When I contacted the SEOs here, I did show them a specific example, which was a link left in a comment on a three year old post.

The request was annoying, since I had to hunt out the link myself, all wasting time. I haven’t removed it yet by the way. 

As the comments suggest, there is a theoretical risk that refusing such requests forces people to use the disavow tool, and that a number of such disavowels around one site may be a signal for Google. 

While we are inclined to say no to these requests, as we have never added links to reasons other than relevancy or providing credit for sources, this ‘threat’ has to be considered. 

Why are we seeing more of these link removal requests? 

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at LBi:

Site owners will be seeing more link removal questions because Google is getting very aggressive about discounting poor quality links and is increasingly transparent about it.

Combine this with the knowledge that ‘a link is a link’ was a popular expression among SEOs for years, although thankfully not all of them. The result is a situation where there are many poor quality links, placed by people paid to help SEO and now either scrambling to recover or being paid to remove other agencies old links.

That’s still not the full picture. We’ve seen huge, trusted sites that probably have never engaged in any rule breaking SEO attempts receive these warnings.

For example, the BBC webmaster team picked up such a warning. I believe it’s now entirely possible for big brands to receive link warnings when they have never actively done anything wrong.

In these cases the links in question have been generated simply because the site in question is run by a big brand.

Rishi Lakhani, Online marketing consultant:

Paranoia, and whats more, Google MAY be highlighting these, not as a reflection on Econsultancy, but on the type of link building these companies are doing.

In this specific instance, the link you highlighted, is a redirect. Previously used by them to rank for ‘search engine optimisation’. Most likely they now have had a penalty for using a redirect to rank, and are trying to clean up the redirect domain links.

If it would be me, I would just remove that redirect, and for an SEO agency to approach you in this way, its pretty daft.

Nichola Stott, Owner at themediaflow:

In January and February of 2012 alone, Google sent over 700,000 “notice of detection of unnatural linking” emails to webmasters and didn’t stop then.

Essentially the emails warn that Google has detected that the site is using manipulative practises to build links, designed to pass PageRank. If the warnings are unheeded the site in question will then be hit by a penalty shortly after.

Webmasters with unnatural links in their backlink profile are warned that they should take steps to remove such.

In addition, quite possibly partially informed by data collected in the mass clean-ups that have occurred, Google has continued to de-index identified link farms and networks and of course has now created an algorithm (Penguin) to detect and demote sites that currently benefit from an artificially inflated backlink profile.

Are the ‘webmasters’ in question being super-cautious or is it possible that links from our blog may be causing problems for them? 

Andrew Girdwood: 

It is always good to be cautious and SEOs should always use the word ‘may’. The links from Econsultancy that are marked ‘nofollow’ are unlikely to be a problem.

However, if a site is marked for a warning because it has a disproportionate amount of links in relation to other signals (social, etc) or in terms of quality then the site in question may well be able to address the balance by trying to get Econsultancy to drop the backlinks. 

After all, a link in a 2009 archived blog post is far more likely to be mid-quality than high-quality and it’s certainly not fresh. We can only speculate as to which exact signals are analysed by Google in determining whether a link passes muster or not.

That’s why modern SEO needs to be multi-signal SEO.

Rishi Lakhani: 

A bit of both, but in the latter, your links arent hurting them per se, its the way they built those links.

Nichola Stott, themediaflow:

In many cases it may not always be the webmaster that is involved in the clean-up activity.

Many link-sellers and building agencies have evolved their business model to offer their service in reverse, so a small fee per link removed as opposed to link placed.

In many cases those involved in the manual removal process will not have the technical/analytical skills to identify which of the links are causing the problems. In the case of Econsultancy I’d say that those approaching you are ill-informed.

What is the best way to identify links which may be seen as dubious by Google?  

Andrew Girdwood: 

If there’s any history of paid links, chase that first. There’s very often a paper trail even if it’s just PayPal receipts.  

After that then you need to have some SEO knowledge to assess sites. It’s unlikely, for example, that nofollow links from a site that ranks well are dodgy compared to links from a scrape blog network.

