Here is everything you should know about bad links from spammy websites: ranging from how to check for bad backlinks, link removal, and when to disavow backlinks.
If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably very frustrated at the idea that there are bad links from spammy websites linking to your site. These toxic links may be negatively affecting your website’s SEO.
We hope that by the end of this post, you’ll gain some more context and knowledge about what search engines look for in toxic backlinks, and how to remove bad links from Google.
What Are Bad Backlinks?
How do you know if backlinks are good or bad for your site? According to Google, any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
Here are examples of bad links:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank – including sending “free” product in exchange for a write-up and a link
- Excessive link exchanges (or partner pages that exist for the sake of cross-linking)
- Large-scale article marketing with keyword rich anchor text links
- Using automated programs to create links to your site
- Requiring a link as part of a contract, without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link
Here are examples of unnatural links:
- Text advertisements that pass PageRank
- Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases
- Low-quality directory, social media, or bookmark site links
- Hidden links embedded in widgets distributed across various sites
- Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites
- Forum comments with optimized links in the signatures
Here are examples of good links:
- Relevant links from high-quality websites naturally linking to good content on your website
- Natural links to unique content that gains popularity in the Internet community
Looking for even more information about whether a backlink may be good or bad? The toxic markers from SEMRush offers a thorough breakdown and explanation of what may constitute a low-quality or potentially bad link.
Penalty For Bad Backlinks
Even when your site has high quality content, there’s a chance you’ll have a negative site-wide action taken if the site is engaging in something like link spam.
Search engines have algorithms and manual review teams. Over the last twenty years, algorithms have gotten really good at detecting unnatural links. When those algorithms detect unnatural link building, a manual review team is tasked with analyzing the activities with your website.
These reviews are looking out for paid links, spammy blog comments, paid directories, excessive link exchanges, and article marketing with too many rich anchor text links. You could even be a victim of negative SEO, where spammers purchase links from unwanted websites so that your business suffers.
Penalties range from complete removal from a search engine’s index to assessing a penalty and moving to a lower page of search engine results pages.
Search engines are about organic growth. Learn about what search engines do to penalize websites for toxic backlinks in this thread about an unnatural link penalty, or in the comments of this YouTube video.
How To Identify Bad Backlinks
Google Search Console
Identify bad backlinks for free using Google Search Console. Here’s how.
- Download a list of links to your site from Google Search Console. You can download your links arranged either by hostname (Links to Your Site > Who links the most > Download more sample links) or in chronological order (Links to Your Site > Who links the most > Download latest links).
- Check this list for any links that violate Google’s guidelines on linking. If the list is large, start by looking at the sites that link to you the most, or links that were created recently (in the last few months).
Image: Google Search Console Link Report
Google Search Console won’t tell you which sites are considered low-quality links, so you’ll likely need to utilize a paid bad backlink checker like SEMRush. Here’s how to use SEMRush to detect toxic links.
- Run a Backlink Audit to analyze links referring to a specific URL (to avoid Penguin penalties.) SEMRush will evaluate all of your backlinks and inform you if you are at risk of a Google penalty.
- Review the “toxic score” for each of your backlinks, calculated based on toxic markers. The audit process considers each toxic signal’s frequency and importance to help decide if you should urgently get rid of a certain link.
A few other features from SEMRush that are useful in removing toxic links:
- GoogleWebmaster Guidelines require that you ask the “toxic” website’s owner to remove the link to your domain. To make this process easier, you can do it from the Backlink Audit interface.
- SEMrush automatically locates and provides you with the website owner’s email, so you can send them a request to remove the link in just a few clicks.
- Send toxic backlinks to the Google Disavow tool
- Keep your backlink profile clean with regular recrawls
While SEMRush has “toxic scores” for backlinks, another SEO tool, Majestic, uses TrustFlow.
TrustFlow is a score based on quality, on a scale between 0-100. Majestic collated many trusted seed sites based on a manual review of the web. This process forms the foundation of Majestic Trust Flow. Sites closely linked to a trusted seed site can see higher scores, whereas sites that may have some questionable links would see a much lower score. This way, you can determine whether a site on your backlink list is trustworthy.
Here’s how to check TrustFlow.
- Use the Bulk Backlink Checker (for multiple domains) or Site Explorer (for single domains) tools, designed to quickly check backlinks and TrustFlow scores.
- Download all the backlink information and export it into a file.
- Organize the file by rearranging the TrustFlow and Citation Flow columns so it orders as Trust Flow in an ascending order, and Citation Flow in a descending order. This will greatly help you pinpoint the links that are highly likely to be spam links or have negative SEO.
