Link building is an essential part of any SEO campaign. Onsite strategy revolves around producing relevant, engaging content on a regular basis while ensuring your site is structured appropriately, while offsite strategy focuses on building your site’s authority through external links and brand mentions. But not all links are good links, and just a handful of bad links could compromise the integrity of your strategy and cause you to lose rank as a result.
After the Penguin update of 2012, link building became a much more sophisticated process. Today, it’s no longer enough to post links wherever you get the chance to—you have to make sure your links are natural, relevant, and beneficial to the parties who see them. Anything deemed irrelevant or spammy is decidedly marked as a ”bad link”, and will damage your SEO efforts for as long as it continues pointing to your site.
Fortunately, tracking down and removing bad links is easier than you might think. In this article, I’ll walk you through each step of the process.
Bad links come in many forms. As a general rule, anything that was posted with the sole intention of increasing page rank is determined to be a bad link. This includes links posted on irrelevant sites, links that were paid for, high numbers of links in a given area, and links anchored with keyword-stuffed text. Here are some of the most common culprits:
Your first step is to avoid building these types of links in the first place. Instead, focus on posting links only in relevant conversations on sites related to your industry or geographical location. Don’t focus on making your links “appear” natural—focus on building natural links.
Once you’ve integrated that into your strategy, there’s still a chance of bad links seeping through. You aren’t the only one building links on the Internet, so it pays to scout for third party sources that might be interfering with your search marketing campaign.
If you haven’t already, set up a Google Webmaster Tools account and add your website to it. You’ll probably need to go through at least one verification step before you can access the account. Once you’re logged in, go to Search Traffic > Links to Your Site, and you should see a great listing of links pointing to your site. Alternatively, you can generate a more comprehensive report using Moz’s free tool Open Site Explorer, dubbed the “search engine for links.”
Simply type your URL into the search bar and you’ll be able to see the type of links you have as well as the anchor text, link URL, site source, and various other pieces of data. Here, you should be able to determine which links are “good” and which links are “bad.”
Of course, there are always gray areas, and not every questionable link demands an immediate action. The best long-term practice to adopt is careful monitoring of your ranks and domain authority. If you notice a significant drop with no explanation, a rogue bad backlink could be the culprit. When you notice a drop, browse through the links pointing to you and weed out any that don’t appear natural or don’t seem like a part of your regular strategy.
Alternatively, if you don’t notice any significant drops, it’s still a good idea to peruse your link structure occasionally. In these cases, only pull the links that appear to be big red flags—the obviously terrible links, which will probably harm you sooner or later.
Now that you’ve identified a link or two that needs to be removed, it’s time to take action against it. There are a series of escalating steps you can take in order to remove these links, and you may never need to use all of them.
Step One: Try and remove it yourself
The easiest way to remove a bad backlink is to remove it yourself. If your link exists in the form of a comment on a forum, you can flag it as spam. Or, if your account is the one that posted it, you can manually take it down.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option. If you can’t remove the link yourself, move on to step two.
Step Two: Contact the website administrator
The next step is also simple: ask the person in charge to take it down. It really is that simple. If the link was built as a mistake, or if it was built by someone unauthorized to post it, most webmasters will be more than happy to assist you in taking it down.
For this step, locate the source of the link—this should be easy if you’re using the Open Site Explorer Tool. Usually, the webmaster’s contact information is posted somewhere on the site, but if you can’t find it, check Whois.
In your contact, remain polite and repeat your approach for each site you reach out to. This will give you a better chance of getting results, and will save you the time of writing a new letter each time. Follow up if you don’t hear anything after a day or two.
If you can’t find the webmaster’s contact information, or if the webmaster has some reason for refusing to take your link down, you can escalate the process to the final step.
Step Three: Use Google’s Disavowal Tool
If there’s no other way to remove the bad links, you can ask Google to exclude them from consideration when calculating your ranks. The Disavowal Tool, found in Google Webmaster Tools, allows you to make that request. It allows you to create a singular file that contains all the URLs you wish to “disavow” from consideration, indicating which sites refused to take the links down and which sites were impossible to contact.
Remember, the disavowal tool is not a removal tool—it is a request tool. Google reserves the right to deny your requests and keep the links in consideration if it feels you are relying too heavily on it. As such, you should use the disavowal tool only as a last resort. Do everything you can to remove your links manually before it escalates to this level.
Once the bad links are removed, it may take some time before your rankings return to normal. This is an expected part of the process, so be patient after removing the links in question. The authority from good links and the damage from bad ones both seem to linger for a few weeks after the links are removed.
Invest time in your link building campaign, and don’t forget that removing bad links is just as important as building good ones. Take at least one or two days a month to review the number and type of links pointing to your site, and make adjustments accordingly. Over time, you’ll sculpt a near-perfect link profile, and you’ll keep your website positioned as a positive authority in Google’s eyes.