Back Link Analysis & Preserving Link Juice

This article is a more advanced topic regarding the importance of back link analyses on domains, as well as how to preserve rankings from broken back links. This article will show you how to identify Google’s Penguin penalty, how to recover by using Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) and Ahrefs, and how to prevent ‘link juice’ from being lost.

If you’re a beginner not familiar with the basics of SEO and the effect that back links can have on search rankings, I suggest you read Growing Popularity & Links by MOZ.

For you freelancers and telecommuters out there doing search engine optimization (SEO), I highly recommend investing in a good back link analysis tool.

Google’s Penguin Penalty Explained

link juice

OK, let’s get down to business. If you’ve been in the SEO sector for a while, you know the importance of ‘dofollow’ back links from high quality, authoritative domains. Link building campaigns are much less desirable nowadays, as the repercussions from Google’s Penguin penalty can wreak havoc on your site’s rankings if you get busted. Google wants to see natural links pointing to your site as a result of high quality, original, and unique content. If you have a lot of back links from spammy sites and/or submission directories in relation to the number of back links from high quality sites, your site is fair game for penalization. Google’s Penguin penalty is a site-wide penalty, meaning it negatively impacts the ranking of ALL pages on your site. If you’re not sure if your site has ever been affected by Penguin, I would first look at GWMT to see if any manual webspam actions have been taken (Search Traffic->Manual Actions). Often times Penguin penalties will be indicated there. If you don’t see a manual action taken on your site, take a look at Google Analytics and compare it with various Penguin iterations to see if there was a decline in traffic. A big shout out to MOZ for keeping track of Google’s (major) algorithm changes! Use that page in conjunction with Google Analytics to see if your site might have suffered the ‘wrath of the penguin!’ If Google Analytics shows a sharp decline in traffic on a particular day that coincides with a Penguin update on that same day, there is a high probability you were affected. If you have been affected, there’s hope, but recovery takes time.

Recovering From A Penguin Penalty

If you’ve determined that you’ve suffered a Penguin penalty, follow the steps below to try and restore your rankings. Keep in mind that until Google rolls out another Penguin update (a.k.a ‘refresh’), the changes you make now will not immediately be reflected. The recovery process could take months. There is no magical formula for finding the toxic back links, however, tools such as Ahrefs makes it a bit easier.

  1. Go to Ahrefs and enter your domain (i.e. and search for links.
  2. Select Inbound Links->Links.
  3. Click the ‘DOFOLLOW’ link at the top. Dofollow links pass page rank, so we’re only concerned with these.
  4. Select the ‘Export’ button to export the data into a CSV file. Generally you’ll see an indicator in the ‘page’ icon in the upper right of Ahrefs when your file is ready to be downloaded. Download the file once it’s ready.
  5. Ahrefs ranks pages as well as domains. The ‘Ahrefs Rank’ is their ranking score for the given URL. What you’ll want to do now is sort by ‘Ahrefs Rank’ in ascending order.
  6. Delete all rows in the CSV file whereby the Ahrefs Rank is > 30. This will leave you with a list of potentially harmful back links. According to Ahrefs, a rank of < 31 means that the URL is unpopular. Save this file as ‘ToxicLinks.csv.’
  7. Check for Sitewide links. Sitewide links are links to your site that show up on every page of the referring domain. Often times this is unintentional, such as links in widgets or footers, but nonetheless, can hurt your rankings. Click on the ‘SITEWIDE’ menu option in Ahrefs and select the ‘Export’ button to export any sitewide links pointing to your site. Name this file ‘Sitewide.csv.’

At this point you have two files (ToxicLinks.csv and Sitewide.csv) with potentially harmful pages/domains pointing to your site. It is up to you which of those pages/domains you no longer want Google to factor into their algorithms. The process is twofold, and involves requesting that the owner of the site remove the link(s), and informing Google to no longer consider that back link/domain in their algorithm (using Google’s Disavow tool).

Contact Site Owner To Remove Links

Though it’s not always feasible to reach out to every website owner that is linking back to you, it is a good idea to reach out to as many as possible, as Google’s Disavow tool is not used by other major search engines. When contacting the owner of the referring domain, you have a couple of options:

  1. Ask them to remove the link to your site.
  2. Ask them to set the ‘nofollow’ attribute on the link (i.e. <a href=”” rel=”nofollow” …>). This tells search engines to not pass page rank to that URL from the referring domain.

Make note of who you sent the request to, the dates, and other pertinent information that you think you might need for future reference. This will also be important for adding to your Disavow file.

Create Disavow File

Google’s Disavow Tool informs Google to not factor in the specified pages/domains into their algorithm, with regards to back links. Use this with caution, as you do not want to inadvertently disavow the good links pointing to your site.

  1. Create a text (.txt) file containing the URLs of the pages you want to disavow. You are able to disavow entire domains as well. Make sure you add comments of who you contacted, the date, and other pertinent information. Preface those lines with a ‘#’ so that they are not interpreted by the disavow tool. Those lines are considered comments. See the example below.
    # Emailed on 12/22/2014 asking that they remove me
    # Emailed on 12/23/2014 asking to remove all of my links
  2. Go to Google’s Disavow tool and select ‘Disavow Links.’ Confirm that you want to disavow the links on the next page.
  3. Browse for the text file and select submit in order to disavow.
  4. If (and only IF) you were manually penalized by Google as specified in their manual webspam actions, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request to Google.

Preserving Link Juice

As websites evolve, pages get moved or deleted, resulting in broken links. Webmasters might remember to fix the internal link structure, forgetting that there might be external links pointing to those non-existent pages. Don’t lose link juice on those back links you’ve worked so hard to obtain!

Next, we’re going to check to see which back links to your site may be broken, thus not passing valuable link juice to your site.

  1. Log into Ahrefs and do a search on the links to your site.
  2. Select Inbound Links->Broken Backlinks.
  3. If you’re only concerned with preserving the ‘Dofollow’ back links, select the ‘Dofollow’ link in the menu.
  4. Export the broken back links.
  5. At this point you have two options:
    • Do nothing and allow that back link to return a 404. Though there will not be any link juice (or page rank) passed through, this is sometimes preferable. For example, if you’re running an e-commerce site and no longer have a particular product, it might be better for the user to see a ‘not found’ page than be redirected to an irrelevant page, as it might confuse the user, causing them to leave the site.
    • Permanently redirect that broken URL to a different (but relevant) page on your site. A permanent (301) redirect will pass page rank to the permanent page, and will also index that page. Do not be concerned about losing page rank via 301 redirects, as Google’s Matt Cutts mentions in this video, there is a negligible amount of page rank that might be lost. To set up 301 redirects, you’ll need to modify the .htaccess file on the root of your server by adding the syntax below:
      # Redirect old file path to new file path
      Redirect 301 /olddirectory/oldfile.html