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:
- Your site still performs as well as ever, if not better. Like everyone else, you have some crap links in your profile.
- 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 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.