A few months back, I wrote an article on Moz all about a penalty our web agency received for unnatural links pointing to our website. At first, this was a bit of a shock to the system, but since then, we’ve learned so much about Google’s webmaster guidelines and we’ve helped lots of companies get their businesses back on track and remove manual penalties associated with their websites.
What did we get hit for?
Cutting a long story short, the main reason we were hit with a manual penalty was for adding followed anchor text into the bottom of clients websites that said ‘Web Design Yorkshire by Pinpoint Designs‘ (both ‘web design yorkshire’ and ‘Pinpoint Designs’ linked to our website). At the time, we were just doing this out of habit, but we never varied anchor text, always had followed links and we were basically violating Google’s quality guidelines.
After a lot of work and research, we managed to remove the penalty from our website and since then have worked on lots of other clients websites to help them lift penalties. We’ve worked with clients who’ve had both unnatural link penalties along with on-site penalties for low quality content, cloaking issues and malware issues. We have a great success rate and are consistently trying to improve our processes to become even better!
What are we doing to improve?
Over the past few months, we’ve been trying out different tools to aid link recovery, speeding up our process of getting in touch with webmasters, finding new ways to contact webmasters and ultimately just trying to streamline the process of getting spammy links removed. In this guide, I’m going to review a few of the different link removal tools we’ve tried out and also give you some ideas of how you can carry out link removal work manually to get your website penalty removed.
This guide is mainly for people who’ve specifically received a penalty for unnatural links warnings. To find out if you’ve received a penalty for unnatural links, simply log in to Google Webmaster Tools and use Google’s new ‘Manual actions‘ tab to see what type of penalty you have. If it’s for ‘Unnatural links‘ with a yellow warning symbol next to it, then you’re on the right guide!
My aim over the next few months is to try to write guides on different types of penalties in order to help people out further. We’re also working on a tool ourselves called Peel, which we’re building from the ground up in order to try and deliver exceptional analysis of links. You can sign up to our newsletter for tips and information about the launch of the product using the link above.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: collecting backlink data
First of all, we need to pull a list of all the links pointing to your website from a few different sources. A Google employee on the Webmaster Central Forums has recently stated that they recommend you focus on the Webmaster Tool Links.
Whether you choose to believe that though is another question, there’s an interesting discussion on this available at the Webmaster Central Forums:
Matt Cutts has also responded recently saying the following:
“It’s certainly the case that we endeavour to show examples from the set of links returned by Webmaster Tools, and likewise we prefer to assess reconsideration requests on that basis of those links. However, if there’s a really good example link that illustrates a problem, we do leave enough room to share that link, especially because it can help point the webmaster in a better direction to diagnose and fix issues.”
Whilst it may be that Google just want you to remove the majority of bad links and not necessarily every single one of them, I would personally recommend doing the job properly and start by collecting as much data as possible from various different link sources:
- Google Webmaster Tools – Login to Google Webmaster Tools and click into the website with the issues, go to ‘Search Traffic’ > ‘Links To Your Site’, then click the ‘more’ link under the ‘Who links the most’ tab. Once in here, click the ‘Download more sample links’ from the top.
- Open Site Explorer – Visit http://www.opensiteexplorer.org and type in your domain name (make sure you get this absolutely correct as having a slight variation of your domain such as missing out the www. can cause a different set of results). Once loaded, click the ‘Advanced Reports’ tab, select ‘Links that come from: External linking page’ and leave all the other settings as they are, then click export.
- Ahrefs – Visit http://www.ahrefs.com and enter in your domain. Click the ‘CSV’ tab and export the list of ‘Backlinks/Ref pages’. Ahrefs is an absolutely brilliant tool that’s helped us so many times with link removal campaigns. It allows you to narrow down quickly sitewide links, followed / nofollowed links and more.
- Majestic SEO – Visit http://www.majesticseo.com, enter your domain name and select ‘Historic Index’. This will show all your previous links instead of just the most recent. Click on the backlinks tab, scroll to the bottom of the page and click ‘download data’.
Most of the above sites will require you to have subscriptions in order to gather the data. Sites such as Majestic SEO will allow you to use the tool free of charge (or a limited amount) if you have the domain verified in your Webmaster Tools account. That being said, for the sake of one or two month’s membership, it’s worth paying for the wealth of data you’ll get.
Note: Google have previously recommended you add both the www. and the non-www. version of the domain to Webmaster tool and gather links from both sources. It’s worth search different variations of your domain to get as much data as possible.
