Unnatural Links Investigations
If you have been hit by a large drop in rankings in Google recently and you have built links – over the years – to try to help your SEO, then check your Google WebmasterTools messages. If you received a message about “artificial or unnatural links” then you probably have some quite serious work ahead of you before you can submit a re-inclusion request that will reverse the penalties. Fortunately, Majestic SEO has several investigative tools to help you get to the root of the problem… identifying your problem links. If you don’t follow a structured approach, you are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as you cull your site of inbound links from websites that added them in good faith – creating potential relationship issues within your company which could have been avoided.
I hope this blog post helps you in your hour of need, to give you some methodologies for cleaning up your bad links, by giving you five unique investigations that you can start using right away.
Investigation 1: Finding those Site Wide Links.
(Required: Majestic Site Explorer, Silver subscription. Or use GWT for free)
Most of these investigations are free – but finding the websites that have site-wide links to you is best seen in Majestic Site Explorer. If you cannot bring yourself to part with a silver subscription, this is one report which has a similar download in Google’s Webmastertools.
If you are logged in to Majestic SEO, the data you need is just two clicks from the home page:
1: Type your site into the Site Explorer Bar on the home page. 2: Switch the option to Historic Index and 3: Click Explore. You probably want Historic Index for this investigation, because Google will have penalized your site also based on historic data. Whilst all your decent links are bound to be in the Fresh index (which includes old links as long as they are string enough to continually get recrawled by us) this analysis is all about rooting out your rubbish! In addition, links only just created are unlikely to be part of Google’s current link network penalties as they have been targeting paid networks and link exchange networks and have been working on this for many months.
4: Click on the Referring Domains tab. If the sort order is different, I suggest you sort by “Matched Links”, descending. This will list sites linking to you based on the number of links they have pointing to you. This makes it very easy to see site wide links into your site, and because we also include the Alexa ranking for each domain, you can quickly assess whether the sitewide links need further investigation or whether they are benign:
If you are happy with the majority of those site-wide links – do NOT jump into getting rid of them all. But these sites should all really be showing up in your referring sites data in your analytics. Otherwise, they really might be dangerous as they seem to have little or no practical value outside Google manipulation. It might be that the referrer data gets lost in the link methodology though – so do check before you go overboard.
In our example, we do get traffic from the sites on this list – even though they might at first seem a little odd. That is because they are mostly site assessment tools that use our light API or show our back-link history tool. These can send us more traffic than Google – so we are unlikely to care about Google’s opinion of why we think the link might be there. But you may.
One of the good things about this report – apart from it being so quick to generate – is that the Site Explorer excludes nofollow links. So whilst DMoz.fr has half a million links into MajesticSEO in the footer, they are no-followed and therefore will not be problematic for Google and will not show in this report.
Investigation 2: Seek out over-hyped anchor text
(Required: Standard report. Free for self verified sites.)
Looking at the types of penalties that have been reported, Google is especially penalizing sites who over-egg anchor text links at this stage. So wouldn’t it be great to see all your links based on how frequently the anchor text is used?
Well no problem. The best way to do this is to generate a standard report. To do this, do steps 1 to 3 above and then click on the “Generate Report” icon or button:
Then get your standard report:
The report will now be accessible from your “reports” button. The link to this is always in the very top right hand corner of your screen.
When you navigate to the report, you can sort the links based on anchor text:
Strangely – we suddenly see that for some reason, we have over 50 domains linking to us with the anchor text “pandaranol stats”. By flipping the standard report to analyze by back-links instead of anchor text and filtering to JUST see links with the anchor text “pandaranol stats” we can see these all listed. Indeed, we can see that all these links originated from one article and are actually being picked up within a heavily used RSS feed:
When we go to the article, it seems to be a very well researched article – although it is not in English so I cannot really tell. However – what I can see is that if I decided that this was harming our business, at least I could simply talk to the owners of the RSS feed, rather than all 51 sites syndicating the content.
Investigation 3: Finding the ONE BAD 301
This one is harder – because you will need to be reviewing links one by one – but a common tactic by the SEOs over the years has been to buy up parked domains and redirect them to an SEO’d site. Another tactic has been to 301 WordPress articles already ranking for a phrase. This means that the parked domain or url might have 1,000 links going to it, but in standard back-link reports, they seem like just 1 link, which is the parked domain or URL.
Spotting an odd link in Majestic SEO, just click on the “Explorer” icon (A ship’s wheel) usually showing next to the link – or put the link you want to look at into the site explorer search bar. Majestic reports on what kind of response was found when we crawled that URL if we know:
The screenshot above shows what you are looking for. (I have for the screenshot used a page I KNOW redirects, which is the non-www version of our home page.) Where this is a third party URL, linking to your site from a page which is, itself, a 301 redirect, all those external backlinks from all those referring domains may also need to be looked at for signs of unnatural activity. In this case, that would be another 142,502 links from 127 domains if I was worried. But luckily – if these WERE the root of my backlink problem, I would only need to get the owner of the url that redirects to send his redirection elsewhere to get rid of all of these links as a Google link profile problem.
Investigation 4: Finding Link Networks that leave no on-page footprint
(Requires subscription. The bigger the better)
This is a little theoretical – but hear me out. Just as you can use Clique Hunter to source GOOD neighbourhoods, now you can use Clique Hunter to help source BAD neighbourhoods… or link networks.
If you have found a web page which is clearly selling links… including anchor text links to your site… then presumably there are plenty of other sites in a similar boat. You can check this, to a point, by seeing if those other sites are also comprehensively NOT ranking for the anchor text they have listed on the suspect site. Now obviously, if that is the case, then getting your links off the suspect site is a no-brainer. But before you do, you may be able to root out more of the network, by collecting the other websites that are being penalized as well as your own, and popping up to ten of them into Clique-Hunter:
This will not only return a list of websites that link to ALL (or most) of the sites in your polluted list, but will also tell you how many links each site has to each of the penalized sites. As with most of Majestic SEO’s reports, you can export Clique Hunter results to a CSV and then tackle the likely suspects one at a time if necessary – or look for feeds, which might indicate the source of the pollution.
The length of the CSV file depends on your options and your subscription level. A subscription will show you from 1,000 up to 25,000 referring domains (if we have them) depending on the level.
Investigation 5: finding your poorest back-links
(Free for your own sites)
Majestic Site Explorer and our Standard reports are mainly designed to show you the strongest links. Often, the weakest ones fall off the bottom of these reports. However, advanced reports now have a new option – letting you download ALL your links into a CSV file, ordered by ACRank.
If you have the energy, you can go and get all these links and start looking at them from the bottom up. This is a massive task, though. But the option is there if you really want it! Here’s what you do.
Follow steps 1-3 at the start of this article, but instead of getting a standard report, switch to an advanced report. Then navigate to the report from the reports and tools menu. In the Download options, there is the chance to download every link to your site.
I hope these tips give you some ideas for structuring your own approach to handling a message from Google about unnatural links.