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Jan 16

Want to Build Bulletproof Links? A Guide to Doing Press Outreach!

By Rob Woods | SEO

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Photo Credit: justas_c

So, why do you want to do press outreach anyway? Well, given all the changes that Google has made to the way we can build links over the last few years, links from the press are one of the few true good links left that will remain good for years to come. We can’t really use directories anymore and guest blogging must be done on a much smaller scale. All of the ways we used to syndicate content no longer work for building links. Now, in a nutshell, you have to deserve to earn a link, and once you actually deserve it, you need to know how to tell people that you deserve it. That’s where reaching out to journalists comes in.

Why are press links so good?

Well, in general, press sites tend to be sites that are authoritative and trustworthy as far as Google’s algorithm is concerned. They are difficult to get, are usually given because you deserve them rather than because you paid for them, and generally they have to go through at least one level of editorial oversight. Another valuable aspect of press links is that one link can lead to many links. Many sites syndicate or reprint content, especially from the big news sites, and so getting a link from one of them can frequently lead to getting a link from many.

Before we really get started on how to do press outreach there are a few things to consider:

  • Don’t just focus on getting a link. Traffic that you get from press links is also valuable. Even if you don’t get a link a mention of your website or “citation” is also a signal to the search engines that your site is valuable.
  • Doing press outreach isn’t just for big national sites. Even smaller sites can take advantage of it even if it’s on niche news sites, and local businesses can focus on local news sources.
  • Any link that is as valuable as a link from a good trustworthy press site is difficult to get (that’s why they are so valuable)
  • This kind of link building can be either very labor-intensive and/or expensive i.e., HARD WORK
  • You have to be prepared for rejection. You’re likely going to reach out to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of journalists and get very little response.

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Preparing To Do Press Outreach

Before you get started there are a few basic concepts that are critical to any press outreach campaign:

  • Have something to say: it should go without saying that if you don’t have something that’s not only interesting to you, but would be interesting to the journalists’ readers, then there isn’t much reason to reach out to the press.
  • Be newsworthy: as above, have something worth writing about. This doesn’t mean that you’ve redesigned your home page, launched a new and improved widget, or that you’re having a Black Friday sale. Have a look at the stories that get written up on the sites you’re going to approach. If you don’t have something equally newsworthy you need to start with that before you worry about how to reach out.
  • Be helpful: journalists and bloggers are extremely busy, are usually writing to a deadline, and sometimes have limited resources at their disposal. The more useful you can be to them, the more you can help them write the story, the more resources you can provide them, the more likely they’re going to be to listen to you and write about you.
  • Know your stuff: whether you’re reaching out for your own business or for a client, you must be an expert in the subject matter you are discussing with the journalist. If you seem to hesitate, don’t appear to know what you’re talking about, or don’t know more than the person you’re talking to, why would they need you as a resource that they quote in the article?

Press/Media Pages

Another step to take care of, before you get started on your outreach campaign, is to ensure you have a decent press/media page on your site. This gives you a place to send writers to find out a little bit more about you. It also serves as a bit of validation as to why you are trustworthy and to show you know what you’re talking about. There are lots of good press pages out there. I’ve included an example below of one that I was involved in building, but you’ll want to think about what elements are right for you to include. Generally a good press page includes:

  • A basic explanation of your company, what you do, what you are really good at, and who any authoritative sources are in your company
  • Proof of why you or your company are expert in your field
  • Any social proof that you are worth talking to. This may include actual numbers of followers on social media, if those are significant and impressive numbers. It may also include links to authoritative sources have written about you before. In the example below we included the logos of some trusted authoritative sites. This gives anyone who might potentially write about you some peace of mind because “these outlets have written about this company so I can probably trust that I won’t look foolish if I also quote them as a source”. One more note on referencing previous press mentions is that I would actually link to the articles that were written about you. In some cases it looks less than trustworthy to simply have logos on your site as there’s no backup as to whether the article was actually written about you or whether it was favorable.
  • Include as many ways to contact you as possible. Don’t waste a journalist’s time making them hunt down how to get In touch with you or making them jump through hoops. If possible I’d include an email address on this page that gets monitored regularly and if possible even a phone number.
  • press press page

What To Talk About

I’ve already mentioned a little bit about what not to talk about. What are good things that you should talk about? Some of the things you want to think about leveraging before you start crafting an outreach strategy for stories you could pitch to a journalist are:

  • Are there any current events related to your business or for which you can offer resources or an authoritative opinion? Current events don’t just have to be in the news. They can be sporting events, local festivals, conferences, etc.
  • Are there seasonal events coming up that you can provide resources for or for which you could provide an interview?
  • Do you have any major news about your company that is newsworthy enough for someone to write about such as a complete site relaunch, you’re launching a mobile app, etc.

Keep in mind that major events about your company are not “we’ve launched a new product” or “we’ve redesigned our homepage” unless you are a major brand. You need to have something that when looked at objectively is truly interesting enough that someone might want to write about it.

Finding Prospects To Reach Out To

There are lots of great tools to use to find writers and journalists to reach out to. Most of these require a varying level of budget and which one is right for you is really going to depend on both your financial and person-power resources.



Vocus is a very powerful marketing suite with a large range of abilities beyond just reaching out to journalists. I won’t go into all of the details of what it can do here as this is not really a product review for Vocus. For our purposes it can be very good for finding journalists, searching for them by which topic they write about, getting their contact information, and even seeing the editorial calendars of what they’re planning on writing about in the near future. One drawback of focus is that it can cost upwards of $800 per month.



