Your guide to a successful online business!

A few years back…

  • Keyword stuffing was an optimisation technique that would help in ranking higher. Now it can get you penalised.
  • Pages with automatically generated content still ranked while today they’re getting penalised for low quality.
  • Adding spammy links to forum comments and exchanging links would increase your rankings. Now, it’s natural backlinks from authority, trustworthy sites that can increase your visibility in the search results.

These are just a few of the old search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques that webmasters used in order to boost rankings. But the SEO landscape has gone through so many changes over the past few years. Still, one thing has remained the same…

Backlinks still matter. A lot. In fact, out of the hundreds of ranking factors that Google uses in its algorithm, it’s content, backlinks and RankBrain that correlate more strongly with rankings than anything else.

So while many marketers have proclaimed the death of link building over the last couple of years, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Backlinks are still at the heart of Google’s Page Rank system, and their importance hasn’t diminished by the hundreds of algorithmic changes that the search engine giant has made over the years.

With backlinks remaining an extremely important Google ranking factor, you should make the effort to earn and monitor yours. Why? Because they can guarantee your site’s online success.

In this guide we’ll walk you through all you need to know to stay away from links that won’t help your business and how to see if your current backlinks are causing any issues.

Table of contents

What are backlinks and how do they work?

How Google used to punish bad links

Manual penalty

The Penguin update

How to spot possible backlinks-related issues

How to prevent or recover

Types of bad links

How to analyse your current backlink profile

How to handle links in a post-Penguin 4.0 world

The disavow file

 

Let’s start with the basics…

What are backlinks and how do they work?

Simply put, a backlink is an incoming link from a website or page that directs to another site or page. Now, search engines use links to not only analyse the popularity of a website and page but also its authority, trustworthiness and freshness.

The logic behind it? Sites that are trustworthy tend to link to other sites that also trustworthy, while spammy sites receive few links from trusted sources. So a backlink is like a vote of confidence that says that someone trusts your content, believes it has value and deserves to be shared and linked to so more people can read it.

But while backlinks can help you to rank higher in the search results, it’s not so much about how many sites link to yours but more about how authoritative and trustworthy the sites linking to yours are. This means that having ten backlinks from relevant, authority sites will be worth significantly more than 50 links from decent quality sites.

How Google used to punish bad links

The search engine giant used to send out Manual Penalties, a message in Google Search Console telling you that there are unnatural backlinks pointing to your profile. This means that the affected website or parts of the website would lose their ranks while under the penalty. Recently, all of this changed.

You can still get a manual penalty

Google seems to still be sending messages regarding the links you have on your website rather than other sites linking to you.

Manual penalties can be site-wide matches or partial matches, affecting your entire website and ranks, or just the ranks of parts of your website. When a manual penalty is applied, you will receive a message in Google Search Console and it will mention if it’s partial or site-wide.

  • Unnatural links from your site

If you get this message in Search Console, it means that some of the websites you’re linking to don’t look like honest editorial links. Linking to another site is fine but only if you believe it provides more value to your users (for example, to help them get more information on a topic or to redirect them to a place where they can buy a product you’ve mentioned on your article) and as long as you’re not getting anything in return.

If you link to websites you’re affiliated with (meaning you earn a commission whenever your visitors click on those links and end up buying a product or a service from those sites) or you receive money or goods in exchange for linking to these websites, then you risk getting penalised.

How can you avoid or get rid of such a penalty?

Take a closer look at the sites you’re liking to and identify the type of links that might be considered “paid”. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Did you receive money to post this link?
  • Did you get a “freebie” in return for a link or review?
  • Are you monetarily affiliated with the website you’re linking to?
  • Are you linking to a website that’s not even relevant to what your page is about?

If you answered YES to any of the above, chances are that Google is on to you and you can get a manual penalty for having such links on your site. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an affiliate or monetise your website at all. However, you can’t gain authority through such links so you’ll need to nofollow them.

This is an attribute that you need to add to your links’ HTML like this:
<a href=”http://www.other-website.com/affiliate-linkrel=”nofollow”>Link Text</a>

It basically tells search engines that the link should not be followed so it doesn’t pass authority.

