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Understanding The Link Audit Process

Paul Madden | September 9, 2015

The ability to understand your link profile and manage it well is an important function in SEO strategy. Whether you're a site owner or an SEO, you need to be able to perform link audits.

It's been some time now since Google first introduced the Penguin filter and applied manual penalties within Search Console. Whilst the urgency of those early days has subsided, the need to understand your link profile and take steps to clean up are as valid as they have ever been. Link clean up is not just about protecting your site from penalties, but also increasingly part of the overall SEO strategy to ensure clean ranking signals are seen by Google and allowing the site to perform at its best as a result.

The ability to understand your link profile and manage it well is an important function in SEO strategy. Whether you're a site owner or an SEO, you need to be able to perform link audits.

It's been some time now since Google first introduced the Penguin filter and applied manual penalties within Search Console. Whilst the urgency of those early days has subsided, the need to understand your link profile and take steps to clean up are as valid as they have ever been. Link clean up is not just about protecting your site from penalties, but also increasingly part of the overall SEO strategy to ensure clean ranking signals are seen by Google and allowing the site to perform at its best as a result.

Back in 2012 we founded what was then LinkRisk (we rebranded recently to Kerboo) to help webmasters navigate through the link audit process and make it as painless as possible. Three years later we have scored well over 8 billion links and find ourselves the proud cornerstone of many large agency and brand link profile protection policy.

Today I would like to write about some of the processes and perspectives that we have come to understand along the way.

Conducting A Link Audit: Gathering Data

Job one when conducting a link audit is to gather all the data you can. As a rule we suggest gathering the following, in order of priority:

It's also worth gathering any previous link building reports from past SEO campaigns or providers.

You'll need to get that mass of data into some sort of order and into a dataset with no duplicates. Kerboo can do this automatically for you; throw the data at the server and Kerboo sorts it all out for you. Without Kerboo or a similar tool you can achieve this through Excel and some stress.

Once we have that data in some sort of order (and assuming the client or site doesn’t already have a disavow file in place, more on that shortly) we now need to start the process of working through the linking sites and making decisions.

Beginning A Link Audit: Bulk Operations

We typically look at one example link from each domain and make a conclusion at domain level. It's unusual to see a link from a page on a good site that you’d rate as bad and vice versa.

We ask our auditors to read the Google Link Schemes page to understand what Google views as manipulative.

Normally we judge the link based on a simple rule: what was the intent behind the placement of this link? If the answer is SEO or to manipulate Google in any way, then the link presents some risk to the domain and must be judged as such. Where that line is drawn varies from site to site and circumstance to circumstance.

It's often more efficient to do as much of the work as possible in bulk operations. For example, Kerboo will show you which links come from directories. To work in bulk operations, you can add all of these directory links into the removal or disavow list, then only select the ok ones and take them out of the list.

Cherry picking only the good directory links out of the disavow or removal list will help you improve your efficiency.

Don’t rely on metrics to make your decision, remember it's intent Google try to understand and not value.

Individual Link Analysis: Human Assessment

Once you’ve done as much as possible in bulk you will probably need a human look over the remaining domains to make a decision. This can either be done by splitting the file between people and using a URL opener to browse each site, or by using the Kerboo Investigate app to cycle through the links, making decisions with keyboard shortcuts.

At the end of this process you should have an assessment for each link. Here are the conclusions we use:

  • Star - A link you want to make sure stays live and perhaps want to start a dialogue with the site as the link is that important.
  • Approved - Any link that passes your assessment.
  • Remove - Any link you want to outreach and try to have taken down.
  • Disavow - Any domain that you want to tell Google to ignore via their Disavow tool.

Removal First, Then Disavow

After the initial audit we strongly suggest attempting to get as many bad links removed as you can.

Many other firms suggest you simply disavow bad links, but we firmly believe that removal is better if at all possible. It is true that removal campaigns are hard and you’ll normally be left with a majority of the links. It is at this point that the disavow tool comes in.

The disavow tool accepts a .txt file with a specific format and lets you tell Google which links or domains you no longer wish to count toward your rankings. The format is:

# comments can be added using a pound sign before each line
domain:example.com

# you can also disavow a single URL
http://www.example.com/something/link.php

Our tips for disavow are as follows:

  • Make sure the disavow is done by someone with experience.
  • Make sure the disavow list is kept safe afterwards (Kerboo stores a single version).
  • Only ever disavow at the domain level (there are RARE cases of needing to do a disavow at the URL level, but for the vast majority of sites domain is safest).
  • You should always disavow at the root of the domain or subdomain. So never do domain:www.example.com but you can do domain:someuniquesubdomain.example.com

Slightly more advanced tips would include:

  • You should never attempt to disavow a large subdomain driven domain (think Blogger etc) at the domain level, only at the subdomain level.
  • You can technically disavow all subdomains with a domain:rootdomain.com entry.
  • When multiple country domains are served to the user based upon geo location, but the site itself has a canonical back to the .com, you should disavow the canonical rather than the country codes/TLDs.
  • Technically you can remove items after and submit a new disavow file, but the link equity won’t return quickly in almost all cases (and it's pretty dangerous to do so).

When You Can Expect Results

Once the disavow file is in place, Google has stated you will not see the effects until after the link is crawled and cached again by Googlebot.

If you have a manual penalty you will need to submit a reinclusion request to request the removal of the penalty.

Link audits can be quite a time consuming process but the results are worth it. The pain you will feel as a business with a penalty is not something I would underestimate.

Once clean via the audit process make sure you have a regular routine of pulling in newly found links and updating your disavow file (again Kerboo makes this easy with daily imports and an investigate workflow to update the disavow with a few clicks).

Good luck with your audit, you’ll be surprised what you find!

SEO

About The Author

Paul Madden

Paul Madden is the co-founder of Kerboo (formerly LinkRisk), a link auditing and monitoring tool. Paul is a prominent member of the UK SEO community and speaks at SEO events in the UK, US, and across Europe.

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