#23 What To Do If You Have Done Grey Hat Link Building in The Past?

What you will learn

  • Why Grey hat is a bad idea most of the time?
  • What to do if you have done grey hat link building on a long term project?

Full Transcript

Gael: Hey, guys, welcome to the Authority Hacker podcast, today I am with Mark as usual- how is it going, Mark?

Mark: It’s going great, thanks!

Gael: Cool, so today we are going to talk about a topic that is affecting other people that are listening to us, a lot of people that listen to us, we come from a more grey hat SEO background. And, they have started sites already, and sometimes they have used tactics that we don’t recommend and that could put future in jeopardy, essentially, it’s kind of something that we need to redeem from and this is all about this redemption we want to talk about in this episode, and we want to talk about what to do if you had done that kind of stuff and that is thinks like using PBNs or buying links or running some kind of blog network, or like the old school build my rank- all that kind of stuff that you may have done in the past, that you could be suffering for maybe not today, maybe not next month, maybe not next year, but in the next few years if Google release some kind of update and so on. And because you are going to be putting a lot of time and effort into your site, if you go to a white hat way, you kind of want to prevent this kind of bad things from happening. And so, I just want to talk about that. But let’s just talk first about like why grey hat is not necessarily a good idea. Should I go for this Mark or do you want to go?

Mark: The first thing I want to say before you say it’s not necessarily a good idea is that there are some cases when perhaps it is a good idea that all of those cases or none of those cases are if you are running an authority site, but there are some people that use it for sort of turn and burn style sites and use effectively and make lots of money from it. So, we are not here to sort of hate on it too much and say like, it doesn’t work or in some situations it works but if you are building authority site I don’t think it’s worth it.

Gael: Yeah. I think, for your main site it’s not worth it, but there could be cases where you would build like some mini sites to promote one of your products or something and essentially, act as your own affiliate, in which case, grey hat could actually be not a terrible idea, it’s not illegal and for short project campaigns like a project launch or something, it’s definitely just a marketing tool you can use, not the most ethical one, but it is something that exists and that is part of the business tools that you can use for your stuff. But in terms of your main brand, I would definitely not recommend it, I have a horrible analogy which is like if you stand on the spot for an hour, your chances of getting hit by a lightning are very low, but if you stand there for 1000 years, they are actually pretty high, and that’s the same, if you only look at a three months in a future kind of perspective, your chances of getting penalized are actually pretty low, even if you are doing grey hat stuff. But if you look at five, or six year time span, then your chances are pretty high even though you didn’t do any really bad stuff. So, let’s just get started and talk about what people can do, that have done that to their site. I think the first thing that people need to do is to start right away, which is super obvious but, it is something that you need to think about when you do grey hat SEO, because a lot of stuff is automated. You sign for the services, they kind of own subscription on your PayPal and you put your URL and they build like a 1000 links to your site every month using some really bad web 2.0 or that kind of stuff. We did have stuff running for a little bit, It takes a bit of work to actually get that stuff sometimes. It’s something that you need to go through, I would recommend putting your site on Ahrefs and kind of like look at what is popping up and getting that start. Another thing that is going to be probably a little bit harsh and obviously it’s going to depend on a situation, but personally, if I was in this situation I would probably fire the person responsible for doing these grey hat stuff and the reason why it is, it’s actually pretty hard to turn someone from grey hat to white hat. And, maybe you want to say a little bit about that with employees we’ve had and how we did that, but, when someone has a culture and a habit of cutting corners in terms of marketing, it’s really hard to actually get them back onto the right track.

Mark: It’s not really cutting corners thing for me, it’s more of just an overall mindset of like white hat seems to be more ”let’s do proper marketing, let’s do the right thing and it will benefit us”. Whereas grey hat is like, ”ok, how can we game the system?” And, that’s not- there is an overlap between both types but that seems to be the sort of general view and once- you are right that most people at least most people I have come across, who are a grey hat SEO kind of people, they just think a certain way about things and yeah, it’s quite difficult to get that to change.

Gael: Yeah, I had done a bunch of interviews for the agency back in the day, and the people that came from the grey hat background would be like how do you build links- I would much rather hire someone with zero experience than someone with this kind of habits. It’s hard to trust.

Mark: Yeah, you are right, you have to spend time and effort in breaking those habits and then building them up again, which may actually be longer than just building them up or something.

Gael: Yeah, I would probably just start working with someone new who either has a track record of doing white hat stuff, or just someone who is brand new at learning online marketing, it’s easier to take someone that has zero bad habits and build good habits, than breaking the bad habits and building good habits, I think. So that is basically the first type, stop everything, clean up your team as well, possibly and take good resolutions, essentially.