Once you have updated all the outgoing links that might be problematic with this nofollow tag, you can submit a reconsideration request to Google.

The Penguin update

Launched in April 2012, Penguin was designed to catch and penalise sites deemed to be spamming Google’s search results, in particular those doing so by buying links or getting them through link networks designed specifically to boost rankings.

While in the past sites taking action to remove bad links needed to wait for months for another Penguin update until they were able to recover from a penalty, things have changed. Now Penguin is real-time, meaning sites can recover quickly because Google recrawls and reindexes pages continuously so changes are visible much faster.

Penguin is also more granular, which means that it impacts sites on a page-by-page basis as opposed to the entire site, as it used to do. This means it now targets only the problematic backlinks, and not the entire domain if all other pages have good links. For more information, read our post on the real-time Penguin algorithm.

So what does this all mean? It means that links are now devalued so the website is not demoted because it has bad links. However, a site can still drop in rankings if a lot of the links get devalued.

Now, while Penguin sounds like it’ll make your life easier by just ignoring bad links, websites that have extremely spammy backlink profiles can still be penalised. So read on to better understand which type of links you should stop wasting your time on.

How to spot possible backlinks-related issues

The first and most important thing you can do is to verify your site on Google Search Console.

If you have unnatural links on your site, Google will notify you via the Search Console. A message will show up in the Manual Actions section so you’re aware that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

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The difficult part is spotting a Penguin related issue as it now only devalues links and doesn’t demote your pages’ ranks. Still, since it devalues links that your pages were counting on to rank, you might notice some issues.

Here are a few things to look at.

Let’s start with the website’s overall organic traffic health.

You can use a free tool such as Barracuda’s Panguin Tool for this purpose. You will need to give the tool access to your Analytics data and then it will pull in organic traffic only and overlay all the recent updates over it.

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This allows you to see whether the organic traffic for your entire website has suffered or not right after the release of the Penguin 4.0 update.

Of course, you might see an increase or decrease that’s due to something else completely and it’s only a coincidence that the timeframe coincides.

At this point you should go to your Analytics account to check your organic traffic there as well. This allows you to determine whether traffic went up or down for your entire website, part of your website or only a few pages.

Since getting more organic traffic to your site is not a bad thing, let’s focus instead on traffic loss only as that’s more likely to be a sign of Penguin issues. For example, here’s how you can check if the release of Penguin 4.0 has affected you. (You can follow the same logic later on if you think something is wrong.)

Start by comparing organic traffic from the September 22nd update against the previous period so you can determine if overall organic traffic is lower than before.

If it is, go to All traffic > Channels > Organic Search and then change your Primary Dimension to Landing page.

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Now you can see organic traffic/page from the Penguin update compared to the previous period and you can easily spot pages that had a higher drop than the rest of your website.

Click on those pages to take a closer look. Does the traffic look something like this?

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Source

If organic traffic for certain pages suddenly dropped around September 22nd then it’s likely that you’ve been affected by the Penguin 4.0 update. If there’s no other reason for your page’s traffic to suddenly drop (e.g.: page was recently removed, redirected, an offer ended or the product was discontinued) then it’s time to look at search queries.

Go to your Search Console account under Search Traffic > Search Analytics, select to see data for Pages but also add the same timeframes you used in Analytics in the Dates comparison. 

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Identify the pages with the largest decrease in Impressions and click on one of these pages to get more details. Now you’ll have to select Queries so you can see what people have searched for to get to your page and what type of queries are now bringing in less impressions and clicks. Also tick the Position box.

Did most of these queries’ average ranks go down?

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Again, this can be an indication of post-Penguin update related issues.

Now that you’ve found the page or pages that have decreased in organic traffic and ranks around September 22nd, it’s time to check their backlinks.

How to prevent or recover

It’s important to understand which type of links Google considers to be “bad” and which can get you in trouble with Penguin.

Even if these links get devalued and don’t penalise your pages, you can still see a drop in ranks as these links won’t be helping your pages anymore. But by knowing which links are no longer valuable you can start focusing on the links that can make a real difference in your ranks.

