Have you ever seen this message in your Google Webmaster Tools?

If you have, you’ll know about the panic that ensues. Maybe you know you’ve done some link-building in the past that’s outside of Google’s guidelines, or perhaps you hired an SEO firm which wasn’t honest with their link-building tactics.

Either way, these links have to come down.

In the last six months we’ve helped over 40 clients recover from manual spam actions. In that time, I’ve read a lot of literature about the process. The amount of posts about this process might be overwhelming for someone doing it for the first time. Especially since there is a lot of false information out there.

Here is a list of the five most common myths of recovering from a manual penalty:

1) Remove all of the links that are obviously paid for

Some people in the past may have paid webmasters to host links to their own website; be it in a blog post, or in a sidebar.

Some of these links will have to be removed because they do not add value to anyone.

However, if you have a good link on a good blog that’s going to drive traffic, why remove it? Even if it says “paid” or “sponsored” yes, you can keep them.

This is why the rel=”nofollow” tag exist. Google’s guidelines for webmasters states that if you’re going to sell links, you should place a nofollow tag on them to prevent them from passing PageRank.

I run a blog myself, and know that fellow bloggers feel a degree of annoyance at being asked to remove a link. It’s like telling them “your site’s not good enough, this link is pointless”. It can sour a good relationship that had the potential to be valuable if it wasn’t already. Asking someone to no-follow a link can be much more favourable. No-following a link means they retain their link equity and is less likely to have an adverse effect of PageRank.

Myth Busted: No-following links can be more effective than removing links

2) Remove all low authority links

Nearly every article I’ve read on removing links says something along the lines of “prioritise your links by domain authority/PageRank/number of pages indexed/other random metric” and goes on to say “automatically remove anything with metric below a certain number”.

It makes my head spin.

Just because a link is on a low authority website, does not automatically mean it’s not a link worth having.

Every good website must start somewhere. A brand-new website is never going to have much authority in terms of metrics – however it might soon have a surge of readership or inbound links. How can you justify removing a link without ever even seeing the link? It’s beyond me.

Yes, a lot of harmful links could be from low authority websites; but the corollary of this statement is just as bad. Links from high authority websites are not automatically good. Many spammy websites whose links could harm you still have authority in terms of metrics, they could be a dropped domain and the webmaster is clever enough to know how to maintain that authority (I’ve seen it on many occasions).

Links don’t even have to be on spammy websites to be harmful. Links from high authority websites can be harmful too if they are seen to be manipulative. This once again iterates that links should be looked at manually before being thrown in a “remove” or “do not remove” pile.

Myth Busted: Metrics mean nothing in the world of removing links. New sites might yield good links, trusted sites might have manipulative links.

3) All brand anchor text links are fine

Another arbitrary metric to sort by is anchor text. The advice for these ones is “any link that exactly matches your brand name is fine”.

Once again, how can you assume that a link you’ve never seen is fine?

If a link is on a spam site, it has to be taken down, no matter the anchor text – it’s harmful.

However, if you know that the manual spam action is being taken out on a specific keyword, I could forgive you for prioritising those exact match keywords before anything else. However, it’s still important to look at your full link profile.

Myth Busted: The anchor text tells you nothing about the website a link is on.

4) Just run an automated tool to do it

Automated tools are good enough, up to a point. We’ve trialled a few in the past, and the best we’ve seen any of them do is identify some of the worst links from the worst websites. The lower tier of these kind of tools classifies anything from a trust-worthy website as “good”; that really doesn’t tell the full story as we’ve discussed above.

However, I have yet to see a tool that can classify your whole link profile for you. You still have to do a lot of work yourself.

Here’s a tweet that Alan Ng (a fellow Data Insights team member) sent out many moons ago that pretty much sums this up.

Myth Busted: Link clean-up tools might be able help you start processing, but most links need manually looking at.

5) Don’t use the Disavow tool

Of all the advice, I find this one the most unbelievable.

Google created a tool which effectively lets you tell Google “I know these links are bad, but I can’t get them down” so Google can discount the links. Why wouldn’t you use this?

Many stubborn SEOs insist that using the disavow tool is “doing Google’s work for them”. The fact remains that the tool does work. Why make work harder for yourself? Branded3’s Head of Search Strategy, Matthew Jackson did an in depth review of why the disavow tool works and how you can use it.

That is not to say that the disavow tool holds all the answers. Simply throwing links into a disavow file and submitting a reconsideration request to Google probably isn’t going to yield results by itself. You have to show you’ve made an effort to actually remove bad links or change paid links to being no-followed, to keep within Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Michael Auty, who also works in Branded3’s Data Insights team had this to say about Google’s disavow tool:

— Michael Auty (@MichaelAuty) March 18, 2013

By all means, don’t be afraid to use it – just don’t expect it to do all your work for you. But by using it it can certainly make it easier to tell Google that you know you have bad links.

Myth Busted: Google’s Disavow tool works, why make a difficult job harder?

If you’re concerned about the Manual Spam message, please don’t hesitate to talk to us about it. I’m also on Twitter @ejbarnes89 if you want to chat about it.

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