Image: Majestic Backlink Checker
Moz has a “Spam Score” metric as part of its Link Explorer product. According to Moz, “Spam Score represents the percentage of sites with similar features we’ve found to be penalized or banned by Google.”
Here’s how to check Spam Score.
- Enter the URL of the website or page you want to get link data for.
- Create a Moz account to access Link Explorer and other free SEO tools.
- Get a comprehensive analysis for the URL you entered.
Spam Score is a great way to test spammy links in comparison to the Google Penguin update.
Image: Example domains organized by Moz Spam Score.
Ahrefs is in search of the best solution that will accurately identify bad links. But so far, they haven’t found a way that can be as precise as a manual review. Therefore, the whole process of detecting spammy backlinks comes down to the following steps:
- Put a domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer tool and choose Backlink profile > Referring domains report from the left menu.
- Sort out referring domains by DR (Domain Rating) from the lowest domain authority to the highest to detect low-quality domains.
- Investigate each suspicious link further. Look for spammy sounding domains, foreign domains, and suspicious anchor text.
Image Source: Ahrefs
Avoiding a Manual Action From Google
If your website has unnatural links, search engines may take a Manual Action on your links.
How do you properly remove bad links before they reach a manual review team?
Look at it from a search engine perspective for a moment. What are the goals of a search engine? It wants to protect users.
There are two things a search engine may look for in a reconsideration request.
- Search engines want to know that the issue has been corrected. They want to make sure that the spammy link has been taken down so it doesn’t pass on PageRank and link equity that comes with backlinks.
- Search engines want to reinstate trust with your website. To do that, they’ll want some assurance that anything black hat (like link schemes) isn’t going to reoccur and be an issue in the future.
It’s almost as important to help search engines understand that you’ve tried to correct the behavior, as it is to correct the bad links.
With that said, for any links that violate Google Webmaster guidelines, here’s all the options around bad link removal.
Options For How To Remove Bad Backlinks
So now that you’ve identified which links you need to remove, you need to know how to actually remove the toxic backlinks. There are several options for removing bad links that we will outline below.
Ideally, as a webmaster, you will need to reach out to sites and ask that they remove the bad links.
These could be sites that you’ve explicitly purchased links from, or any services that you’ve used to automatically generate backlinks to your site.
Contacting the webmaster of that site is the number one recommended backlink removal method from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. You might be able to go to the person who built the links in the first place, whether that was an SEO agency or a consultant, to remove the links. You might also have to do it yourself, or hire someone else to get the bad links down.
Method 1: Contacting the link’s webmaster:
- Find contact info for the person who can remove the link (webmaster, SEO agency, or other).
- Reach out with the link removal request from the domain name of your website. If you hire someone with a gmail account, chances are the webmaster will ignore the request.
- Share the url on their website that contains the link, as well as the linked page on your website.
Method 2: Use the rel=“sponsored” attribute
You want to clean up a backlink profile as much as possible. But, it’s frustrating to take links down from the web.
Backlink removal requests take a lot of time from outreach, to which webmasters sometimes won’t respond or acknowledge your request.
For any paid links, requesting to change the link to a sponsored link is a win-win for everyone. More recently, Google announced the rel=“sponsored” attribute to mark links that are advertisements or paid placements (commonly called paid links) so that the link would not pass on PageRank.
Reaching out to webmasters with a request to update the link to a rel=”sponsored” attribute helps the website owner avoid a possible link scheme action by flagging these links. Google prefers the use of “sponsored,” but using a rel=“nofollow” for nofollow links will be treated the same, for the purpose of not passing on PageRank value.
For crawling and indexing purposes, nofollow will become a hint as of March 1, 2020.
Method 3: Redirect the link
Search engines want to put websites on a level playing field. They want sites to rank based on merit instead of link spam.
In a less common method, you could ask the webmaster to redirect the link to a url on their site that is blocked by the robots.txt file.
It’s indicative of the effort that you’ve put into cleaning up your site. The purpose of a reconsideration request is to reinstate trust.
All of these actions ensure that PageRank or link equity will not get passed on to your website, so that a search engine will consider it in a search algorithm.
The mental model search engines want you to have is:
- Remove as many bad links as possible
- Demonstrate good behavior so that search engines know they won’t see this again in the future
Track things in a spreadsheet. Do a good job of monitoring and requesting sites to take bad links down. And in the end, you’ve done all you can to improve your backlink profile and good standing of your domain name.
The goal: Clean up the links as much as possible. You don’t want link spam to be associated with your website. And, search engines want to know you’ve done your job in a prolonged, sustained way to clean things up as much as possible.
