Link removals: What you need to know in 2015

At the beginning of 2014 we predicted that link removals would be the most valuable SEO activity for the upcoming year. Now, as we look back at the last 12 months we can see that this was indeed on the mark.

In the current landscape, more and more companies face the challenge to clean-up their backlink profile due to the regular updates issued by Google. One of the latest and most significant, Penguin 3.0, was rolled out in October 2014 and is just one of the many countermeasures that Google has been adopting since the arrival of Panda in 2012. Before Penguin 1.0 was introduced, a large part of BAU (Business As Usual) SEO activities relied on link building practices that are now considered by Google to be “unnatural” or “manipulative” in their ultimate goal of delivering the most relevant and compelling results for users.

Negative SEO

Even sites that have never been involved in any of these sorts of activities need to remember to keep an eye on their backlink profile as unfortunately in 2015 the threat of negative SEO is very real. Negative SEO is the practice of generating low quality links with the intent to harm the rankings of another site. It is usually carried out by competitors and it could in some instances be very harmful for the site in question if not identified in time.

Penguin 3.0

Penguin’s main focus is to decrease the search engine rankings of sites that have attempted to manipulate their visibility by building unnatural links over time. Links still represent one of the main ranking factors within Google’s algorithm, therefore generating low quality links can be seen as a way of defrauding and altering Google’s search engine ranking system.

Despite the initial high expectations, Penguin 3.0 is estimated to affect only 1% of all search queries (against 3% of queries impacted by Penguin 1.0) and it is mainly focused on English results. It has also been revealed by Google that the Penguin algorithm will be subject to continuous updates from now on, with no real end-point to the refreshment process.

Why are link removals so important?

The immediate beneficiaries from Penguin 3.0 are mainly two groups of sites: those who have worked hard to clean up their previously ‘unnatural’ backlink profiles into a true reflection of the site, and those sites that never engaged with manipulative tactics. This is why regular link auditing and link pruning has increasingly become a key activity for many companies, particularly the ones that had heavily invested in SEO during the past few years.

If your strategy is still about building more links to your site without first sorting out the existing backlink audit profile, think again. Your organic search existence might be at risk, now or in the near future and the impact can vary from a few ranking drops to severe site-wide penalties. Interflora, the world’s largest and most experienced flower delivery network, was hit with a severe penalty last year and was removed from Google’s index for 11 days.

Two types of link removals: reactive and proactive

Reactive link removals occur whenever your site has received a penalty from Google that could either be algorithmic or manual. An algorithmic penalty is automatically applied when the Google algorithm detects spam or manipulative tactics (for instance: over optimised anchor text, keyword stuffing, content spam, etc.). This can hit specific pages or the whole site. The duration of the penalty depends on how quickly the issues that caused the penalty are addressed as well as when a new Penguin update takes place.

A manual penalty occurs as a consequence of a manual thorough investigation on a site’s backlink profile by Google. Depending on the severity of the offence and the subsequent actions taken by the webmaster, the penalty can vary in duration – from a few weeks to several months, or even years.

Proactive link removals are carried out without your site having been hit by a penalty. As highlighted above, you should not be waiting to receive a penalty to start cleaning-up your backlink profile.

It’s all about the right approach

Link removals can be a very labour-intensive and time consuming activity if carried out without a clear strategy. It consists of three major phases that have to be aligned during the whole process: link audit, outreach and monitoring.

Throughout the whole removal process, it is key to understand that building new links to your site, even if natural and trustworthy, will not help you recover from a penalty unless your backlink profile has been depurated of toxic links. Therefore, investing enough time and effort to the links removal activity is the best way to realistically achieve your goal.

The final word

Link removals should be considered a key part of any brand’s SEO strategy. Google’s quality guidelines can’t be ignored and it is time to dedicate resource to remove any inorganic links that might be the result of some legacy activities or negative SEO.

Google has been working very hard to address any manipulative tactics that have been used in the past, introducing regular algorithm updates and manual investigations. Brands need to be aware of the risks of ignoring these changes and the effect that this could have on their online presence. Lifting a penalty is not impossible, but it does require hard collaborative work and a flawless methodology. There have been several cases where companies managed to recover from long-term manual penalties by adopting the right approach, but it's not worth the risk. Prioritise risk mitigation with regular link audits and removals of unnatural links as part of your BAU activities.

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