We have recently been working closely with a client who received an Unnatural Link warning back in April 2012 and with their permission we felt it was useful to share the following information that may help others in a similar situation.
When your website has been running since 2002 you're more than likely going to have some slightly "Grey" Backlinks whether they are Directory Submissions, Bought Links, Guest Posts or Comment Spam, added to the site by previous SEO companies or signing up for the "Too Good To Be True" link boosting services.
Until recently you may have got away with any of the above but after the dreaded unnatural link warnings in Google Webmaster Tools back in April 2012, everything has changed and forevermore when you see a new message notification in Webmaster Tools your heart is always going to stop for a second. Following on from the Unnatural Link Warnings Google then started the roll out of the Penguin updates.DataLabel came to Bronco in the summer seeking help in restoring their rankings after receiving a link warning message in Webmaster Tools back in April 2012, and finding that no matter what they tried they couldn't recover, so needed some help.
Previously DataLabel had been using a large SEO company and had been getting monthly links from their network. The network was badly hit by Google which of course affected DataLabel, who quickly had all of the links that had been placed removed.
The question for us was: how easy is it to recover a site?
The first thing we did was a full analysis of their backlinks to see what their link profile looked like, what practises they'd engaged in and where they'd fallen foul of Google. When you look at the recent history of the backlinks for Datalabel.co.uk in Ahrefs.com you'll see the graph below.
Unfortunately we can't get a longer range graph on backlinks which is a real shame, as the graph below doesn't show the big drop in links when they were removed from the previous SEO company's network.
You can see that they didn't have a huge amount of backlinks when they came to Bronco although there was a spike around August. It was our job to pick and choose which links were breaking Google's guidelines and which were offering direct benefit to the site (more on that later).
Looking into a "Historic Check" with majesticseo.com, Datalabel.co.uk was heavily over optimised on exact anchor links and had a very small brand presence.
You can also see in Field 5 where the MD of Datalabel had placed 5 genuine comments with his name and this resulted in over 1,000 backlinks.
Before we started any link removals DataLabel.co.uk had a complete website redesign which included a new URL structure for internal URLs and fresh content throughout. After looking at the backlinks we decided that only a select few of the old URLs should be redirected as most of the pages had very poor link profiles. We didn't want to 301 them and pass any penalties on to the new pages.
The only old URLs that got redirected were ones with no links or those we thought were ok, for example if they had a mix of natural brand and anchor text links.
Taking an example, the URL below only has 2 directory links http://www.datalabel.co.uk/security-label.htm
The second link is a bit more "spammy" than we would like to see, but it was placed close to 8 years ago when this type of link was commonplace. The "Quick links" all went to the correct pages i.e. Barcode Labels http://www.datalabel.co.uk/barcode-labels.htm. This page now serves a 404 Error (continue reading for an explanation of this).
We next looked at what caused the spike in backlinks at the start of August:
There was a genuine comment link here with Datalabel's owners name as the Anchor Text, but due to the URL structure (Replycom URLs) of the website, it ended up with 59 links coming from the main domain.
As many of you know, it's not always easy to get links (especially old comment links) removed, but we managed to remove this one by contacting the site owner on Facebook.
This link was one of the bigger offenders, with a mixture of heavy tagging (due to WordPress) and pagination of each tag address. We ended up with approximately 1,475 extra backlinks from one genuinely placed comment. Again the anchor text that was passed to the root of the domain was the MD's name. (edit: the link has recently reappeared so we'll be getting this removed again asap!)
There was also a link here with the MD's name as the anchor text once again, but this has been removed. There is still one link on John Chow's website which is a brand link to the root domain. Arguably it should be okay but we're getting it removed anyway.
You can see the impact these removals had from the decline in the Ahrefs.com graph:
At this point after removing the 2 biggest offenders and one of the links from John Chow's website we felt that we stood a good chance in Google's eyes of having removed the links that majorly increased our backlink profile unnaturally. What really stood out for us is that the owner placed all these links in good faith – leaving genuine comments in his own name and submitting his site to directories several years previously. Even so, we knew they had to be removed and we were now in a position to submit a reconsideration request.
13/8/12 – Client filed his own reconsideration prior to working with us and getting a message back "Site violates Google’s quality guidelines"
After the new website was indexed and cached and link removals had been cached by Google we then filed Bronco's first reconsideration request.
21/11/12 – Bronco filed first reconsideration.
5/12/12 – Reply from WMT "Site violates Google’s quality guidelines"
12/12/12 – Bronco filed a 2nd reconsideration request and used the new disavow feature to disavowed all backlinks, excluding one from Bronco.co.uk. This was a blog post stating we had just redesigned the website (http://www.bronco.co.uk/our-ideas/159/redesigning-data-labels.html). Note that the links here now point to the new website and not the old address.
18/12/12 – Reply from WMT "Site violates Google’s quality guidelines"
We had decided to disavow all of the backlinks after talking it through with the client. We wouldn't be losing out on any high authority backlinks (the site hardly had any) and we couldn't justify the additional weeks/months taken to try and remove the last few remaining bad links then file another reconsideration to Google, only to get a reply from Webmaster Tools that the "Site violates Google’s quality guidelines".
To get the "Site violates Google’s quality guidelines" message back yet again didn't really help us at all. The only issue that I can see is that we didn't get a "Disavowed links updated" message in Webmaster Tools, but you can see from the image below that the file is there.
After a long phone call with Datalabel we decided to take the gamble and swap domains from www.datalabel.co.uk to www.data-label.co.uk. There are no 301's in place or other links from the old site to the new as we wanted a completely fresh domain to work with. Since the site has been live over Christmas now, Ahrefs.com has picked up this single stray link http://www.laslett.info/links/eastanglia/IT.htm
From the look of this the link has been there a while and looking on archive.org it would suggest that the link has been there since at least 4/5/2003
When we migrated over to the new site from www.datalabel.co.uk the old domain only had around 959 backlinks. There was a very small number of links that I felt benefited the site, but the time that the site wouldn't be ranking due to the "Link Warning Message", and the failed reconsiderations whilst we kept on trying to remove links made it uneconomical to pursue anymore, hence the domain swap.
The linkbuilding tactics used by the SEO company on www.datalabel.co.uk were low quality, but the links were completely removed before a Reconsideration Request was filed. The MD's commenting and directory submissions were done in good faith as ways to spread the word about his business. Despite a lengthy explanation to Google, a well-documented clean-up process, and eventually disavowing every link to the site, the domain has never recovered and still violates Google's guidelines.
If you've removed or disavowed every link, and even rebuilt the site itself, where do you go from there? We took the decision to move domains but not every site owner is lucky enough to have a spare site lying around. Even then, we're starting from zero having been unable to recover any search visibility for the original domain. Datalabel.co.uk seemed like a prime candidate to use Google's new disavow tool on, but we've now got to question whether it really works at all.