These days, doing a regular audit of your backlinks is an excellent idea. However, if you don't have experience with auditing links, you may find that it is difficult to determine whether some of them are natural.
One thing that commonly confuses site owners is when they see a newly obtained sitewide link. While sitewide links can be unnatural, they can also be really good links! I've seen several webmasters who have gone about disavowing some excellent links in error because of a fear of sitewide links.
Let's look at how you can evaluate sitewide links pointing to your site and determine whether you should try to remove or disavow these links.
What Is a Sitewide Link?
Most will already know this, but just to be clear, a sitewide link is one that appears on most or all of a website's pages. A common area to see sitewide links is in the blogroll that is in the sidebar and appears on every page. You can also get sitewide links from being mentioned in the footer of a site if the site uses a template where the same footer is used for every single page.
An Example: A Recipe Site.
Let's say you have a website where you publish healthy recipes. We'll call it example-recipes.com. It's really good and unique and so a lot of bloggers want to reference it.
It's possible that our fictional recipe site could get links from blogrolls where people have listed their favorite recipe sites. When this happens, what you'll see in your Webmaster Tools console, under "Links to your site" is something like this:
If you saw more than 24,000 new links from example-health-food-site.com, and let's say that they linked to you using the anchor text, "Healthy recipes," which would be your reaction?
1. Wahoooo! I got a great link!
2. Crap. A sitewide with exact match anchor text. I'm going to have to contact them to ask them to take it down or nofollow it. Or maybe I'll disavow it.
More often than not, when a site owner sees that Webmaster Tools is reporting that a site is linking to them with thousands of links, the natural instinct is to say it is unnatural. But, this isn't always the case.
In a Webmaster Central hangout, John Mueller said that "Generally speaking, sitewide links can be fine. That's not something where we would say that if a link is across a whole website then it's automatically considered bad." (You can read his entire quote and see the video here).
Here are some tips to help you decide whether a sitewide link is a good link:
Do You Have a History of Buying Sitewide Links?
If you know that you have purchased sitewide links, blogroll links, or footer links in the past, then I would treat every sitewide with suspicion. The main reason why some people call every sitewide an unnatural link is because in the past this type of link was commonly one that link builders would purchase.
Before I knew much about SEO, I ran an information website. I remember when a site owner contacted me and offered me $100 for a link from my blogroll. I turned them down, but I am sure that that site obtained many links in that manner and that now, those links are most likely flagged as unnatural by Google.
If you have a history of purchasing sitewide links, then, even if you get a potentially natural mention in a sidebar, I would consider asking for a nofollow or disavowing that link. On a manual review, if Google sees that you have a bunch of purchased sidebar links and then one natural one, they may not trust that your natural link is truly natural.
Do You Have a History of Doing Widespread Link Exchanges?
The Google quality guidelines list "excessive link exchanges" as part of a potential link scheme. They don't tell you what "excessive" means, but if you've done more than a few link exchanges, then often blogroll links are a means of doing this.
It's OK to do some reciprocal linking. For example, if a realtor links to a home inspector, a mortgage broker, and a real estate lawyer, and they all link back to him, that would probably be OK in Google's books.
However, let's say that realtor had a blogroll on his site that listed recommended resources and that list contained links like "Realtor in Austin" and "Miami Real Estate" and "Seattle Homes for Sale." Those links are more obviously set up as part of a link exchange that was created for the main purpose of improving everyone's search engine rankings rather than being a helpful list of resources for the realtor's clients.
If you've participated in widespread reciprocal linking like this and a new sitewide link pops up then again, on a manual review, Google may not be able to tell the difference between a natural sitewide link and one that was provided in exchange for a reciprocal link. As such, if you've got a history of exchanging sitewide links, then I'd be quite suspicious of any new sitewides that pop up.
What Do the Other Sitewide Links From This Domain Look Like?
Sometimes you can get an idea of the authenticity of a sitewide link by looking at what other sites they link to. If your healthy recipe site is listed on a blogroll that also contains links like "Free Casino Games" and "Best Payday Loans," then it isn't likely to be a natural one!
Similarly, if the site linking to you is in no way related to yours then this could be a sign that it's an unnatural link.
Is the Site Indexed?
If the link looks like it could be a natural one, but something in your gut is telling you otherwise, then another clue could be to see if the site is in the Google index. You can do so by doing a search for "site:example.com." If Google doesn't have any pages from this site in the index, then it's possible that the site has been penalized for link selling. As such, you'd want to remove or disavow that link.
Ask the Site Owner
If, after all of this, you still aren't sure whether the link is a natural mention, it doesn't hurt to ask the site owner. You can send a quick note that thanks them for linking and asks how the link came about. You may find that the site owner really just liked your site and wanted to link to it.
But, you might also be surprised to find out that someone on your marketing team, or an SEO company working on your behalf, actually purchased the link. I can't tell you how many times businesses have said to me, "We have never purchased a link!", when in reality their SEO company is doing exactly that.
OK, It's Natural. Should You Keep It?
Let's say that you've convinced yourself that this sitewide link really is a natural mention in the sense that someone liked your site and wanted to link to it and wasn't paid or given anything in return for the link. You've also got no history of purchasing blogroll or footer links or participating in blogroll reciprocal link schemes.
If a sitewide link like this pops up should you keep it? Yes! But what if it has exact match anchor text? Should you still keep it? Yes!
I know that some people would argue with me in regards to keeping a sitewide keyword rich link. Some would say that it's better to be safe than sorry and that you should remove or disavow an exact match keyword anchored sitewide link because Google might think it's unnatural.
In a Webmaster Central Hangout at 41:39, a site owner asks Mueller this question, "I have been using keyword rich anchor text when referencing other websites in articles that I write. There is no collusion between me and the other webmasters...should I stop?"
Mueller's answer: "Generally that's fine. If these are normal links on your website and you're providing them in a natural way then that's not something I'd really be worried about."
It isn't the anchor text that makes a link unnatural. If someone links to your healthy recipe website and uses the anchor text, "Healthy recipes," that's OK! But when hundreds of people are doing the same, then it starts to look suspicious to Google because it's very uncommon for hundreds of people to link using the same anchor text unless something unnatural is going on.
If you've got a history of doing unnatural linking and you have abused the use of exact match keyword rich anchors, then you may possibly consider asking the site owner who linked to you with a sitewide keyword rich link to change their anchor to your URL or brand. But, in my opinion, if the link is truly a natural mention, then it really should be fine to keep it just as it is.
A real culture of fear surrounds links now that Google is penalizing sites and unleashing algorithms like Penguin. But, one sitewide link, even if it produces tens of thousands of links containing an exact match keyword anchor, won't cause Google to penalize you.
The sites Google catches and penalizes have been involved in wide-scale cheating in order to manipulate their rankings. Someone linking to you with a sitewide won't cause a penalty.
What Do You Think?
I know that many link auditors will automatically flag any sitewide link as an unnatural one. Do you agree? Or do you think that some sitewide links can be good links? Share your thoughts in the comments.