The second one is, obviously you’ve done that before, stopping is not enough, you need to assess the damage, right, and usually when we do that, you are going to try to assess one percentage of your links comes from this grey hat stuff, and in some cases you’ve done 20 PBN links and you have a bunch of high quality links to your site in which case you probably just want to clean stuff up, but if something like over 75% of your links come from this kind of tactics or even more, it is worth considering starting over on a fresh domain. And that’s not something that’s fun to do, and that essentially means you start from zero in terms of link equity, you don’t start from zero in terms of content, you can move your content over to fresh domain, but it means you start from zero in terms of link equity. But actually, we’ve had people that we’ve moved over to fresh domains that would in the end grow faster because they would start clean, rather than even though you are not penalized when you have a lot of shitty links pointing to your site, your SEO progress is just slow and sluggish, there is some kind of trust factor with Google where if most of your links are high quality, you will rank very easily, and if you have a percentage of your links that are not so high quality, even though you are not penalized, and you still rank in for some stuff, it is much harder to rank. There is no number on that, but this is definitely something that would fail to cross working on many domains. The recommendation would be like, if all those 75% of your links are from this kind of grey hat tactics, I would start from fresh domain even if it means losing six months or something. The truth is, is you work for one year white hat on this domain and lose it, it’s going to be way more than that, and if under 75% of your links is from grey hat then I would probably just try to clean it up, but obviously, you kind of need to assess it yourself and once again, check that on Ahrefs, there is actually a free trial Ahrefs if you go on authorityhacker.com/ahrefs, a-h-r-e-f-s, and you will be able to do that assessment with your link profile. Another thing in terms of assessing the links is Ahrefs is good but it doesn’t have everybody inside, you also check the web masters console to assess your links. Do you have anything on the assessing the damage, like when would you switch domains and when would you try to clean it up?

Mark: Yeah, I think, it’s always difficult to say, I think that 75/ 25 is a good measurement, typically, you will find though that if someone is doing or has been doing grey hat a lot, it tends to be more sort of like 99%, so I think if that is the case, it’s probably quite obvious.

Gael: So start a new domain. It’s kind of annoying right away, but as I said, if you then spend one year doing white hat stuff and then still get penalized, or you just don’t get much SEO results even without a penalty, you are losing time, it’s not that hard to build a domain authority of 25, 30 and you can get pretty good rankings with that kind of domain authority, so yeah, I recommend you do that.

Then, basically, the next step is either start over and you have to start over, I recommend that you just pick a new domain, a new .com domain, move your contents to new domain, point to a new server, and on the old domain, don’t redirect, you cannot redirect the domain because that would also redirect any kind of penalty that would come to that domain as well. So what you need to do is you need to essentially make a page that says, hey, we moved domain, and here is the new site, and leave that up and people might click through, to the new domain, which sucks a bit, you will lose a lot of traffic that you had gotten, but that is the only way to not pass on penalties, and we also no index the website, remove it from the Google index, completely. So, that there is very little risk of passing any kind of penalty to your new site, so you are basically redirecting the people that are really looking for your brand, but you don’t have much SEO if any, passing to your new domain, that is what I would do. It’s painful to think about that.

Mark: Yeah, you are probably going to lose most of your traffic when you do this, by the way.

Gael: Yeah, you need to expect that, but that is- once again, this is only if you have most of your links coming from grey hat stuff which has a very highly likelyhood of this domain being penalized in the future.

Mark: I think this is a good point, because most people what will happen is they will ignore this and they will continue doing what they are doing until they get penalized, they will get penalized and then they will lose everything and they would have to start from scratch. If you start now, you are not necessarily losing everything, it’s kind of like a more controlled way to approach it.

Gael: Yeah, you basically assess the situation, you cut your loses, so you accept that, a lot of your SEO traffic is going to be gone, people that are really looking for you, it’s not that bad, they are going to land to a page with a big link to your site, clicks through and get there. So if you have some clients these people that know you and want your stuff, they will be there, so it’s not- it is annoying, you don’t lose everything. Then when it comes to the cleanup, I recommend Ahrefs actually has a new Disavow tool that you can actually go through your link list and you can click add to disavow file and essentially you are disavowing all these links as you are going through, which is really nice, and convenient. And you can download the files, so I recommend you do that and essentially be really ruthless in terms of the links that you are going to be moving, because, the day you are going to get penalized, you will need to remove a lot of links if you actually remove links and disavow before you get penalized, Google is going to be a little nicer and you can get away with more, so better just build these disavow files first from Ahrefs second from the Google webmaster console. You will maybe lose some rankings, but you will be surprised how the tool rankings you lose by disavowing bad links, I actually have a personal theory that a lot of these grey hat links do nothing, it’s probably a couple of them doing something, but it’s not nearly 100 grey hat links probably are worth 1 or 2 white hat links, so it’s not that difficult to replace. So be ruthless, clean up before Google penalizes you, make these disavow files and submit it into the web master console and within something like 3 or 4 weeks Google actually counts these and it doesn’t count them as links, and so when they going to assess who to penalize who not to penalize in the next update for example, well these links will not count. And therefore you don’t risk losing the traffic that you have saved, even if you lose a bit of traffic initially, you won’t lose everything, you won’t have to go through these very painful reconsideration request process that could put you down for many more. So we have people that were down for more than 6 months because of that. So, it’s definitely worth losing a bit of traffic if you are at risk. Anything to say about that?

