How to Handle Bad Links: In Search SEO Podcast

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The Best Way to Deal with Bads Links

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[This is a general summary of the podcast and not a word for word transcript.]

Super awesome, craft beer drinking, link profile analyzing guest for you today! Cass Downton is here to help you deal with your bad backlink profile:

  • To disavow or not to disavow, of course, we asked that question!
  • At what point does Google say enough is enough when looking at low-quality links?
  • What’s the deal with links and authority? How links factor into the E-A-T equation!

Plus, if you want to avoid being clobbered by a core update, here are some content creation tips for you!

Creating Content that Won’t Get Killed by a Core Update [04:04 – 15:00]

Last week, Mordy spoke at SMX West about what content creation looks like in the world of the core updates… here’s a bit of what he discussed.

If you’re a regular listener to this podcast you’ll know Mordy loves to talk about how Google is looking at sites more like entities, how Google profiles sites, and how Google looks at sites thematically. With that, let’s get right to the action and talk about how Google’s new take as reflected by the core updates should impact content creation.

Here’s the basic idea. Google is looking at who your site is. It’s looking at what its identity is because a strong identity without conflicts (such as writing informational content for the sake of pushing your product) is authoritative. Identity and authority are synonymous.

The question then becomes how do we build a strong identity?

  1. Pick an area of focus. Now, this can be a very broad area. Writing about baseball, SEO, or whatever can include tons of subtopics. That’s fine. Just stick to it because you can’t have an identity without having a specific focus.
  2. Do not target high search volume keywords for the sake of targeting high search volume keywords. Doing so dilutes your identity. Now, this is obvious, or at least it should be. What’s not obvious are those cases where a topic/keyword falls on the periphery of your focus. In those cases, Mordy still doesn’t recommend it as this also can dilute your identity which is the same as diluting your authority.
  3. Write about whatever your focus is from multiple perspectives, from different angles, or for different types of users, with all sorts of different layers. That’s what an authority does. They take a topic and they conquer it. Different aspects from different perspectives for different people.
  4. Write often. If you’re not active then you’re not a part of the continuing conversation and if you’re not a part of the evolution of your topical focus you can’t be an authority. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should write just for the sake of writing… that defeats the whole purpose!

There’s way more to talk about here so at some point we will release a video of Mordy’s slides. You can see them now on Slideshare, but without the audio it’s pretty hard to understand what Mordy’s going after.

Getting Bad Links Under Control: A Conversation with Cass Downton [15:07 – 50:11]

Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO Podcast interview session. Today we have a trust and authority expert, an industry speaker, an unequivocal lover, she is a senior SEO analyst at the famed Marie Haynes Consulting agency… She is Cass Downton!


Cass: Thanks for having me.

M: I have to ask you, you started off with a microbiology degree and you ended up in SEO and that’s the second most interesting thing I could think of about you. What I really want to talk about is you are a self-described beer snob. Does that mean you don’t like Labatt?

C: I mean, there is something to be said about producing a beer on that scale at that consistent flavor profile. It’s not good, but they make it the same every time.

M: I’m in Israel and someone recently told me they started importing Budweiser and they’re so excited about this and my thought was that out of all the beers you can possibly import from the US they imported Budweiser, king of piss water.

How did the microbiology degree happen?

C: I actually started pre-med. I wanted to be a doctor thinking this is my life plan. I then go to university and basically get slapped in the face with reality. It turns out I was actually a lot more interested in the reason why people got sick instead of trying to help them get better. So I made a switch into microbiology just because I thought that was pretty interesting. And then afterward, when I graduated in 2012 which was close enough to the recession, there were no jobs available… Turns out a lot of the world thought that science research wasn’t that important. Everyone’s funding got cut. There were no jobs. I ended up working in a pharmaceutical distribution center and I was in charge of their Regulatory Affairs. So I did that for several years and a mutual friend of Marie’s told me she’s been doing this solo consultancy and she now wants to start an agency. So I met Marie and one thing led to another and now I review a lot of pharmaceutical websites. So from wannabe doctor to ripping apart those supplement websites.

M: That’s the circle of life. Did you get a refund on your degree, though? Can you do that?

C: I wish.

M: So let’s head from how to deal with life to how to deal with your poor backlink profile. To make sure we’re all on the same page, when we talk about a poor, bad, or horrible backlink profile, what in the world is that?

C: If you created links to your website and the purpose of that link was to try and increase your site ranking in Google, that’s an unnatural link. If the majority of your, or at least a significant portion, of your total backlink profile is unnatural links, then that’s an indication that you probably have a poor or bad backlink profile.

