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How To Remove Backlinks (And Clean up Your Link Profile)

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How To Remove Backlinks (And Clean up Your Link Profile)

So, you’ve got some bad backlinks? Maybe you’ve paid for some shady links, or a competitor has targeted your website with link spam. Whatever the cause, you’ll want to know what to do next—especially if you’ve received a manual action.

In this article, I’ll share how to remove backlinks and consider the different approaches for cleaning up your link profile—depending on your circumstances.

How to remove backlinks—if you’ve got a manual action

Google says if you have a manual action for unnatural links, you should first try to remove the links from the other site and then disavow any that you can’t get removed:

“If you have a manual action against your site for unnatural links to your site, or if you think you’re about to get such a manual action (because of paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines), you should try to remove the links from the other site to your site.”

Google Search Console Help

Here’s an overview of what you need to do to remove backlinks if you have a manual action for unnatural links, according to Google:

Check GSC for a manual action and start a backlink audit

If you’ve got a manual action (also known as a manual penalty), you’ll see it by logging into Google Search Console (GSC). Expand the Security & Manual Actions tab and click on Manual actions.

If there’s an issue, you’ll see a screen like this:

manual-action-in-google-search-console-example

Assuming you have a manual action, the first step is to list all the domains you want to remove.

Start by heading to Google Search Console, exporting all the links, and adding them to a spreadsheet. These are the links that Google sees, so there’s no need to use a third-party tool at this point.

export-external-links-example

Find the unnatural backlinks you want to remove

Once you’ve got your domain list in your spreadsheet, you’ll need to start a backlink audit to identify the unnatural links. In your backlink audit, you don’t have to remove every spammy link, but it’s a good idea to look for common patterns to identify what caused the penalty.

Tip

If you aren’t confident in completing a backlink audit, ask a reputable SEO consultant or an SEO agency to do one for you.

What constitutes an unnatural link, according to Google? In short, it’s any link that is intended to manipulate rankings in Google’s search results.

Such as:

  • Paid links
  • Excessive link exchanges
  • Automated linking
  • Requiring links as part of your ToS
  • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
  • Keyword rich low-quality links embedded in widgets
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of sites
  • Forum comments with optimized links

For a current list, check Google’s spam policies.

You can use a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer to help find spammy or unnatural-looking links.

Here are a few checks you can make:

Are there any spammy-looking or over-optimized anchors?

In Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, you can check the Anchors report in the sidebar. If there’s an issue—it can be fairly obvious from this report. Here’s an extreme example of easy-to-spot spammy-looking anchors in a digital marketing website’s link profile that looks unnatural within the link profile’s context.

anchor-text-report

Assess the overall quality of the domains

Does it look like a site that Google would approve of based on their quality guidelines?

Google has a whole section dedicated to defining link spam, but one of the core considerations is whether you’ve paid for links to manipulate Google’s rankings.

Contact site owners to request they remove the links

Once you’ve identified the unnatural links, you’ll need to collect the email addresses for these domains. Usually, there’s a contact form or an email on the contact page, or you could try the [email protected] approach. You can also use a tool like Hunter, or simply run a quick search on social media.

You should then request that they remove the links from their site.

Here’s an example of the type of email you can use to request removal – keep it short and to the point, and remember to send it from an email address that has your domain name in the email.

Hi {site_owner’s name},

I’m currently reviewing links on my website, and I need your help to remove this link:

{Their_URL}

It links to my website here:

{Your_URL}

When you have removed the link, I would be grateful if you could respond to this email.

Thank you,

{Your name}

{[email protected]}

Sidenote.

You can also ask site owners to add a nofollow tag to the links, but I’ve often found getting them to remove the link is easier.

Once you’ve removed a few links, you can start updating your list. Some site owners will not reply to your email. Others will agree to remove the link but charge a fee for the link removal.

In this situation, John Mueller has said:

“If there are some links that you can’t remove yourself, or some that require payment to be removed, then having those in the disavow file is fine as well.”

John Mueller

Disavow any links you can’t remove

If you’ve tried to get the backlinks removed, but they can’t be removed, then you should disavow the links.