Cision is a tool that colleagues of mine have used, though I haven’t ever used directly. It’s another one that’s good for finding journalists and for being able to contact them directly through the software. It’s far less a large marketing suite than is Vocus, but costs much less said about $1000 per year.

Now if like me when I first started trying to undertake press outreach you really don’t have any budget to speak of there are some other things you can do. Some of these include:

  • Finding prospects through the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)
  • Twitter
  • Back Links

Finding Prospects In The SERPS

This essentially entails simply searching for high level keyword phrases on Google that are related to your topic area. I recommend using double quotes around your search phrase when you search for more than one word such as “Cyber Monday” including the “ characters”. This allows you to find results where only both of those words appear together rather than one word or the other. From there the process is basically to comb through many pages of results looking for people who’ve written about your topic before. I would look through at least the first 10 pages of results and record any URLs where someone has written positively about your subject matter. Obviously if they’ve written with very negative opinions about the area you’re involved in you may not want to approach that person to write about you.

As an aside, if you want to learn all about how to customize your Google searches even more to narrow them to very specific results I highly recommend reading Google Power Search by Stephan Spencer, and not just because I’m the technical editor of the upcoming edition :)

There are a few tools you can use to help speed up the SERP scanning process by either automating or outsourcing this work. If you’re looking to outsource it I would look at sourcing overseas employees where you can generally get a good web researcher for approximately two or three dollars an hour from a source like Odesk. If you go that route make sure you do some research on how to find good outsourced employees. There are also some good software solutions that allow you to scrape search engine results. One, quite frequently used by spammers, but which does quickly automate the process of returning web results for a keyword search is Scrapebox.


Another solution, which is relatively new, is called Scraperr scrapes the top 500 Google results for a given query and allows you to view them or dump them into a spreadsheet like the one below. This allows you to very quickly scan for URLs that look like articles on your subject matter and ignore the rest.


Google News

Google News is another great place to do your keyword searches. It is, almost by definition, news sources that have written about your subject. It’s pretty self-explanatory – go to Google News do your keyword queries and look for likely looking articles. One nice thing that Google News has started doing fairly recently is including links directly to the authors Google+ profile, where you can sometimes find contact information for that author.


Narrowing Searches in the SERPs

For some searches you do there are going to be a huge number of results in Google. One of the things you can do is narrow down your searches to a specific news site using a query similar to “keyword phrase” e.g., “Black Friday” or “cyber Monday” has the effect of performing your search only on the specific site you are targeting.

Finding Prospects Through Back Links

I don’t often recommend mining your competitors’ back links looking for link opportunities but one place they can be useful is looking for press prospects. There are lots of good tools for going back link research including:

Essentially you’re basically looking for the same info here as in the SERPs. Look through lists of your competitors back links to see who has written about them in the past. These may be good targets for you to approach to write about you.

After You Find The Lead

After you have found an article in the SERPs you need to evaluate whether it’s a good lead.

  • Look to see if the article is favorable or speaking negatively against your subject matter.
  • What’s the date of the article? If it was written four, five, or more years ago there’s a pretty reasonable chance that whoever wrote the article is either no longer writing on that topic or no longer employed at the same organization where you found the article.
  • Check if the article is a reprint. Many news outlets republish articles from the Associated Press or Reuters. Ensure that when you’re looking at the article you’re looking at the original source.

You should also check to see if there’s any contact info on the page the article is written on. You’re looking for email, Twitter, LinkedIn, phone number, etc. If you can’t find contact info on the page you’re likely going to have to do some detective work. Search to see if the site has an author archive. Frequently sites will have a page dedicated to an author where you can find all of their articles and also contact information. Another way to search for an author archive is to search for “author name” which should bring up all of the pages that mentioned that author on a particular site.

If the site just plain doesn’t have an author archive try searching Google for the author’s name. Many authors have personal blogs or other websites with contact emails available. As a fallback, if no other contact info can be found, look for the authors Twitter profile. Occasionally you can find email addresses there or if worse comes to worst you can at least record their Twitter handle.

Information About The Writer

Once you’ve found someone that looks like a good lead you want to try and get as much information as possible about them. Usually journalists or popular bloggers will receive a large number of inquiries and suggestions. To be successful you need either a very compelling story, a more effective initial contact, or ideally both. Finding out a little personal information about a particular writer allows you to customize and personalize the initial contact. Information that I like to record is:

  • Name
  • Publication(s)
  • Website(s)
  • Beat(s) – Shopping, Tech, News, Business, etc.
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Twitter profile page
  • LinkedIn profile page
  • Notes/Bio: Twitter bio, author page, or just general notes

Don’t forget that last point. Frequent you can get information in someone’s author bio or Twitter bio that’s going to help you make a more effective first contact. As an example, one writer I was researching is from New York but is a fan of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. Being from Vancouver myself I know enough about the team that when I reached out to her I could include an anecdote about the Canucks, giving me a better shot at getting her attention.

Finding Prospects Through Twitter

The vast majority of journalists are on Twitter. While finding a prospect through Twitter is not as good as finding one for which you have an email address or even a phone number, frequently getting a twitter handle is the best you can do.

In many cases will find Twitter handles as you go as some sites actually include them in the byline.



