Table of contents
On the 4th of October, 2014, just when Gary Illyes from Google announced that Penguin may come the following week, one of my clients contacted me about a last minute link audit. Gary said it clearly, that:
“if you disavow bad links now or as of about two weeks ago, it will likely be too late for this next Penguin refresh”.
Whenever I hear statements like this, I always take them with a pinch of salt. The re-crawling process can be speed up using the LinkResearchTools toolset and knowing that, I made the assumption that we had a 50/50 chance of saving the site before Penguin. The link profile was extremely spammy, so it was clear to me that Penguin would hit this website really hard.
The biggest challenge for us was that the website was ranking quite well. With roughly (though we didn’t know it when we started) 60 - 90% spammy links, disavowing all bad links could lead to a catastrophic dip in visibility. The other option of keeping the bad links, would increase the risk of getting hit by Penguin considerably. At the end of the day, we decided to do the right thing by proceeding with a full link cleanup; leaving no spam behind.
To save the domain, we divided the entire process into a few different stages, then implemented an "all hands on deck" approach; with Łukasz, from my team, and I working really hard to finish all the manual work the quickest way possible. In addition to the "all hands on deck" strategy, Łukasz had to implement a "no sleep" approach for 2 nights in a row to push this audit through as soon as possible :).
Let me share our workflow with you guys as I think that what we managed to accomplish is quite interesting and unexpected.
If you are still hesitant about reading this case, then here’s a little spoiler - I will be explaining how we managed to increase the visibility of our customer by 187% within 10 days!
Now, let me present the case study and our workflow step by step.
Stage 1 - Link Audit
The link audit is the most important, yet time-consuming aspect of the entire process. In order to give you an overall idea; the cost of disavowing 10 great links for your customer lies anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000. For the sake of clarity, another extreme example which I have experienced is an instance with one of my clients, which saw link audits with tons of good links disavowed; including Gizmodo, Techcrunch and Huffington Post!
A good link audit is made-up of 20% strategy, 20% knowledge, and then 60% accuracy and patience.
Elimination of all spammy links and preserving the ranking of the domain as best possible.
The link profile was mostly made-up of:
- SEO directories
- Spammy, duplicated articles
- Mass forum spam
- Comment spam
This was one of those link audits, where we weren’t actually looking for bad links. The link profile was so bad, we were actually only hoping to keep a few good links for our client.
Link audit workflow:
- Finding as many backlinks as possible, using Google Webmaster Tools, LinkResearchTools, Ahrefs, SEO Spy Glass and scrapers (we manually footprint patterns from backlink profiles to get more links).
- Analyzing the niche's toxicity and competitor's link profiles.
- Diagnosing all the bad links without disavowing any good ones. We checked every single link going to the domain manually.
- Adjusting the link profile to the niche.
We used many different tools in gathering links, and then process them before the audit. After that, we employed LinkResearchTools – Link Detox Tool as our main tool in proceeding with the audit. There is no other tool on the market that we have found more useful and quicker to carry out a link audit.
Reviewing all the links manually in Link Detox Screener.
Keep in mind please, that you need to manually review every single backlink pointing to your website. There is no tool that can do that for you. Some (like LinkResearchTools can help you order the process in a logical way, cutting down the time significantly).
Basic domain info
Unfortunately, my client didn't want to share his domain name with the public, but let me share some of the data about the domain.
- Italian market
- Nationwide coverage
- Medium competitive niche
- 785 referring domains
- 84500 referring links
- ~4000 indexed pages
- 3 years on the market
- Black hat link building past
Let me show you the percentage of spammy links vs "OK" links.
Percentage of disavowed domains
Overall, my client's domain had 785 referring domains and after manually going through all of them, we disavowed 522 domains (!). This equals 66% of the total referring domains.
Overall link profile after the audit
Looking at both the do-follow and no-follow links, we ended up with 260 links from 136 domains.
Do-follow links left
Looking at only the do-follow links left, we ended up with 85 do-follow links from 47 referring domains, compared to about 85,000 links from 785 referring domains before we started with the audit.
My main concern was that after disavowing 99.7% of the backlinks, the domain was going to drop in rankings completely. Disavowing so many links is always a difficult decision; however, I still always recommend doing the right thing by disavowing all spammy links. I advised them to invest in content a little bit more and replace all the bad links with good, natural ones; of course not in the scale of thousands. On October 7th, 2014, the disavow was submitted and we started with the second phase of the "Penguin 3.0 intervention".
Stage 2 - crawling and indexation
After finishing with the manual link audit, our main goal was for Google to acknowledge the disavow file we've created and ignore all the bad links pointing to the domain of our client. We of course couldn't have known that Penguin 3.0 would be launched on the 17th of October, 2014, exactly 10 days after submitting the disavow file (the first ever submission for the domain, there was no history of disavowing links before).
Making Google re-crawl and in the best possible scenario re-index all the backlinks before Penguin 3.0 rollout.
Before I begin, it is imperative to state that this is 100% white hat. Of course, not something that Matt Cutts or John Mueller would advise, but we did not building any links, neither did we go against Google’s Guidelines at any period during this whole process!
