Toxic Backlinks - What They Are and How to Avoid Them
Seeing as you’re reading this, you may be one of the countless business owners and marketers who are struggling to improve your site’s search rankings, even though you’ve been publishing reams of high-quality content.
While there are many factors that can cause you to see slow results from your SEO, this annoying phenomenon could be rooted in toxic backlinks.
When you’re just getting started with SEO, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focussing on the volume of backlinks above all else, without paying enough attention to the quality and authority of your backlink profile. Though Google has become better at identifying and discounting poor-quality backlinks over time, you’ll still need to ensure your backlink profile is rich in contextual, natural backlinks, with as little spammy elements as possible.
In today’s post, we’ll look at what toxic backlinks are, and teach you how you can identify them, avoid them, and purge them.
Defining Toxic Backlinks
So, what are toxic backlinks? In short, toxic backlinks are third-party websites linking to your website in an unnatural, spammy or artificial way.
While the measurable effects of a toxic backlink can vary from domain to domain and link to link, the risks of having a toxic backlink in your website’s backlink profile are always the same.
Some of the biggest risks to bear in mind are:
Capping your domain authority
Harming your SERP rankings
Lowering your organic traffic
Lowering visibility across other channels
Google themselves had said that any link specifically intended to affect your search rankings goes against their Webmaster Guidelines. Their Link Schemes Guide opens with the warning:
“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.”
As a general rule of thumb, you can consider any link that’s been placed on a low-authority site, without any clear intention to improve the value of the page or site it’s linking from, as a toxic backlink.
Where do Toxic Backlinks Come From?
Like many things in SEO, there’s no one answer as to where toxic backlinks originate.
Many of them are created organically, where the webmaster of a spammy or low-quality site decides to link to your site as a citation, a source credit for an image, or any number of other reasons.
Toxic backlinks can also be the result of a previous digital marketer applying misguided or outdated SEO techniques to build as many backlinks as possible from as many domains as possible, without any consideration to the quality of the referring domains. This is especially common if your domain has existed for a long time.
In some cases, they can also be created through black hat SEO by your competitors. This covers any malicious attempt to hurt your rankings by deliberately building links from dodgy referring domains.
Identifying and Fixing Toxic Backlinks
The internet’s a big place and toxic backlinks are always springing up. In an ideal world, you’d have the resources to audit your backlink profile for toxicity every day.
Whether you’re able to run a check every week or only when you notice a drop in rankings, identifying and purging toxic backlinks should always follow the same key steps…
Step 1: Set Up an Audit on your Chosen SEO Tool
All industry-standard SEO tools will have a backlink audit tool. For a whole-site audit, we recommend checking from the root domain to ensure you’re casting as wide a net as possible.
Your tool may have filters that will allow you to limit results to a certain region or content category, which can be helpful if you’re trying to purge toxic backlinks pointing to specific groups of pages, or if you’re trying to improve the SEO for a regional site.
Step 2: Understand the Audit Results
Once your backlink audit is complete, you’ll be able to see a list of the backlinks pointing to your site, with some kind of indication as to how toxic they are.
SEO tools present this in different ways, with some using automated checks to flag links that might be toxic, and more stripped-down platforms showing a referring domain’s authority and not much else. These scores are calculated using a number of different factors such as the top-level country domain, dofollow/nofollow ratio, and the relevance of the content topic.
Unfortunately, purging your toxic links isn’t as easy as choosing all referring domains below a certain authority score and sticking them in a disavow file.
You’ll need to analyse each domain (and in some cases individual pages) to ensure you’re fixing toxic links, without robbing yourself of good “link juice”.
Step 3: Build a Whitelist
Next, we recommend finding all the referring domains and linking pages which have some hallmarks of a toxic backlink (low authority score, far-out ccTLDs, based on directory-style sites etc) but still have some value as a backlink pointing to your site.
Like many things in SEO, it’s important to “remember the human” here, and to bear in mind that the quality scores SEO tools assign to referring sites are based on algorithmic checks carried out by bots. If you notice links from new, small sites that may not have a stellar authority score right now, but still have the potential to drive high-quality organic traffic to your site, you should try to keep these off the “purge list” that comes as a result of your backlink audit.
By maintaining a whitelist of links that you intend to keep in your backlink profile, you’ll make it easier to monitor the value of these links and save time on checking the quality of all the links that are flagged in a given audit.
Step 4: Purge Toxic Backlinks with a Disavow File
Once you’ve built a list of links that show signs of toxicity, and filtered out the ones you want to keep, the final step is to disavow all the toxic links that are hurting your SEO.
A disavow file is a simple .txt list of all the links and domains that you don’t wish to be counted as a link pointing to your site. Once you’ve created one and uploaded it to Google’s disavow tool, Google will stop counting these disavowed links every time they’re crawled.
When uploading a disavow file, there are a few things to bear in mind:
Disavowing good links can be massively detrimental to your site’s rankings, so you should double and triple check your file to ensure you’re not accidentally including quality links. This happens more often than you might think!
Each new disavow file uploaded will overwrite any previously uploaded file. This means you’ll need to include any previously disavowed links, and keep a record of the toxic backlinks you’re purging for future reference.
Disavow files can take up to 6 weeks to process. If there’s some toxic backlinks that you’re particularly desperate to purge, it may be faster to reach out to the site owners and ask them to remove the link manually.
The Right Tools for the Job
Now that you understand what toxic backlinks are and the right methodology for tackling them, here’s a short list of industry tools that are great for keeping toxic backlinks in check.
Semrush has an incredibly comprehensive backlink auditing tool which gives each backlink a “toxic score” calculated from a wide array of factors, making it easy to see which links you should drop and which you should keep.
It also gives you the capability to see where other sites get their dofollow links, promising some great insight for when you’re measuring your SEO strategy against your close competitors.
SEO SpyGlass (SEO PowerSuite)
SEO SpyGlass, part of SEO Powersuite, is another tool that stands out for the level of detail it promises in its backlink reports.
You can customise SEO Spyglass reports to track a wide range of values including domain age, dofollow/nofollow counts, and anchor text. There are also report formats which allow you to view up to five sites’ backlink profiles side by side, giving you a comprehensive and shareable view of competitors’ backlink profiles.
Mangools LinkMiner is unique in that it’s a stand-alone tool that isn’t part of a larger SEO suite.
It has a whole host of great features designed specifically for linkbuilding campaigns, including filters that will show you new, deleted, and lost links. This is particularly helpful if you’re about to take on a project for a site that has enjoyed good SEO in the past, but has fallen into neglect, as there may be a lot of lost or deleted links that you may want to recover. The new links filter also makes it nice and easy to see how your linkbuilding efforts are coming along.
Its status as a standalone tool might be a turn-off for professionals who are in the market for a new catch-all SEO tool, but with all these great features to it, it’s certainly worth checking out!
Ensuring that your backlink profile is populated with ethical, high-quality backlinks is an essential part of SEO housekeeping.
Aside from dragging down your site authority, letting toxic backlinks sit in your backlink profile runs the risk of manual penalties, which could mean hours of wasted time for you and your marketing team while you try to undo the damage.
Use these steps to maintain a clean backlink profile, and stay focussed on more progressive, high-value SEO work.