Cleaning your links: A step-by-step guide

Whilst I’ve only been working ‘properly’ in an SEO agency for eight months or so, it’s clear from our very own Patrick Altoft that the last few months have caused the biggest upheaval in the search world for a long time.

“…SEO has never been harder to do than it is right now.”

There’s much talk about the various Google wildlife that’s currently been unleashed on the WWW but this isn’t going to be another post about Penguins and Pandas, or how certain sites are more at risk of penalty, how bad the SERPs are or how Google is destroying small businesses.

There are many posts about link profiles, Over-Optimization (a Google word) risks etc. but what if you’ve actually been hit by a penalty and want to know about how to solve it or at least do something about it. We’ll go through the process that you could use to try and tell Google you’ve done all you can to keep your site clean.

Google Penalty – The Re-inclusion/Reconsideration Request

The end goal to have in mind is that you’re trying to get back into Google’s good books. To do this, you need to show them that you are actively doing something to clean up your links. Once you’ve done all you can to try to clean up whatever you find as being dodgy links, only then should you submit a reconsideration request.

Submitting a request before you’ve done all you can to clean up the links could risk plummeting your rankings further. Be warned – it’s a painstaking process!

Let’s Get Started – Cleaning up Your Links

Step 1 – Collecting the data
Required Tools: GWT, Opensiteexplorer, MajesticSEO etc

We’ll assume that you have GWT (Google Webmaster Tools) as you’ll need it to submit the reconsideration request. While it’s best to collect your link data from the widest dataset you can get access to e.g. Opensiteexplorer, MajesticSEO etc., it probably makes sense to focus on links which Google deem worthy to show you in GWT, so let’s export the links:

Step 2 – Filtering/Sorting
Required Tools: Excel ninja skills, backlink checker

If you have a big site with a lot of links, the export could look pretty daunting; so let’s try to filter it down. You’ll need a heady dose of Excel ninja skills and any access to backlink checkers would help massively.

The export will show many links from the same domain, especially if they are site-wide. We need to filter this down so it shows only one link per domain. The reason being that if the domain is spammy or toxic you’d probably want to try to remove all of your links from it anyway.

Filtering for Domain

Either using ‘text to columns’ or similar, filter for the just the domain of the URL and place in another column on the spread sheet. If you’re really good – create a custom function using VBA to help extract the domains of URLs in future.

You could then use ‘remove duplicates’ to filter it down to one link per domain.

Check links to see if Live

The links shown in WMT won’t be fresh, so run all links left-over in the previous step through a back link checker to see if they are still live. We use a custom checker built in Excel for this. This will hopefully cut down the number of domains you’ll need to check later. If you don’t have access to one just skip the step.

Step 3 – Link Classification
Required Tools: Your favourite Web Browser, a keen eye for spam, TIME

This is where the heavy work begins; it’s time to classify and find the bad links. You can run some custom functions in Excel to help classify some articles/posts, directory or press release links using, for example:

=IF(find(“press_rel”,[@Column3]),”Press Release”,””)

Hopefully the functions make sense; [@Column3] is the column reference of a table.

But essentially it’s a matter of checking each domain to see if you want your link on the site. There are possibly tools that can be run to classify the links further, but if you really want your site back in Google’s index it probably not a good time to take shortcuts.


To classify a potential toxic site your link is on, ask yourself:

  • Does the site look like spam – no structure, no contact page, loads of outbound links?
  • Does your link and anchor text look like it belongs on the site?
  • Are there toxic links on the site – Gambling, Viagra etc.?
  • Does the site look like it sells links – e.g. loads of anchor text rich sidebars and site-wide links?

MOST IMPORTANTLY – Consider if the link will hold up to a manual review.

There are probably many more classifiers you can use but it’s a best guess. Google may consider links differently.

Step 4 – Link Removal Process
Required Tools: WHOIS info, Domain Tools API, mail merge

Google needs you to demonstrate you’ve done all you can to correct any linking problems. To this end, it probably means contacting all webmasters of the sites you want your links removed from. Emailing is probably the best way to do this as you have documented proof to submit. But what if you can’t find contact details? If this is the case you can still go that bit further and collect WHOIS information.

You can scale the collection of WHOIS effectively with the Domain Tools API. There will probably be sites which use protected WHOIS or similar, if that’s the case you’ve probably done as much as you demonstrably can.

Once you have the email addresses of your target, hit them up with a mail merge in your favourite software to politely request your link be removed.


After you’ve been through the process you will have a spread sheet with all of the links you feel are bad, together with contact details and email proof that you can submit to Google for reconsideration/re-inclusion into their index.

There is no guarantee that you will be given the clean bill of health straight away and it’ll probably be an iterative process, but if you want Google traffic you’ll have to jump through their hoops.

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