Should you spend time on link removals?

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  • January 6, 2014
Tim Grice

Tim Grice


When the first round of manual penalty notifications landed in Webmaster Tools back at the beginning of 2012, there was a mad rush to remove as many poor quality links as possible. In fact, Google recommended doing just that in the email notifications it sent out.

detected links

This was then reinforced on a number of occasions by Google and its representatives:

Webmaster Video – John Mueller advising that disavowing is not enough.

Matt Cutts – Indirectly referring to link removals and that it is ‘possible’ for Google to review a Google doc if you send one.

These are just a couple of examples, there are many more instances of Google confirming that disavowing links alone is not enough, and removals will have to take place in order to recover from a link penalty. Even when the Disavow Tool was finally launched, Google still recommended removing as many links as possible.

Despite this, there still seems to be a lot of confusion:

Here’s another quote from John Mueller advising that you shouldn’t have to pay to remove links:

“Personally, I’d recommend not going down that route. If this is something that you want to have removed just for Google’s indexing and crawling then probably it’s ok to just list it in the disavow file.

On the other hand, if it is something you want to have removed from the web completely and you don’t want to have this reference on the web for your website then maybe you can talk to those webmasters to see what you can do about having those things removed.

But, essentially from our point of view when it comes to unnatural links to your website, we want to see that you’ve taken significant steps to actually remove it from the web, but if there are some links that you can’t remove yourself or there are some that require payment to be removed then having those in the disavow file is fine as well.”

So, Google wants to see that you have taken significant action to remove the links, but if you have to pay, or can’t get in touch with the webmaster, then the disavow tool is fine. How will Google ever know you have actually tried to contact the webmaster? What if 100% of the links you want to remove are demanding payment?

Then we read an article confirming that the disavow tool can recover penguin penalties

Now based on the above evidence, you’d probably agree that there is a ‘little’ bit of confusion, but what if I told you at Branded3 we’ve had over 60 manual penalty recoveries without removing a single link?

Furthermore, we have had Penguin recoveries without removing a single link. In fact, we haven’t even added a Google doc to show the links we’ve detected. We’ve simply done a thorough link audit, and disavowed anything that is in place for SEO value only, as Matt Cutt’s has said, “taken a machete to it”.

With that many penalty removals, and zero links taken down, you can begin to gauge my feelings on link removals.

Let’s talk more on this later; for now, I want to discuss some other reasons why I believe link removals are a bad idea full stop, they just don’t make sense on any level.

Non-responsive websites

The fact is, 70 – 80% of your links will be on ‘faceless’ websites, websites designed to manipulate on one level or another, this means the person/persons behind them probably don’t monitor emails, and even if they do, they aren’t likely to respond. So drawing up your emails, or mail merge is just a waste of effort most of the time.

Paying for removals

Google has already stated that people shouldn’t pay to remove links; however the reports I receive is that websites that actually have contact details are insisting on payment before the link is removed. Please (please) don’t pay a penny for a link to be removed; it’s a waste of money. What is stopping someone planting links, and then collecting the cash for removing them?

Disavowing helps Google

Disavowing helps Google, it wants you to disavow, even if you haven’t got a penalty! Showing Google the links you consider to be unnatural helps Google understand new techniques and improve how it algorithmically detects bad links and networks.

Bad PR

Removing links on mass can badly damage your brand and its reputation, before the disavow tool we engaged in link removals and it caused all kinds of problems.

Publication of removal emails, outing on Twitter and Facebook, and even threats of a negative SEO attack from bitter webmasters. So these links that you may have no control over, that you are being advised to remove, could actually damage your business and its reputation. Madness!

Our experience

As I mentioned earlier, we have manually removed link penalties without a single link removal, lots of them. We have seen recoveries from Penguin, again without a single link removal. We use a very simple process for removing link penalties:
1 – Collect all link data from multiple tools (Majestic, OSE, Ahrefs and WMT)

2 – We manually classify every single link (That’s right, a real person looks at every link pointing to your website.)

3 – Any link that is there for SEO purposes goes into the disavow tool as a domain entry.

4 – We send a reconsideration to Google (no attachment) which details the type of links we have removed, the amount and some examples.

The above process has allowed us to remove over 60 manual actions, and it takes us an average of two reconsiderations to get a positive response. No removals.

But isn’t that too easy?

Absolutely not; doing a manual link audit and classification takes time, a lot of it. The average link profile we see is around 4,000 domains, that’s at least 20 solid days of work just classifying each domain, and although there are tools out there to help collect bad links, you still need to double check them, these tools will make mistakes and this could be the difference between recovering and struggling on.

If you are struggling to get your manual penalty lifted there are usually three things (in my opinion) that are holding you back:

> You haven’t collected enough link data (and you should be refreshing and de-duping every two weeks).

> You are not disavowing at domain level.

> You aren’t being aggressive enough.

Forget anchor text, links from low PageRank pages, links from directories etc… Yes these are good ways of identifying unnatural links, but to recover from a manual penalty you need to manually review. A bad link can appear on any type of site, with any type of anchor text; this makes a ‘proper’ link audit and classification extremely difficult to conduct, but necessary.

So please, Google, stop the madness of link removals, they’re not good for anyone. This kind of advice isn’t helping anyone and causing business owners to invest tons of cash to have links removed. I understand you want people to feel a little pain, but removals are not the right way to do it, demanding a thorough audit and aggressive disavowing takes a similar effort without any of the drawbacks.

Stop these messages:

Inorganic links

Most business owners and in-house teams were not aware of when and how these bad links were placed, they have no control over them and are now having to pay to remove them. By enforcing link removals you are creating a manipulative industry based on pointing negative links and then charging for their removal. Crazy!

My advice is, stop removing (unless you control the links), disavow any link which is there for SEO value only, and be honest in your reconsideration request. It works.

There is still work to be done, a massive link audit and manual classification takes time, which is painful enough for most businesses both in terms of investment and time. Subjecting them to negative social backlash, negative PR and costing them more money in paying for links to be removed (that they don’t control) is crazy.

As always, I would love to hear feedback and experiences. If you want to see some recovery examples I did a whole blog post on them here, or to read more on our processes check this out from our Head of Insights – Recovering a Link Penalty.

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