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Why would removing links be such as important part of modern search engine optimization, to the level that both Google and Bing over specific Link Disavowal Tools? After all, links to your property from other websites are generally a good thing that can bring you human traffic and better rankings in search results. And Google's own success is largely down to the PageRank algorithm developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin to rank relevance based mainly on links between websites.

Links: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

There are some clear rules regarding which links are beneficial to your website, and which may harm it. Links which carry a recommendation to search engines are termed 'Do Follow', and all search engines are clear that these should not be given in return for payment (Advertising, sponsored links etc should all be marked as No Follow, which means they aren't generally counted by search engines as recommendations).

And certainly it is better to receive a link from an established and respected website in your industry or niche than to have links coming from completely irrelevant sites which were set up yesterday on free hosting and have no other content on them.

But monitoring and checking the exact nature of your link profile (all links to your website) has become much more important over the last few years, particularly since the Penguin Algorithm was officially announced on April 24th, 2012. Since then, manually-implemented Unnatural Link Penalties have also been handed out to websites with more frequency than ever before.

Penguin is an algorithm launched in 2012 which was created to reduce the authority of sites that used spam to gain in the rankings. It's often confused with the Panda algorithm updates, but Panda has been updated much more frequently since launching in 2011, and concentrates on low quality websites and pages which have 'thin content'. Penguin more actively concentrates on attempts to manipulate search engine results  'sites doing much more than white hat SEO; we believe they are engaging in webspam tactics to manipulate search engine rankings.'

One sign of this is using techniques to gain links which contain 'exact-match anchor text' – e.g. if all your links used the phrase 'cheapest car insurance', rather than a mixture including your brand name, 'click here', and all the other terms you'd expect to be mixed up when people link to you naturally.

Another issue can occur when you suddenly gain an unnaturally high volume of links in a short time, and these all come from high authority sites. Again, you'd naturally expect to get a wide mix of low, medium and high authority sites, building at a reasonable pace.

This is why constantly proactively monitoring the link profiles of your websites is more important than ever. In addition to problems possibly caused by your previous efforts or those of experts you've hired in the past, there is also the risk of 'Negative SEO'. This entails someone buying and building unnatural links to you in order to trigger a penalty. 

An important starting point is to ensure your websites are registered and verified with Google and Bing Webmaster Tools. You'll need to verify both www and non-www versions of your domain.

If you receive a manual penalty, you'll be notified by Webmaster Tools to allow you to fix the problem and potentially recover your website.

It also allows you to examine the list of inbound links attributed to your website by search engines.  For instance in Google,

  1. On the Webmaster Tools home page, click the site you want.
  2. On the Dashboard, click Search Traffic, and then click Links to Your Site.
  3. Under Who links the most, click More.
  4. Click Download more sample links. If you click Download latest links, you'll see dates as well.

This will leave you with a file containing all the pages linking to your site, which can then be checked for relevance, authority etc.

There are also a number of tools which will not only list your inbound links, but will also provide you with guidance on quality, including Open Site Explorer from Moz, Majestic SEO, Ahrefs, Link Risk etc. These can save some time, but are best used in conjunction with your Webmaster Tools data rather than as a replacement.

The amount of links you may wish to either have removed or disavow will depend on the level of risk you want, whether it's a response to an automatic Penguin or manual penalty, and the nature of the specific market you're competing in. If you have access to an external tool, it's valuable to analyse your competitors and see how you compare. But there will be specific flags which apply regardless, e.g.

  • A large amount of links from completely irrelevant websites, including directories, forums, and websites which read like a poorly written and translated spam email.
  • A huge amount of links coming from a very small amount of domains (Side-wide links in footers, links within widgets etc can all be a problem).
  • A massive majority of links which all contain your most valuable anchor text.

The actual procedure to upload a disavowal file is very simple, but there are some steps which are required first, depending on whether you're being pro-active, trying to recover from Penguin, or responding to a manual penalty.

The best practice is to try and contact linking websites and have the links physically removed if possible. These attempts should be documented, and you may need to share evidence with a Google representative, particularly after a manual penalty. So it's worth creating an email address for this purpose, and keeping track of your efforts via a spreadsheet in Google Drive, for example.

This is definitely required to try and have a manual penalty lifted, but there's debate whether this is required for a Penguin-related issue. But it's never a bad idea to fix a problem at the source, and to be able to show your good intentions.

When you've removed as much rubbish as possible, it's time to create and upload a disavowal file. It needs to be a .txt text file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII and containing one link per line to be disavowed. If you want an entire domain ignored, add domain:example.com. If you want to include extra information, being the line with # – this information is for you to reference in future, and won't be seen by anyone at Google.. E.g.

# example.com removed most links, but missed these
http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html  
http://spam.example.com/stuff/paid-links.html  
# Contacted owner of shadyseo.com on 7/1/2012 to  
# ask for link removal but got no response  
domain:shadyseo.com

You can then upload it to the Google Disavowal Tool and the Disavow Links dropdown tool in Bing.

There's a 2Mb size limit, but that's equivalent to 1,000 full pages of text, so even the largest sites are unlikely to hit that limit. You don't need to disavow any links which are already NoFollowed, and if you make a mistake or the situation changes, a link can be Reavowed by removing it from the file and re-uploading. It's worth noting that if you need to redirect a page or website (e.g. moving to a completely new domain), you'll need to create a new Disavowal File for the new domain as it's not certain the disavowals will follow any 301 Redirects.

What happens after Disavowal?

Links that you have disavowed will receive an invisible 'NoFollow' from the search engines, which mean they won't affect your search engine ranking. But they will still appear in reports for sites linking to you in Webmaster Tools, unless the link itself is physically removed.

If you're responding to a manual Unnatural Link Warning, you'll then need to file for Reconsideration once you've finishing cleaning up your site, which might include factors in addition to your incoming links.

If you've filed a Reconsideration Request, you should receive a response in between 3-14 days (occasionally longer). If you're successful and have a message 'Manual Spam Action Revoked' recovery can take between days and months depending on the severity of the penalty, and whether you have any good quality links left.

If it's in response to Penguin, then there is no exact timescale for recovery. There are examples of sites which have recovered quickly, and other evidence that you need to wait until a major Penguin refresh. But obviously other factors and algorithms can improve your search engine rankings in the meantime so it's better to focus on continuing to improve all areas of your site.

And make sure you continue to pro-actively monitor inbound links on a regular basis to ensure that your hard work isn't undermined in the future!