Google Penalty Recovery for Law Firms Using Cognitive SEO

Over the years I have seen many law firms find themselves under link penalties for having unnatural link profiles. For those who were under algorithmic penalties, the last two years could have been a bit rough. The good news is that Google finally rolled out the Penguin 4 update which processes unnatural links in real time. The good news is that it this should mean it’s easier for law firms to recover now if they follow the proper procedures and disassociate themselves from bad links using Googles disavow file.

If you have an SEO team working on your website this task should be standard practice moving forward. Evaluating links regularly can help you stay out of a sticky situation and also help your website thrive by being proactive in their removal.

Is Penalty Recovery Hard?

Despite what some SEO’s want you to believe, Penalty recovery is not rocket science. Although a trained eye can identify good and bad links easier the process is relatively simple. You can make the process even easier if you decide to use tools to help you such as Cognitive SEO, which we will look at today.

That being said if you have a lot of links the penalty recovery process or disavow creation can be very time consuming. One of the mistakes I see most often is SEO’s disavowing links that are actually helping their website rank. This is where having a second eye on it can really help you mitigate the damage.

What We’re Going To Do Today

Today we’re going to work on identifying bad links using Cognitive SEO’s software, reviewing the links for naturalness, creating a disavow file, and uploading the disavow file to Google Search Console.

This process is geared towards those who want to run a healthy website and those who might be in an algorithmic penalty.

What is a Disavow File?

In 2013 Google released a tool that allows you to ask Google not to count specific links or domains pointing to your website. This tool allows you to essentially sever the tie and disassociate your website from unnatural links or links outside of Google’s guidelines. It’s like adding a ‘nofollow’ tag to incoming links that are giving your website link equity when they should not be doing so.

Tools Needed:
Access to Google Search Console
Cognitive SEO

Step One: Collect Your Link Data

The key to having a successful link audit is to start with the most data possible. Assuming you use a tool like Link Research Tools or Cognitive SEO you can have them identify backlinks pointing to your website, but their crawlers are limited. While they do a pretty good job you have to realize that Google has much larger crawl budgets and sees much more of the web. That’s why it’s always a good idea to start with Google’s data from Google Search Console. To get the link data from search console login to your account here.

Once you’re signed into your website account simply select Search Traffic > Links To Your Site
Click here to see the links from search console

After you click on this you will find that there are some sample links that pull up. Click More to see additional options as shown in the graphic below:

Click more under links to your site

Next you’ll be taken to a page with several options to download links. Go ahead and download them all so we can have the ultimate amount of sample links 🙂 You can see the buttons you need to click below.

Download links

Step Two: Setup Cognitive SEO

If you have not already done so you will need to setup an account with Cognitive SEO and run an initial report. Start by creating a new campaign. I prefer to start new recurring campaigns since I like to use the software to monitor new links, etc. You can do so by selecting the start button next to recurring campaigns.

Cognitive SEO Dashboard

Once you have started the process it’s going to ask you a series of questions including your website URL, a competitors website URL, and some keywords you want to track. It will also take you to a screen identified as link analysis. You can leave these settings at the defaults for now and run the campaign.

It will take a little bit of time to run the initial crawl but once it’s done you’re ready to rock and roll.

Step Three: Import More Links

Remember earlier when we pulled our links from Google? This is because while Cognitive does a great job finding links to your website, Google will generally report more. Now we need to import these into Cognitive SEO to get the best results. You can go the extra mile and pull link data from Bing Webmaster Tools and other data sources too if you need to.

To import the links start by opening up your campaign in Cognitive SEO. Then locate the easy IMPORT button as shown below:

Import links using cognitive SEO

Once you open up the window select the Choose File button. Locate your links .CSV files we downloaded earlier and upload them using the blue Import CSV button.

Import CSV

At this point Cognitive SEO will start crawling the links which could take some time depending on how many links you have. Don’t worry though it will email you when it’s done.

Step Four: Classify Your Links

This is where it starts getting really important. After your links are done being scanned you will be able to click on your websites project and scroll down to the Anchor Text Distribution & Classifier. This is our first line of defense where we will classify the anchor text.

Anchor Text is the clickable part of a link. In a natural link profile you will likely see links using your brand name, your website, click here, etc. A natural link profile will also contain many other variants some of which might be commercial in nature. SEO’s figured out early on that linking to websites with commercial anchor text (like “Personal Injury Lawyer” for example”) manipulated the rankings in their favor. Once this was figured out it was also taken advantage of. A website that only has links related to their product or services likely does not have a natural link profile.

What you want to do is start by classifying these links by either “Brand”, “Commercial”, or “Other”. Classifying this anchor text allows Cognitive SEO to give you a strong analysis of your backlinks.

