A Backlink Audit Guide
After spending the two days working on a backlink audit, I thought it pertinent (and top of mind!) to share some of my findings from this process. For those of who don’t know, a backlink audit involves a manual evaluation of all the links and domains pointing back to a target domain for the purpose of removing those that could be seen as harmful to the sites authority and standings in the organic search results.
After last year’s (or almost last years) big Penguin algorithm update from Google, backlink audits became the new black. Because Google was making a strong push against as many unsavory link building techniques as they could flag, websites were getting dinged left and right. Whether you knew of a penalty from receiving an email in Google Webmaster Tools or were left to guess that you had been dinged by impacted rankings or organic search traffic, a backlink clean-up was pretty much the most legitimate way to address it.
Also important to note, in a rare moment of altruism, Google launched their disavow tool back in October 2012. This tool allows a site admin to submit all the backlinks they would like to not pass value towards their site, and have Google simply block them. The reason this is so important to backlink audits is that a typical response rate when manually reaching out to webmasters for link removal is approximately 5%. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of work with not much return. Google does, however, request that the manual process take place before use of the disavow tool (I’m still not sure how they would verify that), so there is still a lot of work and time involved. This tool will ideally allow for a bigger return on investment in the end.
Now that you have a little of the back story, what follows is a backlink auditing guide for any that might be embarking on this rather tedious project.
You’ll obviously need to start with solid list of backlinks, what URLs they come from, anchor text, target URL, and hopefully some good scoring data. Majestic SEO is our weapon of choice, but opensiteexplorer.org is pretty good too.
If the tool does not provide the root domain of the backlink source in it’s own column, create one. Sorting by root domain may shave off hours of work by preventing duplication of efforts. Remove the www. from the root domain column as in many cases both variations will be included for the same site, so removing it allows for fast grouping.
Make sure to give enough time for the project. A good rate to shoot for is about 35 domains reviewed per hour. If you don’t have enough time to get through them all, here are a couple starting places:
- If the site was penalized for particular keywords, start with anchor text containing any variations of those words.
- If specific pages were penalized, start with backlinks pointing to those pages.
- If neither of those apply, start with the lower authority sites. Depending on which tool your using to pull the backlinks, they may have their own scoring for this, such as MozRank from SEOMOZ or ACRank from MajesticSEO.
TYPES OF BACKLINKS
The following will go over the different types of backlinks and what to do with them:
Flag for removal
Errors: Any sites that produce an error when you try and open them won’t provide any value and therefore should be cleaned up. These should just be added to the disavow list
Poor Quality Sites/Blogs: Sites are determined to be bad quality if they have any of the following attributes, or a combination of these attributes:
- High ratio of ads to content
- Poor writing, sometimes written by non-English speaker or robot
- All content is scraped or copied from other sources
- Irrelevant to the content or to the backlink
- Low Page Rank score (this can be ok if the content is good and relevant)
- Link was obviously paid for, maybe a sidebar link out of place or surrounded by other irrelevant external links
- Link farms
Remove or keep, case by case basis
General Directories: General directories are sites that contain business listings and links with no specific theme (such as healthcare) and are not focused around a particular geographical area. For the most part, these directories are primarily for ad revenue or SEO value, and therefore they too were devalued by Google. Do not jump to removing all of these backlinks, but rather compare them to the rest of the backlink portfolio.
Article Directories: These are sites where anyone can upload articles and include anchor text optimized links back to whatever pages they want. Many SEO companies have used these over the years as they are easy ways to acquire links. They have never provided a ton of value, but after the last big change to the Google algorithm, these were one of the top types of links to get devalued. Like the general directories, it’s probably not that important that they all be removed, as long as no more time or money is spent on acquiring them.
Not great, but probably not harmful
Content scraped from other sources: This happens often as low-quality sites will steal content from other sites, often times from the article directories mentioned above. They do this because they want more content for their sites to sell ad impressions and increase their own authority. We typically leave these alone as it is something that happens organically all the time, so it’s not something you’d get penalized for. Unless the site is really bad, then consider removing it.
Niche Directories: These backlinks are still debatable, and might actually still provide some SEO value. These come from directory sites containing business listings specific to an industry, such as healthcare or fashion. Because they are specific, they are seen as more useful to users and therefore may carry a little value, so you don’t want to remove them unless the quality of the directory is really poor. Often you can tell just by looking at them.
Good quality, keep them around
Local Directories: Local directories are online lists of business specific to a geographical area. Sometimes these are for an entire state and some are for cities or towns. Poor quality local directories should still be considered for removal, but otherwise these local directories can have a decent impact on local rankings. One thing to note for franchise or multi-unit businesses: Many of these directories will link to the homepage of a website. Consider reaching out to at least the higher quality sites and linking to the appropriate local page, so long as those local pages are the focus for local SEO
Job postings: These may come in the form of general job sites like Career Builder or jobing.com, or they may be industry specific. Legitimate job postings sites will certainly not get you dinged and should definitely pass some value, so unless the site is shady for some reason, keep these around. Make sure to keep the postings updated if at all possible.
Reputable Directories: These are a handful of directories that are well known and reputable, and are therefore actually used by people to search for businesses, such as Yahoo! Directories.
Best quality, keep them around and try to get more of them
Unique content on good blogs / websites: This is an ideal backlink scenario, and the one we primarily target with any backlink development strategies. These consist of original content that is relevant to the site’s theme and audience, containing links back to relevant pages. Sites are considered “good” if they have the following qualities:
- Well-written content
- Little advertising (or none)
- Only relevant out-bound links (links going from there site to other sources)
- The site is relevant to our own content themes and keywords
- Fresh, consistent content
- Page Rank – yes, I still think Google PR is a good indicator of site quality, and feel even stronger after personally reviewing 400 domains in the last two days.
Don’t forget to flag any of these sites that could provide good opportunities for future engagement, whether through guest posting or content sharing through social channels.
Unique content on high authority sites: Backlinks coming from high authority sites such as news publications, .edu, .gov, publishing sites, etc. are going to be the ideal link source, hence the obvious value in a strong relationship between your SEO and public relations teams.
DOTTING THE I’S AND CROSSING THE T’S
As you are going through this process, don’t forget to take detailed notes. Though the primary goal might be finding bad links to remove, other opportunities will most likely present themselves as you go, such as links to broken URLs, bad anchor text worth changing, or sites that are great for content opportunities. I suggest notes on the following:
- Domain – quality, type of site, topic/theme, geo (if applicable)
- Backlink – type of link, relevancy to the content
- Page rank of domain
- Page rank of source URL
- Directive – whether or not the link should be removed, changed or left alone. Also, noting future opportunities
Once all the backlinks have been reviewed and the decisions made around which ones to remove, the next step is to reach out to those that you can. Look around the site for any contact information, whether phone, email, contact form or even social media channels. When reaching out, remember to kill them with kindness, as you are asking them to take time out of their day to help you out.
Once all the manual communication has been tapped out, then it’s time to move onto the disavow tool. Since this will be our own first time trying that tool, I am going to postpone any information on how to do it until after that process, so stay tuned!