Should you spend time on link removals?

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  • January 6, 2014

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.

Tim Grice

About Tim Grice

Branded3’s CEO Tim Grice is an influential blogger and speaker in the search marketing industry, having led the search strategy of some of the biggest brands in the world. Regularly quoted by the biggest resources in digital marketing, Tim has an enviable reputation as an SEO thought-leader.

  • Caspar Aremi

    I’m the owner of a large lifestyle website that posts product reviews and recommendations regularly. In recent months we’ve been getting an increasing number of requests to remove links to brands or retailers as we’ve given their URL in a post. We’ve never asked for, or accepted, money for these links so I can’t see that Google would consider them to be inappropriate. But we’re often harassed with many, many emails and phone calls if we don’t remove links. For this reason, i can see why it would be advantageous to charge a fee, given the time it takes to go in to our archives and edit content.

    Usually I just explain that we placed links in good faith based on our own searching, and don’t consider they could reflect upon the target domain negatively.

    We may start putting nofollow on all our links by default though, if this is likely to be a bigger problem in the future.

    • Tim Grice

      Hey Casper, I think Google just need to put an end to it. Disavowing works, they need to focus on helping people use it properly.

  • Alexandra Petean-Nicola

    Paying got link removal is total madness. It’s annoying that some time things you have no control over ruin your work. It’s quite absurd.

  • Jeremy Kaiser

    Hi Tim,

    What an article on this “controversial” subject ! It’s always enriching to read your articles as well as Patrick Altoft articles on anything that is around link profile/audit and link penalties, you guys really lead the industry on those subjects…

    Would you recommend to use the disavow tool even if the website is not (yet) penalized (there is potential risk). And if you would recommend to use it, should we also add comments/details in this case ? Should we update it from time to time (every month) ?

    Thanks for your advices

    • Tim Grice

      Thanks Jeremy, Personally I would recommend updating the disavow tool with any bad links, regardless of notifications, Google will have devalued bad links 90% of the time, there is a small risk your visibility might drop, but surely that’s better than being hit with a penalty? That’s my opinion, I’m sure there will be others who disagree, but when you’ve seen the chaos caused by these penalties it makes you think differently.

  • Tim Grice

    That’s interesting. We’ve certainly had no confirmation on this, but I’d like to assume we have a good track record :)

  • vishalcrystal

    Hi Tim,

    Nice Article, In my case of unnatural links disavow alone not worked, we have removed links as well update in disavow but from 3 times Google always come with sample links which is already disavow. Can you help on this why this is happening now we have removed around 30% of links that we thought that are unnatural and find articles & directory links manually removed as well as placed them in disavow. I have also maintain a separate link file of WMT, Majastic and manual links. I have worked 3 of files are checked every link manually then move to disavow file. I have also have email screenshots and email HTML’s as evidence that we have done for link removal. Now I am planning to file RR again. Can you please let me know any thing is missing.


    • Tim Grice

      are you disavowing at a domain level?


      Make sure all you links in the disavow tool are like this, don’t add links to individual pages, disavow the website.

  • David Black

    It’s a sad state of affairs – for years I had countless requests for back links…”Please can you add a link it’ll benefit both of us..” It was tedious, every day. Now, just to make it all the more annoying, I get the same people emailing me, “Please can you remove my link, I don’t want it anymore”
    Make up your minds before I turn to drink.

  • Kerry Dye

    One of my clients got a quite strongly worded link removal request (which they complied with) and shortly after an apologetic email ‘saying sorry we sent it by mistake, any chance of having it back’? So the SEO company in charge of the removals actually managed to get a good quality link removed. We did laugh.

  • Stephen Lean

    As far as I’m concerned, Google can go to hell. My tapas website has gone from the top 5 on to approx. #15 on page two. I don’t know the exact reason why but, if we’re to believe Panda, or Penguin, or Duck-billed Platypus, it’s to do with bad links coming in. So get over it, Google, it’s not my fault.

    Why should I be made to spend hours and days checking over 800 links in to my website? Links that I have absolutely no control over? Links that I didn’t ask for? Links that, not so long ago, were considered important for SEO purposes?