There are also several good tools for researching journalists on Twitter. The two that I’ve primarily used in the past are Muckrack and FollowerWonk.



MuckRack is a good paid tool that allows you to find journalists by “beat”, save lists, and create alerts to flag you when opportunities might arise. I like the tool and I’ve used it before. It does however cost between $99 and $4495 per month depending on the size of the subscription you need. If you want to be a little bit sneaky/cheap like me, get the $99 month membership, hit it hard for a month, and then cancel the membership after you’ve mined as much information out of it as you can.



FollowerWonk, from Moz, is one of my favorite tools for finding journalist prospects through Twitter. One of the nice things about it is that it’s free. Essentially it allows you to search Twitter bios by keyword, export lists of results to a CSV, and also to look at/export your own Twitter followers.

When searching Twitter bios, as above in the SERPs searches, I like to search for phrases within double quotes to ensure that both of those words are found in the bio. You can see in the example above that a simple search for “retail reporter” has brought back some very influential reporters and has also brought back one who used to be a retail reporter and isn’t any longer. That’s one thing to watch with journalists. They frequently change “beats” and like to reference what they formerly wrote about. You’ll likely find quite a few results were someone has changed beats.

The nice thing with these lists, again, is you can export them to a CSV file, quickly weed out the ones that don’t look good, and sort the others by an “influence” rank, the last day they tweeted, number of followers, etc.

One small caveat with FollowerWonk is that it exports just the Twitter handle with no link to the actual Twitter page. I like to use the “concatenate” function in Excel to join together the “screen name” or twitter handle, with “” to create the URLs that go directly to each Twitter profile page.


Once you’ve found reporters on Twitter you want to follow them, and then do all the other best practices for getting someone’s attention and engaging on Twitter (tweeting at them, retreating their content, looking for opportunities to help the motor answer any questions, etc.). In many cases the reporters will follow you back and that allows you to reach out to them through a DM. If not they may become a little bit more aware of you and that can’t be a bad thing.

Another thing you can do here with Twitter bios is look for reporters’ email addresses and add them to your “email” list. It may sound like a fair bit of work but I’ve scored at least a half a dozen interviews this way and half a dozen links from good authoritative news sites is a pretty good thing.

One more thing you can do with FollowerWonk, if you have a reasonably large number of followers is to export your own followers to Excel and search the bios there for keywords like: reporter, writer, etc. one thing to note here is that in some industries it seems like almost every other bio contains the term “blogger” and searching on that term can lead to a lot of unqualified results. Most Twitter profiles also include a URL and many times journalists link to the site they work for. Searching the URL field for terms like ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, press, times, news, etc. can also help you find journalists that alreadyfollow you.

Other Sources of Leads

While looking at purely online sources is the primary way to look for press coverage that might lead to links there are certainly other opportunities as well. One of my secret weapons is the This website essentially lists every news outlet including TV, radio, newspapers, and websites for virtually every country, state, province, city, town, etc. You can break these down by media type, media focus, geographical region, and in virtually all cases they include a link to the news outlet’s website. if you’re targeting broadly this can be a very time-consuming task but it is one that can be outsourced. Essentially someone needs to go to each site that is relevant to you and search the site for the best possible contact.

A few other resources are:

Organizing Your Leads

Depending on the size of your outreach list you are going to want to organize it by the type of outreach are going to use for each lead. For example, when I did outreach for my list was virtually anybody who might be writing about the Black Friday shopping season or anyone who might be doing a TV spot, radio segment etc. and so my list was virtually every news outlet in the United States. In cases like that (I had a list of approximately 5000 contacts for instance) you definitely want to prioritize how you reach out to each source.

Generally I like to sort leads into three groups: high-value, average or lower value, and social media only. The high-value targets might be those from very authoritative sources which are likely to be syndicated in other places or have very large audiences. You likely to want to reach out to those sources with an individualized email, phone call, or even snail mail letter. If you have a large list of average to lower value leads that’s where I would use a more automated email template system which dynamically inserts data like the journalists name, publication, etc. and social only those would be sources where you don’t have an email address and all you have is perhaps a twitter handle.

Doing the Outreach

If there is one thing I could impress upon you as far as doing press outreach it would be, BE USEFUL. The biggest thing you can do to be a success is to make the journalist’s life easy. In addition to just generally being useful to the writer:

  • Be Timely: approach them well in advance if you have an event where you have the luxury of advance warning, but not so far in advance that writing about it is not to be on their schedule yet.
  • Be Pithy: don’t be afraid to give them lots of useful information but at the same time don’t be long-winded. The people you’re reaching out to are going to get a lot of these kinds of requests so get your point across about what you can offer them quickly and succinctly.
  • Be Available: sometimes writers are going to need to speak to you on a very short deadline. If they can’t get in touch with you they may well just move on to their next possible source. There also may be a large time difference either in your time zones or you’re working schedules. I’ve done interviews anywhere from 5 AM to 10 PM when doing press outreach campaigns.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Give Away the Farm: don’t try and tease the journalist by giving them little bit of data or a little bit of the story up front trying to the interview. I found it’s much more effective to give them all the information they might possibly need to write their story as quickly as possible. If they don’t talk to you they are likely going to quote you and frequently they’ll want a quick interview or quote to round out any information you sent them.
  • Respond Quickly:  a reporter on a deadline is not going to have time to wait around for the first source the contact to get back to them. If they don’t hear back from you quickly they’re likely just going to write the story without you or find another source.