M: Okay. So the second foundational question I have to ask is, do you have to do anything about that? Google keeps saying that they’re pretty good at understanding when that happens. Penguin 4.0 is here and is part of the core algorithm. Shouldn’t it work itself out automatically?

C: This is where I’m gonna throw in SEOs favorite answer… It depends.

Those spammy links are probably going to get picked up by Penguin and you’ll probably be okay. So if you’ve got a bunch of comment spam with low-quality directory links or you got low-quality directory links, Google generally deals with these well. These types of links Google tends to ignore but when you get into link exchange, paying for links, or widespread guest posting that can be the kind of thing that gets you into trouble if you start doing it all the time in an unnatural way. It’s a problem when it looks like you’ve done a natural link, but all of a sudden you’ve done this 500 times. Do you think 500 websites are interested in your content or are you just trying to get 500 links? Those kinds of things are when you can start to get in trouble. That’s when an algorithm will start having trouble picking up the spammy links and it will start to penalize your site. These things are what get you a manual action because that pattern of link building is apparent.

M: How good is Google at understanding that? If one time I write a blog for you and you write one for me, I’m assuming Google won’t know.

C: One time I don’t think really matters.

M: How about two times? I can keep going all the way to the point where you say it’s a problem.

C: It’s when it’s a pattern that’s apparent. If I’m doing a site audit on your backlink profile and if after 20 minutes of just looking through a bunch of sites that are linking to you I can pick out a pattern, that’s probably an indication of what Google’s algorithms can too.

M: How do you go about doing a link audit? Do you do it every month or are there certain signals that you look for?

C: We do a lot of large scale site reviews and one of the things within those site reviews is a link overview. So when we’re looking through their backlinks we’re looking for things like if the keywords are anchored, if they’re low-quality sites, or if they have an infographic.

If I see that they have let’s say 100 links pointing to their website and 65 of those links are all to the same page with that infographic, that’s going to be something that indicates that they use that infographic as a link building tactic. So when I’m doing that overview, I’m looking for an indication of the problem and if we see a problem by going through those links then we’ll say this site will benefit from a link by link full audit.

But just because you have bad links doesn’t mean you’re going to get a penalty, but if we notice a pattern we will look deeper into it.

M: How do you know though? Let’s say the infographic is absolutely amazing, I have an awesome email list and I email it to everybody who all loved it and are now all linking to. In that case, I didn’t do anything wrong.

C: Realistically, that should be what every link is, but the problem is we’re still dealing with an algorithm. As smart as an algorithm is, if the data that is getting fed into it from your site and from the links that are pointing at your site is indicating that something is being done in an unnatural way, you might get slapped with not necessarily a penalty, but it could be hit algorithmically. Maybe Google doesn’t want to trust your link profile and when that happens, that really sucks especially if you know that those are good links. But if you have a ton of good links and they’re all from that infographic and the rest of your links that are also good links are ones you haven’t paid for or don’t look unnatural, then there’s not really a reason to distrust your link profile. So yes, that one piece is maybe questionable, but if your overall link profile has no reason to raise suspicions then you’re probably going to be fine.

M: It is an interesting point where you’re doing everything fine, but the way you’re perceived by Google was a little bit off. It’s not a thing people talk about enough.

C: Well, we see this sometimes with manual actions. This is when you want to be really aggressive in disavowing links that are unnatural or that Google perceives to be unnatural. And we will have clients say to us, “But those are natural links. We did no link building for that specific thing.” At that point, you have to tell them, “You know, you made a mistake. You did some link building. Sometimes life is unfair.”

M: By the way, I’m glad you mentioned disavow because now I get to ask that question. Should you disavow your links or should you not disavow your links?

C: This is a tough one as it depends on if you have a lot of spammy links to your website. If you do, like scraped content that’s linking to you or you threw your website up on a legitimate directory, some website came along and scraped your content and all of a sudden you’ve got 2,000 spammy links pointing at your site, stuff like that happens. That’s just a natural part of the web. That’s the kind of stuff that Google’s algorithms are supposed to be able to ignore. So if you have a bunch of bad links you probably don’t have to worry about them because they’re probably not going to be helping or hurting your site. However, if you have a bunch of these self-made links, that’s when you want to start to wonder if the majority of your link profile is natural or unnatural. If it’s unnatural, is this something that will hurt me if I’ve done it on a scale high enough that it’s putting me in danger of getting hit with a manual action. Do I think that my site has been impacted by traffic? Because, maybe Google’s algorithms are saying, “Yeah, all these links are untrustworthy links so we’re just going to say that they shouldn’t rank well.”

