Bad Backlinks and What to do About Them

Recently, I came across the article Help Your Site Grow by Properly Managing Links, that talked about the Google Disavow Tool.

Google's Disavow Tool
Google’s Disavow Tool

I had no idea Google had this, which is surprising because, I try and follow what Google is doing like a hawk. The article got me to thinking about our backlinks at VSI. I wondered how our links looked were they good or bad? I mean I had never tried too hard to go looking for backlinks. I follow the philosophy that if I follow the rules that the search engines tell me to follow, then I will do pretty good SEO wise, including getting great organic backlinks. I have never participated in any link schemes so I was pretty sure that our links were good links and that I had nothing really to worry about. However, I tend to be very curious, and always like to get more information, so I decided to check ours out. WOW! Was I wrong about the quality of our backlinks.

How can I find out who’s linking to me?

To figure out my company’s backlinks I turned to my trusty Google’s Webmaster Tools, if you don’t have this or something similar I suggest you get busy with that. Otherwise follow along if you like. From webmaster tools on the left hand side is your webmaster tools navigation, if you look at the image below, navigate to the “Links to Your Site” link. This will show you valuable information about who is linking to you.

Webmaster tools links to your site
This is the link you want from your Google webmaster tools side navigation

Once you press that link in the navigation you will get a screen similar to the one below. From this screen under the box labeled “Who links the most” press the more button under the section.

Who links more to your site webmaster tools
Press the more link under the Who links more to your site section.

Your new screen will look similar to the screenshot below. This shows you all the people who link to your website. Yours could be several pages long, you can view more by looking at the top right of the list, look for the button that says 25 rows. That button can be changed and show as many as 500 rows allowing you to see more links than what you see by default.

This is what the list of your site's backlinks looks like.
This is what the list of your site’s backlinks looks like.

Looking at your list could make you scratch your head wondering who the heck all these sites are. Your not alone my friend, I said the same thing. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is by visiting each one you don’t know or recognize and viewing that site for yourself. I heard that groan you just did! In my case, I had only 243 sites to go through. You may have more or less. I suggest maybe dividing the project up into small sections at a time, maybe over the course a days.

I needed a way to organize my thoughts and remember what these sites were and what their page rank was. Webmaster tools has a handy way for you to do that. At the top of you list there is a download the table button (see image below). If you click that it will take all of those links you see and download them to your computer in CSV format. Which can be saved as XLS format for a Excel spreadsheet.

Download this table button in webmaster tools
Download this table button in webmaster tools

This will work out great because you can add a column to place the age rank of a site, and another column to add notes you’d like to make on that site. I went even further and highlighted sites in yellow, green and red. Yellow was my let’s watch this for awhile and maybe revisit another time. Green was this site is fine I have no issue with them linking to my site. Red, of course was “Omg, I can’t believe these people are linking to me!”. Below is a little shot of what mine ended up looking like in Excel.

My Excel spreadsheet.
My Excel spreadsheet.

How do I know which links are bad links?

I have no clue what search engines think are bad links, well not really I don’t. Google and other SEs are notorious for giving very, very generalized information about anything that effects their algorithm. I mean sure, I can follow Google’s Link schemes guidelines:

Here are a few common examples of unnatural links that violate our guidelines:

  • Text advertisements that pass PageRank
  • Links that are inserted into articles with little coherence, for example:
    most people sleep at night. you can buy cheap blankets at shops. a blanket keeps you warm at night. you can also buy a wholesale heater. It produces more warmth and you can just turn it off in summer when you are going on france vacation.
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites, for example:
    Visitors to this page: 1,472
    car insurance
  • Widely distributed links in the footers of various sites
  • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature, for example:
    Thanks, that’s great info!
    – Paul
    paul’s pizza san diego pizza best pizza san diego

But, this is a guideline if you’re doing or have done really black hat SEO. Meaning, if I had paid for these links, which we don’t. But, they don’t tell me what if anything I should do if I think sites linking to me are something I’d consider spammy or low quality content sites. What about all these directory sites from India? Are they OK, bad or just ugly. If I disavow a link is that going to hurt my page rank? If so, how much?

These were only some of the questions that ran through my head when I went over my list. However, I found this article by Dr. Pete of SEOmoz to be helpful. Google’s Disavow Bad Tool – Take a Deep Breath. Please take a moment or 2 to read this article because he gives very clear guidelines as to what not to do and what to do. Dr. Pete says, and I quote:

most links, even low-value links, still help your rankings. So, if you start removing absolutely every questionable link, you could be throwing out a lot of SEO babies out with that polluted bathwater.

Further on in the above article, Dr. Pete mentions really you shouldn’t be doing a major hack job on your links. That’s the bottom line. What you do need to do is check those sites in your list out, and figure out if you even need to do anything at all. Mostly, the Google disavow tool was meant to be used IF your site had been hurt by the panda update, lost a lot of traffic all of a sudden, or you hired a very bad SEO person (there are so many of these, it makes my eyes water) or some other scenario similar to these examples. If these scenarios do apply to you then you should read another of Dr. Pete’s articles 6 Ways to Recover from Bad Links, here he gives you ways to combat bad links besides just the Google disavow tool.

Even if none of the examples I gave have happen to you, you should still check out your links once in awhile. Oh there’s that groan again, I heard it. You’re over there thinking “But why, I didn’t do anything or have anything happen to me?”. Here’s the answer my friend, when I did my check guess what I found linked to us? Come on guess. Yep…porn! One site I went to check on had this little box that popped up in the lower right corner with porn images in it. How’s that for a reason to check? Not enough for you? How about I think one or 2 of the sites I visited highjacked my IE browser? Which forced me to delete all history and start again (I’m still not sure I got rid of everything). Do you want your customers to know that porn or some virus site is linked to you? I think not!

I still question some of the sites on my list and I am unsure what to do with them. While I may think they are spammy, useless directories, I’m not sure others feel the same. Some of them have some really high page ranks too! In the end I have requested that we get rid of 22 sites linked to us out of the 243 sites I looked at. I don’t think that’s to bad of a hack job.

More Articles Worth Reading on Link Building

Google’s blog post on the Disavow tool
The Good the Bad and the Ugly of SEO Backlinks
Are Directory Links Still Worth Doing
Google Reconsideration Request Replies; understanding the evolution

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