Email Outreach

In general when I’ve done email outreach in the past I’ve had a specific target date in mind as an end date to the campaign, usually a specific seasonal event. It’s usually easier to work towards a specific date. Even if you don’t have a specific seasonal event it still easier to target the date of your site relaunch, or other significant news that you have coming out, etc. If you are just trying to get the attention of a journalist or blogger in general you may have to adjust some of the timelines below a little.

Introductory email: I usually like to send these about 4 to 5 weeks out from my target date. At this point there may not be as much urgency for the journalist to find a source to interview, quote, or write about. In general don’t expect to get much response from this first email. It’s more intended to make the journalist familiar with you, who you are, and what you can offer them. Generally with print media they don’t need as long a lead-time. If you are targeting broadcast media (radio, the local news, nationwide talk shows, etc.) they are going to need a much longer lead-time to arrange interviews or appearances.

Second email: With this email I would recommend sharing much more detailed information about who you are and why you know what you’re talking about. Part of your goal here is to really help the writer write their story. Don’t be afraid to share data, trends, insights, or any information that might be hard to find or take a lot of time for the writer to research. You really want to give them something of value and make their job easier. Don’t be afraid to give away too much; even if you give them most of the information they need to write their article there are very likely to give you credit the least, but ideally you’d like them to contact you for an interview or at least for a “sound bite”.

Third email: With this email I would send it closer to 7 to 10 days out. After that you’re really cutting it almost too close for the journalist to need your input. They may still contact you closer than 7 to 10 days from to the publication date but generally when that happens it’s that they are in a panic to get some information and it’s not something you should really plan towards.

Tools For Doing Outreach:

Clearly one of the things you’re going to need to be able to do this kind of outreach effectively, especially if you’re looking at doing it to a large number of writers, is a way to at least semi-automate and track your emails and responses. One tool I’ve found to be very effective for this is PitchBox. PitchBox is essentially a reasonably inexpensive service which allows you to research potential writers and bloggers to outreach to, create customizable email templates that allow for the insertion of personalized information, automates the sending of those emails in small batches, allows you to do multiple flights of email to the same people, and tracks which people have responded and allows you to make notes about each response. (Disclaimer: I have received no financial benefit for promoting PitchBox but I did receive a three month free membership to trial and learn about the product).

The Interview

If you do happen to secure one or more interviews there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • Be prepared for written, phone, Skype, and even in person interviews
  • Make (and use) notes. In your notes keep specific examples, data that supports your points, etc. also remember to include specific points you want to mention about your company in your notes.
  • Know your stuff. You need to be a bigger expert on the subject matter and the writer or journalist.
  • Be professional. In one interview I did a “shock jock” tried to steer the conversation into some less than appropriate topics. I focused on ignoring that bait and just stayed on point.
  • Be flexible with your time. In one case I was told that I would have a five-minute interview at 8 PM and that turned into a 20 minute long radio interview. Be prepared for interviews to run much longer than scheduled, or begin later than scheduled.
  • Have a good place to conduct interviews. Whether this be a quiet office at home or a dedicated room with a closed-door at work you need somewhere quiet and where you won’t be interrupted for interviews. It’s particularly embarrassing when you’re doing a Skype interview and someone walks into the room behind you.
  • Get media training or public speaking experience. There’s a variety of ways to do this. Many PR agencies offer media training but if you don’t want to go to that expense try speaking at conferences or local meetups, participate in Toastmasters, do lunch and learns with team members or staff, etc.
  • PRACTICE. This really is worth doing. Have a coworker or friend actually interview and throw you some curveball questions. It’ll really help you think on your feet and not stumble or hesitate over answers. This isn’t such a big deal when doing a newspaper interview, other than the fact you want to sound like you know you’re talking about, but it’s deathly important for any broadcast interviews such as radio, podcasts, TV, etc.
  • Bend over backwards to help the writer. Don’t hesitate to recommend or even source other interviewees, create assets for the writer, offer them images that you have the rights to use, etc.
  • Have something unique. Do your utmost to have data or insights that the writer or interviewer doesn’t have access to anywhere else.

Finally, ASK FOR THE LINK! It doesn’t matter if the interviewer article is for radio, local newspaper, TV, or other non-online media. Always ask where the interview will be published, when it will be published, and if can you get a link back to your site. TV and radio can be tough at this one. TV especially seems to frequently let older pages simply be deleted and return a 404 error code, which kills the link value, but it’s still worth it even if the link is temporary and all you get is branding and/or traffic from the interview.


So, after you have done all the outreach, scored an article or an interview, and you’ve got the coverage there are a few things I recommend doing to follow up. Doing a follow-up can be useful for tracking your success, learning from your mistakes, or reporting back to your client or manager as to the outcome of the outreach campaign.

  • Check to make sure you got a link from the article. While getting traffic or brand awareness from an interview or article is great, to ensure you get long term value from it you are really looking to get a link or citation.
  • Ask again for the link if you didn’t get it. Even if the interviewer or writer didn’t link to you it doesn’t hurt to ask a second time. They clearly thought enough of you and your information to interview you and publish it so they shouldn’t have a problem linking to you. These are the most legitimate links there are so don’t hesitate to pursue them. You may end up having to ask an editor as often journalists can’t go back and edit articles after they’re published. Don’t be obnoxious about asking as you may want to keep this relationship for the future and try to get more coverage. If you can’t get the link a citation (a mention of your website without actually linking to it) is still better than just getting traffic from the article, and just getting traffic is better than nothing.
  • Search the web to see if the article has been syndicated.
  • Record all the when, where, who, etc. about the article or coverage.
  • Save the articles by taking screen captures, printing them to PDF, etc.
  • Set up some Google alerts or other monitoring to watch for future syndication of the same article

Press Releases

Press releases have received a lot of bad “press” recently. This doesn’t mean that they have no value, just that they shouldn’t be used in and of themselves to build links directly to your site. The reason Google is targeting press release links is that, as with many sources of links to your site, they’ve been abused in the past.