Mark: No, I agree.

Gael: Alright, cool. And finally, the last thing that I would do in terms of that, is actually like build a track record of quality. So, removing the crappy stuff is one thing, but you kind of want to show that you are moving on, Google is kind of the looking the trends of where things are going, in terms of ranking, they are looking at how many links you acquired per month, is that number increasing, decreasing etc, and that is essentially how they determine the velocity of your site and the growth of it, and rankings they are going to give you, right? So, if you actually are able to show even just a little bit of high quality marketing following up, things like creating a big piece of content and promoting it is a pretty easy way to do that, create a piece of content, outreach to high quality sites, get a couple of links, get them to share even like you would appear on their twitter profile which are high authority, you would appear on their facebook pages which are public, and so on, maybe making something like an infographic campaign, an expert roundup is definitely big in the industry right now, just finding 20 people in your industry and asking them for a quote on the question, posting all of that in one post, not my favorite type of post personally, but they do really well and they get the right people to share a link and comment and so on, and that builds all these kind of signals that show that you tend to do white hat stuff. If you are trying to turn your domain around, it’s the kind of thing that I would do. And I would worry less about monetization, it’s like you are not here to make money, you are here to save your traffic essentially. So, don’t try to sell too hard anything, work more on building high quality free stuff for the community so you get links. That’s what I would do in terms of building this new velocity essentially.

And the fifth one is a pretty funny one, it’s a spray, I am not sure- not that I believe that does a lot, but if you haven’t started a new domain, or even if you have been recycling the content from your domain, the truth is there is still a small chance that Google will go after you, in some update, and you could be in trouble even though you’ve been doing a lot of stuff, but the thing is, it’s really about fixing all these things before you get caught, we’ve done that on Health Ambition, we do that regularly on our site, go through the link profiles and stuff etc, because, even though you actually do not do bad link building, negative SEO is a real thing especially when you are sharing the domain on the podcast like this one, people do send us crappy links, they put links to us on that shitty PBNs and so on, some people do not have better things to do than this. So, but as long as we’ve been proactive about it and I didn’t fight these things and built these, and upload this and we like 3 or 4 months, then organic traffic is we actually just passed 500 000 visits per month so we do it pretty good despite all these things. And that is because we are trying to be really proactive. So, yeah, there is a small chance that things will happen, in SEO nothing is ever guaranteed. But, do it early and you will be fine. So, that’s basically my really short and sweet plan for people who have done grey hat before and want to keep working on that site, or want to keep working in that niche, in that case, they are going to change domain. Change domain only if there is a big big big chance that you will get caught or if the cleanup is just too much. Sometimes the cleanup work is more work than starting over a new domain, and that’s when I would recommend you do that, actually. So, that’s basically the plan, Mark do you have any final words?

Mark: Yeah, I just wanted to ask sort of question to you- so, we focused on I guess mostly people who have been doing mostly grey hat or lot of grey hat. If you just have some grey hat like let’s say you bought some links package or signed up some pbn network or something like this, what would you suggest?

Gael: We are trying to get the links moved first, links we have moved out are even better than disavow, I believe there is going to be a limit on disavow, it’s just too easy, at some point Google is going, well, if you disawoved 80% of your link profile we count only half of it. Because otherwise, it’s just too much of get out of jail free card, you can just test them and just disavow and test again, and kind of like play about what is working and what is not working. So, I was even considering at some point to hide our white hat links to build millions of grey hat links and just disavow them even before they are built. And then after that, people cannot copy our link profile. So, this opens the Pandora’s box, the disavow tool, I believe that Google will limit that to some extent, because otherwise, sneaky people like me will think about tactics like that. So, if you can build the links removed which, if you are buying from a guy on like WickedFire or something, you can most of the time, these guys just manually upload on WordPress and so on, pay them even to remove the links, give them a hundred bucks to remove the links, depending on how much money you make with your site, it is just going to save you so much trouble. So yeah, if it is 10, 20 links I would just get them removed, otherwise, just disavow and keep going essentially, I would keep the same domain, changing domain is heavy, if you just change your domain you will have SEO effects, you will lose a lot of traffic, so it’s not something you should do lightly and that’s why I say only if you have like 75% or more of links coming from there. Which, once again, it’s a numbers game, right, if you have 20 grey hat links and 5 white hat links, you still have 75% of your links coming from there, but cleaning up 20 links is not so difficult. So I would still keep on the same domain I would just get the links removed, or disavow them, but if we are talking tens of thousands of links, then yeah you should probably just change the domain. So, it’s basically it.

Mark: Cool.

Gael: Well, ok, that was it for this podcast guys, I hope you enjoyed it and we’ll see you guys in the next episode, bye!