Are my links poopy? Know a spammy link when you see one.

Ian Lurie
clean up after your links, k?

Short version of this article: If you’ve been penalized for unnatural links by Google, either manually or under Penguin, you need to cut deep or you won’t recover. Now, the long version, with examples:

Here’s a joke I learned in hebrew school, an unmentionable number of decades ago:

Three guys are walking down the sidewalk. They come upon a pile of dog poo. The first one kneels down and gives it a big sniff. He says “Oy, that smells like poo.” The next guy touches it and says, “Oy, that feels like poo.” The last guy tastes it and says, “Oy, that tastes like poo.” Then, they all say, “Wow, sure am glad we didn’t step in it!!!”

The moral here: If it looks like poo, and it smells like poo, you probably don’t need to touch or taste it.

But, for when Google penalizes us for link spam, we ignore the rule. When it comes to links, apparently, we need to not only touch and taste, we need to roll around in it for a while like a Black Lab on speed, then jump up and down in front of Google yelling “This is OK! This is OK! This is OK!”

I get it: If you’ve been penalized under Google Penguin, it’s hard to know spam links from good ones. Your justification motor kicks into high gear. The problem with justification, though, is that Google doesn’t want it. They want to get rid of the spam.

So you need to do a really good job of sussing out the spammy links. I’ve done several reinclusion requests now, and I’ve put together some examples.

If you know about Google Penguin, skip the next section. You don’t need it.

The story so far: Google Penguin and link penalties

Just to catch you up: Last Spring, Google began rolling out something called “Penguin.” Google Penguin targets any website attempting to move up in the rankings through ‘unnatural’ link acquisition. When it launched, the big G sent out warnings that looked something like this:

A Google link warning

A Google link warning

Then, your Google traffic plunges:

google organic traffic takes a dive


And then everyone starts screaming. Primal-type screams. Screams that would chill the very soul of the most cynical, shrivel-hearted meanie on the planet.

Once the screaming stops, most folks look for a way to fix the problem. The fix: Remove all the unnatural links, then go back to Google on bended knee. Hopefully, you get the penalty lifted, and life is good again.

I’m talking about the manual penalty and reinclusion process here. The ‘real’ Penguin penalty happens algorithmically, and can be a lot harder to detect and fix. We can save that nightmare for another post, yes?

Unnatural = spammy

What is an unnatural link? Hmmmm. Good question. Google’s not going to tell you. You can splutter angrily about it (I did), but the truth is, Google doesn’t have too. Unnatural (spammy, aka poopy) links are usually as obvious as a gargantuan turd on the sidewalk in front of you. I collected data on a bit over 200,000 links pointing at penalized sites, and after using some really advanced computer niftiness to automatically evaluate the links, I concluded:

If a link looks like poop, it’s poopy.

Examples of spammy links

If you got a link by stuffing it into a press release where it makes no sense, it’s poopy.

a press release stuffed with links

Why exactly are all these links in here?

If you got a link by dumping it into a forum post while thinking “Well, this will help me rank higher!”, it’s poopy.

If you got a link by posting to a site with thousands of pages of barely-readable drivel on subjects ranging from STDs to outdoor patio furniture, it’s poopy.

yes, this site's for real

Yes, this site really exists.

If you got a link by adding it to a list of links on a page with tons of other completely unrelated links, it’s poopy.

awful link list

Yes folks, from Archery to Babylon 5, we've got it all!

If you got a link by clicking away on bookmarking sites like a fiend, it’s poopy.

bookmark spam


If you got a huge number of links from pages that could be totally legitimate, but are all one type of page — a link page, or a forum thread, or a press release page — then even though they’re not individually poopy, they may be poopy in aggregate. Get rid of them.

If you’re under a Google manual link penalty, and a link is spammy, or even seems a teeny bit spammy, or even a teeny-tiny-itty-bitty-bit spammy, then it’s poo. REMOVE IT.

No exceptions

You read all of these, and they’re obvious, right? You didn’t get these links because they were good marketing. You didn’t get them because someone loved your stuff. You got them to improve your rankings. Which makes them unnatural. But you’ll still try to justify those links. I know I do. I can hear this little voice in my head saying things like:

This press release only has 2 keyword-rich links in it. That’s better than 3, so it’ll be OK.


This spammy link directory is purely focused on kevlar products. It’ll be fine!


I worked damned hard to get this #!# link. I am not taking it down.