You should never do a press release simply to get links from all the places the release is syndicated in. Press releases are, however, still a perfectly legitimate way to attract the attention of the press. If you’re going to do a press release I would look at it much the same way as the email outreach above. Ensure that the press release is actually newsworthy, interesting, compelling information and don’t be afraid to include as much data or information as will help the writer write their article as possible. A “teaser” press release simply designed to try and get someone to contact you without giving them any information, or one about some event significant only to you or your company, is in my opinion a waste of your time. Press releases tend to be a much lower response rate than reaching out individually to writers, and they do have a direct cost to send, but when there is enough urgency or the news is interesting enough I have certainly scored interviews and articles directly from sending out press releases.

Who Shouldn’t Do Press Outreach?

In my opinion doing press outreach for links is kind of like just about any other “link building” now. You have to focus on being remarkable, valuable, insightful, or useful first. Once you have a site, company, product, or information of real value then you can go about trying to get people to pay attention and write about you. In short, have something worth writing about.

Press outreach can be extremely time-consuming in doing the research, the actual outreach, and in doing the interviews. If you don’t have the time or resources to commit to doing it right I would say your time is better used elsewhere.

Be able to make the writer look good. If you can’t make the actual article or coverage better; if you can’t make it look like the writer really knows their stuff and has done their research, I would say you’re likely wasting a lot of your time doing press outreach.

Does It Work?

You may ask “what the heck does this guy know about doing press outreach”. I will admit I’m generally a much more traditional SEO and less of the link builder/PR pro. Much of what I learned about doing press outreach I essentially had to teach myself in a situation where I had zero budget for link building or even for content creation. I was lucky enough that I did have a good recognizable domain to work with for my first campaign ( and the specific event/season of holiday shopping and black Friday to plan against. In this campaign which cost essentially a couple of hundred dollars, and a whole lot of time, we secured at least 40 interviews and over 80 links from news outlets such as CNN, WSJ,, CNBC, Fox News, LA Times, Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune, ZDNet, several local radio and TV stations, and regional publications like the Green Bay Press Gazette, the Sacramento Bee, etc.

Doing press outreach for link building certainly isn’t for everyone but if you have the value to provide, and the time and resources to effectively execute an outreach campaign, the kind of links you acquire from this kind of effort are the kind that should be bulletproof from Google updates for the foreseeable future.

Reprinted by permission from

Nov 30

You’ve Been Attacked By A Penguin! Now What?

By Rob Woods | SEO


In my previous post (How to Tell if You’ve Been Attacked by a Penguin – Diagnosing Traffic Decreases) I discussed how to tell if you’ve been hit by one of Google’s Penguin updates. Once you’re pretty sure you’ve been affected by Penguin, what do you do next? Well, you could consult a professional. There are many great consultants or agencies that can handle Penguin recovery tasks for you but this kind of work can be very labor intensive (read, expensive).

There are also many services that claim to handle much of the work you. I have to admit that I’m a little skeptical of how well they evaluate the quality of each and every link that you have coming to your site.

Some of these services include:

Again, I have not used any of these services so I can’t comment on how effective they are or their success rate. What I have done, with success, is a mostly manual review of backlinks to a site and then sent requests for link removals to webmasters followed by a link disavow request to Google. Now, there are likely lots of other tools you could use for this, but I’m going to show you my favorites. Disclaimer: I have no financial incentive of any kind to recommend any of these services; they are simply tools that I believe in and have used with success.

Step 1: Assemble a List of Every Link to Your Site

I strongly suggest that you not rely on any one source of links. No one source, not even Google will give you all the links to your site so I use the tools below to research backlinks. I’d also recommend dumping any manual lists of links you have into a spreadsheet. If you’ve ever hired a link builder and they gave you a list of links they built for you, include that list. Essentially what you are trying to build is a list of every possible link to your site.

I export lists of every back link from all the sources below into a single spreadsheet. Essentially you want a single column in Excel of every link you have. It might cost a few bucks but I recommend subscribing for a least a month to all of the below.

And the most important one – LinkResearchTools (we’ll come back to this one in a minute). For now you want to run the “Backlink Profiler” report.

You also want to export all of your backlinks from Google Webmaster Tools. There’s a bit of a trick to this one as many people export the wrong links. You want to go to Google Webmaster Tools, the Search Traffic > Links To Your Site section and under “Who Links Most to Your Site” section click the more link


After that you don’t want the “Download This Table” button, you want “Download More Sample Links”. This will give you the actual links to your site rather than just a sample of the domains linking it.


OK, after you have assembled your massive list of all the links you have pointing to your site you want to remove any duplicates. I finally found a super easy way to do this in Excel and I can’ believe I did this stuff manually for years (or paid someone to do it).

