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Yesterday I conducted an SEO audit for a new client.

Everything looked perfect – too perfect.

There were very few technical faults: the content had been thoughtfully – if a little aggressively – optimised, and the site had a Domain Authority of 33 and a Home Page Authority of 43. (That’s pretty much my score).

It wasn’t until I looked at the back links that I realised the problem.

Using Open Site Explorer I was able to examine the quality of the links.

I found an impressive number of links from over 123 linking root domains. Pretty good for a site that has only been live for a few months. But it didn’t look natural and I quickly realised that it wasn’t.

The client had been buying links, and now the site had been hit by the Google Penguin algorithm update.

If you don’t know already, Penguin pretty much deals with off-site spam and links, and checks for sites that post the same article on a lot of sites with the same phrases linking back to your site.

Essentially, it focuses on back link patterns, anchor text and dodgy link tactics.

The site I was reviewing had heaps of back links from pages that had absolutely nothing to do with its industry or audience. These included bogus press releases, directory listings on random sites, fake comments and poorly written guest blogs written purely for SEO ‘value’.

Every single one was using the same five anchor links back to the core site.

I guessed that it was probably these back links that were causing any problems. Fifteen links from one page using the exact same keyword phrase doesn’t look natural to Google, because it’s not.

So what should/could my client do?

Here’s a break down of how you need to approach naughty links:

Step 1: Find the cause

Your first port of call should probably be Google Webmaster tools.

Create and verify your account, and then you should be able to export an extract of the sites and pages linking to your website and the keywords (or anchor text) used to link.

Step 2: Decide if the links are dodgy 

You can then check for:

  • Links from spammy looking pages.
  • Excessive number of links from any individual website.
  • The number of exact match keyword phrase links (are there several links from the same phrase on any given page?)

Step 3: Evaluate the links for quality

Now it’s time to examine the specific pages that link to you and check:

  • The subject and relevancy to your industry – for example, does a kiddies party web site in Sydney need a link from a steel technology site in Utah?
  • The quality of the page and website.
  • The number of links from any given page (over 10 is probably too high!)

Use your common sense. If the pages look like they were created to cheat the Google system or are so boring that no human would read them, then they’re rubbish and could be harming your site.

Dodgy links can take the form of blog comments, fake articles, fake press releases, footer links and directory listings.

Step 4: Change or reduce the number of keyword links

If the page doesn’t look spammy, one option might be to change the keyword or reduce the number of links, thereby creating a more natural looking link profile.

Step 5: Remove the links

It might seem a bit ‘pain in the bum’ to go through and delete a zillion links, but the cleaner your SEO profile the better.

  • First, try to simply go to the site and remove the pages or links (if you created and submitted them you should be able to remove them)
  • Next, try using the Who is website to identify site owners and ask them to remove them
  • Finally, you can report a page using the disavow tool – but do so as a last resort.

The text on the tool itself tells us:

‘If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site. You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.’

You can read more about disavow here.

So there you go, a pretty much perfect site brought down low by paid back links. A lesson to us all. There are no easy cheats and quick fixes when it comes to SEO. You shouldn’t believe the SEO cowboys or the ‘we can get you to page one in a week’ hype.

You need to use your common sense.

Further reading

Check out this article on how to evolve link building into real SEO.

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