When helping clients with Penguin or manual actions for unnatural links, it's common for companies to start asking questions about negative SEO. Once clients understand how Penguin works, and how unnatural links could impact a website, they wonder what would stop competitors from launching an all-out attack on their own website. And more importantly, what type of defense strategy could they build to thwart a negative SEO attack?
Beyond negative SEO, unnatural links have an uncanny way of replicating themselves across more spammy sites (without a company actively setting up those new links). So, even if a competitor isn't launching a negative SEO campaign, situations like "replicating unnatural links" could end up coming back to hurt companies down the line.
For example, my column from October explained how a company first got hit by Penguin 2.0, and then again by Penguin 2.1. It ends up they put a stake in the ground, and stopped monitoring unnatural links, so they ended up getting hit twice (versus recovering). Not good, to say the least.
This makes it hard for businesses that dug themselves into a hole to fully jump out of that hole. For some companies involved in unnatural link building over the past several years, it's like being part of an organized crime family. You can't just pick up one day and leave. There will be a price to pay.
Based on what I explained above about negative SEO and replicating unnatural links, defense measures can play an important part of a company's SEO efforts.
This post will give you several methods for monitoring, tracking, and analyzing, new unnatural links. After I cover each method, I'll explain what you can do with your findings (to avoid getting hit). Because when dealing with link problems, analysis is one thing, taking action is another.
Methods for Tracking New Unnatural Inbound Links
1. Google Webmaster Tools Latest Links
Many people don't realize that Google provides a separate download for a website's latest links.
If you head over to Google Webmaster Tools and click "Search Traffic" in the left sidebar, and then "Links to Your Site", you will see an overview of your inbound links.
If you click the "More" link under "Who links the most", you will see a list of all domains (top 1,000) linking to your site. At the top of that report, there are three buttons. One of those buttons is labeled "Download latest links".
When you download that report, you can see your latest links by date that Google has picked up. And yes, if you've been dealing with an unnatural links situation, the list might shock you.
You may see new spammy links showing up, which could be the result of older unnatural links replicating, or it could be negative SEO. The good news is that you'll know about the new links, and can take action.
2. Majestic SEO "New" Links
Majestic SEO is my favorite link analysis tool. It holds a boatload of data, provides a ton of functionality, and easily enables you to refine and download your links.
For our purposes today, the main navigation provides a link labeled "New", which will take you to a cool visualization of new links being discovered for the domain, subdomain, directory, or URL.
First, check out your trending. Does that look natural? Is there a spike over the past 90 days that looks strange? Does the trending match up with your content development, campaigns, etc.?
Majestic enables you to highlight any 14 day period in the chart to view the new links built during that timeframe (below the chart). Then you can easily export those links for further analysis in Excel. Also, Majestic provides "First Indexed", "Last Seen", and "Date Lost" fields, which can help determine what's going on.
Note, Majestic doesn't know when a link was actually first placed on the web, just when it was first indexed by its crawlers. There are times you will find a "First Indexed" date that's off. That's why it's important to analyze the links versus just taking the data as-is.
3. Open Site Explorer "Just Discovered"
Open Site Explorer also provides a nifty piece of functionality for finding new links. In the main navigation, there's a link for "Just Discovered" that takes you to a report listing all links the service has recently picked up (and sometimes just minutes after being published).
Using "Just Discovered", you can filter by the type of link (followed, nofollowed, 301, etc.), and select if you want to see new links to the domain, subdomain, or URL. In the report, you can view the URL linking to your site, the anchor text of the link, domain authority of the site linking to you, and the date the links were first discovered. Then you can easily export those results for further analysis in Excel.
4. Ahrefs – New Backlinks and New Referring Domains
Ahrefs is another excellent link analysis tool, and it provides some of the best functionality available when analyzing new inbound links. After entering a domain in the Site Explorer field, you can click the "New" link under "Backlinks". That will take you to the new backlinks report, where you have the ability to drill into the data in several ways.
First, you can select pre-determined timeframes (Today, Yesterday, Past 7 Days, Past 30 Days, and Past 60 Days) for analysis. But Ahrefs provides more flexibility than that. You can use the calendar to select any custom timeframe you want (over the past 60 days).
You can also click the "Graph" link to view a graph of all new and lost links over the past 60 days. If you click on a bar in the graph, Ahrefs will display the new or lost backlinks for that specific day.