Types of bad backlinks

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on Link Schemes lets you know which types of links are a violation and should be avoided. These types of links were responsible for manual penalties in the past. Now, with Google Penguin devaluing rather than demoting, these links will prove to be a waste of time as they will get devalued as soon as the continuously running update finds them.

Here are some examples to better understand what Google refers to as “bad links”:

1. Buying or selling links that pass PageRank

These backlinks are considered one of the worst type of links and you should never engage into buying or selling links.

Although money doesn’t necessarily have to exchange hands, a paid backlink can also refer to offering goods or services in return for a link back and even sending free products without specifically asking the customers for a link back to your site.

A good example of that is the Interflora incident.

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The flower company sent out bouquets to make their customers feel better after a hard day’s work. Happy to receive the surprise, some of the customers wrote about the gesture on their own blogs/websites and linked back to the flower company. While you’d think this was just a very nice way of strengthening the relationship with their customers, Google tagged it as a marketing technique of buying links and penalised Interflora as a result.

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Key takeaway: Stay away from such links as Penguin 4.0 will just devalue them.  Also, besides not getting any benefit from these links, your website might not be perceived as trustworthy anymore.

2. Excessive link exchange

It’s common for company websites that are part of the same group to link to each other. This is why Google declared war only on link exchange done in excess. This is an old technique of getting backlinks as a webmaster would get a backlink easier from a site owner if they also returned the favour.

Key takeaway: Don’t try to get links from other websites and link to them in return if those websites are in no way relevant to yours. As a website selling gardening equipment you can get links from gardening blogs for instance as users will find value in that. However, it doesn’t make sense to get links from a blog about cars as users reading car-related articles are probably not interested in buying gardening tools at that point.

3. Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns

There are numerous websites out there that are accepting article submissions. So webmasters took advantage and started getting backlinks by writing random articles and finding a way to add their own link.

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However, these articles were of very low quality which is why Google decided to take action against those sites that were publishing articles just for the sake of the backlinks.

Guest blogging was recently added on the list of don’ts mainly because it has quickly become a form of spam. Webmasters keep sending emails to all sorts of websites asking to submit their articles in exchange for a link. Sounds a lot like all the other spam email you never asked for but keep receiving, doesn’t it? And it works the other way around too.

Webmasters that manage many blogs found guest blogging to be a good way to make money:

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Key takeaway:  Don’t engage in such practices as they might prove to be useless. This doesn’t mean all guest blogging is dead. Just make sure that the site you’re publishing content on is related to your niche, and that the readers can truly benefit from the information you’re sharing. Only then is guest posting useful and valuable. And only then can guest posting make your brand known as an authority in the industry.

4. Using automated programs or services to create links

There are many tools used by black hat SEOs to create automated links, such as ScrapeBox and Traffic Booster, but the most common tool is the article spinner. In order to get content to add links to, the spinner helped webmasters get various pieces of content on the same subject without having to pay someone to write them.

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With such poor quality content around a link, it’s easy for Google to realise this cannot in any way be considered a natural and earned backlink.

Key takeaway: If your links are surrounded by content that seems automatically generated, that’s a problem. The poor quality of the content will reflect on the quality of your backlinks as well and, in turn, your website. So stay clear of websites that don’t provide quality content to their readers.

5. Text advertisements that pass PageRank

These types of links are created by matching a word to an advertisement. In the example below, the article is about banks in general but when you hoover over the word “bank” you get an ad to a specific business.

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Since the presence of that business link is unnatural, this is one of the types of links that Google doesn’t like.

Key takeaway: Be extra careful with the plug-ins that you choose to use for advertising on your website. You don’t want to add hyperlinks in your content unless they’re meant to redirect users to a place where they can get more information on a specific topic.

6. Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links

There are many websites out there filled with articles about various products and each article has at least one link pointing to an e-commerce website. The quality of the articles is rather low because the sole purpose is to just create enough content around a link.

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Key takeaway: The links added in such articles are not even related to the surrounding content so they should definitely not be there at all.