Put all of your links in one column in Excel and make sure you have a heading in the column. Then it’s a simple as highlighting all of your data including the heading, go to Data > Advanced Filter and “filter in place” making sure to check Unique Records Only and BOOM Excel goes to work removing all duplicates from the list. Note that Excel always keeps the first instance it finds and deletes subsequent ones.


Step 2: Evaluate Your Links

Once you have your list of links this is where I prefer to use one particular tool – LinkResearchTools Link Detox Tool. It’s not perfect but I’ve found it’s about 98% accurate in judging the quality of a link. I’ll have to perhaps go into the intricacies of all the things you can do with this tool in a future post but here’s the basics at least. There may be other tools out there you can use for this but this is the one that I’ve found to be the most effective and efficient.

The first thing you are going to get in your report is an overall ranking of the “riskiness” of your links.


This mostly gives you an overall sense of the task ahead of you and the number of links that you may have to request removal for or disavow.

The next thing you’ll see is the full breakdown of the risk or spamminess ratings for every single link pointing to your site. These ratings range everywhere from “Very Low Risk” to “Deadly Risk” and a variety of shades of riskiness in between. I’d recommend looking at any link with a rating of “Moderate – 200” or higher. Note that you can filter or sort this report a ton of different ways and export it to a CSV or even straight to a Google Disavow Links formatted text file.


I prefer here to actually export the whole list to a .csv and then set some conditional formatting on the “Risk” column to call out the Moderate, High, Very High, and Deadly Risk. I also add fields to the sheet for tracking my evaluation of the accuracy of the risk rating, when I contacted the webmaster for both a first and second time and what action they took. I’ve attached an example of the template I use, complete with formatting HERE.

This is where the leg work begins and the part that really does, in my opinion, require an experienced SEO. You need to go through each and every link, and yes that may mean 1000s of links, to judge for yourself if the risk rating is accurate. Why? You simply can’t trust an algorithm, no matter how good it is, to accurately assess the quality of websites (no, that’s not a thinly veiled shot at the Goog). If you haven’t been around SEO for a long time you may not know a good link from a bad at a glance and it’s going to end up taking you forever to assess the links. At any rate, that’s really your next step. You need to do this! You don’t want to be asking for links to be removed if they are OK but the software has rated them as risky. Good links are hard enough to come by; don’t be flushing that value away unless you are pretty sure.

Step 3: Ask for Your Links to Be Removed

So, you’ve rated all your links. What’s next? Unfortunately Google wants to make link disavowal a painful process. Are they doing this because they are mean and petty? Well, no. I get this question a lot and unfortunately the answer is, spammers. If Google made it easy to build tons of crappy links to see if they work to rank a site, and if not, just disavow them and start fresh, spammers would have a field day testing to find the loopholes in Google’s link quality rating. To help prevent that, they make it slow and painful to remove links and they throw in a few curves just to make sure you actually do the work.

The next step is finding contact information for all of the sites for which you want the links removed. You are going to need to contact every single one you can find contact info for and ask (or beg) for the link to be removed. How do you do this? There are a few options: you can manually go to every site and look around for contact info, check the WHOIS info, etc. to find the info if it’s available, or hire a good contractor on a site like ODesk to do this manual work for you, or you can automate. As much as the software Scrapebox has been used for a lot of spammy purposes it’s actually pretty good (and I think a legitimate use) to use it to harvest email addresses for domains. Usually this is used to spam websites in a particular vertical but you can dump your list of domains in and have Scrapebox scrape all those sites for contact emails.

From there you need to contact each and every site to ask for your link to be removed. There are any number of email solutions you can use to send these emails in a relatively automated fashion. One I have been exploring (and will review shortly) is Pitchbox. I’ve only seen a beta version (live version coming very soon) and it allows you to upload a list of email addresses and craft an email campaign that includes dynamically generated emails, tracking of who has responded, and an automated follow up to those that do not respond on the first flight.

Essentially you want to contact each and every site and either get the link removed, or record the website owners response or lack thereof and the date(s) you contacted the owner. Some sites will ask you to pay for link removals. This one is up to you. Some say don’t pay, just record that the site asked for money as the response, and some say go ahead and pay for the webmaster’s time and get the link removed. Please also note that this has created, in a few rare instances, a market for crappy sites to lnk to you on purpose, let you know about the link through a “neutral” third party, then ask you for money when you want the link removed.

Step 4: Beg Google’s Forgiveness (Disavow Your Spammy Links)

You’ve evaluated all your links. You’ve asked for them to be removed. Now what? Well, this is when you can finally ask Google (for the first time) to stop counting the links you don’t want counted against your site. Why do I say the “first” time? Because Google wants to make link disavowal a hard thing to do, they will frequently reject your first request and make you go through the whole requesting removal step two or three times before they actually let you disavow.

One of the keys to success is clearly documenting what you did to ask to get each link removed. The other is actually getting some links removed. That’s one of the primary factors Google looks at to see if you actually did the work – do you have less links now then you did when the Penguin part of the algo flagged your site for lower rankings?

