Getting a penalty from Google can mean lower search engine rankings, your site's removal from its search index--even the death of your business. As Google continues to step up its war on spammy, over-optimized links, businesses must be more vigilant than ever in protecting their link profiles.

The search giant readily admits links will become devalued over time as Google finds other ways of gauging the relevance and popularity of a webpage. However, links are still very much an indicator of how high a page should rank today. Google has its hands full trying to sort out the good links from the bad and some webmasters will inevitably be caught in the crossfire.

How can you keep your link profile clean and avoid penalization in the upcoming SEO apocalypse?

First, it's important to understand the different types of trouble you can get your site into, intentionally or completely by accident.

Websites can become devalued in Google's eyes if the algorithm picks up a problem. In this case, you need to find the offending links and take action.

However, Google is also known to take manual action against websites with unnatural link profiles. In that case, your clean-up might also require a request for reconsideration--basically, a mea culpa to let Google know you're sorry and have cleaned up your act.

Use these four tips to ensure your link building efforts haven't landed you in hot water and that your link profile is clean heading into the next algorithmic updates:

1. Clean Up: Remove or Disavow Spammy Links

The Penguin algorithm update first launched in April 2012 (and has been updated several times since), to specifically target unnatural-looking link profiles and link schemes.

What makes a link look bad to Google? Unfortunately, it may not be something you were even consciously aware of doing, which is why everyone needs to review their link profile for red flags like these:

  • Paid links using exact match anchor text.
  • Links coming from comment or forum spam.
  • Links from guest posts on less-than-reputable websites.
  • Spammy directory links pointing to your site.
  • Keyword stuffing in inbound and outbound links.
  • Links from sites flagged for malware or other malicious activity, etc.

Google often looks for what they call "bad neighborhoods," or groups/networks of sites that appear interconnected based on their link profiles. It's your job to ensure you aren't accidentally caught up in one.

If you suspect you may be on the receiving end of spammy, potentially harmful links, start with a link removal request. If you're having no luck getting webmasters to voluntarily remove dangerous links, use Google's disavow tool to tell them you don't want those links included in your link profile.

Now, some have gone overboard and tried to disavow every link to their site. Remember, links still have value! You need the good links, so don't throw the baby out with the bathwater by disavowing everything.

2. Turn the Tide: Focus on Higher Value Links

Google looks at your link profile as a whole, so earning legit links helps keep the ratio of bad links down.

Content marketing is an incredibly effective way of earning quality links. Creating high-quality content and promoting it to relevant websites, social media influencers, and media can help you earn high-quality, relevant links back to your site.

The key here is that you're attracting links, not asking for them. Make the kind of content people will want to cite as a source, share with their friends, and endorse with a link. Start by using these 8 simple tactics to earn great media exposure for your brand.

3. Get Your Outbound Links in Order

Now you need to focus on cleaning up your own outbound link profiles. For example, by eliminating or no-following any links from your site to any other sites that you suspect are employing shady linking tactics. For example, on my own blog at WordStream.com, I recently blew away *all of the links* in the blog comments, since we found that many of the names and comments were spammy link drops. I realize that most link clean-up projects involves deleting or disavowing spammy inbound links--however, I think webmasters ought to also be proactive at cleaning up your outbound link profile, too!

4. Diversify!

You're really putting your company at risk if the majority of your Web traffic comes from Google. Ideally, you won't need to rely on any one source of traffic.

This means branching out to other sources of traffic, such as paid search or social media. If one traffic source falters, at least it will only be a percentage of your overall traffic, giving you time to combat the issue without completely going under.

Key Takeaways:

Don't go crazy and disavow or no-follow everything. Focus on using links in the way Google intended them to be used--as endorsements of quality content. Be selective and link where it makes sense.

Keep an eye on the overall health of your link profile and the perception it sends to Google to avoid falling victim to link penalties, algorithmic and manual!