Table of Contents:
This is a long post, so if you see something in this table of contents you would like to skip to, just click on the link and go right to the good stuff!
What is Link Pruning?
“Link Pruning” refers to the process of analyzing a website’s back link profile and determining which links are low quality / harmful and need removing. If you think of your site’s back link profile like an ornamental tree, link pruning is just like pruning the tree; in order to shape it and let it grow all of the ways you desire (and none of the ones you do not) you need to take a pair of pruning shears to it every so often. Seems simple enough right?
Unfortunately, link pruning is not as easy as running a few analysis programs and then firing off a few emails to webmasters who have your links on their website(s). Before you start going crazy cutting out links right and left, make sure links are even what you need to be focusing on; was your website hit by Panda or Penguin, or both? Believe it or not your answer can make a huge difference in how you go on from here so take some time and think about exactly when and how you first experienced any traffic losses to your website this past year.
Video: Bruce Clay and Eric Enge Discuss Link Pruning
Google’s Zoo & You
If you aren’t up to speed on the latest in the world of SEO it can be very easy to get confused by all of the code names flying back and forth in the aftermath of an algorithm update such as the innocently named “Panda” and Penguin” updates of 2011 and 2012. The trouble with these particular updates is that not only is Panda one of the longest-living known updates, but it keeps being refreshed every so often making it even more difficult to track. Moreover, as if that wasn’t enough to confuse the heck out of people, along comes Penguin smack in the middle of a short period between Panda updates / refreshes. The debut of the Penguin update threw the world of SEO into utter confusion and a fair bit of chaos which only further mystified those people who were not quite a savvy as the rest.
How Can You Know Which Animal Got Your Site?
Check the dates
However you analyze your incoming traffic statistics, look at the period between April 1st and May 15th 2012; Panda hit on April 19th, Penguin on April 24th, and then a Panda Refresh on April 27th. Extending the timeline out into mid-May gives you some additional perspective and time to see how traffic evened out after the terrible trio.
Some great posts on Panda and Penguin for those interested in learning more about these updates and how they can affect your SEO Garden and link pruning efforts:
- Lost on Google: Small Businesses Seek Answers After Penguin Update – by Danny Goodwin
- Google Penguin Update: Impact of Anchor Text Diversity & Link Relevancy – by Danny Goodwin
- Google Cracking Down on “Unnatural” Links, Deindexing Blog Networks – by Miranda Miller
Take a Look at Your Site’s Links and Content
Panda was a primarily content-based update, meaning that it took a hard look at the quality, quantity, and nature of the content you were posting on your website / blog / etc. On the other hand (or perhaps we should say “On the other flipper…) Penguin was all about the links; what they were anchored to, where they were, where they came from, and where they pointed to.
After you have done this, where do you stand? If your site’s traffic took a nose-dive around the 19th and/or 27th of April this year, chances are you were affected by the Panda update. What does this mean for you? It means that you do NOT need to get all riled up about links to the degree that someone whose site was majorly affected by Penguin, simply because your site was affected because of its content, NOT its back link profile. The inverse is true of webmasters who believe they were affected by Penguin; there is no sense going after your back link profile if it was really your content to blame!
Regardless of which update affected your site the most, you can still prune some of your lowest quality links in an effort to improve the standing of your website. Sites hit by Penguin will benefit from link pruning because they are shedding the negative weight attached to their “bad” links, and sites that were not hit by Penguin but just want to improve the look of their back link profile will benefit by making things better a little at a time, BEFORE they get penalized.
- Take a look at this post by Search Engine Journal on the topic for more detailed information!
How to Identify a Link That Needs Pruning
Like a sneaky weed in your garden, it isn’t too difficult to pick out the links in your back link profile that your website could do without.
First, bring up a report of all of the back links you have pointing to your site (or at least as many of them as you can find) and keep it open while you ask yourself the following questions:
- Visit the link; can you see the link to your site on the page? (Don’t forget to check the source code of the page for hidden links)
- What is the site’s spam factor? Does it look like it has been made solely for links?
- Does the anchor text contain high value keywords? Are these keywords used excessively in the links to your site?
- Do-follow or No-follow attribute on the link?
((Click for a larger version!))
Thanks to Bruce Clay, Inc. for their wonderful post on this topic, complete with flowchart and the questions you see above!
Now that you have a pretty good idea of the links your site could stand to lose, it’s time to take action!
You’ve already taken care of the first step, which would have been to identify the “bad” links by gathering a report of your back link profile. You’re also probably finished with step two, taking a closer look at the links you’re considering pruning away; if not, keep going, and you can catch up with us at step three! Everybody together? Great!
Our next step is to send requests to the owners of the websites where you have a link you would like to have removed. The easiest way to do this is to write up a form letter or template email that politely requests that the link(s) to your site be removed. You can explain that you are sending this notice in an attempt to recover from a Google penalty, or you can keep all of the details to yourself, it’s up to you. Give the site owner a list of the links you would like removed, what page(s) of their site the links are located, the anchor text of the links in question, etc. If their contact information isn’t immediately obvious or they have no contact form you might have to do some digging to find it; try a whois search first.
There are four standard responses you are going to get as a result of your requests. Website owners will either:
- Remove the link and let you know
- Remove the link and say nothing
- Not reply or remove the link
- Only remove the link if you pay them to do so
To verify that your link has been removed, visit the page(s) where it was located the last time you checked; if it’s gone, cross it off of your list, if not, send a follow-up request politely asking that it be removed.
This process is a long-term one, but you will see your list of links to prune growing shorter with every round of requests you send out. If you run into any problems with a website owner who wants you to pay them to have your links removed, it would not be unheard of to file that information away for future reference. Let’s just say that some search engines don’t approve of that kind of behavior at all…
Last but not least is the most trying part of the link pruning process: Waiting.
Waiting is probably the most nerve-wracking and unpleasant part of trying to prune your back link profile, but it is worth the effort to see it through. While you are waiting, why not concentrate on building a few higher quality back links to your site (especially the pages where the “bad” links are pointing to at the moment) to help your site move forward?
Want even more tips, tricks, and link pruning advice? Find it here:
- Google Algorithm Updates, Link Pruning & The Threat of Negative SEO – by Dan Schufreider
- How to Remove Link Spam for Google Penguin Recovery – by Virginia Nussey
- Backlink Profile Management a Must Do – by Kathy Alice
- How to Prune Links after Google Penguin? – by Qamar Zaman
- Removing harmful backlinks: how do you know which ones to get rid of? - by Andrew
When and Why Do You Prune Your SEO Garden?
Do you have a specific time of the month or interval (i.e. every 2 weeks) for pruning your back links?
If you are working to recover from a severe smackdown by the Penguin update you may want to focus on sending out a few requests each week for website owners to remove your “bad” links from their sites; this will help get the ball rolling and keep the momentum going while you work on increasing the number of “good” links you can build to replace them. If your situation isn’t as severe, or you are in an advanced phase of your recovery you should be able to relax a bit and back off to every 2 weeks or more. No matter what your situation, you should at least take a quick look at your back link profile every month to check on things and make sure everything looks like you want it to. There is nothing wrong with being pro-active when it comes to your SEO!
More on the importance of staying on top of things, proactive SEO, and link pruning:
- Are you Proactive or Reactive? – by Doc Sheldon
- The 4 Ps of Search Engine Optimization – by Guillaume Bouchard
- The Spammy Backlink Profile Escape Plan – by simonpenson
- What SEO and PR can Learn from Each Other – by Tara West