Step 2: documenting your work
Start by creating yourself a Google Docs Spreadsheet where you can track all of your work to see exactly where you are at with the link removal process. This will be extremely useful when you come to submitting a reconsideration request with Google, as they’ll be able to see exactly what you’ve done to sort out the issues with your site.
I should also point out at this point that Google say they don’t tend to trust external links from sources they don’t trust. For that reason, I recommend only using a Google Spreadsheet when documenting your work as it’s a Google product and trusted by them. You can also include a link to this document in your reconsideration request very easily and it’s free!
We would usually start by creating tabs at the bottom of spreadsheet for each of our data sources. For example, Google Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs, Majestic SEO & Open Site Explorer. You don’t have to separate your data into different sheets, but I personally think it shows more work being carried out and allows more in-depth analysis.
The only disadvantage to doing this is that you’ll have lots of repeat links – we do however have this covered!
If you visit the Pinpoint Designs Blog, we’ve created a Google docs spreadsheet that you can use which helps to combine multiple sheets together and remove duplicates. This is a brilliant asset to use on your link removal campaign.
Google Docs only allows importing of 50,000 characters at a time. This may sound a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly you hit this limit. You can import data from a CSV by going to your Google Docs file, then clicking ‘File > Import’. You can do this for each document you export from OSE, Ahrefs, Majestic and Google Webmaster Tools and import them into separate sheets within the same document. There’s still a limit, but it’s higher than 50,000 and will speed up the process.
IMPORTANT: Once you’ve got all your data into the spreadsheet, make sure you add the following columns to the end of each of the sheets (or alternatively your ‘Master Sheet’ if you’re combining all the data into one sheet):
- Contact Name
- Contact Email Address
- Website Contact Form
- Twitter URL
- Facebook URL
- Google+ URL
- LinkedIn URL
- Date of 1st Contact
- Date of 2nd Contact
- Date of 3rd Contact
- Link Status
This may seem like a lot of data, but it’s the best way you can document your work. That way, when you’re carrying out research on your domains, you’ll be able to start populating the spreadsheet and making your life easier in the long term. You’ll also be able to show Google all the work you’ve been doing to get the links removed and making it very easy for them to see everything you’ve done.
If you don’t want to go to the effort of populating all the data above, you could combine all of the different forms of contact method into one cell and just populate that. The chances are, you’re not going to need Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Email and Website Contact Form for every single URL so it’s just down to preference. The above recommendation is the best way we’ve found of documenting data.
Finally, add an additional sheet to your Google Docs file called ‘Contact Examples’. In here, you can upload images of a few examples of the emails you’ve sent out to the webmasters you’ve been working with. Be careful what you put in here, Google will be reading these messages so make sure you’re not badmouthing them.
Don’t threaten Webmasters by saying Google will block their site and how they’re going to get harmed if they don’t remove your links. Instead, say that you’re trying to clear things up so that you’re fully compliant with Google’s webmaster guidelines. You can apologise for the inconvenience to the webmaster and thank them for their help (examples further down in this article). That way, when Google reads them, they’ll understand you’re genuinely trying to sort things and hopefully be a little more forgiving under the circumstances.
Tip: If you’re on a Mac, you can press ‘Cmd + Shift + 4’. This command allows you to take screenshots quickly and easily of a specific section of your monitor. Perfect for quickly snapping contact forms, emails you’re sending, etc. and uploading them to the ‘Contact Examples’ sheet in your Google docs file.
Step 3: spotting low-quality links
This is a hugely important section of link removal. It sounds simple, but you have to be extremely careful with what links you attempt to remove. Good links generally take a long time to build and if you ask for them to be removed thinking they’re potentially spammy, that hard work may all be for nothing.
Over the past year, we’ve learnt that the best way to identify spammy links is to manually review each and every one of them. If a link is good, mark it in your spreadsheet so you know not to remove it. Don’t delete any links from the sheet, as it’s all research to show Google what you’ve been doing. Either highlight the cell in a colour, or add a note in one of the columns so you know it’s safe / genuine.
So, how do we spot spammy links?
Some links are easy to identify. For example, if you’ve been featured on the BBC News, Guardian or a high quality, authoritative website, you can be fairly sure it’s a strong link that doesn’t need removing.
The definition of a natural link is fairly hard to summarise. I would class these as links that have appeared from other content you’ve written naturally. For example, let’s say you were involved in the automotive industry and wrote an article all about the history or cars, different manufacturers and really went into great details about every aspect. This type of article is obviously going to end up very big, hopefully interesting and should be a brilliant read. If you’ve done a good job and shared the article in the right places, you should hopefully acquire links naturally. People will link to your guide / post naturally without you having to ask for it and those types of links are ok.
