The landscape changed dramatically for SEOs in 2012 thanks to Google’s Penguin update, which made it more difficult to boost rankings through blatant and/or slightly dodgy SEO tactics.

A show of hands in the auditorium revealed that a decent proportion of attendees had received an unnatural link warning from Google, so spotting dodgy links is clearly a big challenge for the SEO industry.

Madden suggested the real skill for SEOs is managing the risk that comes as part of any link profile and suggested there are two types of link profiles:

1. Massive brands

For major corporations the risk of being penalised is relatively low, as proved by the recent Interflora case.

“If an average customer searches for flowers in Google and Interflora doesn’t show up they’re not going to think that Interflora has bad SEO, they’re going to think that something is wrong with Google.”

2. Everyone else

Most businesses don’t have the luxury of being protected by their brand reputation, so every link has to be evaluated to ensure it doesn’t expose the company to unnecessary risk.

Furthermore, Madden recommended that businesses only buy in link building services if the supplier can demonstrate that they are aware of the risk and can demonstrate how they guard against it.

Managing the risk

Unfortunately Google has done a good job of hiding the exact criteria it uses for identifying bad links, so much of it is a judgement call on behalf of the SEO or site owner.

It’s therefore necessary to carry out a link audit to determine which links it’s worth removing and which can be kept.

However this raises another potential problem, as removing all your bad links could potentially be as bad as not removing any at all.

Madden’s logic is that Google isn’t aware of all dodgy links and some will be contributing to your search rankings, so if you manage to identify 100 potentially dodgy links it’s likely that Google only thinks that around 20 of those links are bad.

So removing all 100 might be as bad for your rankings as getting penalised in some cases – it’s all about balancing the risk.

What to look for

Madden recommended using Majestic SEO to find a site’s link profile and identify potential risks. He said that sites that have been penalised tend to have high percentages of:

  • Precise anchor text links.
  • Site-wide links.
  • Links from suspect country code top-level domains (ccTLDs).
  • Links that 40x or 50x.

It’s also important to bear in mind that your links may come from sites that have been disavowed by someone else, which increases the risk of your link being seen as dodgy in the eyes of Google.

Madden recommended using Screaming Frog to evaluate the likelihood that your competitors or other site owners may have disavowed a site.

It’s also worth checking out LinkRisk, a tool from Paul Madden, which allows sites to analyse the level of risk in their backlink profiles.