If you’ve been paying attention to the SEO world over the past year and a half, you know that link removal is all the rage. There are countless tutorials that detail how to go about identifying and getting rid of harmful backlinks. If you have the tools, time, patience and ability to follow step-by-step articles, backlink cleanup is arduous, but doable.
What these guides fail to mention, however, is when it’s best to cleanup your backlink profile. Is it best to wait until you’ve received an unnatural link warning from Google? Or should you proactively deal with the spammy, paid link filled time bomb quivering in your backlink portfolio? And will the same kind of cleanup address both penalties and penalties waiting to happen?
Moreover, are these penalties waiting to happen a real threat? As much as we at Page One Power are aware of the dangers of toxic links, we also have witnessed the effects of overeager, premature link removals. Some of your backlinks may not be pretty, but unless you’ve been slapped with a penalty, they’re still helping you rank in the SERPs. Most of the time, when your rankings have changed, it isn’t because of “negative SEO” or an algorithmic penalty; it’s simply due to the fact that your competitors have done a better job than you at getting consistent, quality backlinks.
In other words, if you don’t want your website’s performance to take a hit, don’t go back and get all of your hard-earned guest post links removed just because Matt Cutts said, “stick a fork in guest posting.” In fact, I would go as far as insisting that there are two kinds of backlink cleanups: massive backlink profile overhauls and gradual backlink maintenance. In general, the best remedy for an inexplicable drop in rank is a batch of fresh links accompanied with selective backlink removal.
I would only consider conducting a massive backlink cleanup in one of two circumstances:
You receive a manual penalty or an unnatural links warning
You’re not ranking like you used to (“decline in site’s performance”) and suspect an algorithmic penalty
Massive backlink cleanup is analogous to cleaning your house after a flood. Gradual backlink maintenance, on the other hand, is more akin to general house maintenance, like sweeping your floors.
You want to conduct gradual backlink maintenance when:
You know your backlink profile is a spammy, paid-link-filled time bomb waiting to blow
You’re conducting a backlink audit anyway.
In this article, I will go through each of these four instances and detail why it is an appropriate time to consider a backlink cleanup.
Below are the two instances that call for a massive cleanup.
So, You’ve Received A Manual Penalty Or Warning…
If Google has to tell you it’s time for a cleanup, it’s definitely time for a cleanup.
Google typically doles out two kinds of penalties, known as manual and algorithmic penalties. Google will be kind enough to let you know if your site has received a manual penalty because of an unnatural link profile, and will even reconsider your removal from the SERPs if you repent and get rid of all of your spammy backlinks.
If you receive a manual penalty and fail to conduct a backlink cleanup (and file the subsequent reconsideration request), you put your site in danger of not appearing in Google’s search results for a very long time. Since you don’t want that, you need to conduct a massive backlink cleanup. (There’s a great step-by-step guide on how to do this here.)
Your Site Just Isn’t Ranking Like it Used To
You know those nice warnings that Google hands out? They usually only take the time to do that if they’re manually penalizing your site. Nevertheless, if you notice that your site just isn’t ranking like it used to, you may have been hit by one of Google’s algorithmic penalties.
An algorithmic penalty is a penalty that happens automatically as a result of an update to Google’s algorithm, such as Google Panda or Penguin. You may need to engage in some sleuthing and guesswork to determine whether your site has been affected by this kind of penalty — but your first hint will be your search traffic plummeting.
If you conclude that your site has been hit by an algorithmic penalty, you need to figure out whether your site has been hit by Panda or Penguin. If you’ve been hit by Panda, a backlink cleanup isn’t going to do much for you — instead, you’ll want to focus on updating your on-page elements. If you’ve been hit by Penguin, however, a massive backlink cleanup is definitely in order.
You can figure out which algorithm is affecting your site by looking at your analytics data and seeing if your drop in organic traffic corresponds with an algorithm change on Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History.
Alternatively, Hit Reach and FE International recently released a Website Penalty Indicator that overlays the dates of the Panda and Penguin updates on SEMRush traffic graphs. This tool makes it easy to determine whether you’ve been hit by Panda or Penguin (or neither.)
If your site is clearly being affected by Penguin, conduct a massive backlink cleanup. Remember, Matt Cutts said that it’s okay to use the disavow tool even if you haven’t received a warning or penalty directly from Google.
If you can’t confirm that your site is being affected by Penguin, remember that your drop in the rankings may be due to your competitors doing a good job, not a penalty or “negative SEO.” In this case, it’s much better to keep building high-quality links and engaging in a gradual backlink cleanup.
Below are the two instances when you should conduct a gradual backlink cleanup.
You Know You Have A Spammy, Paid Link Time Bomb Waiting To Blow…
As you can see, backlink cleanup in response to a manual penalty is quite the undertaking. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are no guarantees with Google. Consequently, you could conclude that it may be wise to clean up your backlink portfolio before Google is on to you.
If you haven’t been discovered yet, but you know that you have a few backlinks that Google’s likely to devalue or penalize, my advice is this: yes, be proactive, but not too aggressive. If you know that your website is a manual penalty waiting to happen, conduct a backlink cleanup but don’t remove all of the questionable links at once. These links are still contributing to your site’s ranking in the SERPs, and removing too many of them at once could cause your site to lose valuable search traffic.
I would recommend taking Erin Everhart’s advice here. Remove about 5-10 of your questionable links at a time while replacing them with new, high-quality links. Make a priority list by ranking each link according to how hard the link will be to remove multiplied by how badly it needs to be removed. By following this process, you may be able to get your site’s act cleaned up before Google discovers anything ugly.
You’re Conducting a Backlink Audit Anyway
So, what if you don’t know whether your site has a spam-filled history or not? Should you assume that everything’s okay until Google indicates otherwise, or should you rush to remove anything that may possibly cause your website harm in the future?
I am always in support of knowing the contents of your site’s backlink portfolio. There are times at which I would conduct a backlink audit anyway, like at the start of a new link building campaign. If you plan on conducting a backlink audit anyway, take the little bit of extra time it requires to start a gradual backlink cleanup.
You want to run a backlink report at the beginning of a link building campaign so you can see where links to your site are located already. You need to know what anchor texts have already been used. You need to see how any future links you build will work — naturally — with those that already drive traffic to your site.
It will also benefit you to see if you have backlinks in places where they are potentially doing more harm than good.
If you see anything that appears to be unnatural, make a priority list. Remove these links as you build new, high-quality links to your site. That way, you can increase your site’s organic search traffic while proactively removing links that may threaten it in the future.