Toxic backlinks can be important to understand when handling search engine optimization. Mention the phrase to a professional, and you are bound to get at least one begrudging story out of them about how quickly some toxic links destroyed a project.
But what are toxic backlinks, and why are they such a problem compared to other issues that an SEO project might face?
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If you know SEO, you know backlinks – but just in case, a quick refresher.
Backlinks impact your SEO. The more good-quality sites you have directing good-quality links to your own site, the higher you tend to rank on search engines.
More links mean higher search engine rankings, which means greater visibility for keywords related to that link.
As you might expect, this makes them a core part of most people’s SEO efforts. They are the backbone of your site’s ranking, but not all links are actually good links.
Toxic backlinks are exactly what they sound like. These are backlinks that are not relevant, are unnatural, or come straight from a low-quality domain.
Most toxic backlinks come from spammy sites and other illegitimate sources, such as link farms or reciprocal linking schemes. While they can benefit your link profile at first, the downsides are much more serious.
What’s bad about toxic backlinks?
Toxic backlinks affect your SEO in a negative way. Whether they invalidate paid links that you have managed to gather or get your link-building efforts penalized by search engines for spam reasons, they are an active problem in all SEO contexts.
These unnatural links can damage your SEO, hitting your search engine rankings hard in the process. These toxic links may also harm your search rankings for specific keywords that you have built your brand around.
Basically, if you do not disavow toxic backlinks, your site will begin to suffer in search engine results pages.
Toxic backlinks can come from a range of sources, although you do not always need to know the source to deal with them.
While it is easy enough to find the sites that unnatural links are originating from, you sometimes want to know why the links are pointing to your site.
For example, it can be important for site owners to know if a third-party SEO specialist has been using link spam to build up a larger link profile.
Some sites are little more than spam sites filled with links and malware designed to either trick users or cause problems on other sites. These are quite a common source of spam links since they are often just filled with random text stolen from other websites.
This can become a huge problem since you may find toxic backlinks from sites that are basically just piles of malware. Even visiting them can be a risk, so disavowing the links quickly is the best option.
Inexperienced SEO Specialists
Inexperienced marketers may put quantity above quality and start snatching up as many links as possible, including unwanted links. This can result in negative SEO performance due to the sheer amount of low-quality links being used for one particular site.
If you are relying on third-party groups to manage your SEO, this can also occur, especially if you are not using an actual professional company and are leaving it to a friend or family member.
In some cases, another company may try to perform an attack on a site by flooding it with spammy links. This is a black hat method that is frowned upon in every SEO community, but that does not stop them from pushing a huge amount of free or paid links to your site.
In this case, you can simply disavow links pointing to your site from the spam sites, then move on. However, in this case, it might also be worth investigating to see if you can figure out who tried to force the links onto your site.
A hacked website, even one that was already linking to you, may be hacked and get changed into a spam site or used for other nefarious purposes. Even if new unnatural links are not added, you might see good links turn into bad links as the site is penalized.
Other websites can change almost overnight, and part of a good SEO strategy is making sure that you can compensate for a link disappearing. This includes having your Google rankings damaged by negative SEO from a hacked site.
Changes in Domains
If a site’s domain changes, it might not carry the same authority as it used to. Depending on the nature of the site, this could potentially turn a backlink toxic.
While this is quite rare overall, it is still important to keep track of links pointing to the site to see if any of them change. Some bad links can appear from almost nowhere when a site undergoes some major changes or can lead to low-quality links that you need to take care of.
In some cases, spam or malware websites will copy the look and content of an entire website, right down to most of the links being the same. These are to trick users into giving up personal data on a site that looks authentic.
Naturally, this can result in you gaining toxic links from sites that are carbon copies of others. If you are linked to by other websites that are commonly spoofed for these malicious reasons, be sure to exclude the fakes from your backlink profile.
While all toxic backlinks affect your site and manipulate search engine rankings to be lower than normal, it is important to understand the types of links that you might encounter.
While most links are dealt with in the same way – disavowing them – it is easy to overlook some unwanted or spammy links pointing to your site just because they look legitimate at first.
Not all toxic links are malicious. Some are simply low-quality backlinks that are canceling out some of your high-quality links or get in the way of your search engine visibility due to the keywords involved.
Spam content is not just spam pages. It can also be things like link networks, which are often used solely to boost sites through a search engine algorithm. These are often an intertwining web of inbound links shared across countless sites.