- Exporting all the links we gathered and then scrape before the link audit.
- De-duplicating the links and then exporting to a single TXT file.
- Using our toolset to "help" Google re-crawl all the URLs.
Do not forget to re-crawl all the dead and removed links as well. Google needs to re-crawl the links to "realize" that they are dead/removed.
OK, so we've gathered all the backlinks we had. As I mentioned, we used many sources in getting the links. With Link Detox, you do not need to worry about de-duplicating backlinks as the tool does it for you. We could export the de-duplicated links from our Link Detox project report, but they are filtered (default site-wide filter set to a maximum of 5 links per domain). With the backlinks re-indexing, I prefer working on a full link profile to increase the chances of Google re-crawling the backlinks.
De-duplicating the links with ScrapeBox
I described using ScrapeBox for your SEO workflow in my guest post or LinkResearchTools already, so I will not be explaining it in detail here. However, I will be highlighting only one part as it regarding de-duplicating the link lists.
- Start ScrapeBox
- Click “Import URL list”
- Click Paste/Add from Clipboard (or “Import and add to current list” if you want to import from a TXT file).
- Repeat with each of the lists you have
- After you’ve pasted all the URLs, click Remove/Filter
- Click Remove Duplicate URLs
Once that was complete we were done with the de-duplication of our link list. This way, we got all the URLs unique and tidy. Now we needed to either copy them to notepad or export to TXT file.
Re-crawling all the backlinks
The next step was to give Google a helpful push to re-crawl all the backlinks. Remember, re-crawl all the backlinks regardless of them being good or bad. Also, do not re-index your disavow file as this is a common mistake, but the actual backlinks. All of them!
There is a wide selection of tools, but you really need to watch-out for the ones that you use. You don't want them to create any backlinks or harm the domains linking to you in any way. With Link Detox Boost you are guaranteed that nothing harmful will be done, and it is exactly why we used it.
The workflow here is quite easy. Most of the indexing work is done automatically. Just to make sure all the links are re-crawled, you can submit the links every day for a few days.
Link Detox Boost
Link Detox Boost is probably the most powerful tool among all the indexers on the market.
Link Detox boost is the only tool that can actually show if the link was re-crawled by Google bot.
I am not aware of any other tool that can give you the exact time of Google's re crawl. This, in addition to the fact that the tool comes from an authority source (LinkResearchTools), definitely makes it the top indexing tool on the market.
So what we did was a full re-crawl of all links to our client’s domain. Just to be on the safe side, we did it twice.
We managed to upload the disavow file on October 21st, 9:17 PM CET (+1). exactly 3 days after Pierre’s announcement saying it is too late. So we were too late + 3 extra days.
We saw major ranking shifts after uploading disavow files; both upward and downward shifts. Still, this was one of the most significant jumps we had.
As you can see from the image above, uploading the disavow file caused a drop in rankings (due to disavowing 99.7% of the backlinks). Fortunately, our client (a marketing agency from Italy) did work with us a few times before and trusted our judgment to go ahead with such a drastic move.
The situation changed after Penguin 3.0 release date.
As you can see, visibility spiked by 189%! What is most interesting is the fact that the recovery was so spectacular, it actually beat the historic visibility record of this domain!
The funny thing is that the marketing agency managing this website contacted me after reading “Google: Penguin Refresh May Come As Early As Next Week” post on Search Engine Land. They said they really care about this domain and that it is ranking well. Our job was to secure rankings, but by accident we achieved a 187% visibility raise.
The case presented here is an extreme one for sure. Completing a huge link audit within three days, then going on to disavow 99,7% of backlinks makes this almost a legendary one.
Christoph C. Cemper can confirm that when he introduced Link Detox Boost, I was one of the most skeptical LinkResearchTools professionals to use it. Explaining what Link Detox Boost does to my clients wasn’t easy and it seemed like some kind of “magic trick” to help with the recovery. This case proves that it really works and even SEOs with low faith in it (like myself), should give it a try.
This case study was written by Bartosz Góralewicz, CEO at Elephate, and proud user of LinkResearchTools and Link Detox.
A word from Christoph C. Cemper
When in the beginning of October 2014 Gary Illyes from Google announced that Penguin 3.0 is practically knocking at our doors, rumors were that it might have already been too late for a backlink clean-up. However, I have been preaching for years that if you have the right tools and if you’re willing to go the extra mile, SEOs actually DO have the power to make things change.
If your backlink profile is risky, you have to start cleaning up asap. Get rid of all bad links, disavow links that cannot be removed and use Link Detox Boost to speed up the Google bot. In a 72 hour night-shift, Bartosz and Lukasz proved that hard work pays off!
So the moral of the story is:
Don’t waste time and get started asap, and you will succeed. Try it out for yourself and let us know in the comments how it’s working for you.
Bartosz Góralewicz and Łukasz Kalus from Elephate have been sharing their fantastic success stories with us for many years now.
Elephate is a Certified LRT Agency. This certification allows Elephate to receive consulting leads from us.
Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our Certified LRT Professionals, Xperts, and Agencies are key to achieving this goal.
I look forward to Bartosz’s future work, and I personally recommend working with him whenever you get the opportunity.