Google says:

“We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe that there are a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.”

Google Search Console Help

In a now-deleted tweet, John Mueller confirmed this by saying if you paid for links and can’t remove them, disavow them.

If you choose the disavow route, please heed these words of caution from Gary Illyes:

“We said multiple times that the disavow tool is a very heavy gun. And if you don’t know what you are doing, you can shoot yourself in the foot with it.”

Gary Illyes

There’s a risk with a disavow that you can tank your site’s rankings by disavowing the wrong links. So it’s important to be sure that the links you’re adding to the disavow file are causing issues for your site.

Google also provides detailed guidelines for preparing your disavow .txt file, which you should follow.

Once you’ve got a list of domains that you think are unnatural, you should format your disavow file in this style:# Two pages to disavow http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html http://spam.example.com/stuff/paid-links.html # One domain to disavow Domain:shadyseo.com

Then it’s just a matter of uploading your .txt file to this page in GSC.

Sidenote.

If you already have a disavow file, download it and update it instead. If you try to upload a new one, it will overwrite the old one instead of adding to it.

disavow-links-to-your-site

Once you’ve tried removing as many unnatural links as possible and uploaded your disavow file to GSC, you can request a review. You can do this by clicking the button Request review.

manual-actions-unnatural-links-to-your-site-example

If Google decides you’ve done a good enough job, they’ll remove the manual action. If not, you may have to repeat the process until the manual action is removed.

Should you remove backlinks if you don’t have a manual action?

If you don’t have a link-based manual action but you have links you want to remove, this is where it can become a gray area—and different SEOs will have different opinions on whether or not to remove backlinks.

Here’s an example of a blogger who says he had lots of “spammy” links but did nothing—and saw no negative impact:

I started this site When Its spam scored 75 in Moz. Since then I just published articles, and I did not create any backlinks, No disavow or remove any links. pic.twitter.com/wVBCI0HJL7

— Fahim Foysal Prince (@FahimFoysalFFP) July 29, 2023

Here’s another example where Patrick Stox showed the impact of disavowing links on Ahrefs’ blog.

impact-of-disavowing-links

This shows that disavowing links without a manual action can potentially reduce your site’s organic traffic and that links still play a significant role in rankings.

When I asked SEOs on LinkedIn how they deal with low-quality links, most said they either do nothing or disavow them.

how-do-you-deal-with-spammy-links-llinkedin-poll

The poll showed that only 8% of SEOs remove low-quality backlinks from the source. Most preferred to either do nothing or disavow them. This is not surprising because, as we’ve already seen, removing backlinks is not easy and takes time.

The approach of “I do nothing” may surprise some, but with Fabrice Canel of Bing announcing in 2023 that they’re retiring Bing’s disavow links feature, it seems likely Google will follow suit soon.

Fabrice said:

“We can now differentiate between natural and unnatural links, and we can ignore or discount the latter without affecting the former.”

Fabrice Canel

So the question really is—how much do you trust search engines to make the right decision?

Let’s consider the following scenarios

1. No manual action, but have seen a serious drop in traffic

  • Start with a backlink audit to see if there is any issue with the links if you believe you are at risk
  • A drop in traffic could be caused by many things, not just links—check your technical SEO for any issues or any Google algorithm updates
  • If there is a serious issue with links that you believe may violate Google’s quality guidelines, then you can remove or disavow them. Run a Site Audit crawl to eliminate any technical SEO issues.

2. A third-party tool says you have “toxic” links

  • John Mueller said the concept of “toxic” links is made up, and his advice was to move on to more serious SEO tools:

The concept of toxic links is something that’s made up by SEO tools — I’d just ignore it, and perhaps move on to more serious tools.

— John (@JohnMu) June 6, 2022

  • If you have used a third-party tool to categorize links in this way, it doesn’t mean that the links are necessarily bad for your website
  • If there is a serious issue with links that you believe may violate Google’s quality guidelines, then you can remove or disavow them

3. You have many low DR links on your site you don’t recognize

  • If you have a lot of low Domain Rating (DR) links that you don’t recognize, it’s usually nothing to be worried about
  • Low-authority websites can and do naturally link to your website—just because they are low DR, it doesn’t mean that they should be removed or are “bad”
  • If you are determined to remove or disavow, always manually review the sites in question before pulling the trigger
  • In most cases, no action is required. Google and other search engines will deal with these types of links.

