If you listen closely, you can almost hear it: the collective wails of all the website owners out there who’ve experienced an ongoing drop in search engine ranks.

Ever since Google’s Penguin search engine algorithm updates in May and October of 2013, the world of search engine marketing has changed.

Penguin did several things, but its main focus was to hit spammy link-building practices, and hit them hard. It’s easy to see why Google targeted this: their job is to show people meaningful search engine results. Artificially inflating your rank by adding links to your site on link farms is not in line with that goal. Sadly, that’s what many business owners unknowingly have done in the past few years when hiring SEO companies to do link building campaigns to help them get more visibility. At the time it worked well, but now they’re paying the price.

In these first cold months of 2014, many business owners and well-meaning SEO companies are still struggling with the Penguin hangover. Many have completely rewritten their website content with no effect. It’s time to walk the long, hard road to recovery: toxic link removal.

How to Tell If Toxic Links Are the Problem

There are two kinds of Google penalties: manual and algorithmic. In a manual penalty, members of Google’s spam team have seen the evidence and issued a penalty directly. In such cases, the site owner will see a warning message in their Webmaster Tools. An algorithmic penalty occurs when unnatural linking strategies are caught by the Penguin code. In cases of an algorithmic penalty, no warning is given – this was confirmed by Matt Cutts on Twitter.

The main clue you will have is a sudden sharp and lasting drop in your site traffic in Google Analytics that is post-Penguin.

It’s important to remember that there could be a number of issues that can be caught by an algorithmic penalty, not just unnatural linking strategies:

  • Over-optimizing your pages, also known as keyword stuffing.
  • “Black hat” SEO tactics like hiding links using the same colour text as background.
  • Content duplicated from other websites.
  • Viruses or spyware on your site.
  • Other violations of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

In other words, you can’t be 100% sure that toxic links are the problem until you try removing them and wait for the results. Unfortunately, it can take months for the recovery to take effect – I have seen reported cases of 6 months for the rebound to occur.

Spring Cleaning For Your Website

If you suspect that toxic links may be the issue, the good news is that we’ve got a guide for you to follow to start cleaning house. The bad news is that this process is time consuming and requires good judgement.

The Process In a Nutshell

The first step is to get a list of all the inbound links to your web, and then evaluate all of sites they’re on. You don’t want the links from the sketchy sites and link farms, but you do want to keep the links from the beneficial sites like normal directories and review sites. For any sites you don’t want to be listed on anymore, you’ll need to contact the site owners and ask to have your link removed. As a last resort, you’ll need to ask Google to not count the links, a process known as disavowing.

A Little Help…Or Is It? Using Toxic Link Reports

To cut down on the work, it is tempting to use any one of a number of toxic link reporting tools. We tried using a couple, and even spent a lot of money on one that looked like it was better quality. The results were not pleasing: the ones we used included links from sites that were already taken down, and gave a lot of other types of false positives as well. We wasted a lot of time checking these.

We found that the only sure fire way to make absolutely sure we were working with real links is to get a list from Webmaster Tools, review the links one by one, and then take action to get links removed from the sites that looked untrustworthy.

Disavowing Links: Proceed With Caution

If contacting site owners and asking links to be removed is so much work, why spend the time doing it? Why not just disavow everything? First of all, if you accidentally disavow links from good sites, your site traffic may drop. Google still counts inbound links from trusted sites as a vote for your page.

Also, your site may be penalized if Google suspects a “black hat” pattern with your disavowals. There are people out there who try and make their competition look bad by disavowing the websites their links are on, in the hopes Google will penalize them. This is why disavowing links is considered a last resort by Google.

As you will see, you’ll also be able to disavow an individual page link or an entire site. Again, you should only disavow an entire domain as a last resort: where possible provide entire specific links.

The general idea is that we don’t want to disavow unless necessary, and we’re working to make the disavowal list as short as possible.

