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Guide to Link Pruning & Toxic Link Removal

Guide to Link Pruning & Toxic Link Removal
Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes have forced websites and internet marketing agencies to drastically change their linking strategies. If these companies were unable to get the hint when their clients’ sites fell in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) rankings, then the notifications of unnatural inbound links through Webmaster Tools (WMT) makes it pretty clear that website administrators are responsible for their linking profiles. Essentially, Google is forcing administrators and SEO experts to focus on obtaining an organic linking profile. If you have been slapped with these penalties or have seen your site drop in rankings, it is time to look at your linking profile and make some changes. Even if you have not seen a drop in rankings or been notified of unnatural links, it is time to start “link pruning” your site’s link profile of poor, toxic, or suspicious links and creating a solid linking profile. This post will help you create a workflow where you’ll be able to determine what links should be removed, how to go about it, and also present a few free and proprietary tools to help you in your link removal journey.

What are Poor, Toxic, or Suspicious links?

The first thing you need to do is to find out what links are responsible for your penalty or WMT notification. A majority of these links will be obvious as they are either spammy, belong to poor IP neighborhoods, have duplicate content, malware, etc. The basic fundamentals are usually the best ways to determine a good or bad linking profile, and returning to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines is a great place to start.

Quality guidelines

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field

Advanced quality guidelines

In other words, refrain from doing the following:
  • Automatically generated content
  • Participating in link schemes
  • Cloaking
  • Sneaky redirects
  • Hidden text or links
  • Doorway pages
  • Scraped content
  • Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value
  • Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
  • Creating pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware
  • Abusing rich snippets markup
  • Sending automated queries to Google
  • Domain location
  • IP Address shares a neighborhood with known suspicious websites
  • Low/No Pagerank
  • Poor HTML structure

Additional criteria

If your website or a client’s site uses or abuses any of these, or is linked to from websites that do this, then that is enough of a flag to request a link removal. When you go through your WMT or other proprietary link services, most of the links you’ll want to remove will be obvious as their domain name alone will abuse the above guidelines.

Link Removal Chart

Link Evaluation Flow Chart

Bruce Clay has a great flow chart on how to determine the value of a link.

Bruce Clay has a Link Removal Link Chart which offers a workflow for manually determining whether it is worth the time to contact a website administrator to remove a link before the Disavow tool is used. This is a great chart for links that are not easily recognizable as toxic or poor. Essentially, this chart offers a quick way to determine the quality of a link, and which of three actions should be done:
  • Ignore
  • Request change of anchor text
  • Request removal of link or nofollow

Link Pruning / Removal Process

After you have determined what links have disparaged your site’s SEO campaign, it is time to do something about it.

Contacting Administrators

The first thing to do is make sincere attempts to contact the website administrator to have the links removed. Most quality sites have contact information readily available, but if you have a poor linking scheme, the sites that you’ll be dealing with more than likely do not have an email address listed. A simple WHOIS lookup should be sufficient to find at least one email to contact. The email you send should be professional and respectful, but assertive. If you can, list all the URLs on their site that point to your site to make it easy for them to locate and remove. I recommend that the first attempt to contact them via email should not include any threats such as reporting their site to Google, mentioning Google’s Disavow Tool, or legal action. Only on the second or third email should you mention reporting their site or the Disavow tool. If there is no reply or refusal to remove or change links, that is when it is time to use the Disavow tool.

Google Disavow Tool

Using the Disavow tool requires ownership status on a Webmaster Tools account and you can find more information on how to make a helpful and efficient disavow text file at their help page. This tool allows the user to create a text file with specific URLs or entire domains to be disavowed by Google. Google recommends that the user makes all attempts to contact the administrator of the site(s) that feature the potentially poor links and to have those links removed. This tool requires the user to create a text file (.txt) that list the links that need to be disavowed. Hashtags (‘#’) may be used to make comments, such as explaining attempts to reach a site’s administrator have been futile. Example text file:
# removed most links, but missed these # Contacted owner of on 7/1/2012 to # ask for link removal but got no response
I know what you’re thinking, “can’t I just add all the websites into the Disavow Tool and be done with it?” The answer is maybe. Google is not stupid, and if they can figure out that your site has an unnatural or artificial link scheme, they can figure out if you’ve made attempts to contact website administrators to have links removed, anchor text changed, or nofollowed. That is why you need to make sincere attempts to contact administrators. It is very easily for Google’s algorithms to determine whether you’ve done this by recognizing that links have been removed. However, Matt Cutts, Google head of search Spam, recently (August 7th 2013) had this to say about using the disavow tool that may indicate it’s OK to just disavow a site you don’t want to be associated with.

Disavow and Link Removal Criticism

One commenter on a SEO Roundtable post regarding spammy links suggests to continue with what Google has always said: Forget SEO and continue to write and provide great content. Furthermore, the commenter suggests returning to this golden rule because they had discovered that the time taken to create a Disavow text file was digging into the time they could have been creating new content. While creating new quality content is always good, the problem with ignoring bad links is that if you received a warning directly from Google then action must take place. In other words, creating new content or continuously working to make your website better for the end-user is always a priority, but maintaining a quality linking profile is also now a priority. Making others want to link to you through their quality blogs is a great way to quality backlinks.