7. Links with optimised anchor text in articles or press releases

Similar to the previous one with the exception that instead of contacting someone who has a website dedicated to building backlinks in exchange for money, these links are added to articles and press releases that get distributed over the internet through PR websites and free article submission websites.

Key takeaway:  Optimised anchor text refers to using your product or service’s name instead of a natural anchor text. Users don’t link to the keyword you’d like to rank for but to your brand name. Exact match anchor texts are a sign of fake backlinks and can get you in trouble.

8. Low-quality directory or bookmark site links

Directories used to play an important role and represented an online phonebook for websites. It was easier to find a website searching for it by category. As search engines evolved, the need for these structured directories decreased to the point where these are now being used for link building purposes only.

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Key takeaway: At this point, there are very few directories out there that are legitimate. To find them, search for your product or service and see which directory-type websites show up in the search results. Make sure you take a closer look at the overall quality of these directories: do they offer the information users might be looking for? Do they look helpful? If they look like quality directories, they might be worth it.

Other things to avoid: directories that ask for money to get your business listed or, even worse, to have your business unlisted. That’s a sure sign that they exist to extort money from businesses and not to help users with information.

9. Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets 

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The best example is Halifax, the first bank that Google has hit. They had these mortgage calculators embedded on various irrelevant websites just for the backlink.

Key takeaway: If you provide a widget or any other type of content that can be embedded on one’s website with a link back to your site, you need to stop. These types of links don’t provide value to users, just for your website and Google doesn’t like them.

10. Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites

Sitewide backlinks are to be avoided especially if the links are on websites that are in no way related to your linked website.

If you place a link in the header, footer or sidebar of a website, that link will be visible on all its web pages so don’t get a link from a website that you don’t consider to be relevant to your business and don’t add such a link from your website to another unless your users can find it useful.

Most common footer links are either a web developer credit or a “Powered by” link where you mention your CMS (see the example below). There are also free templates out there that have a link in the footer and most people never get that link out.

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Sidebar links are usually Partner links or blogrolls. Since the word “Partner” usually means that goods or services have been exchanged, this can be considered a paid link so make sure to always use nofollow. As for other related blogs, if they are indeed related, there should be no issue but if your list has links to ecommerce websites or you’re using affiliate links, you might want to nofollow those as well.

Key takeaway:  There’s more value in getting ten links from ten different domains than 100 links from one domain. Don’t actively try to get other websites to link to yours from all their pages as your link might not be relevant to that website’s users and that sends a negative signal to search engines.

11. Forum comments with optimised links in the post or signature

Adding a signature link is an old link building technique and one of the easiest ways of getting a backlink. It has also been done through blog commenting. If you leave a comment on a forum or blog, make sure the answer is not only helpful and informative but also relevant to the discussion. If you add a link, it should point to a page that is also relevant to your answer and the discussion.

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Key takeaway: Definitely don’t engage in such practices unless you’re replying with the sole purpose of helping users with useful information.

How to analyse your current backlink profile

Now that you know how to identify those bad links, let’s see how you can go about finding them. This way you can determine whether your ranks decreased due to Penguin devaluing most of the links for your page(s) or to something else.  An analysis can also help you to find other pages on your site whose links are not so great so you know what to expect in case Penguin hasn’t had the chance to review your website’s backlinks yet.

1. Google Search Console

This is where Google gives you more information on the backlinks it has indexed. It should be your starting point when analysing your backlink profile as it shows you how many backlinks each website is sending your way.

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2. Ahrefs, Majestic SEO, Link Detox, Open Site Explorer

Depending on how many backlinks you have, you will probably need to pay for a good backlink checker tool. Of course there are also free tools such as BackLinkWatch and AnalyzeBacklinks that you can use if you don’t have millions of backlinks in your profile.

The idea is to gather links from as many sources as possible as each tool has its own crawler and can discover different backlinks. So, to ensure you find as many as possible, we’d recommend using more than one tool for this task.

After you run the tools, get all the reports in one file, remove the duplicates and see how many links you’re left with. You should also look at the dofollow links only as the ones that are already nofollowed don’t count for ranks.