4. You paid for links and don’t have a manual penalty but have seen a drop in traffic

  • If you’ve paid for links but haven’t got a link-based manual penalty, the best thing at this stage is probably to do nothing
  • If you can’t sleep at night due to the guilt of your paid links, then you can disavow or remove them, but in most cases, consider what else could be the issue first.
  • Run a Site Audit crawl to check for technical SEO issues before you take any action with links. Do a backlink audit to work out if there is a link-based issue.

5. You’re the victim of a link-based negative SEO attack

  • If you believe there are many spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and you believe they are causing issues.
  • In basic attacks, Google should be able to understand what is and isn’t a natural link. For more advanced attacks, you may need to remove or disavow.
  • If you are at all unsure, always seek advice from an SEO professional before removing or disavowing any links.

Final thoughts

Removing backlinks isn’t most people’s idea of fun—it often involves the same amount of blood, sweat, tears, and toil as building links, but minus the dopamine hit of getting a high DR link.

By contrast, a disavow can be updated quickly, so if you know what you’re doing, it’s not hard to see why some SEOs opt for this option.

And, of course, the simplest option is to kick back, relax, and do nothing—but to do so, you have to have faith in Google’s algorithms to figure it all out—but do you?

Got more questions? Ping me on X 🙂

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Google To Upgrade All Retailers To New Merchant Center By September

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Google To Upgrade All Retailers To New Merchant Center By September

Google has announced plans to transition all retailers to its updated Merchant Center platform by September.

This move will affect e-commerce businesses globally and comes ahead of the holiday shopping season.

The Merchant Center is a tool for online retailers to manage how their products appear across Google’s shopping services.

Key Changes & Features

The new Merchant Center includes several significant updates.

Product Studio

An AI-powered tool for content creation. Google reports that 80% of current users view it as improving efficiency.

This feature allows retailers to generate tailored product assets, animate still images, and modify existing product images to match brand aesthetics.

It also simplifies tasks like background removal and image resolution enhancement.

Centralized Analytics

A new tab consolidating various business insights, including pricing data and competitive analysis tools.

Retailers can access pricing recommendations, competitive visibility reports, and retail-specific search trends, enabling them to make data-driven decisions and capitalize on popular product categories.

Redesigned Navigation

Google claims the new interface is more intuitive and cites increased setup success rates for new merchants.

The platform now offers simplified website verification processes and can pre-populate product information during setup.

Initial User Response

According to Google, early adopters have shown increased engagement with the platform.

The company reports a 25% increase in omnichannel merchants adding product offers in the new system. However, these figures have yet to be independently verified.

Jeff Harrell, Google’s Senior Director of Merchant Shopping, states in an announcement:

“We’ve seen a significant increase in retention and engagement among existing online merchants who have moved to the new Merchant Center.”

Potential Challenges and Support

While Google emphasizes the upgrade’s benefits, some retailers, particularly those comfortable with the current version, may face challenges adapting to the new system.

The upgrade’s mandatory nature could raise concerns among users who prefer the existing interface or have integrated workflows based on the current system.

To address these concerns, Google has stated that it will provide resources and support to help with the transition. This includes tutorial videos, detailed documentation, and access to customer support teams for troubleshooting.

Industry Context

This update comes as e-commerce platforms evolve, with major players like Amazon and Shopify enhancing their seller tools. Google’s move is part of broader efforts to maintain competitiveness in the e-commerce services sector.

The upgrade could impact consumers by improving product listings and providing more accurate information across Google’s shopping services.

For the e-commerce industry as a whole, it signals a continued push towards AI-driven tools and data-centric decision-making.

Transition Timeline

Google states that retailers will be automatically upgraded by September if they still need to transition.

The company advises users to familiarize themselves with the new features before the busy holiday shopping period.


