Backlinks are important to SEO. When another site links to your site, a backlink is created. If, for example, a brand finds one of your blog posts that's helpful for their customers, they might link to it. That backlink, as Moz puts it, is “vote of confidence” in your content.
Backlinks are important to SEO because search engines see all of those votes of confidence as evidence that your content is valuable. If lots of sites link back to yours, search engines are more likely to surface your content in search results, improving your ranking for the topics linked to.
Earning backlinks is an essential part of off-site SEO, and obtaining more backlinks is called link building. But like so many aspects of SEO optimization, link building is not straightforward. Most backlinks are good, some are great, and others are toxic. Too many toxic backlinks can harm your ranking.
In this post, we'll look at what toxic backlinks are, how they hurt your SEO efforts, and how you can get rid of them to protect your rankings.
Backlinks - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
While each backlink may theoretically be a vote of confidence in your site, links from trustworthy sites with high-authority are the best. They tell search engines that a trusted authority vouches for your content. Even a no-follow link from a strong site can give your rank a boost.
On the other end of the spectrum, links from side with low authority, or ‘spammy’ sites, may not help your rank.
Toxic backlinks may not only harm your rank, but could also lead to penalties from search engines.
What are toxic backlinks? Google states it like this:
HARefs has a simplified explanation of link quality:
What Makes a Backlink Toxic?
There are several things which can increase the toxicity of a backlink from a search engines perspective including:
Low domain trust score - This is based on the number of backlinks from trusted domains to the domain providing the backlink. A low rank means the site’s domain score may be artificially inflated.
Mirrored pages - If similar pages on multiple sites are linking to you from the same anchor text, search engines may see this is a link building scheme.
Page layout - If the ratio of visible text to HTML is low, the linking page may be seen as poor quality.
Impact of Bad Links
If you get penalized, it reduces your page rank, decreasing the chances that your content will be found - or, if the penalties are bad enough, you can be removed from the search index altogether.
Penalties are assigned in two ways. Google introduced its Penguin algorithm in 2012 which targeted low quality links. Sites using link-building schemes saw rankings plummet. Since then Google has refined the algorithm making it better at catching and penalizing bad links.
If Penguin sees a link toxic link, it will apply a penalty based on your link profile. No human reviews this.
In addition to Penguin, Google has added more human resources to their spam team who can manually penalize sites which have toxic backlinks.
According to Search Engine Watch, Google initiates over 400,000 manual actions a month.
Manual link reviews and penalties might be trigger by:
- A spam report from a competitor
- Algorithmic activity from Penguin triggers a manual review
- You’re in a niche that Google’s spam team activity monitors
You can request reconsideration for manual penalties, but we’ll talk more about that later.
How to Determine if You Have Toxic Backlinks
There’s not much you can do about algorithmic link penalties, you just have to improve your site’s overall link profile.
Manually applied penalties will show up in Google Search Console under "Security and Manual Actions > Manual Actions".
If it's a manual action, it will appear here with a generic description of the issue, a link to learn more, and a button that enables you to request a review.
It’s often easier to use an SEO site audit tool to find toxic backlinks. This is especially true if you haven’t checked for toxic links in a while (or ever). Tools like SEMRush and ahrefs can provide this information.
How to Fix Toxic Backlinks
There are many ways to address toxic backlinks. For example, you could contact the administrator of the linking site and ask that the link be removed.
If the link is valid, and the penalty has been manually activated, you can request a review. According to Search Engine Watch, Google processes about 20,000 reconsideration requests a month, of the 400,000 manual penalties applied. It can take around 30 days to get a response.
If the backlink isn’t important to you, and you don’t want to perform the manual outreach to have links removed, you can use the Disavow Links tool.
Follow the steps from Google Search Console Help:
Make a list of links you wish to disavow following the formatting listed in the help article.
Tip: Your Google Search Console links report, and link reports from tools like SEMRush and ahrefs can often be exported and used to make creating this file easier.
You then launch the Disavow tool.
And Upload your file.
Making sure backlinks to your site are high-quality, and follow Google’s rules, is an essential aspect of website administration for SEO.
Have you audited your backlinks recently? If you haven’t, you should, and soon. Have you gotten a link related notice of manual action on your site in Google Search Console? If you have, follow the tips in this article to resolve the issue or disavow the link.