You can sort the remaining links by URL (coming from the same domain) to find the ones that are sitewide, by anchor text (to find the exact-match anchors or “money keywords”) or by any other type of data that those tools provide such as discovery date, on-page placement and link type.

Still not sure if the backlinks you’re analysing go against the guidelines? Well, there’s no better classifier than your own eye so if you want to check a potential bad link from another site, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the site look spammy? Think low quality or duplicate content, no structure, no contact page, loads of outbound links.
  • Does your link and anchor text look like they belong on the site?
  • Are there toxic links on the site – Gambling, Viagra etc.?
  • Does the site look like it sells links – e.g. loads of anchor text rich sidebars and site-wide links?

If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, then your link should not be there.

After you’ve analysed as many links as you can for a page, ask yourself: are there more spammy links than legitimate ones? If yes, this explains why your ranks went down around Penguin 4.0. You might have been receiving a ranking boost from these sites until Penguin finally reviewed them and realised they look artificial.

How to handle links in a post-Penguin 4.0 world

Our top advice? Don’t build links, earn them!

What does that mean exactly? It means creating content that is unique, useful and relevant so other site owners will want to link to it.

If you want to dig deeper, here are some resources that explain how to get links the right way:

When reviewing your links, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Any type of link that can be considered as paid should be nofollowed. This includes partner, sponsor, affiliate, advertising, paid reviews or paid articles backlinks.
  • Links that don’t provide value to users should be nofollowed, especially if you have other reasons for adding the link in the first place, which is the case for most of the site-wide header, footer or side-bar links.
  • Backlinks from irrelevant websites should be nofollowed or even removed if they’re sending no traffic to your site.
  • Links that use exact match anchor text should be nofollowed if you’ve requested that anchor text as they look unnatural.

The disavow file

You might ask: is the disavow file still necessary now that Google devalues bad links anyway?

The short answer is yes.

But before we get into details, for those of your who are unfamiliar with the disavow file, this gives instructions to Google on which links you’d like the search engine to ignore. So it’s a good way to get rid of all those toxic backlinks that can get your site penalised.

So your disavow file should include the root domains or exact links to your site that you want Google to ignore. After you create this file, you’ll need to upload it to the disavow tool so Google can access it.

Back in 2012, when the disavow tool was launched, Google’s purpose was to give webmasters a tool to help with negative SEO (meaning in situations where competitors would point bad links to your site in an attempt to get your site penalised).

Now you should only use it if you notice signs of black-hat SEO or an excessive amount of spammy links pointing to your site and want to clean up your link profile right away. In fact, Google suggest caution and conservatism while disavowing links.

Why? In an attempt to completely clear your link profile, it’s possible to mistakenly remove some good links that are potentially beneficial to your site. So make sure to only disavow links that are highly suspicious and can lead to Penguin problems.

Now that you know how a disavow file works and when to use it, let’s show you how to create it.

Once you have a list with all the troublesome backlinks that you’d like Google to ignore, add them all to a txt.file and save it.

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You can add individual pages from a domain or the entire domain itself. Since it’s not likely that a webmaster would create a bad link from one page and a good link from another page pointing to your site, you’re safer just disavowing the entire domain.

URLs are added as they are and domains are added by using “domain:domain-name.com” to specify that you’re disavowing all the links that come from a specific domain.

When you’re done, go to the disavow links tool page and upload your file.

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If you need to add more sites to an already submitted disavow file, you will need to upload a new file which will overwrite the existing one – so make sure the disavowed domains from your first list are also copied in your second list.

Keep in mind that using the disavow file can be dangerous and should be used with caution. So, if you feel you have a clean link profile and haven’t done anything wrong in terms of backlinks, you might be better off not using the disavow file so you don’t accidentally remove some good links.

Wrapping up

Backlinks still matter. A lot. But it’s quality that you should focus on, and not quantity.

Hopefully you’ll find that this guide provides you with all the information you need to avoid wasting time on useless backlinks that bring no value to your website’s visibility in the search engines. Instead, devote that precious time to creating content that everyone enjoys and wants to link to.

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