Avoiding the Penguin Slap: Best Practices for Backlink Analysis and Disavowing Links

Google’s Penguin algorithm targets “link schemes” and unnatural link profiles that it believes are in place to manipulate and boost Web page rankings in Google’s search engine results.

Unfortunately, some website owners aren’t even aware that their site has an unnatural link profile, and are quite surprised when they receive a penalty.

In this post, we’ll go over how to avoid the “Penguin slap,” including best practices for conducting a backlink analysis and disavowing links. Today, we’ll cover:

  • The link clean-up process
  • How to get backlinks use BrightEdge
  • The last resort: submit a disavow file

Get Started with Google Webmaster Tips and Tools

As a site owner who is otherwise compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, you still may find yourself in trouble if Google finds that links to your website (backlinks) are “unnatural,” meaning the links weren’t “editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner.”

Google offers a number of examples of such unnatural links that may violate its guidelines in its Webmaster Tools Help page on link schemes.

Before you get started on your link clean-up project, you will first need to set up a Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) account. I recently posted a step-by-step guide on how to do so, here.

Overview of the Link Clean-Up Process

There is a four-step process for cleaning up your site’s links:

  1. Get a list of domains linking to your site, which you can export from GWT (or BrightEdge, if you use it).
  2. Examine those links, and determine which ones may be a source of trouble.
  3. For those links that you identify as problematic, email the site’s webmaster and ask for removal of the link.
  4. After you’ve attended to all of the above, and specifically No. 3, all links that have not been removed then need to be added to your site’s “disavow list” for submission to Google.

Here is a flow chart showing the link clean-up process that Google prefers you take — and that BrightEdge recommends — before you move onto disavowing links via Google:

Disavow Links Process Chart

Smart Tips for Analyzing Your Backlinks

When analyzing the backlinks to your website, you’ll want to first examine the authority metrics of the site linking to yours, such as page and domain score.

After determining those metrics, you’ll then want to establish thresholds to guide you in investigating further, which take into account:

  • Low Quality: You might decide that “low quality” means a site where the domain score is less than 20.
  • High Effort: Invest in finding the best way to reach out to all “low quality, high effort” domains that link in at least three to four times.
  • Minimal Effort: You might decide that if a “low quality” domain links to your site three or fewer times, it’s not worth your time to audit. In that case, you might just request removal from the domain’s WHOIS administrative contact (easy to find, assuming the domain is not privately registered).

You’ll also want to consider that a linking domain may have decent page and domain score metrics, yet still be harmful to your profile if it violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or engages in risky activity.

Using BrightEdge for Link Analysis

BrightEdge’s SEO platform offers cutting-edge tools for site owners to both manage and analyze their backlinks, both in terms of understanding their own link profiles relative to those of the market, and in terms of evaluating the risk signals when analyzing their data.

Understanding Your Own Link Profile

In BrightEdge, go to Recommendations > Keywords, and click into Recommendations. Then, Build External Links > External Links to My Page.

BrightEdge Platform Screenshot

Comparing Your Link Profile vs. The Market When Evaluating Risk

In BrightEdge, go to Recommendations > Keywords, then click into recommendations. Then, Build External Links > Competitive Summary.

BrightEdge Platform Screenshot

Evaluating Risk Signals via BrightEdge

Using the data supplied by BrightEdge, you’ll be able to analyze:

  1. Anchor text: What is the split between brand and keyword optimized anchor text?
  2. Volume: Ratio of links by unique domains.
  3. Quality: Higher domain and page authority is better.
  4. Relevance: Is the topic and theme of the linking page similar to the linked-to page?

Anchor Text

Search engines want to see a “natural” split between brand and domain anchor text to other keywords in the anchor text of links coming back in to your site.

BrightEdge Report Screenshot

Over-optimized anchor text? You’re increasing the likelihood of getting a nasty message in GWT with anchor text like this:

Overoptimized Anchor Text

Volume of Backlinks

Here, you’ll look at:

  1. Total referring domains, which shows the number of unique domains linking back to the specified URL.
  2. Total external backlinks, which shows the total number of backlinks coming into the specified URL.

The following BrightEdge report gives an overview of the domains and backlinks to a page:

BrightEdge Backlinks Report Screenshot

How many backlinks should you have? This depends on your industry and target keyword. Your home page will normally have more links than any other pages in the site.

Use BrightEdge to find out about backlinks by going to Recommendations > Keyword > Choose a keyword (make sure “off page recommendations” is enabled). Then select “recommendations” (for the keyword you’re looking at).

BrightEdge Find Backlinks Report Screenshot

Next, click “See Top 10 Ranking Pages” tab in order to view top stats of your page vs. the Top 10 ranking sites:

BrightEdge Top Ranked Pages Report

Domain Diversity

You’ll also want to look at domain diversity (total links versus referring domains). In an ideal world, we would like to get one link from one domain, and then move on.

A high number of links coming from a low number of domains may trip a search engine’s spam filter. Look out for and avoid site-wide links (for example, in a sidebar or footer).

BrightEdge Domain Diversity Report

Finding a List of Links

In BrightEdge, select “Linking Pages” to see the list of backlinks to the specified URL. Select “Linking Domains” to view the domains. The higher the domain authority, the better. Click the column header to sort.

BrightEdge External Links Report

Pro tip: Ignore “nofollow” links. These can’t harm your website.

The Last Resort: Google’s Disavow Tool

In GWT’s instructions on how to disavow backlinks, it stresses:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.

That noted, if you still find yourself in the position where there is no other recourse except to request Google to exclude the offending links when assessing your site, here are the best practices for doing so …

Creating a Disavow File

Google’s link disavow tool works with appropriately formatted text files. From Google:

You’ll download a file containing all the pages linking to your site. Use this to create a text file (the file type must be .txt and it must be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII) containing only the links you want to disavow—one link per line. If you want Google to ignore all links from an entire domain (like example.com), add the line “domain:example.com”. Your text file can include additional information about excluded links, as long as each line of description begins with the “#” character (all lines beginning with # will be ignored). Don’t upload the entire list of links to your site: the text file that you upload is the list of links you want Google to ignore.

For commenting: Lines starting with a hashtag (#) should be used for comments. This is useful for splitting up groups of links in large files, thereby making updates easier going forward. For example:

#Article Spam (Ignoring the entire domain)

Once satisfied that you’ve carefully documented and properly formatted your list for the disavow file, visit Google’s site for submitting and uploading it.

Try to be patient with the process – it can take some time to fully resolve – and remember to be thorough in your backlink analysis. If you believe a source is low quality, or you have a large number of links from one domain, it’d be far more efficient to simply disavow the entire domain.

Penguin can be a major set back for websites, but with the proper process in place to deal with it, including proactive analysis of your link profile, you’re well on your way to having a “healthier” site that will fare better when Penguin comes knocking.


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