Throughout this article, I’ll link to other articles I’ve read on the internet that I believe are helpful for link removal. All the people I link to have created good quality content that I believe will help you in removing your penalties with Google. They have written an article for the sake of it, they’ve written it with an aim in mind so that it’s beneficial.
On the same side, it’s easy to spot some spam links. For example, if you’re listed on a website with 10,000 links on the same page in a list, or if you’ve commented on a blog with xx,xxx other comments just for the backlink. I realise that’s a bit of an extreme situation, but hopefully my point is made. If you know the link has been placed on the site purely for SEO purposes, then it’s most likely unnatural.
Some links however are harder to spot, so here are my top tips for identifying lower quality links:
Whether the URL is indexed in Google or not:
If not, remove the links as the site has most likely received a penalty. You can also see if a domain is indexed in Google by searching Google for ‘site:yourdomain.com’.
Page Authority and Domain Authority
Don’t pay too much attention to this metric. A new domain name can still be a very strong link even though it has low page and domain authority. A poor quality site can also still have good page authority and domain authority, so just be careful when looking at this.
Site wide links are generally associated with websites you have an affiliation with (friendly links), or links you’ve paid for. Due to this, it’s better to make sure you don’t have links across every page of someone’s sites.In this case, either nofollow the links, or remove them and only put them on one page. Ahrefs does a brilliant job of spotting site-wide links on websites quickly and easily.
That being said, the same rules still apply, if the links looks spammy, remove all of them.
Link directories are fairly easy to spot, if they contain words like ‘backlinks’, ‘links’, ‘seo’ etc. in the URL, then the chances are that they are low quality links and need removing. If it lists every category under the sun from Website Developers to Sunglasses, then it’s most likely a directory that you need to remove yourself from!
There are some good link directories on the internet, generally, these are targeted to a particular niche, are manually reviewed and sometimes locally targeted. You can look at link directories and think ‘Will I ever receive any traffic from this site?’ or ‘Is this genuinely a valuable link?’ if the answer is likely to be no, then the link should be removed. Be fairly honest with yourself on this one, if it looks like spam, then it most likely is.
If you want some more tips, here are a few bullet points:
Remove a link if:
- The site is not indexed in Google, this would indicate a penalty.
- The site automatically accepts links without any manual review.
- The site has lots of spam links pointing to it (type the URL of the directory into Open Site Explorer and see what you can find!)
- The site has categories for everything imaginable (cars, holidays, sunglasses, websites, hosting, dresses etc.).
- The site is obviously part of a network where there are lots of related directories with similar names / similar looking websites etc.
- The site contains keywords like ‘best’, ‘links’, ‘seo’ etc in the name.
If the site shows ‘powered by phpLD’ or ‘PHP Link Directory’ in the footer, it’s most likely going to be a fairly spammy directory. That’s not always the case, but 9/10 times, it’s most likely true.
During a recent link removal campaign, we managed to get a webmaster to take down a set of 20 link directories that were pointing to our client’s website. They couldn’t be bothered to remove the links from each site individually, so instead they took every site offline so everyone’s links disappeared!
These are usually very spammy. If you have the odd profile link on a forum that you’re very active on, then this is generally fine. However, if you’re listed on a forum in Romania (an example only!) and have never posted before, get the link removed.
If you’re a member of the forum purely to get a link back to your website, then the link should be removed. It’s a very easy to identify spam technique, so stay safe and remove them.
Similar to Forum Profiles, blog comments are an easy one to spot. If you’ve commented every now and again on a blog that you generally feel has helped you, or the blog is in your industry and you’ve added value to the discussion with your comment (rather than just posting a boring comment like ‘Good work dude’), then it’s probably ok.
That being said, if you’ve got a large number of blog comments with very little substance, you should remove all the links. If the site has hundreds and hundreds of comments and you’re one of a huge list of spam comments, you should remove the link too.
Very similar to both the blog comments and forum profiles, social bookmarks are ok if they’re genuine. Remember that the penalties you have received are manual actions and when you put in a reconsideration request, the chances are that a Google employee with manually be looking through some of your links. If your social bookmarks look spammy, remove them.
If you’ve been paying for links, make sure you remove them or add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the link. When you’re writing your reconsideration request, mention the fact that you have previously purchased links and have now rectified the issue by ensuring they are all nofollow / been removed.
Google is getting much smarter at detecting advertorial links, so don’t try to trick the system.
