Link Pruning Best Practices to Help Recover from a Google Penalty

Link Pruning Best Practices to Help Recover from a Google Penalty


If you’re a webmaster today, you might have received a Google Penalty on your site. If you’re an SEO/Marketing/Internet-Anything Agency, you’ve probably seen a client or two with a penalty by now. So what’s a webmaster to do? First of all – don’t panic. There is a process to follow and steps to take care to do well. Most importantly, it’s all about being methodical in your link pruning process to assess if a site is worthy of your link or not. More often than not, bad or spammy sites with your link on it are a big contributing factor to your Google Penalty recovery. Here are some steps to help you decide which links you keep and which links you should take immediate action to remove.

The First Steps of Backlink Removal: Reviewing Links

Say you have found multiple sites with questionable links pointing back to your site. What you need now is a roadmap to help lead your action plan. Start by pulling a list of all of the backlinks and anchor text pointing to the site(s) in question. There are a lot of options on how to do this, but the most commonly done combo is to pull a list from Open Site Explorer Data and Google Webmaster Tools. Create for yourself a nice Excel sheet with this column formatting:

  • URL of the link
  • Anchor text of the link (if possible)
  • A space for notes
  • A column to mark YES or NO to add to your disavow list (title it simply “Disavow?”)

This spreadsheet is your fast track back to rankings and traffic, so make sure you are saving often as you make your way through the backlinks of your site. We actually put together a free guide walking people through the whole Google Penalty process, so if you want a free spreadsheet that lays out this format, feel free to download it here.

VM outreach documentation

Getting Cozy with Google Again

Google may not know what it wants in a website, but it sure knows what it doesn’t want. They put out tons of information on what the best practices are for websites. You may be a fool for chasing every nugget, or a fool for not reading any of it.

What they do convey is that each individual link should be reviewed for its integrity and benefit to your site. You might find it best to review a site in two stages: domain level and link level. Since you should be disavowing at the domain level, it is easiest to check out the home page of a site, and subsequent pages as needed, and make an assessment based on the site’s metric and on-page content.

After a site has passed this initial test you can go back and look at your leftover link portfolio. Ask yourself a couple of questions and follow these recommendations:

  • Is there exact match anchor text that needs to be cleaned up? Set aside a list of links from which you can contact the webmaster and ask them to change the anchor text if possible.
  • Is there an internal page of your site that has a decent majority of links pointing to it? If so, you will need to study this page and find out if action is warranted.

I suggest looking at metrics such as social shares and traffic to this page to determine if you should in fact be keeping all of these links pointing to a single internal page, as it is unnatural in Google’s eye. If you made an awesome infographic or video and it got picked up ad reposted, you won’t want to disavow those links just for the sake of sculpting a “natural” backlink portfolio.

Find Metrics That You Are Comfortable With

There is no one definitive metric that serves up a passing grade to a website. There are so many different factors to take into account when assessing a website and even more tools to measure them, so how can you decide which ones to use? It depends on what you are interested in measuring. Let’s look at a few.

  1. Backlinks. Some people are interested in backlinks of their backlinks and hence Majestic SEO’s citation and trust flow make great metrics.
  2. Traffic. Other people pay attention to traffic and will obsess over SEMRush and Compete data.
  3. Page Rank. Many people care about Page Rank like it’s the end of the world, and so they take that into account (even though it hasn’t been updated since December).
Majestic SEO

A great tool to use to pull backlinks and go even further is Majestic SEO. Key things to look at: citation flow and trust flow.

With all this said, you need to find a set of metrics that make sense to you and use the same set of metrics for every website you evaluate.

Other Elements to Pay Attention to

Just don’t forget that there is more to a website than metrics, just like there is more to a person than his or her age, weight and resumé. Check out the blog of the site and see if they post often. Does the content seem original at first glance, or do they show the PR Web link under every post (i.e. they post duplicate content or act as a curated feed)? Do they link out to an external site with exact match anchor text in every post? Are people commenting on the posts and sharing them or is there no activity whatsoever?

You can also look to the Contact pages for information about the founder and the “Disclaimer” section for anything that sets off bells.  In essence, what is the purpose of the website? If the purpose is to sell links or aggregate spun or scraped content, the chances of a link passing useful juice is very low and the decision to link prune it from your backlink portfolio should be an easy one. Make notes in your designated column for each link your site has so that if you need to go back, you have proof of what you were thinking at the time. This record keeping also serves you well when you need to provide Google documentation of your efforts for a reconsideration request.

Take it Slow

It might take a lot of time for you to check through all of your backlinks and it most certainly will be frustrating and tiring. Sometimes it is necessary to ask yourself what your time is worth and what your website is worth. Taking the appropriate amount of time to review your backlinks will mean the difference between one reconsideration request and having to go through the whole process again.

Here at Vertical Measures, we take a holistic approach to a website and look at as many factors as we can within reason so that we may fully understand a website. We encourage you to do the same. Once you disavow a link, you can never get it back.

Are there any metrics that you rely on to check your backlinks or tricks you use to sniff out spammy sites? Share your triumphs in the comments! If you’re feeling way over your head in all this, we offer Google Penalty Recovery services.


Brynna Baldauf

Brynna is a Search Engine Optimization Strategist at Vertical Measures where she helps clients improve their organic search engine rankings. +Brynna Baldauf