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Link Penalties 101: What They Look Like and When to Address Them

May 13, 2019
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When it comes to ranking high in search results, having high quality links pointed to your website is essential. But as I've said many times, not all links are created equal.  Bad links can harm your site and destroy your online credibility. In this video, we will talk about what to do if you get hit with a link penalty. 

 

 

Google Link Penalties

Video Transcript:


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We're going to be talking about link penalties. I'm calling this Link Penalties 101, and the reason why is I get a lot of questions, being in the world of SEO, and helping companies acquire links the right way. People are always worried about  bad links. Maybe they worked with an SEO company in the past. Maybe you've done the same thing, where they went out and bought a lot of these really low quality links in order to try to influence rank.

The problem is, those links can hurt your site more than actually help your site. And as webmasters and website owners have become more aware of this, they've gotten a little bit nervous about those links in their backlink profile that could be weighing their site down and causing more harm than good.

So, how do we know when a link is hurting us, and how do we know when we need to move forward and not spend all this time trying to clean up a mess? Now, I'm not saying that you should not worry about bad links. There are times when you need to worry about it, but I think there's also times where site owners and webmasters worry a little bit too much about things that aren't negatively impacting that at this moment.

Google started attacking links with an update called Penguin, as we've got right here. Penguin 1.0 was launched on April 24th, 2012. This is where they were targeting bad sites, article directory sites, these bad low quality directories. Other sites of that nature. Link farms, where people are coming out here and building horrible links, comment spam, things of that nature. Links that you still see people do today. Google rwent after those websites hard with the Penguin update, and they continued to tweak this update over a number of years, every time lasering in on something different. Now, the first one, when it launched, it impacted about 3% of all sites in the US, in searches in the US. Every update didn't have as major of an impact as the first one did, but they still began to tweak and change things as they went.

One thing to note. Penguin 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0, there were some other sub-updates in between there, but we're going to look at those three. They were a lot different than the way Penguin is addressed today. When you used to get penalized, Google would penalize your whole site. So, let's say you had one page that had a lot of spammy links, your whole site would get dinged. Another thing that would happen is you would have to do a manual reconsideration request. So, when Google would alert you and say, "Hey, you've got some bad links," or maybe your site got hit and pinged, and knocked down, "You've got bad links and you've got to let us know that you've cleaned your act up."

Now the problem with that is you also had to wait for the next update to come out before you could recover. So as you can see, you know we have 2012, and we had May, 2013 and then the next one didn't come out till October, 2014. You could be waiting a whole year in order to recover that traffic because of the bad links that you had pointing to your website. This caused a lot of havoc. It cleaned up a lot of stuff though, which is awesome because everybody who was trying to cheat the system, and go about it the wrong way, and abuse links, and abuse partnerships online, and not doing it the right way, they got hurt and they got pushed back. Now, there were some innocent casualties along the way, sites that may have not understood what was going on with their SEO department, or the SEO company they hired, and they lost a ton of traffic.

But, what Google did was clean up a lot of the poor quality search results that were being influenced by bad link practices. Penguin 4.0 officially launched in September, September 23rd, 2016, so this was three years ago. When Penguin 4.0 came out, it was rolled into the core algorithms. Penguin was updating realtime. As Google was making tweaks and edits to the algorithm, Penguin was now part of that. This changed everything. It changed the way that you should approach these link issues that you might've had in the past, and also it should have changed the way that you may have been afraid of what might be on your site, or links pointing to your site.

Typically what happens is a company comes to us and we do a backlink profile. We do an audit, we go really deep and try and understand everything that's been done on this site to market it. And we'll come across bad links a lot of the time. Links that are spammy, or they're bad directory, or some of them are links that these companies never went after. The SEO company probably didn't put them on there. They're just bad mites that the people were trying to attach to their website, and there's reasons to do that, which we're not going to get into today.

Now, with Penguin 4.0, you don't have to wait now until a core algorithm update. You don't have to wait until they push a new update because this stuff starts to happen in real time. If these negative links are coming, or these bad links are coming and then you have good links coming, you're being updated in real time now. That's really awesome. Another thing that it fixed was you're going to get dinged now at the page level. Let's say you have a lot of spam links on one page, it's not going to hurt your entire site like it would in the past. One page is going to get dinged. Now, again, if you're doing those unnatural linking practices over time, I guarantee you're probably going to have some more issues, but at least your whole site is not being dinged if somebody did one bad thing.

And then, what it took away was this need for a disavow. We work with companies and they see bad links. One of the things they ask is, "Can you put together a disavow file for us?" And inside of Search Console there's this thing that you can do called disavow, where you can say, "Hey, I've tried to contact these sites. I've tried to contact these links, where these links are, and they didn't take them down. Will you please ignore these links Google, because we don't want to be associated with these websites?" This is a good practice, or it was a much better practice in the past. Here's kind of my rule of thumb. If you haven't been given a manual penalty and penalized by Google, I wouldn't necessarily build a disavow. There's a lot of reasons for that.

One, let's say you have tens of thousands of links, Google probably would know by now, but let's say you do and then you upload a disavow tool. You could also trigger the crawler to say, "Hey, I wonder what else they're doing that was not a really good practice?" It could negatively impact your site. But what's more than that? Google has gotten a lot smarter. As Penguin 4.0 has been iterated and changed and updated over the last couple of years, Google knows what a good link is and what a bad link is. They also understand that there are sites that get linked to, not because they went out and got it, or maybe they did it a long time ago, but they cleaned up their practice, so now they ignore most of those bad links.

