that site’s audience and that page no longer exists, it’s beneficial to both of you to point it out. Most webmasters want to send people to the right page.

However,  (and I get tired of saying this so I imagine you get tired of reading it) this is also a technique that has been abused and used for negative SEO tactics or to steal links, so expect some suspicion when approaching webmasters if you’re changing to a completely different URL.

Should I Even Bother Removing Links?

So should you bother, if you haven’t been warned?

If your rankings and/or traffic have dropped and continue to drop, I’d take a very close look at your backlink profile but I’d also take a look at other factors. Links aren’t always the problem. Immediately assuming that once you start to lose rankings and traffic, you need to remove tons of links…well that’s just honestly foolhardy. Maybe you do need to, but maybe there are other factors at play, ones that won’t cost you $10k.

If everything is steady, sure, analyze your backlinks and see what’s there. If you find a lot of really horrible links, then here’s my advice: note them in a list, run them through a tool that grabs the contact information for you, and spend a few minutes a day pursuing their removal.

Spend ten times that amount pursuing new quality links though. If you find a few bad links, I’d suggest that you just sit tight and keep building good links, as I’ve yet to see a site suffer that had only a few bad links.

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

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


About The Author: owns the link development firm Link Fish Media and is one of the founding members of the SEO Chicks blog.

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  • http://twitter.com/NicoleMunoz Nicole Munoz

    Completely agree!  It is a much better use of time to go out and get high quality links than try to remove links… If there is an over optimization penalty for too tight of an anchor text, then it is on a case by case basis as there are many sites that rank in the top 3 for extremely competitive keywords that are “over optimized”.  Although that may change in the future, since the algo is not consistent it seems that it is more of a manual penalty than an algo change.  Put that together with the new release that we don’t really have to worry about the unnatural link request notices from Google… better to focus on creating good content and then market that content.

  • http://twitter.com/HyperTexted Kevin Gerding

    We received an E-mail from a webmaster over the weekend, and he noted that he liked/linked to our site.  He provided the URL so we could see, and it turns out that he placed our link sitewide in the footer.  Should I have our attorney give this guy a call?  Was the link an act of kindness, a malicious act or should I update our terms and conditions to note that linking to our website violates our registered trademark?  Seriously, how far must we go now to shield our brand from damage created by hyperlinks?

  • http://twitter.com/rjonesx rjonesx

    First, you definitely do not need to contact your lawyer. Seriously, that is crazy talk. Look at the anchor text they used, was it a keyword you want to rank for or just your brand name? If it is your brand, you really don’t need to worry. If it is your brand, just kindly ask them to not make it sitewide. Tell them you appreciate the link but Google’s new updates could make that link actually hurt your site. 

  • http://twitter.com/rjonesx rjonesx

    While I am admittedly biased because my company owns a link removal tool / service, I think that webmasters should err on the side of keeping their link profiles as clean as possible. Google is saying now that you will be judged by the company you keep, and if you have the power to influence that company, by all means do so.

  • juliejoyce

    I wrote this last week before the Fri warnings went out…and considering the latest developments (http://searchengineland.com/google-updates-link-warnings-128431) I think only time will tell whether we actually need to worry about having some crap links in our profiles. 

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi everyone-

    I haven’t done any link removal requests on behalf of my clients. I think it is a waste of time. 

    If it makes your clients feel better? Okay, then offer it as a service to them. 

    But you don’t have complete control over which sites link to you. I would rather spend more time on things I have control over (good titles and other labels, information architecture, content, etc.) and the high-quality link relationships I do have.

    The folks at the commercial web search engines know that you don’t have control over sites that link to you. They have known that for a long time.

    I think it is difficult for people to accept things that they have little or no control over, and letting that go…which is the reason why I don’t waste my time on link removal requests. 

    My 2 cents. 

  • newyorker_1

    Rjonesx, I have a question for you. When people ask for your link removal services, do you check if they are owner of the domain they want removed? If yes, how do you check?

  • http://www.yackyack.co.uk/ robwatts

    Good write up Julie. I think a possible solution lies in Google identifying ‘bad links’ and just quietly ignoring their impact.

    The “buy links don’t you dare manipulate your link profile in ways we don’t like” message has been sent. It’ll be less work for Google to operate in this way.

    The other view is that these kinds of stories contribute to a view that SEO is a risky proposition and that safer forms of promo w/ G exist via ad platforms.

    Yep, I get that it’s easy to dismiss such views as conspiratorial but I’m sure I’m not alone. Putting to one side any PR pronouncements, SEO in many ways is an affront to what Google set out to do as it gets in and meddles w/ what THEY would like to determine and in today’s matured web graph takes away from googles share of marketing budget spend.

    This whole shebang is of course a well trodden path w/ multiple competing theories and counter theories but one does have to ask the question why and in the absence of any solid response it’s reasonable to conclude that their actions are in some respects little more than a massive hindrance/inconvenience at best and a devastating blow to many businesses at worst.

    If something can be identified as bad then it can be ignored. Power from that link can be devalued, there is no need to penalize, outside of benefiting Google conspiracy type theories it serves no purpose other than to cause stress and consternation for 1000′s of ordinary folks trying to make their way in the world. I fail to see how that’s really good for anyone. :)

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    “What would you prefer, 50 removed links (that may have never hurt you) or 50 good new ones? I’d take 50 good new ones.”

    You make a great point. Obviously if your site has been whacked with a penalty you need to go the cleanup, it’s not really an option at that point. But there is also no need to stress over a handful of bad links that probably won’t impact your site anyway. I like to think of it as a see-saw, the more quality links you build the less meaningful those less than stellar links become.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    I agree, Julie.  It seems to me that Google’s real interest is in discouraging folks from creating garbage links going forward.  There may or may not be penalties associated with bad links, sites may plummet in rank/traffic not because of a penalty, but because links that used to help them have now been discounted.  Removing the zero value links won’t help, they’ve dropped because they don’t have enough quality links to add positive value.

    If Google’s goal is to stop the creation of garbage links, as I’ve argued here: http://www.rimmkaufman.com/blog/googles-ruptured-pipe/24072012/, then they’re going about it the right way.  Let folks know that these links have no value, and other garbage links will have no value.  This tells webmasters they are wasting time and money on “black hat” link building.  Applying negative penalties for bad links would encourage MORE garbage link building activities to try to pull down competitors.


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