There are some tools to watch. There’s Link Detox from Cemper and LinkRisk for example. 

James McCann, Head of SEO at Search Laboratory:

The best way to determine whether or not a link is toxic, is to look at it and ask yourself whether or not it adheres to the webmaster guidelines on links.

Scaling that process up for domains with large link numbers can be a problem though. It’s best to get as much link data as possible from webmaster tools, Open site explorer and Majestic then sort by domain authority, trying to wean out the spam.

This can be pretty cumbersome though which inevitably (as you’ve probably seen) could lead to some people throwing the baby out with the bathwater or sending removal requests to non-offending links.

Nichola Stott, themediaflow:

This is ridiculously easy: is there a genuine reason for that link to be there?

If there’s a piece of content which contains a link that relates to the theme of the content, and leads to a page which offers additional information or further context then that’s a perfect reason.

If there’s a piece of content about dog-friendly beaches, which has a footer sentence that states “get your holiday insurance from [Company Name]” then there’s absolutely no reason for that to be there as it has at a best, a tenuous relationship to the content and goes off on a tangent.

People will often state that footer links are to be avoided like the plague, which is largely true but then if a website links to their host “hosted on a [Company Name] server” then again that gives a genuine reason for that link. 

At the broader end of the scale there are tools which can help identify large volumes of “toxic” links using data signals, such as the Link Detox tools.

How do you think bloggers and other sites should respond to link removal requests? 

Andrew Girdwood: 

I think bloggers should treat each request on its own merit. I know some bloggers determined to make a living off blogging and who wish to be treated as a business.

These bloggers should consider link removal requests as a business request but very much keep in mind that the action is necessary because they, the blogger, might have let standards slip.

Or it might be because some foolish agency is doing a mass mail via a WHOIS look up script on a spreadsheet of all links on pages with PageRank less than two.

I really think bloggers should avoid charging for link removal. Imagine if Google started to record those blogs too. You could end up being listed as a blog known for selling links and for charging for their removal.

That said, as a blogger I can see the frustration with someone trying to meddle with your editorial.  Sometimes it feels appropriate to ask for content to replace content.

Bloggers and site owners really need to consider the relationship with whoever is making the request and consider the merits of the favour. Do it and earn a favour? Refuse it, save some time but risk burning a bridge. 

Rishi Lakhani:

If it was my blog? I would tell them to piss off.

However for many sites, if you go in a disavow, you never know how Google will treat that info, and if too many have you in disavow maybe one day in the future you will have a problem. 

Nichola Stott, themediaflow:

Personally I would delete these requests on sight, (unless you are selling links of the “holiday insurance” type example above).

Quite seriously if a site is in the process of cleaning up a dirty profile they should be grateful to know that they have actually managed to attract good quality links somehow.

I can understand that as a blog the fear may be that your linking page or whole domain may feature in a disavow tool, but what do you think happens to that data? Do you think that Google just takes each site to include in a database of link networks without any due diligence.

Such data takes some time to process and evaluate and is almost certainly informing the next iteration of the Penguin update, just as data from human quality raters helped inform the Panda algorithm.

Is this something Google’s link disavow tool should be used for? 

Andrew Girdwood: 

The industry seems to be embracing the link disavowal tool. This means Google’s getting value from it and is likely to lean on it more. This is the typical Google approach.

Just as it’s possible that links from safe but archived content might contribute towards skewing the balance of signals a site has it is also possible that frequent mentions in the disavowal tool would be harmful to a site. This is all “may” and “possible”. 

The last I checked Google was indicating that sites mentioned in disavowal lists would not be flagged.

As a blogger, I’d still prefer to have the option of removing a link and reducing the risk of being mentioned in the disavowal request.  

My bigger, current, consideration is of third party lists being produced which attempt to call out blogs to disavow and avoid in the future (and by refusing to remove links bloggers could end up on those) as such lists would harm the blog’s chances of being included in contests, freebies, competitions and other social media projects by brands.

Nichola Stott, themediaflow:

I would recommend using the disavow tool for links that are clearly unnatural and when a direct approach has been ignored.