So, you don't need to be uploading this disavow. You're going to maybe see, when you go to an SEO tool, that you've got bad links on your profile or low quality links or spam links. There are times where you need to address that, like when most of your links are bad, and with Google saying, "Hey, you've got an issue here." But for the most part, if it's been done over time, and there's a lot of those, and maybe you didn't do that, it's not your fault, Google ignores those. John Mueller, who works for Google, this is a kind of a broken up quote that he had. Somebody was asking about this specifically on Reddit, and there's also people on Twitter that have been asking the same question.

When do we upload a disavow? And what John says, "Random links collected over years aren't necessarily harmful." Now, it's important to understand the way Google talks, right? Because there's also stuff in what they don't say. He's saying that it's not necessarily harmful. What I have gathered from that, if they let you know it's harmful, you need to address it. If they don't, they're going to ignore it because they understand that that happens. If these weren't your fault, and you didn't take an action to do this. They say disavow links that you've paid for or otherwise unnaturally placed. These are links that aren't a natural link. These are links that haven't been built through relationship. These are links that haven't been built through collaboration or somebody saying, "This is a great piece of content. You should go check it out."

That's what he's talking about here. Those are when you need to have a disavowal. When you're doing these black hat SEO tactics and you've triggered a opinion penalty. So, how do you know that you've gotten penalized by Google? Well, this is where having a Search Console account is extremely important because that's how Google talks to webmasters. This is how they tell you about how your site's being crawled, and indexed, and how many impressions and clicks that you're getting, what kind of queries people are using to find your site. They're also going to tell you when they find stuff wrong with your site.

Maybe they find a lot of 404 errors, or maybe they find that you've had malware on your site. They'll let you know inside of Search Console. They'll also let you know about penalties. There's three types of penalties that you need to be aware of if Google does decide to contact you about this. The first is thin content. This is pages that have poor content, where you're just thrown together. It doesn't add value. Maybe it's copy/paste. Maybe it's not enough content on that page, and Google say, "Hey, this page isn't going to rank. We're not even going to crawl this page. This page isn't worth being on the Internet. It doesn't have enough value to the end users." So if you want this page to be indexed, you want this page to rank, you need to do something about your content.

This is an area where you can fix your content if you have that issue. Once you're done, they'll usually have a response inside of there, where you can let them know, "Hey, I fixed this." Or you can submit your site to be re-indexed and re-crawled again, so they can go back and say, "Okay great. Now your content is better, and we'll index it and start getting it into the realm of search." The next type of penalty is partial link penalty. This is where maybe you've got one page or a few pages who they're seeing an unnatural linking practice around, and they'll flag those pages and they'll let you know. Say, "Hey, we noticed that these pages, or this page, it's got some suspicious links to it." It doesn't make sense. So, what's a suspicious link? That's a good thing to define.

Let's say you own a hotel. You have links to travel blogs, booking sites, restaurants, things to do in the area. That all makes a lot of sense. But, let's say you also have a lot of links from SEO directories, and companies that have nothing to do with the travel industry. Those are the types of links that trigger Google and say, "Hey, what's going on here? This is a hotel site. Why are they getting links from technology sites? Why are they getting links from SEO directories? This seems a little spammy." That's where you could trigger that on a page level. You can also do it on a site-wide level. So, you can have partial links or you can have site-wide links. This is where your entire domain is being impacted here on the site-wide

This is where Google is going to say, "Hey, all your links, we're seeing majority of your links have major issues. It doesn't look like there's any cohesiveness, there's no contextuality in it. It just looks like you're buying links, and using black hat practices to acquire links to your website." Now, if you don't care about search, if you don't care about ranking, you don't care about having that long-term viability in search, you can ignore this, but if you want to grow and you want to understand how your business can grow using search, you need to pay attention if you get these manual penalties. If you do the right things, if you create great content, if you build great relationships, if you promote your content, if you engage with users, and you build this great content database and great user database where people can interact and learn more about what you do, and you can serve them well, you're not going to have a problem here.

You're going to build links naturally. People are going to naturally want to link to that type of content and they're going to naturally want to be engaged with you, so you shouldn't have to worry about these too much. If you run a backlink audit and you see some bad links, but you notice like, hey, these were years ago, it doesn't look like our site's being negatively impacted, I wouldn't freak out. Just take a deep breath, monitor your site. If you need to, if you see something that's suspicious, go back, try to contact that website owner. Say, "Hey, I don't know how this thing got on here. Please remove it." You can do those practices to clean it up.

That is something good to do, but I wouldn't go ahead, when you see bad links, build a disavowal and put it in Google Search Console. You can do a lot of harm by doing that. You could accidentally have a file wrong and wipe out all of your links. There's a lot of things you could do wrong. So, take the human approach, relax, take a deep breath, understand where those links came from, understand if Google's maybe ignoring them because they're old, or whether or not you need to do something about it. If you've got any more questions about link penalties, or how to build links the right way and build those relationships, please comment below. We would love to continue this conversation, and until next time, Happy Marketing.

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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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