How To: Remove Paid Links Without Hurting Your Search Engine Rankings

When it comes to search engine rankings, we all know that one of the major search engine ranking factors is how many links you have to your website. Especially text links that include the keywords your trying to rank for in the anchor text. So, if you want to rank well for “red widgets”, then having lots of links with “red widgets” in the anchor text pointing to your site will help your search engine rankings. It helps so much that many site owners have bought text links to their website. So, why would you want to remove paid links to your website? Especially if those paid links are helping your website’s organic, or natural search engine rankings?

Buying Links

It is pretty common knowledge nowadays that buying text links is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and can get your website penalized in the organic search results. Google says specifically that “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.” We have seen that even a large well-known website’s search engine rankings can plummet when their paid link strategy is exposed.

There are several reasons why you would want to get rid of paid links to your website:

  • The Cost of Paid Links. It is, over the long run, cheaper to get rid of the paid links than to have to pay for links every month. Links are usually paid for on a monthly basis.
  • Search Engine Ranking Problems. Your website has been penalized in the search engines because of paid links. You were enjoying great search engine rankings for the major keywords that you’re wanting to rank for–and now your website’s rankings have dried up. You’re losing out on a lot of visitors and sales.
  • The Fear of Getting Banned or Penalized. I have not seen a lot of websites lately that have been fully banned from the search engine results because of paid links. However, I have talked to a lot of website owners who have been severely penalized because of paid links. It ruins their online business. So, if you are paying for text links to your website, there is a real potential for getting penalized. Your website may not recover that quickly from it. Now is the time to start getting rid of the paid links to your site.

How do you remove paid links without hurting your search engine rankings?

The strategy for getting rid of the paid links will depend on your current situation. If your website has been penalized for paid links, then you need one particular strategy for recovery. If you have not been penalized yet for paid links, but are fearful that you could be penalized, then I recommend a different strategy for dealing with the paid links.

Removing Paid Links if Your Website is Penalized

There are a few ways to determine if your website is penalized in the organic search results because of paid links. Obviously, you should know whether or not you are paying for links or not. One indication of a problem due to paid links is a sudden drop in traffic and non-branded keyword referrals to your website. Check you search engine rankings. If you were found for certain keywords and not you’re not, then that is one indication. A check of your website’s analytics will also be a clue: a sudden drop in traffic at one particular date and time, along with the keyword referrals being mostly branded–whereas the keywords referrals were mostly non-branded keywords. Here is how you should deal with your paid links in this situation:

First and foremost, you absolutely must get a good handle on all of the links to your website. You should be monitoring this on a regular basis already, but in this case you need to use a few tools (using more than one tool will make sure you get all the links) to download all of your links. I prefer to make a master list of links using Microsoft Excel and keeping track of them there.

Download all of the links to your website using these tools:

  • Google Search Console
  • Open Site Explorer
  • Majestic

For Google Search Console, you must verify your site first. Then, download all of the links to your site and pull them into your spreadsheet.

For Open Site Explorer, I recommend using the paid version which requires an Moz monthly membership. There are a lot of other SEO-related tools, so you may find this useful for other SEO tasks. Download all of the links, including the anchor text, to your site. Add them to your spreadsheet.

For Majestic, I recommend verifying your site ownership that allows you to get access to all of your site’s links. The site’s linking data is available for free if you verify your site–I recommend a monthly membership plan, that allows you to get links to your competitors and access to their other SEO tools. Also, you’ll want to get both the list of historic links to your site and the “fresh” links to your site.

Once you have a list of the links, you’ll want to sort the list and remove the duplicates. I recommend using several different sources here because not all of them are going to have all of the links. This just makes sure you get most of them.

You’ll want to make sure that you start sorting your spreadsheet and keeping track of the following data:

  • URL
  • Majestic Trust Flow
  • Majestic Citation Flow
  • Moz Domain Authority
  • Moz Page Authority
  • Anchor Text
  • Date found

The Majestic Trust Flow and Citation Flow is not as important here, but it does give some sort of indication quality, so you can deal with the links that are higher quality links first. Having more data like this just helps you set priorities when dealing with links. In any case, the URL, Anchor Text, and Date found are all important.

Obviously, if your website has been penalized and you’re certain that it’s because of paid links, then you’ll want to stop paying for those links, and get them removed. Keep in mind that just because you stop paying for a links doesn’t actually mean that the link has been removed. You’ll need to verify that the link has actually been removed. Some webmasters are just lazy and won’t take your link down, and there are other cases where it’s more difficult to remove links, especially if they are site-wide links.

Next Steps

So what’s the next step? Remove all of the links, notify Google that they’ve been removed (using Google Webmaster Tools), and start replacing the links. Once the links are removed, you’ll need to keep track of them so that you can replace each one of those links with a non-paid link that is of equal quality. For example, if you had a text link from a Trust Flow 30, then you’ll want to get a non-paid link from a Trust Flow 30 or higher page. To make sure that it’s replace properly, you’ll want the link to be on a page that has the same topic. And, this is where the ‘date found’ factor comes into play.

Keeping track of the “date found” parameter here is important. I truly believe that the length of time that a link has been in place could be a search engine ranking factor. So, if you’ve only had a link for a month, then that would be different than if you have had a link for 3 years. If you’re replacing links, you have to realize that even if you replace the paid link you’ve had for 3 years with a non-paid link right now, it may take 3 years until you see the same exact type of search engine ranking impact that the 3 year old paid link had.

The process for replacing your paid links is fairly simple (but can be difficult and time consuming). Work off of a spreadsheet to get yourself organized. Get a good handle on all of the links to your website, and mark them as paid or non-paid. Use other factors and the original date to determine the quality of the links. Use your budgeted money for the paid text links to create content (or hire a writer) to create content that can be placed on other sites that include the text links to your site.

Removing Paid Links Before Your Website is Penalized

The process for removing the paid links to your website if your site isn’t penalized yet is pretty much the same as if your website has been penalized. However, the key here is to make sure that you do not remove all of the paid links all at once–which could have a big impact on your search engine rankings. So, what you’ll want to do is get a good handle on all of the links to your website: and then start removing and replacing them slowly, over time. Replace the paid links with links that are equal in topic, Trust Flow, anchor text, and age.

Having a few paid links to your website is not going to be a problem, most of the time. As long as your entire link profile (all of the links pointing to your website) are not made up of one type of link, you’re not going to see search engine ranking problems. But, to be on the safe side, I don’t recommend paid links–especially when you can use other methods of getting links to your website.

Remember, any and all paid links, especially “sponsored links” need to include the “nofollow” link attribute on them. They need to be visibly marked somehow that they’re a sponsored link, as the visitors need to understand that you paid for the link or the sponsorship of the mention of your website. If the paid link or sponsorship is not disclosed, your site could be penalized by Google (a manual action for unnatural links), or worse: the FTC could levy a fine.

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