When you classify keywords brand keywords should be your brand name mentions. Commercial keywords should be services you offer or keywords you want to rank for. Other is used for all other types of anchor text.

Start by scrolling down to the Anchor Text Distribution & Classifier section. You will see a list of keywords like the example below.

Link Classification Steps

From here the tool is pretty simple to use. Your goal is to classify at least 70% of your links. The higher classification you get the better the results will be. To use the classifier simply click on a keyword in the anchor cloud. An option will pop up where you can easily select what type of anchor text this is. Below I have provided some examples to help you based off of our link profile.

Examples of branded anchor text for us: Juris Digital, https://jurisdigital.com, JurisDigital, etc.
Examples of commercial anchor text: Lawyer SEO Services
Examples of misc anchor text: ads that display in the 3 pack, the new snack pack, check out these specific resources

Step Four: Run The Automatic Link Classification

Now that you have setup a campaign and defined your anchor text it’s time to let the fun begin. Once you have classified at least 70% of your links scroll up and click the button to run the Automatic Link Classification. This step will analyze your links for you and report back with a score.

Link Classification Run

It won’t take too long to run so just sit back and wait to see what comes up.

No Link Risk

In our case we were given the above message. Your message could vary depending on how unnatural your link profile looks. Regardless of the message you should still review your links to separate the good from the bad links.

Step Five: Review Your Links

This is going to be the most time consuming task in the project. This is where we review our links to see which ones are good and bad. After the classification has ran you will find that there are several easy to see graphs like the one below that are generated for you. This makes it easy to see link types, reasons, and more.

Unnatural Link Issues

For me, the easiest way to identify bad links and review them is to use the Unnatural Links Navigator. To open this simply click the giant blue button:

Unnatural Links

This will open up a new window that can look a little intimidating at first, but after you know the basics it get’s easy. Start by taking a look at the graphic below. You will notice there are basically three sections. The left section shows the actual link you are reviewing. The top section has quick tools you can access to easily classify a link. The right section shows which link you’re looking at and how Cognitive see’s the link.

Link Navigator

Here is where it gets time consuming…

In an ideal world you will have the time to review each of these links and make a decision. If a link appears to be natural and within Google’s guidelines you can click the “Reclassify” button on the top and label it as OK.

For links that are deemed harmful I recommend classifying them as unnatural using the reclassify button at the top and then selecting the Disavow option. This will automatically add your link to a Disavow file that Cognitive SEO can generate for you.

The key is to take the time, do this right, and classify every link.

If you do this process right the first time it becomes an easy maintenance task moving forward. It’s also good to second pair of eyes on it as well.

Step Six: Export Your Disavow File

The good news is that now that you spent all of this time classifying links, it gets easier again. After you have identified all of the bad links you will want to disavow them. To do this we need to create a disavow file and upload to Google while logged into Google Search Console.

To get your disavow file simply go back to the main campaign screen and select the blue “Export Google Disavow” button.

Disavow Button

Step Seven: Send In Your Disavow File

You’re almost done! Now that you have classified your links and created your disavow it’s time to upload it to Google. I recommend submitting it to every version of your website claimed in Google Search Console. The good news is that Cognitive SEO made this easy too. Simply click the Send Disavow File button next to the Export Google Disavow button. This will open up the Disavow submission box where you can select your website from the list of verified websites.

Disavow Links

Keep in mind that you must have the website you want to disavow links for verified in search console or it will not appear in the list.

From here a window will open up where you can upload the .txt disavow file we downloaded in step six. Simply select choose file, locate the file, and then select submit. If it’s successful you will get a message indicating so with the number of links or domains disavowed.

What Happens Now?

GREAT WORK! You created and submitted a disavow file! Now you’ve gotten in a good position to make Google Happy. With the new Penguin 4 real time update the disavow you uploaded will be processed. This is the hurry up and wait stage while you wait for Google to recognize this.

If you were previously in a penalty situation and have to do this disavow you should remember that you still need to earn high quality links moving forward. This is still a major ranking factor.

We are currently running some tests to get some insights on how fast Google is processing disavow files now. I will update this post with more once we get more data.

If you have questions, comments, or need help please don’t hesitate to comment below or reach out to us directly.

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Casey Meraz

Casey is the founder and president of Ethical SEO Consulting and Juris Digital based in Denver, CO. Casey's specialties are in organic and local SEO. He is a regular contributor to the Moz Blog and the author of How To Perform The Ultimate Local SEO Audit. If you have an SEO question or need advice please feel free to reach out by email: cmeraz@jurisdigital.com. Follow Casey on Twitter @CaseyMeraz.