A slightly trickier one to detect straight off. Usually, you can spot the spammy blog posts generally by looking at the URLs. If they’re dynamic URLs which end in something like ‘index.php?id=99’, then it’s usually a sign of a site being launched very quickly. The best way to identify spam blog posts is to load up each blog. Use these tell-tale signs to spot the low quality posts:
- Does the article make sense? – Is it English, do the sentences make sense? or is it spun, low quality rubbish that benefits nobody.
- Is the site nicely designed? – Does the website look like a genuine blog that’s been looked after, cared for and regularly updated? Or is it using a standard template with awful layouts and content.
- Is the website content unique? – You can use a website such as http://www.copyscape.com to find duplicate / spun content.
- Is the article high quality? – Again, this is down to interpretation, but does the article provide any value to your business or is it there for the sake of being there? If it’s high quality, but just linked in the wrong way, ask the webmaster to add a nofollow attribute assigned to it.
- Is the blog too consistent? – Does the blog post about shoes one day, software the following day and medicine the following day? Also, does every post have an outgoing link to a different website, the same length and full of anchor text using ‘money keywords’? If so, they’re not focused and most likely either automating their posting / trying to build a site for SEO purposes. Avoid these sites and remove the links.
- Is there an easy way to contact the owners? – Lots of lower quality blogs will remove the contact form, or completely hide who is behind them. If you can’t get in touch with the owner, it’s likely to be low quality and should be removed.
If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then have the links removed. Other things you can look at are as follows:
- Are you using money terms and anchor text in the article? – This is ok as long as it’s not overdone and as long as it’s genuine. You have to use common sense when it comes to looking at blog posts. If it could be considered a spam article, remove it to stay on the safe side).
- Are there lots of keywords stuffed into the article? – If your article reads like something that’s been written for a search engine, remove it
If the answers to the above are yes, then remove the articles.
Link networks are bad news, but many ‘SEO’ agencies still use them. You can use some of the metrics gathered in the reports above to detect link networks. For example:
- IP Address – If the IP address is the same on multiple different domains, this is a sign that you could be part of a link network. You could run a quick whois search on the various domains to see who the owner is. We’ve carried out link removal campaigns on clients’ websites where over 150 domains are from the same IP address.
- Whois Searches – By running a whois search on a domain name, you can see who the registered owner of the domain is (in most cases). If you find that the same owner owns a large number of domains pointing to your site are from the same owner, this should send danger signals.
- Google Analytics IDs – Look at the source code of the sites and search for the Google analytics code. These follow the format UA-XXXXXXXX-X (where the X’s are replaced with numbers). If you find the same UA- code being used on multiple sites, this shows signs of a link network.
- Site Design – Does the site look exactly the same as other sites pointing to your domain? This can sometimes be the same links in the footer, a ‘sponsored company’ or even just the same look and layout. If so, it’s possibly built by the same person and an example of a network.
Some of the tools listed further down in this article will help you to speed up the locating of link networks by automatically pulling in Whois Results, IP address and Analytics Details for each domain. You can then use their system, or software such as Excel to manually filter through the data and spot offending links straight away.
Over Optimised Anchor Text:
If you have articles out on the internet which just contain anchor text pointing to keywords you want to appear on Google for, then these need removing. There has been a lot of talk online about the correct ‘Anchor text ratio’ to have for brand vs commercial anchor text terms, but I don’t think you should think of SEO in this way.
Instead, focus on building your brand. If it’s appropriate to link to your money keywords, or keywords surrounding the money terms, link to it. If your trying to build your brand, you’ll find that you’re linking to your brand name and it’s URL more regularly and you’re going to have a much more natural and organic link profile.
Tip: Use Eppie Vojt’s Link Detective tool to see what your current link profile looks like. You’ll be able to see very quickly which keywords you’ve been targeting too regularly.
If your anchor text is only targeting money terms, remove the links. Chances are, it’s probably not the best article / content anyway. If it is, it’s probably worthy of a money term link.
This is a fairly old tactic these days, but many people still do it. Don’t create a page on your site called links and swap these with other peoples ‘links’ pages. This creates a huge footprint of spammy link building which should be avoided.
I still believe press releases are a great way to carry out SEO, but only if they’re done correctly. If your press release is simply put out there and contains 3-5 links back to your site with a money keyword as the anchor text, you’re doing it all wrong.
Press releases should be used to build your brand, shout out to the world about what your company is doing and only used when you have something relevant to tell people. If you’ve just received investment from a company, helped out your local community or had your best ever years profits, then write a really good quality press release that people find engaging and interesting. You can then put in links to your website under its brand name or the website URL.