Whatever. Google doesn’t want them justified. Google wants them gone.

If you’re under penalty, remove all links you obtained by:

  • Paying someone other than a charity or foundation.
  • Using any tool with ‘Amazing,’ ‘Super,’ ‘Crusher,’ ‘Stomper’ or any other superlative/smashing reference in the name.
  • Begging someone for a link that adds no value to their site.
  • Trading.
  • Writing the same article 100000 times.

Just do it

If you didn’t get a link through real, honest-to-god marketing, take it down. Yes, that’s scary. You’re going to lose authority. You’re going to lose some good links in the process. But it’s also your best bet. Cyrus Shepard has a great case study on just this subject. Read what he had to do. It worked.

Or, justify away, file your reinclusion request and see what happens. It’s only a few more months in purgatory if you get rejected. What’s the worst that can happen?

One last tip. If you’re using disavow, use the domain: command generously. This is advice directly from the Google search quality team. Otherwise, you can miss a lot of spam links on a site, no matter how thorough you are. Or, spam links can sneak back in later.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. I certainly don’t disagree, but it’s a super hard pill to swallow, Ian. I know that I was certainly guilty of living on a fantasy planet when I first tried to purge penguins from one domain.
    I thought to myself, “But I’m a good person, right? We’ll purge these bad links and come back just as strong as we were! Maybe stronger!”
    The site tanked harder than it had DURING the penguin onslaught. It was devastating – it sucks to be looking up the hill of a complete rebuild.
    That feeling, I believe, is what makes so many SEOs cautiously optimistic that they can sniff out the “not so poopy” and let a few of them live.

    1. I get it. That’s why I wrote this post.
      Depending on how much spam you’ve got in your link profile, the cleanup can be pretty devastating. But Google isn’t assessing us or our morals – they’re cleaning up their index. Unfortunately, that means getting fed into the machine.

      1. I completely agree – wasn’t trying to say that you didn’t get it, just saying I definitely relate. The prospect of hitting “reset” is always a scary one. But sometimes, when the game locks up on you and the television is buzzing like some kind of 70’s appliance, it’s time to just let it go.

  2. Good post Ian. I’ve been preaching link quality for years and now Google is finally rewarding quality link building. Clients who didn’t get slammed by Penguin last year were both lucky and smart for avoiding “get rich quick” SEO schemes. Big brands may be able to get away with some spam links but most small businesses can’t. Great tips!

  3. Thanks for sharing Ian. I have a client right now, who was working with another SEO company, that is dealing with a link penalty and is in denial about the “poopyness” of his past link building strategies. I’ll have to share your article with him. Looking forward to checking out Cyrus’s case study too.

  4. Forum & comment links on high PR sites are generally OK. (This comment case in point).
    A few tips (there’s many!)
    -Avoid links from low PR / low quality sites
    -Do NOT buy links (sponsored links are one of the main things Penguin looks for)
    -Avoid backlinks in footers
    -Do NOT buy links from blog networks
    -Avoid directory links
    -Vary your anchor text
    -Avoid duplicate content
    Don’t point too many backlinks directly to your money site. A few are good but for the most part you want to build backlinks with long tail anchor text to feeder sites and build a backlink on your feeder site to your money site.
    Also utilize Google’s link disavow tool for low quality links.
    How do I know? I get around 200,000 uniques/mo across various properties from SEO. Some rankings were hit by penguin, some were not, and most that were hit have since recovered.

    1. Actually, I’d say that a link like this one is definitely spam. Whether they’ve gotten caught is another question entirely. But there’s strong evidence Google is steadily lowering the bar for what is spam. Chances are, folks leaving comments with keyword-stuffed name fields (like this one) are eventually going to get caught up in all of this.

    2. I would have to disagree with this statement:
      “-Avoid directory links” (avoid poor quality directory links)
      Some directories still provide quality links and a handful of visitors. Although they are losing their value long term. It’s not a good strategy for more established websites but getting in a few good ones if you’re just starting out.

      1. My only caution here is that you never, ever build a link profile that has a lot of directories. There are very, very few sets of directories that, in aggregate, will look legit.