The Step-By-Step Guide To Identifying and Removing Toxic Links

Step One: Create an Excel List of Links To Your Site That Google Sees

  1. Login to your Webmaster Tools home page, and select your website.
  2. Go to the dashboard and click Search Traffic.
  3. Click Links to Your Site.
  4. Click Who Links the Most
  5. Under “Who links the most”, click More.
  6. Click the “Download more sample links” button. You have the option of downloading the CSV or using Google Docs. You can open the CSV in Excel.

This will result in a list of all links to your site: the good, the bad and the ugly. The next step will be to evaluate the list for the toxic ones.

Step Two: Evaluate the Links, Keeping Only Toxic Ones

For every link, go to the website and check it out. This chart may also help when evaluating links.

1. For each Google link that may be toxic, look at the site and determine:

  • Has the site already been blacklisted or taken down already? If so, remove the link from the toxic link list, as you don’t need to disavow it. You can tell by doing a site:domain.com search in Google. A blacklisted/removed site will look like this:
    website toxic links removal: site is down or blacklisted
  • Is the link on a legitimate directory vs a link farm? You can use this guide to help you tell which is which.
  • If the site is a bit spammy, but they’ve set the link to rel=nofollow, do not disavow. A nofollow tag tells Google not to count the link for SEO purposes.
    View the page source code and do a search (using CTRL and f on your keyboard) for the word “nofollow” and see if it is applied to the link to your site or the page as a whole.

2. If the link is legit, remove the link from the list. After you’re done, you should just have a working list of links that you’re positive are toxic.

3. For each link, contact the webmaster and ask to have the link removed. Record all contact information. Record whether they want payment, or if the link got removed, or if they ignored you, or anything else that is relevant – you’ll need this information in case Google audits your disavow list. Some sites offer no way to contact them – if so make a note of that.

Step Three: Set up Your Disavow File

1. Format your list with one URL per row, or, to disavow an entire domain, use “domain: terribleperson.com”.

  • If you are positive a site is a link farm or spam site, you can go ahead and disavow the domain.
  • Even though you should mention all URLs, one comment per URL is fine.
  • Keep everything all in one column (as the final format needs to be a .txt file, even if you’re working with it in Excel).
  • Important: put the comments ABOVE the domain name the comment is about, and mention dates specifically. Our best understanding is that the comments will be read by a computer, so use the international standard date format of year/month/day: e.g. 2013/11/22.

2. You should always explain why links are being disavowed by using “# reason” comment format. As mentioned, Google may come back to you and ask for proof.

website toxic links removal: disavow list

Here is an example of a properly formatted Disavow links file:

Once you have created your Disavow links spreadsheet, you can upload it to the Disavow Links tool in Webmaster tools; we’ll show you below.

Step Four: Upload Your Disavow List

  1. In Webmaster Tools, go to the Disavow Tool, on https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main.
  2. Select the website you’d like to disavow links to.
  3. Click the Disavow Links button.
  4. Choose your disavow file and upload.

As the warning message will tell you, it’s an action that can’t be undone, so ensure every link on your list is something you’re positive is hurting you.

If you have received a warning message about a manual penalty, you will also need to file a reconsideration request.

Will It All Be Worth It?

Disavowing your toxic links is worth it for some sites, and not for others. With one client, there were so many bad links that we started over with a new domain name. With others, we waited for months to see results. You also need to factor in that toxic links may not be your site’s problem – it may be that your content was stolen from another site, or some other issue.

The Penguin updates have had a massive impact on the online world, to the point where “SEO is dead” is now the post-cliché joke “SEO is dead…again”. But one thing has become abundantly clear: Google is very serious about the content we put online. If you’re not writing your site pages with both clarity and informative detail, they have no interest in helping you attract users.

With thanks to Alex Katayama for writing the original step by step guide.

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A Life Worth Celebrating

Ellie is a budding fashionista, an aspiring equestrian, and an avid dancer and gymnast. She also has a rare metabolic disorder, but she doesn’t let it define her.