    Life’s too short, my friends, I’ll just sit it out until Google move the goalposts 180 degs. and all you people disavowing and removing links have to start building them all over again.

  • Salih Alborno

    strange. in point 4. You tell Google which links you removed:

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

    and you then say:

    “and it takes us an average of two reconsiderations to get a positive response. No removals.”

    Could you elaborate, please?

    • Tim Grice

      Yes, sorry this is a mistake, supposed to be ‘detail the links we have disavowed.’.

  • Sam @BattleToys

    Hi Tim,

    I’m not really sure why you would just want to Disavow the links for your clients?

    If your clients back link profiles are at a point where Google is penalising them for having particularly bad link building practices wouldn’t you want to help them clean up that profile?

    In my experience it is one thing to get a penalty removed, but to actually keep the penalty away and ensuring that site has a future you need to not only get the penalty removed but also set the site on the right path to recovery.

    For example if Google decides to change to rules in 18 months time on your 60 domains that had a penalty removed without any links being removed then the 60 domains could end up with yet another penalty.

    We see a lot of evidence of Googles Algorithims getting increasingly sophisticated for manipulative behaviour, but what works now generally won’t work, and is also considered manipulative in 18 months time.

    Surely a better way to look at this is a chance to get rid of any damaging SEO practices on the site and start fresh with a new marketing campaign. Good Article though, raised a good debate in the office.


    • Tim Grice

      Glad it raised a debate, sign that it struck a cord! The problem for me is that you have no control of your profile, if I wanted to I could send 10,000 spam links to your site, cheaply and within the next couple of days. I could also cheaply build them up over time. Google started to penalise sites in 2012 for their backlink profiles, by the time October hit they had to bail everyone out with the disavow tool, this is because most people have no control over bad links.

      So you could invest a lot of time and energy removing now and even on an ongoing basis, however, you’re always going to be susceptible to bad links pointing to your website.

      I honestly can’t see Google going back on the disavow tool. Only if they find a way to automatically devalue bad links.

      • Sam @BattleToys

        Its definitely a different way to look at it,

        I disagree that most people have no control over bad links, granted you could point 10,000 spam links to my site, but I think the vast majority of websites know exactly why they have spam pointing to their site and it generally starts with a lazy marketing campaign, or more likely a “it worked 5 years ago” attitude.

        I also think Googles Algorithms are smart enough to ignore the type of spam links you would point at the site, bought cheaply within a couple of days, but if you want to test it feel free to fire as many as you want to 😉

        Apparently I will just be able to disavow them all anyway.

  • matthew22929

    thats the way the cookie crumbles. Great article. Totally agree. Lets face it…. 95% + of websites do no SEO work whatsoever (guestimate). The very word “disavow” means nothing to them. Google has to rank these sites to make the web useful.
    Once again the SEO industry is running around like headless chickens.

  • Tim Grice

    I think the disavow level is key Brian, good job.

  • Tim Grice

    Hi Jonny, we advise that we have undertaken a thorough audit, on the strategies and types of links that were unnatural, and then on the number of links in the disavow file e.g. we have disavowed x amount out of a total profile of x …. make sure they understand what proportion of our link profile we have been able to find.

  • Tim Grice

    We had one client come to us who has had the manual penalty nearly 2 years, just literally starting work on it… yes I understand there can be timed based penalties, but do you want to wait 2 years, or 2 months. The disavow tool also works for recovering sites from Penguin, so I would always advise having a healthy up to date disavow file.

  • Tim Grice

    Sorry, that’s my bad. It details the type and amount of links we have disavowed.

  • Tim Grice

    It depends, and is really difficult to see. If you have some good links, as well as the bad you have disavowed, you should see ranking improvements when Penguin roles out again. If all your links have been removed or disavowed then you will likely see no improvement or indication that the penalty has been removed. Disavow and begin to rebuild a solid profile, that’s the only way to deal with penguin, and you will find yourself working in the dark for 9 – 12 months in my experience.

  • Kayla

    Hey Brian

    Did you see a ranking improvement after this? If so, how soon after?


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