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.

43 comments on “How We Removed 1.7 Million BackLinks and Survived

  1. Sandip says:

    I am hoping to see your traffic improve in next few months and if this works out then I am sure I can recover Blogsdna too from those tons of theme links which we have got over the years :(

  2. Donna Fontenot says:

    You could 410 those pages instead of 404’ing them, to let Google know they are permanently deleted. php code: header(“HTTP/1.0 410 Gone”); more on this:

    • P. Chandra says:

      Google Treats 410 Status Code As “More Permanent” Than 404 Status Code – Because 404 (page not found) and 410 (gone). Thats a good tip. Thanks.

      • Ron says:

        Great post and yes, Google has surely made a mess yet again…for good reason but still…Thanks for the info on the 404 vs 410 I did not know that!

  3. Ryan says:

    Wow, you guys are going through a lot. I hope deleting all those backlinks help out.

  4. Varun says:

    Really sad to know that QOT dropped from 1.2 million page views to 90,000!
    and my best wishes for you that QOT will recover all of its lost traffic soon.
    my site is also facing traffic drop issue after recent Google update.
    I used to get around 1700 visitors per day and now it’s dropped to 300-400 visitors.
    but I hope that my site will recover soon from all these penalties.
    and yeah 1.2 million, I’m amazed.

  5. Dean Saliba says:

    Are you guys counting ALL links? I was under the impression that nofollow links were not taken into consideration.

    • P. Chandra says:

      Its better to remove these links. I guess once the links are do-follow, then made nofollow, they might be treated differently by search engines.

  6. Bashir Ahmed says:

    Sorry to hear that you site traffic was dropped by over 90% by this new Google updates.

    Glad to know you’ve done a good job and deleted links. I’m sure your site traffic will increase soon.

    Just make sure to add the nofollow tag in link that you want to include in themes footer.

    Best of luck!

  7. U2smile says:

    I hoping that your traffic will increase in soon..

  8. shahadat says:

    Due to bad backlinks you were penalized and your visitor drops 92% once you deleted these,
    this is a lesson for us and we will be aware of such bad backlinks

  9. Hyptia says:

    Shocking one. I can’t imagine that things lost number of back links.

  10. VIVO says:

    we had to exactly follow a similar process for a client, it wasn’t as much as 1.7 million but it was quiet a lot.
    the biggest challenge was to start re-building those lost links with quality links.

  11. Enric Dig says:

    I think this may have drowned down all your content and hardwork. It happened to me also and all my Blog suffer and now my blog is nothing earlier is was a very big Blog and get ten Thousands of views everyday .

  12. Sani says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of links to remove! I’m sure you will survive it though!

  13. Ryan Biddulph says:

    HI P,

    Sorry to hear about your saga but I am happy that your traffic is stabilizing. Here is where the importance of a friend network comes into play.

    Google can mess your with traffic of course but building up a network of buddies through tribes makes your traffic increase no matter what Big G update comes out. Of course the friends will always stick around as long as you are helpful, positive and put out strong value…..the same cannot be said for Google lol!

    Thanks for the interesting share!


  14. Arup says:

    1.7 million !! that was surely a heavy work.

  15. satyenhacks says:

    It’s really a heavy problem when traffic goes down from millions to thousands. However it’s good you found a way and worked upon it. Over time, your traffic will be back. Best of luck

  16. Ranjith @Techgide says:

    thanks for sharing your experience..
    Recently my blog lost all its traffic..dropped to 100 from 1300
    I have been searching for the solution and found it here..
    Thank you very much for the post…

  17. anon says:

    Hi Chandra,

    Has this helped yet? I have a few suggestions but this one seems like something that might work. I may be wrong, so appreciate if you can update us if there is any significant change in traffic?

  18. Helal Uddin says:

    I think, it happened to you because of having backlinks from adult sites and so on. As tech related site, it isn’t good. I wish you will be able to recover your site’s traffic again. I also learned more about SEO from your topic.
    Thanks a lot.

  19. Web Design dubai says:

    What will happened with traffic after this?

  20. Dev pandey says:


    Seems your SEO person has done really great job in creating that back links..anyways, excellent idea on how to remove unwanted backlink for your domain. I also have some similar issue with back-links to one of my website which has suffered a lot with algorithm update. I am working on it to improve the traffic back to normal..

    Thanks for this wonderful and knowledge sharing post!!!

  21. spookseo says:

    Thanks for this one. Working with so many backlinks is just too much and it will take your time. Tools will help but not all of them are accurate enough to sort the chaff from the wheat. It will take a lot of time but doing it manually really gets the job done right.

  22. Sahil says:

    Share with us latest on this, We all want to know the final outcome.

  23. David says:

    S̤̥̈̊o̲̣̥ sorry…really bad times there..hope you pull through soonest…

  24. Fima Kandinov says:

    Losing 1.7 million links is crazy! I guess there was no choice. Good luck rebuilding.

  25. Santhosh says:

    1.7million !!! Surely a heavy problem.

    After Hummingbird search update by google, my website’s organic search has reduced. Atleast with this suggestions, will investigate and try to avoid such toxic backlinks if any.

    Thanks for sharing.

  26. Luke @ Living Gringo says:

    I am getting back links from sites like Vampirestat, 7Secrets, etc… Would these be considered to be “toxic back links”?

  27. Poradnik says:

    Wow :) big number :)

  28. Mohammad says:

    You Are Amazing man .. this may will help me to delete bad backlinks of my websites


  29. Rosie Evie says:

    This was a great collaboration! Trying to brush up my social media in 2014 and I appreciate all the contributors here and picked up some tips

    kind regards :)

  30. johngates says:

    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.

  31. hasankamal1122 says:

    Its never easy to give away your traffic easily by removing backlinks. One has to make better decision for its future to survive in this virtual world of internet. So I hope for the best to happen.

  32. sambath says:

    Actually this is nice and useful too.i bookmarked this page. read the blog its useful to me so I shared the blog .

  33. Avinash Kumar says:

    I was also penalized by Google last month due to unnatural links. The traffic was drastically impacted and I lost earnings. I disavow the links. Still my blog has not recovered from the penalty.

  34. Web development company in new york says:

    Very good

  35. murshed says:

    I am planning to see your movement enhance in next few months and if this works out then I am certain I can recoup Blogsdna too from those huge amounts of topic connections which we have got through the years

  36. Shamit Khemka says:

    Can you tell me how can i create back links for my websites which are good and long do follow plus dont get penalty in google, any ways to search that websites blogs or else waiting for your revert

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