Once you are ready to ask for link disavowal you can do so with the Google Disavow Links Tool. Note that you need to be logged into Google and be the “owner” of the site that you want to disavow for as far as Google Webmaster Tools is concerned. You can see detail instructions of how to format a disavow request here but in essence you want to:

  • Take each link (or domain) that you want to disavow the links for and create a line for it in a .txt file (or an Excel sheet that you will later save as a .txt) and add at least one line of comments preceded by a # character telling Google what you did and when to try to get the links removed
  • Add a line to disavow either the particular link or links you want to disavow or ask to disavow all the links from the entire domain. The entire domain is likely going to be your default here but there will be a few cases where you are either sure you only have a single link from a domain, or where you want to disavow one particular link but leave others. In the case of a single link just paste the whole URL including the http:// into the line following the comment. For the domain include the command “” where of course is replaced by the domain. You do not need to disavow subdomains separately, the “domain:” command should cover all links from a top-level domain.

Here’s Google’s example of how a disavow should be formatted


One thing they don’t explicitly mention and which I found through trial and error is that when you are using the “domain:” command to disavow all links from a domain you must use the format “” not “” or the disavow tool with reject your request and let you know there are errors in the file.

Continue going through each and every link flagged in your sheet for removal for each link. This is another task that you can possibly farm out to a less expensive worker through a site like ODesk, as long as you trust them and are pretty thorough with doing QA on the work they provide.

After you are sure you have your disavow request correctly formatted (if working in Excel make sure to save it as a .txt file) you can submit the request to the Google Disavow Links Tool.

The next question I usually get is – how do I know if my request has been accepted? Well, in many cases you will never know for sure. If you received a notification in Google Webmaster Tools that a Manual Action was taken against your site, submit a Reconsideration Request at this time. Google will usually, but not always, send you a response when they have reviewed your request and let you know if it was accepted or if you need to go back and do more work removing links. If there was no manual action aimed at your links, they will usually tell you that too. Unfortunately if you had no message in GWT and you were likely affected by an algorithmic adjustment to your rankings from the Penguin part of the algo, you will likely never get a response from Google if your link disavow request is accepted. All you can do at this point is watch your Google organic traffic daily. If you see a sudden positive spike with no other explanation, you can assume they accepted and the part of the algo depressing your rankings no longer affects you.

How long does it take for Google to look at my request?

Again, unfortunately, that depends. After chatting with a bunch of my colleagues and from my own experience, it can take anywhere from about ten days to three months. If you don’t see any movement after that, try try again.

Oh, and by the way, don’t expect to bounce back all the way to your previous rankings and traffic. If before you had 10,000 links and Google now counts 8,000 of those as spammy, removing those links should eliminate the “penalty” affecting your site but if you successfully remove or disavow them, you’re only going to come back to where you would have ranked with the 2000 good ones in the first place. I have seen link profiles where I’d recommend getting rid of or disavowing 99% of the incoming links so that means essentially that site needs to start from scratch, as if it essentially has almost no links and is starting almost as a new site.

See now wasn’t that easy. Nothing to doing link removal and disavows, right? 🙂

The Future

Unfortunately for many sites Penguin is here to stay and I suspect it will only continue to get better at detecting the kinds of links Google does not want you to build. What links are those? Really any link built just (or even mostly) for SEO is one Google does not like. If they had their way NONE of them would count, and they are going to keep working to find them and discount or penalize them.

If you have not been hit by Penguin DO NOT BE COMPLACENT! Ask anyone building links for you what they are doing. Get second and third opinions on whether those tactics are sustainable. Just because you haven’t been hit yet does not mean you won’t! At the outset estimates were that the algo would allow up to about 80% “bad” links and penalize those above that. The estimate is now 50%. Ask yourself what happens when that changes to 40% or 20%… How sure are you your links are 80-90% the kind of links Google “likes”?

I know that if your site has been around a while and has used the types of link building that worked in 2003 or 2006 or 2009 it feels like a lot of wasted money and effort to now do a ton of work to get rid of those links, but if you don’t start working on it now, how soon until you get attacked by a Penguin?

Get on it!


Nov 25

How to Tell if You’ve Been Attacked by a Penguin – Diagnosing Traffic Decreases

By Rob Woods | SEO

What is Penguin?


There has been a lot of talk in the SEO world about “Penguin” since Google turned the industry on its head in April of 2012. Penguin was an algorithm update where Google finally made a major move toward enforcing some of the linking standards they had been preaching about for years. There have since been two iterations of that update and another major release dubbed Penguin 2.0 on May 22, 2013. You can see a history of these changes, and indeed all of Google’s algorithm changes at Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History Why are these dates important? We will get to that in just a minute (below).

At their heart the Penguin updates were substantial changes in the way Google ranks sites based on the sites they have linking to them. For years Google has been preaching to “just build good sites” to such a degree that it’s become almost an inside joke in the SEO marketing discipline. At the heart of ranking well in the search engines however has always been what links you have pointed at your site. The number of links, the quality of the links, the power of those links, and the anchor text of those links.

For years site owners have gone out and acquired links that helped their SEO and organic traffic but which Google really didn’t want to count as a “vote” that your site was a good site. The worst penalty most sites got (unless they were truly “black hat”) was that getting those links was a waste of time and money, but no longer with Penguin. Now those links can actually “hurt” you. You may not even know that it’s happening as in most cases the Penguin updates are an algorithm change, not an overt manual penalty. In most cases all you’ll see is your traffic drop and you may not know why.

So. If you are reading this because your organic search engine traffic took a sudden hit, and you don’t know why here’s a few things you can do to see if you may have been attacked by a Penguin.

Check Your Google Webmaster Tools

If you don’t (heaven-forbid) have GWT set up, you may be out of luck here but at any rate if you don’t go out as soon as you finish this article and get it done! If you have it set up you might, just might, have a message in there noting that there is a problem.

