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Link pruning is a lot like the business of “street sweeping”.

If broken bottles and overflowing garbage cans are making it difficult to navigate the city, it’s time to send out the sweeper to remove the waste.

If your website has been impacted by “garbage” links, you may need to take a street sweeper to your backlink portfolio.

Seeing a drop in traffic or rankings can be concerning, especially when it happens suddenly.

Street SweeperIf you have noticed this, chances are your were affected by a Google algorithm update or penalty. If so, then you may need to consider pruning your backlinks by finding low quality or harmful links pointing to your website and then remove them. Doing so can help you put your website back on a road to recovery.

Link pruning can have its benefits. If your website has taken an algorithm hit, it can help to improve your website’s health and reputation, and hopefully lead to better performance in the future. However, it will take some time, effort and patience. There are some recovery success stories that can give you guidance and hope in your search for recovery.

Keep in mind that you should only prune/remove your links if you absolutely have to. Don’t remove links just to do it. It should not be looked at as a quick fix or a broad strategy. You should exhaust all of your other efforts like updating your content, building higher quality links and producing good content to promote and engage users before you consider removing bad links.

First, you need to determine if your website was hit by an algorithm update or a penalty. Find out if others are talking about an update or penalty. A “penalty” is when Google has manually targeted your site for an issue, where an “update” is a change to Google’s search algorithm. Did you get any messages in Google Webmaster Tools about unnatural links pointing to your site? If so, you will need to do everything you can to fix the issue at hand, and then submit a reconsideration request to Google. If it was an update, then you will need to change your strategy and wait for any positive movement.

A Step by Step Guide to Link Pruning and Link Removal

1. Analyze Your Links

There are a variety of tools you can use to analyze your backlinks, like Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO. Download a report of your site’s links, and search through them to see what you can find. As you are looking at each link, here are some things to look for:

  • Are the links coming from websites in your niche?
  • Did you pay for any links?
  • Any links coming from low quality sites? What does the backlink portfolio look like for them?
  • Are there links coming from article directories, blog networks or link farms?
  • What is the ratio of exact match to branded anchor text?
  • What are the top ten anchor texts used for links to my site?
  • Do you have any site-wide or footer links? Do you have too many?

Open Site Explorer Backlink Analysis

All this can be a very time consuming, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of links. However, it is essential to look at your links and determine which ones are the bad ones that you can try to get rid of. Since you only want to do this as a last resort, you do not want to make mistakes and take down links that are actually helping you.

You can also download link data from Google Webmaster Tool. In the traffic section, click on “links to your site” where you will find who links to you the most, your top pages that are linked to and what phrases are used to link with the most. Click on “more” and then you will then be able to download the full data information for each section.

WMT Keywords

2. Prioritize links based on difficulty

Decide which links you will go after first. If you have a high number of links, sort them based on how difficult it will be to remove them, and then go after them. If it seems too overwhelming, focus on a small number like 20 or 30 links at a time.

3. Contact webmasters and editors

The next step will be to contact the sites and ask them to either remove the links, or change the anchor text used. This can be a challenging and time consuming process, since some people may respond and remove them, and some may take the link down without telling you. In addition, some may tell you that they can’t or won’t remove the link, or some will just not respond to you at all. Since there’s so much back and forth communication happening, and a lot of data to keep track of, make sure to keep notes of your efforts. Follow up, and try to get as many links taken down as possible.

4. Use the Google Disavow Tool to finish clean-up process

Using Google’s disavow tool, create a text file with the links you want to remove, and upload it. Add each URL to a separate line, and it will tell Google the links you are trying to remove and will discount them.

Google Disavow Links Tool

How to Avoid Future Ranking Penalties

Want to avoid any future ranking penalties? The easy solution is to make sure your SEO strategy is legit. These spammy links got you in trouble in the first place, so don’t allow it to happen again!

Going forward, you should ensure that your SEO strategy is the best quality. Hire a reputable SEO firm that can help you recover, and will do SEO the right way by building high quality links from trustworthy sites. Be involved in the SEO efforts on your site. Review the links they build to ensure they are from trustworthy sites like editorial links, links from highly authoritative sites, guest posts, etc.

If you are just starting the SEO process on your website, build your house on solid, dry ground. Avoid marsh or swampland. Pick a good neighborhood with friendly neighbors. Make sure your foundation is strong to support expansion and additional floors without it all crashing down. Do spring and fall “cleaning” and make sure everything is in order.

Picture credit: cs:ŠJů

Post by Jesse Woodhouse, SEO Manager at SEO.com.