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Removing Unnatural Links by Removing Pages on Your Website

marie-haynes
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404Trying to clean up your backlink profile? Did you know that you can quickly remove links by removing the page of your site to which that link points?

Obviously this tactic can’t be used for links pointing to your home page. But, if you have inner pages that have built up large numbers of unnatural links and are causing your site to be affected negatively by a Google penalty or algorithm issue, then this could be a good tactic to use.

Be sure you do it correctly though! Later on in this article I’ll share about how a client of mine got their site re-penalized by making an error in 404ing their pages.

Removing a Page With Unnatural Links Pointing to it

During a Webmaster Central Hangout, Google employee John Mueller was asked:

Does removing a page that has unnatural links pointing to it accomplish the same thing when it comes to removing a link when it comes to the Penguin algorithm? If a site has all of its links pointing to one page and removes the page is the issue solved?

"Yes, essentially that’s pretty much the same thing," Mueller said. "So, what happens when a page is removed and the page returns a 404, what happens is that we drop those links so that they don’t count. Generally speaking, if you can’t remove those links and you don’t want to use the disavow backlinks tool then you could remove those pages."

And here's how Mueller answered a question in the Google Webmaster Forum on the same topic:

In general, if you remove the page that is being linked to (such as a spammy forum thread) and make sure that it returns a 404/410 HTTP response code, we'll ignore the links to those pages.

Don’t Make These Mistakes!

Please know, though, that the page must be truly removed in order for the links pointing to it to no longer count. The following won't work to remove links:

  • Noindexing and/or nofollowing the page. A noindexed, nofollowed page will still receive PageRank from links pointing to it. Marking a page on your site noindexed and/or nofollowed doesn't accomplish the same thing as physically removing a link.
  • Blocking by robots.txt: A page that is blocked by robots.txt will still receive PageRank as well. The robots.txt directive will simply tell Google not to crawl that page. But, if links point to it then they will still count towards your site.
  • Redirecting the pages to another page on your site. A redirect will pass somewhere from 95 to 100 percent of the PageRank from bad link on to the redirected page and won't remove the link.
  • Removing the link but creating an identical page on your site with a different URL. I've seen situations where Google can recognize identical content and automatically canonicalize it. What this means is that links pointing to the original page will be attributed to the new page.

A Grievous Error

One of my clients made a big mistake. Several months ago we worked hard to remove an unnatural links penalty that this client received.

A previous SEO company had built unnatural links to their site by creating a large number of articles on the site and then paying other sites to link to these articles. We removed those unnatural links by removing all of the articles that had been made on the site. If someone clicked on one of those unnatural links, they would be directed to a 404 page.

The site also had some other obviously unnatural links, such as low-quality directories which we dealt with as well. We were very pleased when Google removed the unnatural links penalty from the site.

However, I was very surprised to find out about two months later that the site was penalized. Again.

It didn’t take long to determine what had happened. The site owners had decided to redirect all of those 404 pages to the home page.

Whether it was done in error, or done to try to sneakily regain some link juice, I don't know. Somehow their site underwent another manual review and the penalty was levied again.

Did you know that when a site gets penalized a second time by Google that the penalty is often more harsh and also harder to remove? This is because it takes more work to convince the webspam team that you really are committed to the quality guidelines.

For this site, we quickly removed the redirects so that the bad links once again pointed to 404 pages and filed again for reconsideration. But, this time Google didn't remove the penalty.

Google gave examples of unnatural links that were very hard to find as they were not in the list of Webmaster Tools backlinks. Now that this site has lost Google’s trust they are going to have to do a lot more work to get the penalty removed.

Should You 404 Pages or Just Disavow the Unnatural Links?

In the same Hangout linked to above, Mueller said that using the disavow tool to ask Google to not count these bad links would work just as well as 404ing the page(s) on your sites to remove links.

However, as there is controversy over the use of the disavow tool, (see Cyrus Shepard’s disavow experiment and my theory on what happened), I would suggest that if all of a page’s links are bad ones, to just remove the page rather than disavow. Removing the page will remove all of the bad links.

What are your thoughts? Do you have experiences to share on removing pages to remove bad links?


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