  5. Have you ever had a site that has been penguin’d that didn’t get a link warning?
    I always understood it as an over optimisation penalty so as well as links, you could fall foul for on site activity as well – which is obviously much easier to clean up. The site we dealt with was exact match domain (brand, but still exact match) so had a lot of cleaning up to do on and off site – it got hit on April 24th, but never received the link warning.
    So, in cases such as that, where you can see you need to clean up links and your site, and proceed to do so, would you still carry out a link reinclusion request? We did but it never really made any difference, but guess that’s as there was no warning in the first place!

  6. I think a more succinct question there would’ve been – would it still be Penguin if you didn’t receive a link warning? And if you didn’t, is there any point in filing a reinclusion request?

    1. Actually, if you’re penalized without a link warning, that IS a Penguin penalty. The penalties you get after a warning are MANUAL penalties. Strictly speaking, those aren’t Penguin penalties.

      1. Dave, my site is also penalized by the penguin on April 24.
        I have not received link spam warning
        I did a review on google and I replied that I have no penalty manual.
        I have not located spam links. I used the tool to disavow disavow only 2 domains.
        Now I have removed many internal links with same keyword.
        I deleted some other web links mine with same keyword.
        Now wait for the next update of the penguin
        Ian Lurie?, Any more ideas?

        1. Hi Martin,
          I took a look at the site you list in your comment URL link. If that’s the one, you have a lot of sitewide links from really low-quality sites like I don’t speak Spanish but I can still tell that’s the spam directory all the way.
          You’re going to need to get rid of an links that look anything like this, completely, and then re-submit your reinclusion request.

    1. Depends on the directory. When you look at it, can you honestly say it’s useful to people?
      Also, if the address is something like “” or “” you’re probably in trouble.

  7. Good post. I just have one “issue”. You mention, links “YOU OBTAINED”, those are easy. The problems begins when YOU didn´t obtain any of the links in question.
    I have been dealing with this situation on my authority blog and still no luck. In the process I have disavowed a total of about 40 domains linking to my blog that I judged to be spammy (but none of which I acquired) and still cann´t get the “unnatural link” warning removed.
    I have been doing this for 10 years, and honestly, this is one of the worst moves I have seen from Google (or any search engine for that matter).

  8. Great information here Ian, I think all of us can relate to this post even if you are not directly dealing with SEO. Any business that has a website can attest to this downfall, it’s hard to understand what needs to be done when you get a new algorithm change via Google every 6 months or so. I think that once we get the chance to grasp exactly what google wants, will in turn help us more in the long run. Thanks for the great information here Ian!

  9. I haven’t had to deal with any significantly penalised sites, thank goodness, but I have to wonder at what stage burning the domain becomes the most cost-effective and efficient choice.
    It surely can’t be *after* spending time and money rooting around in a particularly poopy link profile trying to separate the poop from the, er, sweetcorn?

    1. It’s a tough one. I’ve never seen what I’d consider a hopeless case. But if I saw a domain that had a combination of onsite AND offsite penalties, I might burn the domain and start all over.

  10. I’m not sure if fixing the links is even going to be an effective solution. I’ve heard from plenty of people that have destroyed the vast majority of their links (and even some of their good ones just in case), and have yet to feel the hand of mercy from google.
    My opinion: Google is never going to forgive a lot of these people. Why? Because they have-in effect-tattled on themselves. They’ve practically admitted that they were manipulating their ranking, and now they’re handing in the evidence that they did it. Also, google isn’t telling you which of your links are bad, so you’re also snitching on links that google didn’t realize were bad until you admitted they were.
    Rest assured, this data is all going somewhere. Every link you turn in could be another inch of rope that they can hang you with.

  11. Cool post Ian. Have always been a fan of your writing and how you make people understand the concepts with ease. I think Google is taking the right path in eliminating spam. I have heard people saying that the number of pages of their site in Google’s index is dropping down and hence the traffic. It’s because they really add no value to the users, they are mostly affiliate marketers or MFA’s who do spammy link building to out beat the competition.

  12. Great article, specially the dog poop joke, but now seriously, I’ve been trying to do “white hat” SEO for my company for over a year now and we really never got any substantial results, but whats pisses me is that my competitors keep doing all the poop SEO, like spam blog responses, poopy articles, poopy links from even sex sites but they still rank higher them me, any suggestions? I am really tempted to just start doing what they are doing….

  13. Fun break down of poopy links. Clients don’t get it that quality backlinks are just as important as quality content. Heck, most clients don’t even understand the SEO kaleidoscope. However, don’t fret. Google will find another area to clamp on once it too is abused.

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