Which brings us to an important point when requesting the removal of bad links from Google: document everything.
In the case that your website does get a Google penalty, great documentation is vital for reconsideration requests.
The more documentation, the easier it is for search engines to reconsider any manual actions against your site.
It’s important to get the bad links down. But, search engines really want to know if they can trust you and your website.
Disavowing Bad Backlinks as a Last Resort
Google tries to deter webmasters from disavowing toxic backlinks on every resource page about the topic.
The “Disavow Backlinks” resource starts with a “Step 0: Decide if this is necessary” and this note:
“In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most sites will not need to use this tool.”
You should disavow backlinks only if:
- You believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and
- The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action on your site
In other words, don’t use the disavow tool unless there’s a manual action on your site.
Okay, the disavow tool is a last resort. But, let’s say that there’s too many links to take down. You might have comment spam, or lots of paid article submissions from bloggers.
If you’ve done all the work that you can – you’ve written to everyone twice, contacted your old SEO agency, and reached out to as many sites as you can – and there’s still a few links that you can’t get down, you can consider using the disavow tool.
The disavow tool says, “Search Engine. I’d like you to ignore certain links to my site.” Here’s how it works, directly from Google’s resource page on disavowing backlinks.
Step 1: Create a list of links to disavow
You need to assemble your list of links to disavow in a text file that you will upload to Google.
Link file format:
- Specify one URL or domain to disavow per line. You cannot disavow an entire subpath, such as example.com/en/
- To disavow a domain (or subdomain) prefix it with “domain:”, for example: domain:example.com
- The file must be a text file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
- The file name must end in .txt
- You can include comments for yourself by starting a line with a # mark. Any lines that begin with # will be ignored by Google.
If you have found URLs or sites to disavow in the links report for your site, you can download the data from the links report by clicking the export button. Be sure to remove any URLs from the downloaded file that you don’t want to disavow.
Step 2: Upload your list
Now upload the list of pages or domains to disavow.
Uploading a new disavow list will replace all previously uploaded disavow lists.
- Go to the disavow links tool page.
- Select your website.
- Click Disavow links.
- Click Choose file and choose the file you created.
- It can take a few weeks for Google to process the information that you upload in a disavow file. Your list will be incorporated into our index as we recrawl the web and reprocess the pages that we see.
Disavowed links will continue to be shown in the links report.
One last note on the Disavow Tool
The disavow tool is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s SEO performance with organic traffic in Google’s search results.
How To Prevent & Block Bad Backlinks
If you’ve made it this far, chances are that you have a lot of low quality, spammy links that are causing search engines to second guess the reputation of your website.
Once you remove as much of the link spam from the web itself, how do you prevent, block, and discover bad backlinks moving forward?
Discover Low-Quality Links
Using the methods in our “How To Identify Bad Backlinks” section, the first step to stopping and blocking bad links in the future is to discover your low-quality links. Here’s how.
- Select a SEO Tool. Whether that’s a free tool like Google Search Console or a paid tool like SEMRush, Moz, Majestic, or Ahrefs – start by selecting a tool to discover links.
- Execute the process. This article discusses a 1-3 step process for each tool to discover low-quality links. Follow those steps.
- Set an audit frequency. Audit your backlink profile monthly, quarterly, or annually to identify any potentially bad backlinks.
Monitor New Links
A periodic backlink audit is nice, but tapping into the monitoring technology of these SEO tools is even better. Here’s a simple method to monitor new links being added to your site (to potentially alert you of any negative SEO efforts).
- Set up alerts. Most tools come with an alert system that will email you anytime there are new backlinks and referring domains pointing to your website. Set up these alerts.
- Monitor alerts. You’ll begin to receive easy to ignore alert emails with notifications of new backlinks. Open these alerts. Review the backlinks being added to identify successes and to see if anything stands out as possibly being a toxic link.
- Investigate. If you see any new links that may be low-quality, follow up on them. It’s much better to nip bad links in the bud than to deal with a disavow file in the future. For example here’s a “backlink blacklist” Steve Toth created to help webmasters quickly vet for toxic links.
Clean, Remove & Get Rid Of Toxic Links
As we’ve discussed in this post, when search engines see enough low quality backlinks to your site, those links affect the reputation of your entire site.
Cleaning, removing, and getting rid of toxic links is something that’s worth taking action on. Hopefully this post provides you with all the tools, options, and steps on how to go about addressing bad links.
Search engines don’t like to take manual actions on sites. But, they have to protect users. Users and search quality always come first.
And sometimes, whether it is intentional or not, bad backlinks get in the way of search quality for users.
Have questions? Contact us.