How We Removed 1.7 Million BackLinks and Survived

What happens to a website which removes 1.7 million backlinks! If you have been following our story for the last 2 years, our website has been stuck by multiple Google penalties since January 2012 and website traffic has dropped by over 90% since last January.

While we struggled to make our site faster, fix Panda issues and do everything that could lead to a penalty, the site traffic continued to drop month after month. Using the link analysis tools, we found many toxic backlinks and the Google penalty checker made it evident the site was badly hit by Google penalties.

So we removed the bad effect of 1.7 million back links in one go!

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Huge Google Penalty!

A detailed Webmaster tools evaluation revealed that footer backlinks from the 3 free WordPress themes we made a few years back were downloaded by hundreds of spam websites and that created a very bad backlink profile of over 1.7 million backlinks. Undoubtedly the Google algorithms raised a flag as why should a tech site receive back-links from so many diverse niches, adult sites, banned sites, PR) sites and spam neighborhoods.

So why would our 3 free WordPress themes be so popular that they were used on thousands of spammy websites is not known (maybe negative SEO!). BTW it is too easy to buy hundreds of links in a week for $5 if you so desire. Anyway, the themes were used and got live on the web.

A unnatural links warning followed, but Google intimated that they had taken a targeted action, and we thought that Google had probably ignored these links. We also submitted several reconsideration requests, but were informed that there was no manual penalty and it was a Google algorithmic penalty. Rightly so because the new Google manual penalty viewer actually shows no penalty.

This Webmaster video was actually very informative, as it told us what that Google warning actually meant.

While the Google webmaster tools revealed that these these 3 theme urls were responsible for nearly 1.7 million backlinks, we had made all the footer backlinks nofollow and later redirected them to the WordPress directory urls, but the number of backlinks barely reduced. Actually since these themes were available for download only at the WordPress directory, every theme update would be highlighted on the WordPress admin, and a once click upgrade will remove these links automatically – but then spam sites do not update or upgrade.

The Biggest Mistake

We love designing WordPress themes for so many years now, and the idea of adding footer credit links was so that people can visit the url and download the themes if they liked them on the visited site. The biggest mistake was the links were not no-followed. When we created them several years back, we were under the impression that so many site wide footer links Google would probably ignore them anyway. But over the years so many people have exploited this sponsored footer links in themes technique to confuse search engines and pass pagerank, that this emerged as a major bad SEO practice.

The damage was done … and there were millions of backlinks which could never be removed. In later theme updates we nofollowed the links and later updates removed links to our site totally, and pointed to the WordPress theme directory pages. I wondered how do premium sites like Thesis or Genesis theme deal with this – but then  these themes are not free, and are available under protective licenses, so using them for Negative SEO is difficult.

An extensive effort to remove so many links was a worthless effort as these spam sites had no contact address, and those which did got no reply. After all the only need was to update the theme and make the links go away. Just as link building was popular, link removal  has also become a thriving business, and you might actually need lots of money to get the links removed, and even then not totally. So this did not work. While we tried to use Google disavow tool to disavow hundreds of major bad domains, this will NOT take care of ALL these backlinks.

92% Traffic Drop

Meanwhile traffic continued to drop – see the 2 year traffic chart. At the peak in January 2012, we were getting 1.2 million pageviews a month, to barely below 90,000 now.

traffic crash

A more serious effort was needed to inform Google algorithms and remove all these backlinks.

Delete 1.7 Million backlinks Instantly

We studied this extensively and considered that deleting bad urls linked to by millions of bad backlinks and making them 404 will effectively remove the bad effect of all these bad backlink urls. Moreover, this is the best way to remove the bad effect of ALL these backlinks. So we went ahead and deleted these 3 urls and created new theme pages. Note that changing the WordPress slug will only redirect the old url to the new url, and all the bad link juice will pass to the new url. So deleting is the only best option.

After  a week I found that simply deleting a url does not actually make it give a 404 error as WordPress is smart enough to redirect it to the closest similar url. So you actually need to force 404 errors to make WordPress actually give a 404 errors. There were still  many bad theme backlinks to the main domain as well, but we now disavow them as they are fewer in number, more manageable to count and deal with, and we are active on this now.

Now the GWT crawl errors page reports these 404 theme pages as the top priority to fix … but then these pages are never coming back.

theme 404 urls

This gives a clear message to the Googlebot, that the site backlink profile is getting fixed and very completely too. It showcases the effort of the webmaster to acknowledge their mistakes and fix them proactively.

So what will happen to your site if you delete a million backlinks. Obviously a traffic crash should follow as all the link juice goes away. This decision was not easy, but there were enough hints about what was the cause of these Google penalties. Since we already lost over 92% traffic and the downward trend was obvious, what more was there to lose –  it was a chance we had to take.  How much lower can the traffic go!

So did the traffic drop? It has been nearly 2 months and traffic continues to be stable to a little decline, but we wait hopefully as this step might eventually make these penalties go away and the traffic might finally improve. Will it improve to the former traffic? – I dont think so because that might be because Google might be considering  all those backlinks before,  but I expect traffic might get better if the penalty gets revoked and the site again gets classified as high quality content … fingers crossed.

Update: We found a better way of not wasting these 1.7 million backlinks. Read about it.

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About the Author: P Chandra is editor of QOT, one of India's earliest tech bloggers since 2004. A tech enthusiast with expertise in coding, WordPress, web tools, SEO and DIY hacks.