Featured Image: BestForBest/Shutterstock

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Meta AI Introduces AI-Generated Photos to All Platforms

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Meta AI Adds AI-Generated Images to Social and Messaging Platforms and Expands Availability to More Languages and Countries

Meta just released multiple updates to Meta AI which brings advanced image generation and editing capabilities directly to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp feeds, plus availability in more countries and languages.

New Meta AI Creative Tools

Meta AI is bringing AI generated and AI Edited photography that can be generated at the moment a user is making a post or sending a message with a new tool called Imagine Me.

Imagine Me is a prompt that can be used to transform an uploaded image that can be shared. This new feature is first rolling out as a beta in the United States.

Meta explains:

“Imagine yourself creates images based on a photo of you and a prompt like ‘Imagine me surfing’ or ‘Imagine me on a beach vacation’ using our new state-of-the-art personalization model. Simply type “Imagine me” in your Meta AI chat to get started, and then you can add a prompt like “Imagine me as royalty” or “Imagine me in a surrealist painting.” From there, you can share the images with friends and family, giving you the perfect response or funny sidebar to entertain your group chat.”

New Editing Features

Meta products like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram now have advanced editing capabilities that allow users to add or remove objects from images, to change them in virtually any manner, such as their example of turning a cat in an image into a dog. A new Edit With AI button is forthcoming in a month that will unlock even more AI editing power.

Adding AI generated images to Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp within feed, posts, stories, comments and messages is rolling out this week in English and coming later to other languages.

Screenshot of a Facebook user adding an AI generated image into their post

Meta AI In More Countries And Languages

Meta AI is now available in seven additional countries, bringing the total countries to to 22. It is also available in seven more languages.

List of Seven Additional Countries:

  1. Argentina
  2. Cameroon
  3. Chile
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador
  6. Mexico
  7. Peru

Meta AI is now also available in the following seven additional languages:

  1. French
  2. German
  3. Hindi
  4. Hindi-Romanized Script
  5. Italian
  6. Portuguese
  7. Spanish

Advanced Math And Coding

Meta AI is making their most advanced model, Llama 405B, available for users to take advantage of its advanced reasoning abilities that can answer complex answers and excells at math and coding.

Meta AI writes:

“You can get help on your math homework with step-by-step explanations and feedback, write code faster with debugging support and optimization suggestions, and master complex technical and scientific concepts with expert instruction.”

Read the official announcement:

Meta AI Is Now Multilingual, More Creative and Smarter

Featured Image by Shutterstock/QubixStudio

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System Builders – How AI Changes The Work Of SEO

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Kevin Indig's Growth Memo for SEJ

AI is terraforming tech. The content and SEO ecosystem is undergoing a massive structural change.

Human-written content gains value faster for LLM training than for end consumers as the pure profit licensing deals between LLM developers and publishers show.

Publishers struggle to survive from digital subscriptions but get millions that go straight to their bottom line for providing training data.

Content platforms, social networks, SaaS companies and consumer apps coat their products with AI. A few examples:

  • Spotify DJ (AI-generated playlist).
  • AI Overview (AI answers in Google Search).
  • Instagram AI personas (celebrity AI chatbots).
  • Ebay’s magical listing (turn a photo into a listing).
  • Redfin Redesign (try interior designs on real house pictures).
Image Credit: Kevin Indig

The quality of machine-generated content (MGC) challenges human-generated content (HGC). I ran an experiment with my Twitter and LinkedIn followers: I asked them to choose which of two articles was written by a human and which by a machine – and they had to explain their answer.

Only a handful of people figured out that AI wrote both pieces. I intentionally framed the question in a leading way to see if people would challenge the setting or believe that one piece was written by a human if told so.

  • Not an isolated experiment: A survey of 1,900 Americans found that 63.5% of people can’t distinguish between AI content and human content.1
  • People seek help: Google search demand for [ai checker] has reached 100,000 in May 2024 (Glimpse).
  • Dark side: scammers use MGC to make money, as 77% of AI scam victims lost money.2
Search demand for AI checkerImage Credit: Kevin Indig

The quality level of LLMs pushes SEO work towards automating workflows and learning with AI, while writers will take content from good to great instead of zero to one.