While these might look fine at first, most of them are put together quickly and use a range of grey-hat techniques to try and elevate ranking positions. This usually means that they get penalized before long, crashing their SEO potential.
Links in footers can often get ignored by search engines since they do not offer any value to the user. Domains linking via a footer can still be counted as linking domains, though – and either way, they offer no real benefit.
Blogrolls are links that are used to organize a list of other websites on a blog. While the intent might be completely normal, these links are often seen as spam since they are nothing but a list of business names.
On a smaller blog without much SEO potential of its own, this might even be counted as spam, penalizing your SEO without you even realizing it.
Any site-wide links, such as links that appear on every page or within every resource page, are often going to be devalued due to their non-unique nature.
This is also usually because the links cannot be kept relevant since they appear on all pages regardless of content.
While some spam bots use blog comments as a place to post links, comments are usually ignored by search engines too. When they are not, they are often penalized instead or at least not given much weight in terms of their SEO value.
If they are not tagged as nofollow links, then forum signatures and profiles are often considered very weak in SEO potential. Even so, a link from a fake spam forum or some other questionable site can reflect badly on your own.
Web directories can be a great tool and a good source of SEO benefits – but only good directories.
Bad or spam-filled directories tend to be incredibly dangerous due to malware and are often considered nothing but spam in terms of SEO. This usually means lower overall SEO potential and search rankings, especially in directories that are simply lists of random sites or companies.
Press releases often have links that are used to promote specific pages or pieces of content. This can also happen with any documents or announcements that mention your business, such as awards.
This is not always a bad kind of link to have, but the links themselves are usually tied to the business rather than any keywords surrounding it. Like before, this can also lead to a toxic backlink if the information is copied to a spam site.
Irrelevant Sites and Spammy Links
Perhaps the most notable sources of toxic backlinks are sites that have no relation to your own at all. Whether these are genuine sites or spammy links, they can influence your SEO all the same.
Part of managing your link profile well should be removing or disavowing any linking site that does not actually relate to your own. Relevant links are always better than irrelevant links, especially if the irrelevant ones are damaging your website’s SEO efforts.
Toxic links are a fixable problem. However, to fix toxic backlinks, you first need to identify them, and that can be harder than it sounds.
Finding Toxic Backlinks
You can’t remove toxic backlinks until you find them, and bad links are not always plainly visible. However, there are a variety of ways to identify a toxic link.
The most obvious is through link analysis tools. These can pinpoint a toxic link based on things like total link power, the site the link is coming from, and even the anchor text.
Looking at your backlink profile and checking your own links can be important here. Irrelevant links in your backlink profile are often toxic backlinks, even if they come from legitimate sites.
Dealing with Toxic Backlinks
There are two main ways to deal with the toxic backlinks that might be plaguing your site. One of them is a required step before attempting the other through most search platforms, but either way, they should guarantee that you can remove toxic backlinks quickly.
Note that different toxic backlinks may require different processes to actually remove them. However, if you choose to outright disavow links, the process should almost always be the same.
Requesting Link Removal
If there are toxic backlinks pointing to your site that you want to remove, then you need to get in touch with the site owner involved and request a removal. Google requires that you take this step to fix toxic backlinks directly before allowing you to use other methods.
If the linking site has a contact page, you can use that to get in touch with the site owner and request that the link is removed. This can be great for getting rid of links intended to be useful that are actively harming your SEO or for redirecting organic traffic to new pages.
If you can’t find any contact details, the only option is to look them up online through other platforms. If you still can’t get in touch, then you may have to resort to other measures, such as contacting the hosting company to get details on the site owner.
Requesting a link removal like this will work for sites that accidentally left in a poor-quality link, but it will not always be an option. Spammy sites are much less likely to accept the request or even see it at all since there may not even be a real human running the site.
If all else fails and you can’t get the link removed from your backlink profile, then you will have to block its effects from applying to your site instead. While this does not remove toxic links, it does mean that they do not impact your SEO.
To do this, you have to turn to Google itself and disavow toxic backlinks on your own terms.
Disavowing links is the more reliable way to get rid of any link, but you are required to have attempted a removal request first. This is usually your best option for link farms or other spam sites that are not going to be run by regular people.
Disavowing a link can allow you to completely remove its influence from your link-building efforts, meaning that a toxic link is no longer connected to your site. While the link still exists, it does not actually do anything to your SEO.