If you are adding money terms in, I’d recommend adding a nofollow attribute in order to stay on the safe side as you can bet this is where Google will be targeting very soon. If you’ve got press releases out there which are blatantly spam with no real value, have them removed.
A simple one. If the site contains malware, have your link removed. Alternatively, if it’s a site that you know is hugely reputable, contact the owner and have them fix the problem as soon as possible.
The above section hopefully gives you an idea of how to spot some poor quality links. It’s not a definitive guide, but it should give you an idea of some of the more common sections we come across when carrying out work for clients.
The biggest tip I would be able to provide is use common sense. Deep down, you’ll know if a link is worth having or not. Sometimes likes are good, but they may need a nofollow attribute adding to them. So just work through the list systematically and put yourself in Google’s shoes.
All you need to do is go through each link manually and make a note of whether it needs to be removed or not. If you consider it a safe link, mark it so you know not to remove the link. You could do this either by a colour marker, or just by adding a piece of text next to each link. If you’ve got a lot of colours going on, make sure to make a sheet at the bottom called ‘Key’ so that the Google employees can see what work you’ve carried out.
Tools for making your life easier…
There are a lot of tools available online that say they’ll help to identify spammy links in bulk. Some of these tools are brilliant for speeding up analysis, but I wouldn’t rely on them 100%. I’ve put some comments below on systems we’ve used in the past and my thoughts on using them.
Websites / Tools available for full link removal:
This is probably one of the better tools we’ve used over the past year. The detox tool assigns a risk score to each of your backlinks which it pulls from 22 different link sources. In addition to this, it will pull in lots of statistics about the links and will try to retrieve an email address / contact name for the owner of the offending website. Personally, I’ve found the contact finder to be brilliant and some of the additional metrics (such as IP address of the website and domain registrant) have helped hugely in discovering link networks. They still have a lot of work to do as far as the link scores are concerned. Sometimes, the ‘Very Low Risk’ links are obviously spammy and should be removed, so if you use this tool, you need to be very careful and double-check the links that you’re removing. Overall, a very good system though.
I’ve never actually used Link Risk, but I’ve heard some good things about it. The team behind Link Risk are certainly very talented and know their stuff, so I can’t really comment on the results seen with it.
A new tool on the block – Linkquidator offer a 30 day free trial with a limited number of backlinks. I have signed up to look at the tool but haven’t had chance to give it a full test drive.
I’ve used Remove’em on a couple of campaigns we’ve done for clients as a tool to help us identify bad links. Personally, I found the interface very clunky in terms of outreach to webmasters and a very slow process. As for uncovering bad links, it did a fairly good job of this but didn’t show me the safe links so it is hard to see how many it may have missed. I found the outreach to webmasters very slow with this system and would opt to use mail instead for speed.
Rmoov have personally tried not to identify which links are classed as spammy. Personally, the idea behind this system is brilliant, instead, it just helps to speed up the process of contacting webmasters by pulling contact information for each domain, allowing you to create and send emails then following up each of the emails with reminders. It will check the status of your links periodically and record each step of the process in a Google Doc.
Barry Schwartz from Search Engine Roundtable has done a brilliant write-up on link tools identifying toxic links. It really highlights that manual review is still necessary when using tools such as the above and you should never rely on them 100%.
Our agency Pinpoint Designs is currently working on a link removal system called Peel App which we’re hoping will launch in 2014. Whilst we still push that manual research is required, we’ll be trying to make our system identify spam links in bulk as we do feel there are still algorithms we can use to detect this better than some of the tools already on the market. If you’re interested in hearing more about our tool, you can sign up for our prelaunch newsletter at on the Peel App website.
Step 4: finding webmaster contact details
This is obviously one of the most important parts of your link removal process. First of all, you’re going to need to collect contact details for each of the webmasters. Lets look at the data we wanted to collect again:
Contact Name, Email Address, Website Contact Form, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
Some methods of contact details are easy to spot. For example, if we use the example low quality website miriblack.com, we can see that they have a contact form. Simply copy and paste this URL into your spreadsheet and that’s one method of outreach sorted. Easy! Others are a little more time consuming.
There are a variety of ways to find out the contact name of the owner of the blog. You could do this by carrying out a whois search on the websites domain name. This will sometimes show the registrant of the domain along with other information. This doesn’t always work, but sometimes the information can be useful.