Once you select a timeframe, you can view the link information in the report below the calendar. You can see the referring link, its title, how many external links that URL contains, how many internal links the URL contains, its status code, the number of social shares, the destination URL being linked to, its title, the anchor text of the link, and when the link was placed. Yes, that's a lot of data to analyze for sure.
But you can do more. You can further refine your data via the buttons at the top of the report.
For example, you can select all links, dofollow, redirect, governmental, educational, notsitewide, sitewide, and nofollow. The report below automatically updates showing you just the inbound links that fit the criteria you selected.
And of course, you can easily download your links for further analysis in Excel.
What To Do Once You've Uncovered New Unnatural Links
Now that you understand how to find the latest links leading to your site, you still need to know what to do with them. If you exported the results to Excel, then you should have multiple spreadsheets to work with (from each data source). Personally, I like combining the data into one spreadsheet, but still have separate worksheets by data source.
Below are some recommendations for analyzing and dealing with unnatural links you find during your research.
Make it a Monthly Process
I highly recommend empowering someone at your organization to check new links on a monthly basis. Don't check your latest links every few months, only to find out you've got a big problem. Or worse, don't get hit by Penguin or a manual action because you weren't staying on top of your link profile. If you miss the window of opportunity, you'll be dealing with months of recovery (or longer).
In a perfect world, this process should not take a lot of time each month. Most companies won't be dealing with new unnatural links.
Spend one morning each month and go through the process I listed earlier for tracking and analyzing new links. If you find unnatural links, you can immediately deal with the situation, remove the new links, disavow them, etc. And then you can dig in further to find out who is setting up those links, if needed.
Hunting Unnatural Links
Now that you have the latest links by data source, I would start reviewing the links in detail. For example, filter by anchor text, filter by domain name, etc. Then you should start manually checking the links that are suspicious.
If you find new unnatural links that could have been the result of previous link building campaigns, flag them in the spreadsheet. You can simply create a new column where you can flag URLs (Remove, Disavow, Okay, Ignore, etc.)
By creating a new column, you can filter the worksheet by the flags you set up. That will be helpful while compiling a final a list of problematic links.
One you have a final list of unnatural links, try to remove as many as you can manually. To me, that's always the best route.
Now, if any of the unnatural links are completely out of your control, then you can simply disavow them by creating or updating your disavow file. That said, if you can find contact information, or a way to remove those links, then I would.
Disavowing URLs and Domains
As mentioned above, if you can't remove new unnatural links, then you should disavow them.
First, identify if the domain is ultra-spammy or if it's just the URL that's problematic. For example, a domain that's ultra-spammy that looks completely automated would be one you could simply disavow at the domain level. But if you find a domain that is maintained by a company, or a specific webmaster, blogger, etc., and it contains decent content, then you might want to simply disavow the URLs that contain links to your site (versus the entire domain).
If you're not familiar with the disavow tool, you can either enter a full URL per line or you can use the domain directive (e.g., "domain:example.com" would disavow all links from example.com.
When you have your list of domains and URLs to disavow, then update your disavow file and submit that file via the disavow tool. And don't be afraid to add domains or URLs to your list down the line. It's totally OK, and normal, for that list to grow.
Put On Your Detective's Hat
If you find new unnatural links keep popping up across various websites, try to find out why that's happening. For example, is someone still building links for you? Has all unnatural link building stopped? If you're at a large company, or if you're working with a number of agencies or consultants, has your decision to stop unnatural linkbuilding been thoroughly communicated to all involved?
I've mentioned this during a previous post about negative SEO, but most companies that believe they are being attacked are usually wrong. Upon digging in, it's typically someone tied to the company (an internal employee trying to increase rankings, an SEO agency, PR agency, consultant, etc.) And no, they typically weren't trying to destroy the company. They simply had bad advice, or took the easier (but dangerous) route to increasing rankings.
That said, if you truly believe it is negative SEO, then try to track unnatural links back to the source. Start asking questions, emailing site owners, finding common sites and companies with links on the same pages, etc. You never know what you are going to find.
I once helped the CEO of a startup with Penguin who was waking people up in the middle of the night asking questions. That was awesome, and yielded answers by the way. Be a bulldog and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Summary – Avoid Penguin and Manual Actions By Staying Vigilant
By using the methods listed above, you can stay on top of new inbound links. And if you notice anything strange, you now have a plan of attack for finding, analyzing, organizing, and dealing with those unnatural links.
Again, I recommend implementing a monthly process for checking your latest links (so you can avoid the nasty bite of Penguin, or the shock of a manual action). The good news is that you can start right away. Like now.