Over the past few years, the importance of maintaining a clean link profile has become exponentially greater. Google’s Penguin updates have forced webmasters to ditch the black hat link building techniques and stay honest in their efforts to climb up the rankings. As a result, the necessity for link removal has become a top priority, especially for websites that were already penalized by Google.
The first step in successful link removal is obviously knowing what links need to be removed. There are a lot of great tools out there that offer to give you a nice neat list to simply submit as a disavow file. However, the problem is that these tools as sophisticated as they are, do not have the analytical capabilities of a real live SEO. Going through sometimes tens of thousands of links is a tedious and overwhelming task, but there are many ways to speed up the process with some simple pattern recognition and rules.
Here is my list of the seven best techniques:
1) Context – does the site linking make sense?
Most of the time when a backlink is created it is done so for navigational purposes rather than to provide direct attribution to the linked site. In these cases, a link should make sense in the context of both websites (i.e. a site about fashion should link to an ecommerce clothing brand). A major red flag when identifying a toxic link is seeing a website that clearly has no relation to your brand (i.e. a site about lawnmowers linking to an exercise website).
2) Anchor Text – does the text appear to be unnaturally targeting keywords?
A major part of black hat techniques for link building involved paying for websites to link back using a specific anchor text. Sometimes this occurs naturally, but if you see many links using the same phrases and non-branded keywords, then it is obvious that these links were paid for at some point in time and will be viewed as toxic in Google’s algorithm.
3) Suspicious Domain Names – does the site appear to be masking itself as more reputable using a subdomain or manipulated domain name?
It is not uncommon to find websites that try to hide what they are to webmasters. Sites will often use dmoz or alexa (both reputable website directories) as a subdomain or within the domain’s name (i.e. dmoz-dir.com) to appear more authoritative. These directories often were used as link farms before the Penguin update and now charge webmasters a fee to have their links removed.
4) Directories – does the site’s URL have an obvious directory folder structure?
Another way to identify the link farms mentioned previously is to look at the structure of the URL linking to your site. A directory will often be easy to recognize because of the way the URL’s folder structure is created. For example, something like www.directoryxxx.com/category/subcategory/?page=2 is common to find where each link is categorized into a section of the directory.
5) HTTP Status Codes – does the site return a 200 OK status code?
One easy and fast way to categorize links is to check their status codes. If websites are returning 404 or 500 errors then there will be no way to view the content of the site. In my experience, it is better to flag these pages as toxic than leave the links unless you know for a fact that the site is a safe link. It is not uncommon for bad backlinks to lead to malware or other dangerous problems for the site, so better safe than sorry.
6) Sponsored Posts/Guest Blogs – does the link appear to be part of a paid promotional effort?
As we now know, Google has officially called out SEOs for guest blog posts and other “natural” links. Although this involves going to a few websites to identify, it can reveal a major red flag. Seeing lots of links coming from blogspot websites or other subdomains on blogging networks can sometimes turn out to be paid posts where the link is included in the About Author section of the post or deliberately identify themselves as “sponsored” posts. These links are also the ones most likely to be using that spammy keyword-targeted anchor text.
7) Foreign Websites – where is the website being hosted?
Another common aspect of the paid links technique is that webmasters would outsource this to foreign countries that would simply mass-produce directories to be linked to. Seeing a lot of foreign websites (especially from India or southeast Asia) is a big flag unless your website has contextual relevance (i.e. a travel website would likely have foreign bloggers linking to it). Looking at the language of the domain and the hosting country is the best way to identify a potentially foreign link farm.