M: Okay, so now the next question is if you disavow these links when do you see an improvement? Tomorrow? A month from now? A year? Never?

C: Generally, you’re going to see it in a couple of weeks to a couple of months, maybe you might see it earlier. When you submit your disavow file, Google is going to recrawl your website, but it takes them a while to hit all of those links. So if you have a large website or if your site is low-quality and it doesn’t get crawled that often, Google’s not going to encounter that link again to know that it needs to be ignored. So it can take a while to kind of reprocess all of those links to learn which ones not to count when reevaluating your site.

M: Is there anything you can do to speed up that process or it is what it is?

C: It kind of is what it is. You can try fiddling around with uploading a sitemap, but realistically, if you have a site that has a bad link profile, there are probably other things that need to be fixed, as well, so take the time and just fiddle around with it.

M: I have to ask you this question because I see this everywhere. One of the cliches I always here is when someone links to your site who you don’t want to be linking to your site you should email them asking them to please not link to your site. What are the chances that actually ever happens? As a cynic, I don’t see that ever happening.

C: Some of these black hat sites that are linking out are maybe doing it automatically. So maybe it’s auto-generated stuff that’s linking to you so you’re trying to get a hold of somebody who’s not listening and if that’s the case, you’re never going to get a response. If you get somebody that’s running an affiliate site, they might be running hundreds of sites at once so they’re not going to be noticing some guy emailing one of their sites asking for a link removal. So when you get a manual action, sometimes Google wants to see you’ve made the effort to and if you’re not getting a response, there’s not much you can do about that, but at least you can show to Google that you made the effort.

M: So why don’t people say that when they write these articles? They’re not going to reply back to you. They’re obviously scammers. That’s why you don’t want their link to begin with. But it’s good to show Google when you get the manual action that hey, look, I tried. How come we don’t write that?

C: If you don’t have a manual action, is there a benefit to taking the time to do this? It depends on how much time you have. If you have a bunch of clients and you know the site isn’t going to be worthwhile to get a link from, why are you trying to email them to remove the link? Why not just throw it in your disavow file? If it’s a spammy link, it’s probably not counting for anything because Google is probably ignoring it. If you have a manual action, you’re going to want to try and get rid of them as much as possible and show it. But if you’re just emailing them because you want that one link removed because maybe you’re hoping in the future that that site will link to you in a natural way, why don’t you just burn it by throwing it in your disavow file? Is it really worth the offbeat chance that the website will link to you naturally when they linked to you in the past unnaturally?

For a lot of people, their website is their whole business. It’s their baby and they see that this is an unnatural link and it’s hurting their baby. So they want to try and protect it so they’ll email that website. And it’s a legitimate thing to do. You might get a response, your response rate will probably be low, but if you have the time and you think that that website is worth the time to spend on this, and if you think that that website will maybe in the future link to you with a natural link, then it might be worth it.

M: Speaking of black hat SEO, one of the things I always hear about black hat SEO is people saying they have all these great PBNs, everything is great. They give me a big boost. Okay, it might not last forever, but it’s really great and really worth it. Because you’re so into the link building side of SEO, I’m wondering if you could add your thoughts.

C: Is this a site that you were intending to only run for short?

M: No, of course not.

C: Because if you’re running an affiliate site and the purpose is just to get as much money as possible in a shorter period of time, then maybe you want to dabble in the black arts. I don’t know. I don’t recommend it, but who am I to say what you want to waste your money on. If this is a site that is your business, this is your career, this is something that you want to run for multiple years, do you really want to risk hurting your link profile by doing a whole bunch of PBNs? This is the kind of thing that can get you a manual action. And it’s easy to say, “Oh, nobody’s gonna know. This is a massive network, it’s going to be hard to see the sites and the patterns.”

It’s such a cliche to say, but Google is crawling everything that’s in their index. They can see what sites are linking to which and the percentage. Google can see the connections that while a person can maybe see a couple of thousand websites, there are trillions of websites out there. So if Google is able to crawl that, rank it, sort it, and see how content, pages, and niches relate to each other, then it’s probably not going to take Google relatively long to figure out that a site tends to link to other sites within this network. These are all connected and they’re cross-linking to each other. This is an attempt to manipulate page rank. We’re going to slap a manual action on this because our algorithms can’t quite do this.

M: One interesting thing about this, I was talking to Eli Schwartz about this and one of the things he said was that Google knows exactly what’s happening, just like you said, with all the links, but at times they’re letting it go on purpose. They know it’s there, but there’s nothing better to show up. Meaning, besides the fact that it has this problem with the links it is better than other results for whatever reason which is why you sometimes see that black hat SEO works. What are your thoughts?

