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You may never know when you are going to stumble on an unnatural links penalty, whether it’s algorithmic or manual. And you’re going to have to deal with that problem one way or the other. When you’re trying to get rid of those harmful backlink profiles, one solution that prevailed is to remove the page from your site to which the unnatural links were pointing. You’re going to swiftly deal with the problem, but you’re going to remain with a page that will give the 404 message.

Recover Your Sites Ranking by 404ing Your Bad Pages

Will this technique of removing a page that has toxic links pointing to it solve a problem that would otherwise lead to a penalty ? In a nutshell, if you’re keen on getting rid of those unnatural links, you might as well remove the linked page. As a result, it will return a 404 HTTP response code.

How to Spot the Pages With the Most Unnatural Links?

When you run an unnatural link detection report, in cognitiveSEO, you have the very cool Visual Link Explorer visualization that will plot all the detected unnatural links based on the pages of the site.

Visual Link Explorer Unnatural Links Distribution

Each cluster represents a page on the site and the red and yellow dots represent the distribution of the unnatural and suspect links.

So it is as simple as looking at the chart and spotting the pages that have the most unnatural links.

When Should You Apply This Unnatural Link Removal Strategy?

While this tactic can be used for any page on your website at any time, you won’t be able to do so with the homepage. You need to take this fact into consideration. The pages from your site that have a great deal of toxic links can be removed and declared 404 in order to quickly recover from a Google penalty. You’ll also have to think at all the natural links and at the content that you’re going to get rid off. So you’ll need to figure out if you want to keep the page and try to handpick and remove every unnatural link from the page or just solve the problem right from the start.

You should also know, that in order for this strategy to work, you need to delete the page that has the toxic links and that might have triggered the Unnatural Links Penalty. You won’t be able to dodge that bullet in any kind of way. The following will not solve your problem:

  • Generating a robots. txt file that blocks that page from being indexed. This method won’t solve your problem as Google will simply not crawl the page but it will still be taken into consideration for your site.
  • Using redirect to another page. You will still have those unnatural links pointing to your site.
  • Using the same content on a newly created and canonicalized page – After GoogleBot crawls your site it will find the duplicate content. The toxic links that were assigned to the deleted page will now be assigned to the canonicalized page.
  • Tagging the page as nofollow or noindex. The same as the case with robots.txt. Rendering a page with nofollow won’t make it’s links obsolete.

Does Google Recommend to 404 the Target Page in case of an Unnatural Links Penalty?

This also hides another question that comes into mind “Do 404 pages hurt my site’s ranking ?”. You shouldn’t be scared if one day you stumble upon a couple of these errors reported in Webmaster Tools. Google is aware that the Internet is very volatile and changes happen on a daily basis. Everyone deals with broken pages that return 404 as a status code. It’s also the decent way to deal with a page that was removed from the site. You should be aware that Google’s crawlers can’t see the updated 404 HTTP response code if you block it with robots.txt. But overall, the fact that you have a page that shows a 404 message doesn’t affect other pages from your site and their links.

It’s something that many people pondered upon and finally John Muller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google responded during a Webmaster Central Hangout. He was asked:

“Does removing a page that has unnatural links pointing to it accomplish the same thing when it comes to removing a link when it comes to the Penguin algorithm? If a site has all of its links pointing to one page and removes the page is the issue solved?”

He  responded “Yes, essentially that’s pretty much the same thing”. All the links that are pointing to a 404 page are dropped because there’s nothing to be linked anymore. But there might still be some differences between removing the links and removing the page that has those links. Some of them may be picked up faster by Google than the other, but he didn’t mentioned something specific.

Error 404 James Bot cognitive SEO

How Should I do it?

To make sure this strategy serves it’s purpose you have to be careful on how you approach this. Only if you create the 404 page and then remove the page that has links pointing to it, you’re going to make Google disregard those links from your profile. Google’s John Muller also stated that you should make absolutely sure that accessing the URL should give you a 404 (Not Found) or a 410 ( Gone ) HTTP response code. Google reads into those messages and ignores the links.

The main flaw of this strategy is that you can’t use it when all those unnatural links are pointing to your homepage. You clearly can’t delete this general page of your site. In this situation you’re only option is to change the address of your site, but only if you’re sure those unnatural links are causing your site to lose ranking. You also need to make sure you have an informative 404 page ready to replace the deleted one.

Should I Disavow the Unnatural Links pointing to a 404 page?

Taking in consideration every advantage and disadvantage of using both these methods of dissolving unnatural links, there are some similarities and differences worth taking into consideration They share the same fate as an ultimate resort and both are irreversible processes. And, last but not least, 404ing the page has the same results as using the disavow tool. But given all the drama and uncertainty that surrounds the disavow tool, removing the linked page and replacing it with one that offers a 404 HTTP code becomes a pretty viable option.

What is the Difference Between HTTP Status Code 404 and 410?

Google reacts differently depending on the different response codes you assign to your pages. While there may be cut from the same fabric, Google’s Matt Cutts decided to explain the difference between these two shades of “page not found”.

  • 200 means everything went totally fine
  • 404 means page not found
  • 410 typically means gone, as in the page is not found and we do not expect it to come back

He explained that 410 is basically more than a 404, it just means that the page is gone forever. He further says that you shouldn’t worry for the most part – if a page is temporarily removed you should 404 it. If the page was deleted and there are no plans of getting it back, then you should serve a 410! Regardless of the 404 or 410 HTTP response code, GoogleBot will still come back and recrawl the site to see if those pages are really gone from your site. More details in the video below.


Most certainly, you can remove the unnatural links by removing the linked page from your site and then 404ing it. It’s an approved method that works just as well as using the Disavow Tool. As a result, Google will proceed to de-index and remove those pages and disavow their links. But again, you need to remember one golden rule of applying this strategy – the page you want to 404 shouldn’t be an important page from your website like the homepage. For those situations you need to do a Google Disavow.

What are your thoughts on using a 404/410 HTTP response code to remove pages that have lots of unnatural links ? Have you used this strategy or are you planning to use it in the future ?

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