If you suddenly lost most of your organic traffic, you are not alone. Hundreds of thousands other websites are penalized by Google each month, according to Matt Cutts.
The most important part in recovering from any type of Google penalties or filters (Panda, Penguin, EMD, PMD, Emmanuel,Top Heavy,etc) is to determine what caused your rankings drop.
When analyzing a website’s SEO performance, you have to conduct a link audit and do forensic SEO, just as a doctor would first check the x-rays before giving a diagnosis.
In this article, I will talk about how to do a correct link audit and how to identify the backlinks that caused your penalty.
Identifying why your rankings dropped
There are several reasons why your website can lose traffic from Google. Some of the most common ones are:
- Manual action – If this is the case on your website, you should see a message in your Google Webmaster Tools account. If you have no messages, it means that you haven’t received a manual penalty from Google’s spam team.
- Algorithmic filter – Google updates its ranking algorithm a few times each year. The most popular updates are Penguin and Panda. Unlike a manual action, if your traffic dropped after an algorithm update occurred, no messages will be displayed in your Google Webmaster Tools account. To determine from what algorithm penalty your website suffered, you have to analyze your website’s backlinks and also correlate the day when you lost traffic with the day Google updated its ranking algorithm. For this, you can check Google’s algorithm changes history.
- Website performance problems – Google favors websites with fast loading times and those that don’t have critical errors, broken pages, malware and server errors. If you have such errors, you can find them in your Google Webmaster Tools account.
- Outranked by your competitors – If you lost traffic, it doesn’t always mean that you were filtered or penalized. Sometimes your competitors will outrank you because they earned better backlinks or clicked more checkboxes, and Google thinks they should rank them higher. Always monitor your website’s rankings along with your main competitors, and keep an eye on the new backlinks they build.
How to perform a forensic backlinks audit
Your website’s backlinks are very important. They can help you achieve better rankings in Google, but they can also cause an unwanted drop of rankings and traffic. Bad backlinks cause more than 90% of Google’s penalties. To determine the reason for your drop, you have to conduct a forensic SEO analysis.
No matter what tool you plan to use for your link audit, always start by exporting the links from your Google Webmaster Tools account, and import them to your favorite SEO tool. These are the backlinks crawled and recognized by Google, and they can give you a snippet of your link profile. In case of a manual action, if you identify and clean up the offensive links found in Google Webmaster Tools you can recover. For filters such as Penguin, you must digg deeper than using Google Webmaster Tools.
You can use any of the numerous SEO tools available to analyze your backlinks, such as Ahrefs, Moz and Majestic SEO, but the one I am going to use for this case study is called Monitor Backlinks. Why do I prefer this tool? Because it gives me more flexibility to filter my backlinks, and it’s my watchtower and firewall against Negative SEO.
I’ll show you a step by step guide on how to identify the links that are of low quality and are a threat to your rankings.T
With the list of backlinks downloaded from Google Webmaster Tools, I will first have to import them to my Monitor Backlinks account.
Most websites have hundreds of backlinks, and checking them one by one would be a very time consuming process. This is the reason why you have to use an SEO tool to sort your links by different filters and easily determine their value.
1. Check only for backlinks that are dofollow
Google ignores backlinks that have a nofollow attribute, and it would make not as much sense to waste your time analyzing links that are not passing any PageRank.
There are cases where the owner removes the nofollow attribute and you will be left with a bad dofollow link, but the priority is to check the links that flow PageRank.
2. Check your backlinks by their index status
One of the worst links you can have are backlinks coming from websites that have been penalized and deindexed from Google. If such websites are linking to your website, you must try to request a link removal and disavow them immediately.
If the domain is not indexed, it may be a signal that something is wrong, but maybe not. If the site is brand new, or did not get any incoming links is certainly not a negative factor.
However, if the domain is indexed, but the page that links to you it’s not indexed, it either means that Google hasn’t crawled it yet, or it’s blocked from crawling by robots.txt.
Analyze all your backlinks with such problems by using the filter called “Google indexed”.
3. Sort your backlinks by MozRank
First to look for are the backlinks coming from websites with a domain PageRank of zero, with lower MozRank, Majestic Citation and Trust Flow. Even if the Google PageRank toolbar it’s not regularly updated, this is the only metric we currently have from Google. When the Google toolbar is updated is usually up to 3 months old. The closest to accuracy tool I know is Moz from OpenExplorer.
But we still cannot tell how Google values websites, because the toolbar and tools like Moz OpenExplorer or Majestic, do not provide the option to upload a disavow file and get the true metrics and values. The good news is that I get full support from Monitor Backlinks to get more insights about my links.
If a website has a domain MozRank or AC Rank of zero it means that it either doesn’t have much value, or it’s brand new website.
From your Monitor Backlinks dashboard, click on filters, then select Moz and choose to show the links with MozRank.
4. Sort your backlinks by Domain and Page Authority
Domain and Page Authority are metrics given by Moz, and is updated more often than Google’s PageRank toolbar.
5. Check for links coming from pages with high external backlinks
Most of the time, pages with hundreds external links are of very low quality. You can use Monitor Backlinks filter called “External Links” to view all your links with over 100 external links.
A page with more than 100 links could be a signal of bad usability. The more external links, the less PageRank you will receive.
6. Filter your backlinks by their domain extensions
Use this filter to find backlinks that are unrelated to your website.
For instance, if you have an brick store baby store in France, it would make no sense to have links coming from websites registered in India, Russia, Korea or others.
7. Check backlinks statuses
If you are familiar with the technical part of SEO, you can also check your backlinks by their link statuses and redirects.
Look for backlinks with a 404, 403 or 410 status. If your backlinks have been removed or moved to a different location, you can disavow those links.
In addition you can go an extra mile requesting Google to remove pages no more existing or not accessible using the Google Outdated Removal tool.
You probably might want to double check the 301s, where they are pointing too, but also the 302 redirects. First because Google preserves the right to treat those redirects as 301s and second because hackers and spammers use those to redirect to spammy or hacked sites (which have malware).
8. Sort your backlinks by anchor texts
If your website has been penalized by the Google Penguin algorithm update, you have to analyze your backlinks anchor texts distribution.
Try to remove physically if possible and disavow the links that are of low quality and are using your over optimized anchor texts.
What to do with the bad backlinks
Once identified the backlinks that are of low quality, you must try to remove them, and then create a disavow report.
In most cases it is recommended to disavow the entire domain which has sent a bad link to your website, no matter if you managed to remove it or not.
To easily create a disavow report using Monitor Backlinks, click on the settings button from the right, and select “Disavow domain”. Do the same for all the backlinks you find to be of low quality, and you want to disavow.
After you added the disavow tag to all the bad links, go to your disavow page and click on the button “Export”. Monitor Backlinks will create a report that you can submit to Google’s disavow tool. But make sure to double check your disavow file before submitting, to make sure you did not include a non-offensive domain.
If your website has suffered from any type of Google penalties, I recommend to always perform a link audit and determine what backlinks are of low quality and are a threat to your rankings in Google.
Download the backlinks crawled by Google and import them to your favorite tool (I used Monitor Backlinks in this article), to get more SEO metrics and easily determine their value. To recover from most Google penalties you have to try to remove and disavow the bad backlinks of your website.