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Disavow Backlinks: How To Get Rid of Bad Links

October 24, 2019
October 24, 2019 Brett Farmiloe

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Everything to know about bad links from spammy websites: ranging from how to check for bad backlinks, link removal, and when to disavow backlinks.

Table Of Contents
How To Check Bad Backlinks
How To Remove Bad Backlinks
Link Removal Template
rel=“sponsored” attribute
Disavow Bad Backlinks
How To Identify Bad Backlinks
Examples of bad links
Types of unnatural links
Examples of good links
Penalty For Bad Backlinks
How To Stop & Block Bad Backlinks

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably very frustrated and angry at the idea that there are bad links from spammy websites that are linking to your site.

We hope that by the end of this post, you’ll get some more context and education about what search engines look for in toxic backlinks, and how to get rid of link spam.


The best bad backlinks checkers include Google Search Console (free) and paid tools like SEMRush, Majestic, Moz, and Ahrefs.

Google Search Console 

Check bad backlinks free using Google Search Console. Here’s how.

1. Download a list of links to your site from 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).

2. 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

SEMRush

semrush backlink audit

Google Search Console won’t tell you which sites are consider 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 backlinks.

1. Run a Backlink Audit to analyze links referring to a specific URL (to avoid Penguin penalties.) SEMRush will evaluate all your backlinks and inform you if you are at risk of a Google penalty.

2. 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

Majestic

majestic trust flow

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.

Here’s how to check TrustFlow.

1. Use the Bulk Backlink Checker (for multiple domains) or Site Explorer (for single domains) tools, designed to very quickly check backlinks and TrustFlow scores.

2. Download all the backlink information and export it into a file.

3. 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 pin point the links that are highly likely to be spam links or have negative SEO.

Image: Majestic Backlink Checker

Moz

Moz has a “Spam Score” metric as part of their 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.

1. Enter the URL of the website or page you want to get link data for.

2. Create a Moz account to access Link Explorer and other free SEO tools.

3. 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

Ahrefs is in search for 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 links comes down to the following steps:

1. Put a domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer tool and choose Backlink profile > Referring domains report from the left menu.

2. Sort out referring domains by DR (Domain Rating) from the lowest domain authority to the highest to detect low-quality domains.

3. Investigate each suspicious link further. Look for spammy sounding domains, foreign domains, and suspicious anchor text.

Image Source: Ahrefs


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? They want to protect users.

There are two things a search engine may look for in a reconsideration request.

1. Search engines want to know that the issue has been corrected. They want to make sure that the link spam has been taken down so it doesn’t pass on PageRank and link equity that comes with backlinks.

2. 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 correcting the bad links.

With that said, for any links that violate Google Webmaster guidelines, here’s all the options around bad link removal.

As a webmaster, the primary goal is to reach out to sites and ask that they remove the links.

These could be links 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 links down.

Here are the steps to removing bad links:

1. Find contact info for the person who can remove the link (webmaster, SEO agency, or other)

2. 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.

3. Share the url on their website that contains the link, as well as the linked page on your website.

Here’s a nice link removal template from Search Engine Journal:
From: [email protected]
Subject line:  Please remove a link.
Hi,
I’m working on cleaning my website, and I need your help in removing some links from your site. Your site is probably perfectly legitimate, but I’m just trying to eliminate as many links as possible.
– Here’s the page on your site with the link: www.example.com/randompage
– Here’s the page on my site that you’ve linked to:  www.mysite.com/randompage
The link needs to be actually removed, rather than just disavowed. Even if they are “nofollow,” I’d still like them removed.
Once you’ve removed the link, please send me a quick note so I can create a record of it.
Thanks in advance! I hope to hear from you soon.
Kind Regards,
Yourname

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.

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 would ensure that PageRank or link equity would not get passed on to your website, so that a search engine would consider it in a search algorithm.

The mental model search engines want you to have is:

1. Get as much link spam go away as possible

2. 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 links down. And in the end, you’ve done all you can to improve your backlink profile and good standing of your domain name.

Document Everything

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: document everything.

In the case that your website does get a Google penalty, great documentation is extremely important in their 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 links down. But, search engines really want to know if they can trust you and your website.


Google tries to deter webmasters from disavowing bad 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.

google disavow backlinks tool

You should disavow backlinks only if:

1. You believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and

2. 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.

A couple of other resources that discourage the use of the disavow tool:
– Google’s unnatural links guide recommends disavowing backlinks as the last step you would take.
– This video about unnatural links doesn’t introduce the Disavow tool until the 5:20 mark.

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.

But, if you’ve done all the work that you can – you’ve written 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.

Example:
# Two pages to disavow
http://spam.example.com/stuff/comments.html
http://spam.example.com/stuff/paid-links.html
# One domain to disavow
domain:shadyseo.com

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.

  1. Go to the disavow links tool page.
  2. Select your website.
  3. Click Disavow links.
  4. Click Choose file and choose the file you created.
  5. 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 do you know if backlinks are good or bad? 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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 toxic link.

toxic 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 purchases 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 bad backlinks in this thread about an unnatural link penalty, or in the comments of this YouTube video.


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 stop, block, and discover bad backlinks moving forward?

Discover Low-Quality Links

Using the methods in our How To Check For 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.

1. 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.

2. Execute the process. This article discusses a 1-3 step process for each tool to discover low-quality links. Follow those steps.

3. 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 are even better. Here’s a simple method to monitor new links being added to your site (to potentially alert you to any negative SEO efforts).

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

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 backlinks.

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.

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Brett Farmiloe

Brett Farmiloe

Brett Farmiloe is the Founder & CEO of Markitors, a digital marketing company voted a best place to work 3 years in a row. He frequently contributes content about SEO, Careers, and Culture to Forbes, SHRM, Thunderbird, Huffington Post, Mashable, TIME, NextWeb, and more. And, as a dad of 3, he's about that minivan life.