To disavow a link, you need to submit a disavow file. You can do this using Google Search Console, which you will need to set up if you have not already.
Through the Google Search Console disavow tool, you can create a disavow file of all the URLs that you want to disavow. Google’s disavow tool is meant to make this very easy, but be sure that you have the exact URLs of the low-quality sites on hand.
After putting the URLs into the disavow file (or generating a disavow file automatically through alternative means), you can go to Google’s disavow tool page in Google Search Console and select your domain.
Uploading this disavow file applies it to Google Search Console, meaning that any toxic backlink contained within is fully disavowed. You can update, cancel or replace the file at any time to account for a new toxic backlink.
Like any part of link-building, there can be a lot of uncertainty surrounding the idea of a toxic backlink. It can be easy to misunderstand something or make a mistake that damages your own link-building efforts.
How bad are toxic backlinks for search engine rankings?
Toxic backlinks from poor-quality sites damage link-building opportunities. This is because bad links can lower your ranking position.
They can sabotage your attempts to gain links by way of negative SEO – their negative authority subtracts from the new links you are taking on.
Is Google Search Console the only way to disavow?
Different search engines will have their own disavow tools and disavow file types. GSC is meant only for Google search results.
Remember to learn the right tool for each search engine that you care about. Note that some smaller search engine platforms may not have this kind of tool at all – however, the bigger search engines generally do.
The disavow process may be different across different platforms, so take some time to familiarise yourself with how it works.
Do links on private blog networks still count?
Private sites and link networks are still detectable by Google, and search engines will usually penalize platforms like this. After all, creating a hub of links to boost other sites violates a range of guidelines.
Even if your site is not visible to the average user, crawlers may still find it. There is not any way you can hide from a network like this while also getting the benefits of link potential from it.
How can I tell if sites are link farms?
Link farms are groups of websites that try to snowball their own SEO rankings, using that to boost sites outside of that network (either their own sites or other people’s, for a fee). These can sometimes look authentic but are usually caught by search engines.
If you find a site unrelated to your business that links to multiple pages or a variety of similar sites that are all connected to each other and your own, then you may be caught up in one of these linking webs.
How can I identify toxic links?
There is a range of ways to tell toxic backlinks apart from others, but the main difference is the low quality. To be toxic links, links have to generally be low-quality.
High-quality links are easy to spot, especially if they are natural links that have the ability to rank high based on their own merit. Low-quality links usually stick out, either through metrics or outside factors like relevancy.
Do I need to deal with all toxic backlinks?
Technically, you can ignore as many toxic links as you want. A backlink audit will usually show you these low-quality links, but you do not need to get rid of them all.
For toxic links, it is recommended to get rid of them anyway. Low-quality positive links are still providing some benefit, but toxic ones that damage your link schemes are rarely worth keeping.
Even if the link comes from what seems like a good site, it is not worth keeping a link that is getting in the way of your own SEO efforts.
Do I need to submit a removal request?
Google demands manual action before you can use the disavow file. This manual action generally refers to trying to get the link changes or removed.
Webmaster guidelines allow for things like manual action to change anchor text on a site – for example, the anchor text might be causing the low quality, but a change in anchor text could make it a positive link.
However, true toxic links (ones beyond saving) are obvious in a backlink audit. Attempting a removal is important before you refer back to Google webmaster tools since disavowing a link can damage the site’s search engine ranking.
Google does not want people abusing webmaster guidelines to tank the organic traffic of sites that just happen to link to them.
If you have picked out your toxic links and are ready to clean up your link-building scheme, remember to follow Google’s webmaster guidelines and approach the link scheme carefully.
No matter how bad the links are, you want to do everything correctly. Do not make rash decisions – attempt manual action, and if that fails, fall back on the tools that Google provides.
Under Google’s webmaster guidelines, as well as the advice of sites like Search Engine Land, it is relatively easy to clear out these bad links and get your site’s link profile back to normal.
Just remember that these links can crop up almost anywhere, often without you realizing it. If you have not been keeping track of your backlink profile, you can easily end up with dozens of spam links that you completely overlooked.
Scott Calland is a highly regarded content specialist with an English Degree. He has a passion for creating compelling content as a UK journalist that engages, informs, and entertains readers. With over 10 years of experience in creating news publications as a reporter, Scott has developed a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of how to craft content that resonates with audiences. Working closely with data analysts Scott’s research on topics is unrivalled for latest news updates.
Scott is also an investor in Searcharoo.