These can come in two varieties, a Site Message or a message about a Manual Action.

For Site Messages you simply login in to Google Webmaster Tools, click on the site you are concerned about and click the Site Messages link on the left nav bar.


If you see a message like this, you may have been hit by Penguin.


You can also check the relatively new (as of the time of the writing of this post) Manual Actions link. You can find this one under the Search Traffic section of your GWT


If you have a message like the one above and clicking it leads to one like this…


You may have a Penguin problem. In fact in this case your problem has gone beyond just an algorithm update and Google has put a specific action (usually a ranking penalty of some kind) against your domain or part of your domain.

Usually it’s not going to be that easy though. You are going to have to infer that something happened. In that case your analytics are going to be your best bet for diagnosing the issue. Now you can check your organic traffic by going to Google Analytics and going to Traffic Sources -> Sources -> Search -> Organic, looking at your traffic patterns, and comparing them to the aforementioned Moz Google Algorithm Change History and seeing if you can see a correlation between a big traffic drop and the date of a Penguin update.


There is an easier way. A lovely company called Barracuda Digital has created a tool which mashes up your Google Analytics organic traffic data with Moz’s history of algo updates. It really helps diagnose any issues around traffic and Google updates, particularly the Panda and Penguin updates and thus is called the Panguin Tool.

It’s a great tool for diagnosing this stuff and it lets you slice and dice data by date, landing page, keyword, etc. You do have to give the tool temporary access to view your analytics data however. The best part though is the graphical overlay of Google’s updates with your traffic and the ability to click on any update to find out more about what was behind it.

With this site, for example we have a good indication that it may have been hit by Penguin 1.2 though there were other updates near the same time. Often you are going to be in a “best guess” scenario as to whether you got hit by Penguin.


Other methods of diagnosing Penguin issues are more complex. If you have some SEO knowledge then you can do some back link analysis with really any of the top link research tools such as:

Looking at this link data really does require some in depth SEO knowledge to analyze the quality of your backlinks and you may need to get an experienced SEO consultant involved at this point. If you are willing to invest in a starter membership for one or more of these tools however two quick checks you can do are to analyze your anchor text (the words in the text links) pointing to your site, and the overall quality of your link profile.

Anchor Text

One dead giveaway to Google on the quality and naturalness of your link profile is your anchor text. For a link profile that has been built organically through naturally promoting your business (Google’s ideal scenario) most of the links pointing to your site will be “branded” links. These are links which are generally some version of your brand or your domain. A small portion might be “money” keywords which are the keyword you really want to rank for such as your products or product categories.

If your anchor text profile looks like this:


Actual example from Moz’s Open Site Explorer actual keywords hidden to protect the “semi” innocent

…you likely have been hit by Panda, or you are going to be in the future. This kind of profile SCREAMS to Google that you have built your links solely for ranking in the search engines and not just because people love your site and your company.

Link Quality

This is generally much harder to diagnose. Usually looking at a link profile can take years of experience to analyze manually to judge the “quality” and trustworthiness of the sites linking to you. An experienced SEO can usually tell with seconds whether a link is from a “good” site but I know from experience that many many site owners just don’t know a good link from a bad.

There is one tool I like to use for an at-a-glance health check and that is LinkResearchTools’ Link Detox Report. This is a paid service but a starter membership is less that $150/mo. You can run the report and get a quick health rating from Low Risk to Deadly Risk.

If your rating looks like this, you likely have been hit, or you are going to be in the future.


Actual example from LinkResearchTools’ Link Detox Report

Find Out What has Been Done Before

OK, on this one you may not know. You might have walked into a bad situation and not have been dealing with the site in question for long. You may not know what that “SEO” company you hired three years ago did to build links for you. At least ask all the sources you have what kinds of link building have been done, some may even fess up that they used less than the highest quality link building techniques. If your site has been around a long time at some point you or your SEO have used some of these techniques. If you’ve done things like the below you may be in trouble.

  • Blog Networks
  • Link Rings
  • Reciprocal Links
  • Tons of blog commenting (especially on unrelated blogs)
  • Guest Blogging on unrelated sites
  • Building many links with exact keyword anchor text
  • Article marketing
  • Tons of press releases no one cares about
  • Paid links
  • Lots of low quality web directory submissions
  • Forum spam
  • Sitewide footer or blogroll links

What next?

So you think you have indeed been bitten by a Penguin; what can you do about it? First, if you are still building links in any of the above ways or building them just to get search rankings STOP. Ask your SEO consultants, agencies, or in-housers for a detailed list of everything they are doing to get you links. Insist if you have to. I’ve actually had a client whose former agency refused to show the links they were building – that’s a huge red flag.

Next, get a second opinion. Find an experienced SEO and ask them for their opinion. You may be too close to the situation to be objective about just why you built those links and whether they are really all that bad. If all concerned agree that you have a Penguin problem you are going to have to deal with it, and sooner is better than later.

The obvious solution is to hire an SEO consultant or agency versed in doing link clean-ups. There are quite a few good ones out there and they are going to be able to either guide you through the process of cleaning up your links and begging Google’s forgiveness, or doing it for you.

If you really want to tackle a link clean up yourself there are several useful tools out there you can use, and I’ll tackle Do It Yourself Link Clean Ups in my next post.

Have any other tips for diagnosing Penguin problems? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!