There’s no arguing with the fact that it’s been a rough couple of months for webmasters and SEOs alike.  In addition to being pummeled by various Panda and Penguin updates and refreshes, Google has been investing significant resources into stepping up its monitoring and penalization of low value link building strategies.

Even if your site hasn’t received one of the unprecedented number of unnatural links warnings issued recently by the search giant, it’s worth taking some time to evaluate your site’s backlink profile and remove low value links at this point.  Given the recent push we’ve seen recently by Google and the other search engines to weed web spam out of their natural search results, there’s no reason to believe that these are the only link-oriented penalties we’ll see.

Step #1 – Analyze your backlink profile

In general, there are two different scenarios that should prompt a further evaluation of your backlink profile with the intention of identifying and removing penalty links:

  • You’ve received a notice from Google in your Webmaster Tools account indicating that unnatural link building practices have been detected on your website, or
  • You’re concerned that the low value link building practices you’ve engaged in in the past could leave your site vulnerable to future Google algorithm changes.

In either case, you’ll need to start with a tool that allows you to discover and export a list of all the different backlinks pointing at your website.  My favorite tools for this purpose include Majestic SEO, the Open Site Explorer and Ahrefs – and although there are fees associated with using each of these programs, I believe it’s money well spent in terms of protecting your site’s future natural search performance.

Once you’ve set up an account with your data provider of choice, you’ll want to take a look at the following variables associated with the links in your backlink profile:

  • Are the sites pointing at you legitimate websites or do they appear to have been built for SEO?  Links built on sites that appear to have no value beyond providing a place for link builders to leave their referral text should be obvious targets for removal when it comes to improving the quality of your backlink profile.
  • Does your anchor text distribution focus too highly on SEO keywords?  Because the search engines value natural links, patterns of tightly-distributed, keyword-oriented anchor texts may be especially susceptible to link penalties.
  • Where on the page of each referring site are your links located?  In-content links represent the link building gold standard of SEO these days, as they’re perceived by the search engines to represent editorial votes from site owners.  Sitewide links or footer links, on the other hand, reside in site locations deemed the most vulnerable to SEO manipulation.

To conduct this analysis, you’ll find that it’s easiest to export your backlink profile data to a spreadsheet, where you can note which links are most likely to appear suspicious in the eyes of the search engines.

Step #2 – Determine which penalty links should be removed

At this point, you should have a list of low value links that could potentially lead your website to be penalized by Google and the other search engines.

However, before you run off and start contacting every webmaster who’s hosting one of your penalty links, you’ll want to take a few more steps to ensure that you aren’t wasting your effort on links that won’t actually cause any ill effects.

Specifically, you’ll want to find the following pieces of information about each low value link before beginning the removal process:

  • Is the link still active on the referring page?  Things change all the time in the world of SEO, so it’s possible that the link in question isn’t even active any longer.  Take the time to open the page listed by your backlink profile data generation program and see if you can find the link, either on-page or in its source code.  If you can’t find the link, the search engines can’t either.
  • Does the link have the “rel=nofollow” attribute added to it?  If so, you don’t need to worry about link removal, as the search engines aren’t counting the PageRank passed through the link anyways.
  • Does the page have a meta robots “nofollow” tag in its head section?  Even if individual links aren’t tagged with the appropriate attributes, you may find that site owners have instructed the search engine spiders to ignore the links on an entire page from the perspective of transmitting PageRank.

If the low value links you identified in Step #1 meet the above criteria, you can safely ignore them for now.  However, if your analysis reveals links that fail both the quality standards outlined in Step #1 and the search engine treatment guidelines listed above in Step #2, you’ll want to take action to have them either changed or removed.

Step #3 – Contact link-hosting webmasters or link building partners

Now that you know which inbound links could be contributing to current or future link-related penalties, you’ll want to take action to minimize their presence in your backlink profile.  Keep in mind that you have several different options here:

  • You can ask the webmaster to remove the link entirely
  • You can ask that the webmaster change the link’s anchor text to either a branded keyword phrase or something natural like, “Click here”
  • You can ask that the webmaster add the appropriate “nofollow” tag to your backlink

To get in touch with the webmasters hosting your potential penalty links, either use the contact form found on the referrer’s website or use a WhoIs lookup service to find the email address associated with the website’s hosting account.  Alternatively, if you used a service to create links that you now believe to be low quality, contact the service or contractor in question directly to address the removal or modification of your links.

When contacting webmasters or link-building services, it’s best to be upfront about your circumstances.  Most people attempting to carry out link removal campaigns have seen the best results by stating directly that they’re webmasters looking to either remove or protect against Google penalties before specifying the action they’d like to occur.

However, be aware that link removal isn’t an easy process.  Not all webmasters will respond to your removal request, while even fewer still will take the action you request.  In some cases, webmasters may require payment in order to remove your links (though it’s up to you if you want to go down this road).  As a result, you may find that it’s a viable option to simply scrap an already-penalized website in order to start fresh with better link building techniques.

Whatever the case may be, the best thing you can do for yourself throughout the removal request process is to carefully document every move you make.  If you contact a webmaster, make a note on your spreadsheet of how and when the contact occurred.  Even if you aren’t able to remove your low quality links entirely, the documentation you compile throughout the process may be enough to have your penalties lifted if you decide to pursue a reconsideration request with Google.

Image: jonathanb1989

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