In 2013, Google delivered an update that shook the very foundations of link building, starting with Penguin 2.0 and delivering the knockout blow with Penguin 2.1. These updates affected a lot of websites suspected of using “link schemes” to manipulate rankings, including good websites run by legitimate businesses.
We developed our Link Clean-Up services to help websites affected by these updates. Today I’d like to show you what we did for some of our campaigns and how we recovered their rankings and traffic by cleaning their link profiles.
Google and “Link Schemes”: A Brief History
Google defines a link scheme as “any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site” with the intention of manipulate PageRank or a site’s rankings in Google search results. These schemes violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and relying on these to build links can result in a manual penalty.
Some examples of link schemes include:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank, including exchanging money, goods, services for links or posts that contain links
- Excessive link exchanges or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
- Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
- Using automated programs or services to create links
Before Google cracked down on these schemes, many SEO service providers used them to build links to their clients’ websites. Several of our own partners come to us with campaigns that have massive amounts of links from previous link building attempts with other providers. We developed and launched our Link Clean-Up services as soon as Penguin 2.1 hit to soften the blow and help these clients recover their rankings and traffic.
Our Link Clean-Up Methodology
I’ve already talked about link clean-up in a previous blog post, but let me give you a brief refresher course. The whole process can be broken down into 10 simple steps:
- We evaluate and prequalify your site for Link Clean-Up.
- We extract your backlink profile information from Google Webmaster Tools (GWT).
- We upload these links into LinkDetox.com to identify potentially harmful links.
- We generate a text file containing the links from Link Detox.
- We analyze all third party links, eliminating duplicate domains in the process.
- We use RMOOV to submit removal or delete requests for harmful third-party links.
- We monitor the removal / deletion status of the links submitted through RMOOV.
- We update the text file for GWT after we receive an update on the removal status.
- We generate the final text file with the updated link removal attempt status.
- We upload and submit the disavow file through GWT.
Our Link Clean-Up service does not guarantee that you will get 100% of your rankings and traffic back, but we have definitely seen improvements in rankings and traffic for the campaigns we’ve worked on. Combined with any of our SEO solutions, which include high-quality content creation and citation acquisition, you can be sure that your website will see vast improvements in rankings and traffic within a month.
Let’s look at two projects where we saw amazing results after we cleaned up their link portfolios.
The first project is a website for a plumbing company that’s been in the business for 85 years. When Penguin 2.1 went live, most of the website’s rankings for their keywords decreased. This chart shows the rankings for their top five keywords from August 2013 to October 2013:
The rankings for two of these keywords improved, but the other three had a continuously decreasing trend.
Diagnosis and Treatment
We started the link clean-up process for them in November 2013. Our initial assessment showed that there were rapid increases in the number of backlinks it had in 2012. In the span of three months, their backlinks increased by a whopping 785%. They did not receive a manual penalty in spite of this, but when we analyzed all the links their website had in November, we learned that 76% of them were toxic. These were mostly links from the previous link building attempts done for the website.
After identifying the toxic links, we proceeded to submit link removal requests to the third-party websites via RMOOV. The remaining links that couldn’t be removed through this process were disavowed manually.
Our efforts did more than just recover this client’s rankings. From November to the start of February, their keywords started performing much better in SERPs. The chart below illustrates the ranking improvements for their five top keywords:
Before we began, none of these keywords were on the first page of the search results. Now we have two on the first page, with Keyword 1 (“drain cleaning”) jumping more than 70 positions up since we began the link clean-up.
The rankings for their other major keywords are also consistently improving. If we continue our efforts to keep this website’s link profile clean, we expect to see these other keywords appear on the first page within a few more cycles.
This project is a website for an auto insurance company that got hit by Penguin 2.1 pretty hard in terms of traffic. They had been relying on old link building methods for 28 months by the time Penguin 2.1 was released. While these methods seemed harmless for a time, the links they built really hurt their site’s visibility and performance in SERPs, and this was especially harmful to their traffic. From February to September 2013, the website’s traffic average was about 18,000 per month. After Penguin 2.1 went live, traffic went 46% below this average, an all-time low for the website in 2013.
Diagnosis and Treatment
We started assessing this website toward the end of November 2013, and started the actual clean-up process in early December. We noted that the website already received a manual penalty for “unnatural links”. We looked at their link portfolio, which was a massive collection of 2,741 backlinks, and found that about 31% of them were toxic.
With over 800 toxic links, this website required a more intensive link removal and disavowal procedure. The removal procedure only managed to get rid of 30% of those toxic links, so we had to disavow the other 70% manually.
This website is well on its way to recovering its traffic thanks to our link clean-up efforts. As of January 2014, the website’s traffic increased by 33% since we began. This traffic is even higher in comparison to the website’s traffic in October, right before it was hit by Penguin 2.1 and the manual penalty.
With this increasing traffic trend continuing through February, we can safely say that this website is on the road to recovery.
Key Link Profile and Cleanup Lessons
I shared these two successful link clean-up campaigns to show you just how much your clients’ link profiles can affect their rankings and traffic. If your website has a lot of “link baggage” thanks to legacy link building using directory sites, spammy article sites, spun articles, paid link placements, and thousands of social bookmarks, you really need to reevaluate your link portfolio and clean out all those bad links.
Your work should not stop there, though. Cleaning out your link profile is the most important step in the whole recovery process, but there’s more to it. You need to stop using outdated link building strategies, and start earning your links. Combining a clean link profile with updated link acquisition strategies and good SEO is the key to recovering and further improving your website’s rankings and traffic.