Using the example as ‘Miriblack’ again, look at the whois response from below. We searched the domain name, but we could only find out the Registrants name ‘Matthew Hesser’. From here, we now have a name to search for other contact methods.
First of all, if we go back to Google, we can type in different search terms to try and retrieve different methods of contact for a ‘Matthew Hesser’. A few examples are below:
Matthew Hesser Miriblack
Matthew Hesser Miri Black
Matthew Hesser LinkedIn
Matthew Hesser Facebook
Matthew Hesser Google+
We can also try to use the domain name to find is someone is associated with it:
and so on…
It just so happens that on this particular search, I came across Matthew Hesser as the president of ‘Majon International’. For anyone who has done Link Removal campaigns in the past, Majon have a network of websites and charge $25 for link removal from all of them. In all honesty, I usually just pay it, as it’s easier than arguing with the webmaster to remove the link and they’re always very quick.
That being said, you aren’t always going to know that a company is associated with this particular site, so you need to look out for people who are associated with ‘seo companies’, ‘marketing and advertising’ etc., as this can be a big giveaway.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is a section of the above whois search, which explains you can go to Godaddy for full whois information. By doing this, we can get the following information:
So now, we have an email address for the contact, their full postal address, their name etc. Their email address is obviously targeted towards link removal, so this one’s a fairly easy case. Sometimes though, you can use the email address and search Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the users. You can then outreach to the user from there explaining the situation and requesting to have your links removed.
You can now start to populate your spreadsheet with the data you’ve found and then contact each of the webmasters to request links to be removed. This particular webmaster usually sends an automated response back saying you have to pay a fee for the links to be removed from all of their networks. As long as they’re not charging extortionate rates, I personally would recommend you pay it and carry on. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot more time arguing and most likely get nowhere.
There are always tools available to help make our lives easier:
Domain Contact Information:
http://tools.seogadget.co.uk/ – This tool is brilliant (and free!). It allows you to enter in the URL of the site with the penalty and pull a large number of different contact methods for each website. You can then populate your Google Docs spreadsheet with the information and use it for outreaching to the webmasters.
Contact Finder by Citation Labs – Garrett French has built a tool where you can input a list of URLs for which you’d like to collate email addresses, contact forms and ‘contact us’ pages. From here, you can export a CSV which could be useful when coming to finding additional forms of contact method.
Contact Finder by Link Research Tools – Another tool from Cemper that helps to find different forms of contact method including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Xing, Google+ and more. This is a paid tool, but will really help save time and legwork, especially if you’ve got a lot of data!
All the tools above will help you save time. Unfortunately, as they’re automated tools, they’re not necessarily going to find all of the relevant pages, but they’ll do a brilliant job of finding a large chunk of them. Manual work always helps to cover missing gaps, so bear that in mind when going through the link removal process.
Step 5: reaching out to webmasters
Outreach is a very important part of the link removal campaign. Your aim here is to get as many of those bad links removed to your website as possible. Everyone works slightly differently, so by this point, you should either have a large document showing all of your spam / safe links along with lots of different contact methods, or you will just have a list of your spam / safe links and will carry out the contact methods as you go along. This is really down to preference.
There are a few tips I would recommend when sending emails to webmasters:
- Don’t send multiple emails for each link you need removing – This is a big mistake that we’ve been guilty of in the past. Make sure you sort your data so you can easily spot all of the links coming from the one domain. Otherwise, if a webmaster opens their inbox and finds that you’re asking for links to be removed from 10 pages from 10 different emails, they’re likely to close the email and bin it. Try to collate a list of all the URLs you want removing in one neat place and send them an email. If there’s a lot of links, put them in a Google Docs file and send them a link to the file to take a look at.
- Don’t spam the webmaster – Don’t contact the webmaster via every method all at once. First try email and wait a week, if that doesn’t work, send a follow up email. If you don’t hear from them after a few days, try another method of contact (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc.). Don’t always send the exact same message, make it personal each time. Log everything in your spreadsheet.
- Be polite – The webmasters are doing you a favour. Whether it’s you or your previous SEO company that’s submitted the links to their website in the first place, it’s not really their problem. Be polite, don’t accuse them or threaten them and try to be as helpful as possible. Some link removal templates on the internet suggest telling the blog owner that if they don’t remove the link, you’ll add it to the disavow report which will also decrease their rankings. This is almost a threat and I would definitely recommend avoiding this. Don’t make out that it’s the webmasters fault your on there, it’s probably not.
- Try to find the webmasters name – Don’t start the email as just ‘hello’. Try to get the webmasters first name and send an email that’s a bit more personal. You are much more likely to get a response if you address the contact directly.