C: I’m not going to argue that sometimes black hat stuff can work. Do I think that it’s a long term strategy? No, definitely not.

I don’t do it. I’m very much a purist. I mean, Marie Haynes, trained me with links. If you tried in an unnatural way to get a link, then you’re probably messing around with Google and you’re going to get in trouble. I’m very much a link purist. Similar to you, my self-righteousness keeps me warm at *****.

You can see if it’s something that’s working. Do I think it’s a short term solution? Maybe. Do I think it’s a long term solution? No, definitely not. At some point, Google’s going to shut this down. Is there a reason that they’re letting it go on if they know about it? Are they just waiting for the network to build or looking for more people to get into it? Is this a honeypot? Who knows what’s going on in the background? Do you want to get involved in that? Probably not.

M: I have one last thing I want to ask you before our little fun question. I am also, besides being a link purist, I’m very much into authority, trustworthiness, the quality raters guidelines, the core updates and their relationship to authority, and all that sort of thing. So I was recently getting into a discussion on Twitter about the relationship between links and authority. What is the relationship? Because you have Gary Illyes saying when we talk about authority, on the algorithmic level, we mean links. And then you have Danny Sullivan saying at one point, well, we don’t have an E-A-T score, but we have signals that serve as a proxy to determine authority, which sounds very much different than just links. Is it links? Is it more than links? What’s going on algorithmically with authority in terms of links?

C: It’s tough to say really just because like you said Google has been very, I don’t want to say secretive, but they haven’t been very forthcoming with this information. Say you are writing about the benefits of a certain type of vitamin. Would you prefer to get a link from Healthline, the Mayo Clinic,, or would you like it from

M: But is there authority beyond that? Does authority exist beyond just the nature of the link?

C: A lot of stuff ties into authority. If you took 10 people and asked them to name one thing that could indicate authority, you’re probably going to get 10 different answers. They’re all right so there’s no reason that multiple things can’t go into this.

Say you have a piece of content about a YMYL topic and it was read by somebody who goes on CNN every other week and is their expert panelist, they’ve written a book that sells on Amazon, and their degrees and certifications go on for an entire page. This is somebody who knows what they’re talking about. If they choose to link to your content, that’s an authority who’s endorsing your content as being really, really good.

M: So essentially, you want Dr. Phil linking to your content. He’s on TV, he has degrees, he’s clearly an expert, he can solve people’s problems, like deep problems in 30 minutes.

C: I mean, realistically, so can that Long Island medium lady. There are lots of people that go on TV. There are varying degrees of authority. Is it just the link that indicates the authority? No, it’s probably all of those other signals that contributed to it. A link is one thing, and then you have several other things that are also passing authority along or indicating authority and it strengthens that connection.

Optimize It or Disavow It

M: If you had two links that you had to deal with…. A link from some shady ******** site from the 3rd world or a link from a health site that got crushed by a core update…. Which link would you work to remove from your backlink profile?

C: I’m going to probably go with the site that got hit by the core update because a good link is a good link. Just because a site was hit by core update doesn’t mean it was necessarily doing something bad. Google has said that sometimes it just happens that a site that maybe you were competing with that was previously unrewarded is now being rewarded so you’re losing out in comparison. So the site might not have been doing something wrong, it just got hit. I’m going to take my chances with the health site over the shady ******** site and not because the ******** site is a bad link necessarily (it probably is), but it’s ********, you know?

M: What’s really wrong with ********?

C: Well, if you like ******** there’s nothing wrong with you.

M: Well, you’re from Canada so you can gamble all you want.

Cass, thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. This was so much fun

C: Thanks for having me.

SEO News [50:50 – 55:22]

Dimension Labels in Google Images Being Replaced: Dimension labels within image search are no more. Instead of indicating the image size on each image Google is labeling images by the content they reflect such as recipes, product, video, and more.

Right-hand Featured Snippets Are Nearly Gone: Explore Panels, also known as right-side Featured Snippets, have vanished. 

AR Spotted in Ecommerce Google Search Result: Google’s AR SERP feature has hit products. The 3D SERP image announced at I/O 2019 has now been spotted for commerce queries.

Mobile-First Indexing to All Sites Within the Year: Google says that all sites will be switched to the mobile-first index within the next year.

Search Console Allowing More Data For Excel Export: Search Console is letting you download more data. Now you can download up to 1,000 rows of data and when using Excel see specific metrics in specific tabs!

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

About The Author

The In Search SEO Podcast

In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

Tune in to hear pure SEO insights with a ton of personality!

New episodes are released each Tuesday!

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