Link Removal Tools

As you can tell, this is a lengthy process. You’ve already taken the time to find the hundreds or even thousands of poor quality sites linking to your own, and now you have to contact these sites or create a disavow tool. Below are a few tools that will assist in finding which links are toxic, finding contact information, and help in the process of keeping up with link removals.

Link Detox

( Link Detox is a subsidiary of LinkResearchTools, a well-known link research company with a variety of tools to help SEOs discover both good and bad links. Having a LinkResearchTool account provides you with a set number of credits to use the Link Detox tool. If you do not have a LinkResearchTool account and prefer to use your own proprietary link research tool, Link Detox tool only prices range from $79 to $1799 per month. Below is a run down of their services as taken from their Get Started PDF.


  • Crawls data live using up to 22 sources, including SEOMoz, Sistrix, and their own proprietary database. The 22 sources have to be provided by the proprietary service’s API.
    • Option to let Link Detox know if your site received a “unnatural link warning” from Google
    • Option to upload a list of links
    • Option to upload a list of links already submitted to Google’s Disavow tool
    • Classifies links as either Healthy, Suspicious, Toxic
    • Data can organized with filters and downloaded
    • Finds the website administrator’s email address

Link Health Criteria

Link Detox uses “very common spam link rules” to identify bad links, but admits that there can be some fault.


( Free to $99/month Rmoov focuses on contacting website administrators and maintaining the status of links removed. The user must supply a list of links to be removed.
  • Add a list of URLs
  • Pulls contact information for each domain
  • Customize email templates
  • Creates and sends emails
  • Follow up and reminders
  • Automatically checks links and updates reports
  • Exports reports to Google Docs


( $249 (Self-serve, one site) This is supposed to be an all-in-one tool that helps discover bad links, find contact information, and maintain a report of actions taken.
  • Discovers bad links using Majestic SEO, SEOMoz, Aherfs, Strike Iron as sources
  • Creates a database to easily contact website administrators
    • Email personas – perfect for agencies
    • Searches sites for emails and/or contact pages
    • Allows you to insert your own email if one is found
    • Not a simple solution to contact obtuse directories where contact information requires whois lookup
    • Report/Status page
None of the tools found seem to truly be an all-in-one solution. Each of the solutions offer a function that will attempt to find an email or contact page in order to make contact website administrators easily. This feature will save the most time, as taking the time to develop an email that is sincere, honest, and helpful to the administrator takes time to send and track. However, in my experience, like directories and suspicious websites usually do not have contact pages or easily identifiable contact information. In order to find this contact information a Whois lookup is the next best step. Most of these services then allow you to insert an email found in a whois lookup. Remoove’em is the only site that identifies all of the sources used into their link discovery tool, and Rmoov does not offer link discovery.


To reiterate the workflow should go:
  1. Discover poor, bad, suspicious links
  2. Determine whether the links need to be removed, changed, nofollowed
  3. Contact
    1. Change anchor text
    2. Change to nofollow
    3. Remove link
  4. Disavow
    1. If there is no response from contact, disavow links.
    2. Rinse and repeat
Link removals and damage control should not just be an afterthought or a response to a warning from Google, but might be considered a part of a traditional SEO campaign, perhaps even considered before ranking degradation and warnings are issued. It is interesting to note that Google and WC3 have differing opinions on what a link means. Google, according to their Disavow help page, states that a “link from a site is regarded as a vote for the quality of your site.” WC3 on the other hand suggests that, at least for humans, links do not represent an endorsement. If Google is right, a blogger’s poor review and link to that product or service denotes a positive endorsement even if they are unhappy or critical of that product or service. To add insult to injury, several link directory networks are now charging to have your links removed from their entire link networks. It’s a tragic way to tell SEOs who have already damaged their reputation by generating incalculable amount of links from directories that now they have to pay these same directories to remove said links. If this post says anything, it shows the importance of creating solid relationships with other websites and creating a great content, product, or services that people are going to want to share or write about. Thinking of links as word of mouth endorsement rather than a quantifiable formula is a much better way to go about building links. So how are you going about link pruning? Have your results gotten better, worse, or stayed the same?

  1. Shaun

    actually link scheme and doorway pages are really gray here. I’ve seen many of them create a simple landing page and link to their actual site. The landing page with EMD rank very high up in serps.

    link scheme, not sure. i thought all link building strategies are considered link scheme?

    • Aaron Weiss

      No, link schemes are beyond a gray area, they are specifically black hat. But what you’re talking about and the concept of link schemes that Google’s Guidelines are discussing are two different things. There is nothing wrong with creating a landing page–a page designed to generate a conversion–and linking back to the main website. If you have a separate domain that hosts the landing page and you’re link to the main site, that’s bordering on gray areas.

      Not all link building is a link scheme. What happens if you submit a press release with an important announcement of a new product or service? What if outlets find that interesting and choose to pick that up and publish it on their own website? That’s not a link scheme, that’s helping people find a solution to their problem, and another website understanding that value.


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