- Try to email from the domain that you’re trying to remove – This one sounds simple, but if you are an agency like us, you sometimes would outreach from the agencies email address. Instead, try to use an email address on the domain that you’re trying to get removed. We’ve seen a much better response rate when doing this.
- Keep it short and sweet – The shorter it is, the less time a webmaster has to spend on it and the more likely they are to help you. Thinking about things logically, they’re probably going to have had a few of these requests, so don’t make them spend a lot of time reading, especially on the first email.
There are a few posts online about people who’ve received emails from companies requesting link removal. Learn from their mistakes and do your research beforehand. An example can be found on Matt Bors blog here – http://www.mattbors.com/blog/2013/08/02/link-removal-request/
Our link removal templates change fairly regularly depending on the number of responses we appear to be getting. Generally, I’d recommend something along the lines of:
We have recently received a notification from Google stating that our website has unnatural links pointing towards it. This has really damaged our rankings on Google and as a result, we’re trying to clear things up. Our website url is %website_url.
We noticed the following links are pointing to our website from your site:
I appreciate this is inconvenient and isn’t a reflection on your website at all, but if you’re able to remove the links, we would really appreciate it and would be very grateful.
I look forward to hearing from you.
The email should be personalized to your exact requirements. It may be that an SEO company carried out the work, if so, you could name and shame the company. You should also personalize the outreach email depending on the type of link it is you’re trying to remove. For example, if you’ve spammed someone’s website and you’re asking for a blog comment to be removed, they’re probably not going to be the most forgiving so you need to beg a little harder. If it’s an article you’ve written, but it’s just the link that you want removing from the article, explain that.
To help save time each time you send an email, you can setup canned responses in Gmail. This will help you to create link removal templates very quickly and just fill in the missing gaps. A guide on this can be found here.
If it was you spamming their site, you could apologise for the inconvenience and explain it was naivety. Chances are, you’re going to have to test the water a little bit with your outreach email and see what works best. Own up and try to be personal, put yourself in the webmasters position and think about how likely you would be to help someone out in the same position.
Be honest, be polite and keep it short.
Each time you contact a webmaster, make a note on your spreadsheet of the date and the method of contact. It’s also good to create an additional sheet at the bottom of your Google Docs file with ‘Example emails’ in. Remember that a Google employee will be reading these, so when you’re writing the outreach, don’t make out that Google are the devil, or that it’s everyone’s fault but your own. You don’t need to do this for every single email, but keeping a small selection of emails written in contact forms, messages sent through email, Tweets, Facebook messages etc. will certainly help fight your battle when it comes to the reconsideration request.
I would recommend contacting a webmaster a minimum of three times. That being said, if you have every form of contact method for a webmaster, make sure you use all the different types and try your absolute best. The harder you try, the more likely you are to have the link removed.
Hopefully by this point, you’re starting to see how you’re building a picture up for Google to look through and see that you’re trying very hard to remove the links. Unfortunately, you’re never going to get a link penalty removed unless you put in the effort, so the above is all required. Take your time, by thorough and work through the list systematically.
Tip: It’s always worth checking http://deletebacklinks.com/ to see if they can remove any of your backlinks in bulk. With one client, we managed to remove 92 backlinks for just over $50 via the delete backlinks service.
Step 6: the disavow tool
In my previous article, I stated that people really shouldn’t use the disavow tool unless absolutely necessary. Whilst my views on that are still very similar, I think that using the disavow tool before a reconsideration request should be used if you’re unable to remove all the offending links.
Note: Do not use the disavow tool as a way to skip any of the above work, that will not work. Google wants to know that you’ve been working very hard to rectify your mistakes and for you to prove to them that you won’t be carrying out poor quality work again.
By the time you get to the stage of using the disavow tool, you’ve hopefully got a very healthy spreadsheet full of information about links which have been removed, all the methods you’ve contacted webmasters by and a list of all the links you’ve been unable to remove.
Sort your data so that you can see exactly which links you’ve been unable to remove – Try to sort this in order of domain.
Most of the time, you’re probably going to want to disavow a full domain, instead of just a URL. That being said, you will sometimes only want to disavow one link from a domain, so just keep an eye out as to which route you’re going to take.
For this example, I’m going to assume that we’re only disavowing full domains.
Look through your file and figure out which domains need disavowing, then open notepad and copy and paste the main URL into a file with the prefix ‘domain:’. For example:
Some tips for disavow files:
- Don’t include the http://www. prior to a domain
- Don’t include anything after the domain extension. Eg: .com, .co.uk (unless you’re only disavowing a specific URL).