Boost your skills with Growth Memo’s weekly expert insights. Subscribe for free!

How AI Changes The Work Of SEOImage Credit: Lyna ™

System Builders

Clients, podcasters and panel hosts often ask me what skills SEOs need to build for the AI future. For a long time, my answer was to learn, stay open-minded and gain as much practical experience with AI as possible.

Now, my answer is SEOs should learn how to build AI agents and workflows that automate tasks. AI changes the way search works but also the way SEOs work.

AI + No-code Allows SEOs To Automate Workflows

A few examples:

1/ Cannibalization

  • Old world: SEOs download search console data and create pivot tables to spot keyword cannibalization.
  • New world: SEOs build an AI workflow that sends alters, identifies true keyword cannibalization, makes content suggestions to fix the problem, and monitors the improvement.

2/ Site Crawling

  • Old world: SEOs crawl websites to find inefficiencies in internal linking, status code errors, duplicate content, etc.
  • New world: SEOs build an AI agent that regularly crawls the site and automatically suggests new internal links that are shipped after human approval, fixes broken canonical tags and excludes soft 404 errors in the robots.txt.

3/ Content Creation

  • Old world: SEOs do keyword research and write content briefs. Writers create the content.
  • New world: SEOs automate keyword research with AI and create hundreds of relevant articles as a foundation for writers to build on.

All of this is already possible today with AI workflow tools like AirOps or Apify, which chain agents and LLMs together to scrape, analyze, transform data or create content.

Moving forward, we’ll spend much more time building automated systems instead of wasting time on point analyses and catalogs of recommendations. The SEO work will be defining logic, setting rules, prompting and coding.

building automated systems Building workflows with AirOps (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

You Can Learn (Almost) Anything With AI

I never made the time to really learn Python or R, but with the help of Chat GPT and Gemini in Colab, I can write any script with natural language prompts.

When the script doesn’t work, I can paste a screenshot into Chat GPT and describe the issue to get a solution. AI helps with Regex, Google Sheets/Excel, R, Python, etc. Nothing is off-limits.

Being able to write scripts can solve problems like data analysis, a/b testing and using APIs. As an SEO, I’m no longer dependent on engineers, data scientists or writers to perform certain tasks. I can act faster and on my own account.

I’m not the only one to figure this out. People are learning to code, write and many other skills with AI. We can learn to build AI workflows by asking AI to teach us.

Search demand for coding with AI is explodingImage Credit: Kevin Indig
Search demand for write with AI is explodingImage Credit: Kevin Indig
Search demand for learn with AI is explodingImage Credit: Kevin Indig

When you can learn almost anything, the only limit is time.

The Work Of Writers Changes

Against common belief, writers won’t be crossed out of this equation but will play the critical role of editing, directing and curating.

In any automated process, humans QA the output. Think of car assembling lines. Even though AI content leaps in quality, spot checks reduce the risk of errors. Caught issues, such as wrong facts, weird phrasing or off-brand wording, will be critical feedback to fine-tune models to improve their output.

Instead of leg work like writing drafts, writers will bring AI content from good to great. In the concept of information gain, writers will spend most of their time making a piece outstanding.

The rising quality work spans from blog content to programmatic content, where writers will add curated content when searches have a desire for human experience, such as in travel.

A mini guide to Los AngelesTripadvisor’s attraction pages feature human-curated sections. (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

Unfair Advantage

As often with new technology, a few first-mover people and companies get exponential value until the rest catch up. My worry is that a few fast-moving companies will grab massive land with AI.

And yet, this jump in progress will allow newcomers to challenge incumbents and get a fair chance to compete on the field.

AI might be a bigger game changer for SEOs than for Google. The raw power of AI might help us overcome challenges from AI Overviews and machine learning-driven algorithm updates.

But the biggest win might be that SEOs can finally make something instead of delivering recommendations. The whole value contribution of SEOs changes because my output can drive results faster.

Survey: ChatGPT and AI Content – Can people tell the difference?

Artificial Intelligence Voice Scams on the Rise with 1 in 4 Adults Impacted


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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