We paid over $5,000 for link building – what happened?

This week’s Ask an SEO question comes from Marlin at Bethel, who asks:

“I paid over $5,000 for SEO link building.

At first, traffic was stimulated.

However, we then lost our rankings on those keywords and our traffic disappeared! What happened?”

Marlin, without seeing your backlink profile, I suspect your rankings went down because Google flagged the new links as unnatural.

In other words, these links are of poor quality.

It’s not uncommon to have a boost in the beginning, as you mentioned, and then a decline.

For example, the link builder may have gotten good relevant links at first, but then moved on to lower quality links as the link opportunities dwindled.

Google provides examples of “unnatural links” in its guidelines, including:

  • Bookmark site links.
  • Poor quality directories.
  • Forum comments with optimized links.
  • Keyword-rich anchor text in articles and press releases published on sites other than your own.

You can see the full list here: Link Schemes.

Google will generally ignore these types of low quality or spammy links.

John Mueller confirmed this in January 2022 in this Twitter thread:

Rewind a few months to an October 2021 SEO office hour with Mueller when asked:

“Is the penguin penalty still relevant or are less relevant/spam/toxic backlinks being more or less ignored by the ranking algorithm these days?”

His response sheds more light on what could have happened to your site.

Mueller explained that Google usually recognizes something is problematic (i.e. spammy links) and tries to ignore it, like in the January 2022 tweet.

Yet he went on to say the following:

“If we see a very strong pattern there, it may happen that our algorithms say that we have really lost trust with this website and at the moment, based on the big picture on the web, we have to somehow being more on almost a conservative side when it comes to understanding the content of this website and ranking it in search results.

And then you can see sort of a drop in visibility there.

So what are you doing now?

What to do when your ranking drops due to poor quality links

1. Look for a manual action

That’s the first thing I would do.

You need to see if there is a manual action in Google Search Console.

If someone at Google has manually reviewed your website and found that your site does not meet Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines, you will be faced with a manual action.

This means that Google will take steps to remove what it considers spam from search results.

The message will tell you what the problem is and you need to act quickly to fix it.

To find out if you have a manual action, go to Google Search Console > Security and manual actions > Manual actions to verify.

If you don’t see a manual action in Google Search Console, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.

You may still be affected by Google’s algorithm and will need to fix problematic links.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Remove low quality links

See Google’s recommended steps if you’ve received a manual action for unnatural links; see Recommended actions for unnatural links to your site.

The best thing to do if you determine that your site’s rankings are being impacted by bad links – whether you take manual action or suspect an algorithmic impact – is to have the links physically removed from the sites in question.

You will need to contact those websites to remove the links.

It’s a tedious process, and most of the time other websites will ignore your request.

If you can’t remove these links, use Google’s disavow tool.

Basically, if it looks like these links are harming your site, try cleaning them up, including disavowing them.

Be very careful with the disavow tool, however.

I’ve seen people disavowing authoritative and helpful links to the site.

See Google’s disclaimer:

“If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results.

We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe there are a significant number of unwanted, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are convinced that the links are causing you problems.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how you know if a link should be removed or not.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to reviewing and identifying problematic backlinks: Too Many Links: Disavow and Cleanup Strategies.

As I mentioned before, this is a tedious but necessary process if poor quality links are affecting your rankings.

Once you’ve cleaned everything up, focus on getting relevant, high-quality links.

3. Focus on Relevant, High-Quality Links

There are many ways to get good links pointing to your website.

Some tactics are easier than others, like reaching out to websites that have already mentioned your business but weren’t linked (i.e. unlinked brand mentions) or recovering lost backlinks.

Other tactics are more complex and time-consuming, like creating a tool or guide, but they can be worth the effort.

There are many creative and non-spammy ways to attract links.

If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out Search Engine Journal’s Link Building Guide.

Marlin, it won’t be an easy process, but follow these recommended steps to regain your traffic and rankings.

More resources:


Featured image: Mix and Match Studio/Shutterstock

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