- Put each domain on a new line and add comments to the file so Google knows why you’re disavowing them. Prefix all comments with a # symbol.
By the time you’re finished, your disavow file should look something like this:
Just make sure to comment your disavow file well, so Google can see exactly what you’re doing. This should match your Google Docs Spreadsheet so Google can see that you’re not trying to pull the wool over their eyes!
Google have written a very comprehensive guide on how to use the Disavow Tool. You should visit their page for more information on disavowing specific URLs.
Once you’re done, save the file and head over to the disavow tool page. Submit the file and you’ll be good to go.
Note: Google make a point of saying that you should make “every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough” – Don’t try to trick the system.
Step 7: submitting the reconsideration request
The reconsideration process is your final part to removing a penalty (hopefully!). In the request, you’re basically telling Google the following:
- What you’ve done wrong in the past and that you’ve stopped doing it
- What you’ve done to fix the problems (include a link to your Google Docs file)
- How you know it won’t happen again (steps you’ve put in place, training etc.)
- A little bit about the company (optional – see if it feels necessary)
- Apologising for the issues and inconvenience
It’s important to be specific in your reconsideration requests. This means owning up to anything that you’ve personally done wrong (whether it be paid links, comment spam on blogs, forum profiles etc.). If you previously employed the services of an ‘SEO company’ that built the poor quality links, tell Google the name of the company and explain that whilst you accept you employed them in the first place, you’ve learnt a lot about Google’s webmaster guidelines and are fully committed to ensuring your website stays within them.
In the past, we have tried mentioning a client’s Adwords budget as a way to try to show Google that they’re a genuine business. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Don’t mention irrelevant information that Google isn’t interested in. They want to know that you’ve removed the spam, you know where you went wrong and you won’t do it again.
We always mention if a client has good reviews online (especially from a 3rd party source such as TrustPilot), but I don’t believe this makes any real difference. It’s just a nice touch to show that you’re not trying to upset anyone.
Matt Cutts has explained what should be included in a proper reconsideration request – https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8MfPe1NbsoA
Only submit a reconsideration request once you’re happy that you’ve taken all the appropriate action to fix the issues associated with your website. Google have provided some good notes on their website blog, so this is worth reading through.
With all the above points in place, here is an example reconsideration request. Remember to tailor this to your own needs, every client is completely different and it needs to be personal to your circumstances.
Dear Google Webspam Team,
On the %date_of_penalty, we received a penalty from Google for unnatural links pointing to our website, %website_url.
Firstly, we would really like to apologise for the inconvenience we have caused and thank you in advance for reading our reconsideration request. In the past, we have carried out some techniques on our website which we now realise are outside your Google Webmaster Guidelines. This includes purchasing links which pass page rank, blog comments and forum spam (**example**).
After reading your webmaster guidelines, we realise we were completely in the wrong. To rectify the issue, we have checked all the backlinks pointing to our website using Google Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO and contacted as many of the webmasters as possible in order to have these links removed.
All of the work we have carried out can be found in the Google Spreadsheet below:
In the above spreadsheet, you will see a list of all the links pointing to our site, the webmasters we have contacted and the links we have successfully removed. There are multiple sheets included in the above spreadsheet, which show screenshots of emails we have sent to webmasters, contact forms etc. Any links which we haven’t been able to remove have been added to a disavow file which we have submitted to Google.
I am very sorry for the work we have previously carried out. We now realise that we were completely in the wrong and we will ensure this will never happen again. I’m confident that our website is now in line with Google’s webmaster guidelines and we will ensure that this is always the case.
We look forward to hearing from you and once again, sorry for the inconvenience.
Another brilliant example of a reconsideration request written by Dev Basu can be found on the Powered By Search website.
Make sure the spreadsheet link you attach allows everyone with a link to view it. The worst thing you could do is attach a spreadsheet that Google don’t have permission to see. To do this, go to your Google document, click ‘share’ (top right) and then change the ‘who has access’ to ‘anyone with a link’. Simply copy that link into your reconsideration request.
Step 8: sit back and wait
At this point, there’s nothing you can do except for wait and cross your fingers. Reconsideration requests generally only take a few days, but in some cases can take weeks to get responses.
Fingers crossed you’ll open your email one sunny morning and end up with a message in your webmaster tools that’s similar to the following:
Good luck and if you have any questions at all, post them below and I’ll try my best to answer them!
Remember, if you want a head start on your link removal template, you can download a template by visiting our website here.