Toxic Backlinks: What Are They + How They Hurt SEO
Mention the phrase “toxic backlink” around search engine optimization (SEO) purists and you’re sure to hear sighs of frustration. At worst, you’ll even receive a couple of scowling side-glances.
In the world of SEO, “toxic backlinks” are seriously dirty words.
Basically, a toxic backlink is an inbound link that originates from a spammy or low-quality website. And while in some circumstances they may not seem like a big deal, in others they can do some serious damage to your SEO efforts.
To help you avoid this, in this article, we’ll explain:
- what toxic backlinks are,
- what defines a backlink quality,
- how you can spot and remove them from your site.
What Are Toxic Backlinks?
Backlinks are considered a valuable commodity. The more high-quality links you have pointing to your site, the better your chances of ranking in the top positions of the search engine results pages (SERPs).
And let me just say it again for the people at the back: the more high-quality links you have pointing to your site, the better. Quality vs quantity and all that…
So when you hear about toxic backlinks, it’s natural to be concerned.
Why are toxic backlinks bad for SEO?
A toxic backlink can hamper your SEO efforts and hurt your site’s reputation with search engines.
Backlinks can be classified as toxic when they are not editorially relevant, appear unnatural, or are coming from a low quality referring domain.
Such links are often acquired through things like:
- link farms
- reciprocal links schemes
- black-hat SEO tactics (strategies that go against Google Webmaster guidelines).
Just take a look at this study by Semrush. They collected data on over 830 backlink website profiles that been hit by penalties in the past 2 years:
Source: Google Penalties Research by Semrush
In some cases, your competitors may even add spammy, low quality outbound links pointing to your site.
The aim is to hurt your rankings and take your hard earned positions in the SERPs.
Talk about “black-hat”.
Search engines have become increasingly adept at detecting and devaluing such links. Most notably, Google’s Penguin update, a core algorithm update that was released way back in 2012, focuses on penalizing websites that have accrued a collection of undesirable links – referred to as a bad backlink profile.
This ultimately violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can have serious implications for your rankings.
As a quick example of what Google’s Penguin algorithm views as a toxic backlink, take this referring domains report pulled from the popular SEO tool Ahrefs:
If you were going to do a backlink audit, here’s just two things to look at here:
- Low quality – these links highlighted are low quality referring domains that have no domain authority (DR or DA).
- Blogspot – the domain names (shown here by the arrows) are all from BlogSpot, a free blogging and domain service provider.
BlogSpot is a platform commonly used by spammers to boost the domain authority of their own (or their client’s) website.
Keep in mind, receiving inbound links from BlogSpot in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad (your site may receive legitimate and rank-boosting backlinks from this platform).
However, if we click on the three highlighted domain names, you’ll see that they look spammy, are irrelevant to the niche of the example website, and, pop-ups occur frequently whilst on these pages.
All clear indications that these websites will not be looked upon favorably by Google.
What makes a backlink toxic?
A backlink can be toxic if the linking site is low quality or engages in unethical SEO practices. Backlink quality is a serious deal as low quality links can hurt a site’s reputation and cause it to fall in search engine rankings.
For context, here’s what makes an incoming link toxic:
- Unnatural links – Link relevance is a serious deal. Links that are created for the purpose of manipulating a site’s ranking in Google search results are considered “unnatural links.” Usually, unnatural links are contextually or topically irrelevant, or are a result of link schemes and nefarious link building strategies.
- Link farms – A link farm is a website or set of websites that are created primarily to increase the search engine visibility of other websites. Often, online businesses that run link farms sell paid links they claim will boost their client’s rankings. It sounds good in theory, but link farms often cause more harm than good.
- Spun content – Spun content is recycled content that is created by taking an existing article and reworking it using slightly altered synonyms, rearranging the sentence order, and adding slight variations of information. Often produced by content writing AI, the aim here is to use this rewritten text to manipulate search engine rankings.
- Explicit or illegal content – Illegal content on the internet refers to any content that is prohibited by law. This can be explicit content, hate speech, or material that promotes terrorism.
9 Types of Low Quality Links
There are several types of low-quality backlinks that can hurt your website’s ranking.
Let’s take an in-depth look at these now.
- Link networks and spammy sites – Spammy content is typically characterized as low-quality or untrustworthy content that is often published with the sole purpose of manipulating the SERPs.
- Footer links – Footer links are a type of link that is often placed in the footer section of a web page. Often Google will ignore these types of backlinks as they don’t add any value to the user.
- Blogrolls and other blocks of links – Blogrolls are a block of links that are used to organize and display links to other websites within a blogging website.
- Site-wide links – Site-wide links, often appearing on every page of a website, are a type of hyperlink that connects to a specific page on a website, as opposed to linking to another website.
- Blog comments – Blog comments added to a blog post’s comment section that link out to a website or a web page.
- Forum profile links and signatures – Forum profile links and signatures are a way for members of a forum to identify their posts with a link to their profile, and/or a signature that displays information about them.
- Web directory links – A low-quality web directory is a website that is not well maintained and does not have quality content. These directories are often filled with spammy links and can be dangerous to use as they can lead users to content that is infected with malware or viruses.
- PR release links – Press release (PR) links are a type of backlink added to online content that is used to promote a company or product.
- Wildly unrelated sites – Backlinks that come from unrelated sites can be harmful, as they can be seen as an attempt to manipulate the search engine results pages (SERP).
If you want to learn what makes a backlink high-quality, check out the types of backlinks that are important to SEO here.
What is the impact of bad links?
There are a few negative effects that can result from having bad backlinks pointing to your site.
Of most concern, your site will probably experience a decrease in traffic as Google devalues the ranking of your website.
In some cases, bad backlinks can even damage your website’s reputation, leading to a considerable drop in rankings.
In fact, Google has stated that toxic backlinks are one of the most common reasons sites get penalized.
How do I know if my backlinks are toxic?
The toxicity of a backlink can vary depending on several factors.
To mention a few, the severity of a toxic link mostly depends on how Google’s algorithms view the link (something that can be very difficult to discern).
Definitively, though, any backlink is considered toxic if it is causing your website to rank lower in search engine results pages (SERPs).
How To Find Toxic Links
There are a variety of methods that can be used to find toxic links, including using Google search operators, removing them manually yourself, or you could use a link analysis tool and website crawler like Ahrefs, Moz, or Semrush.
With these tools, you can easily and quickly identify low-quality links, collect their details in a list, and use Google’s Disavow tool to remove them (we’ll show you how in just a sec).
And once identified, should you remove toxic backlinks?
2 Ways to Fix Toxic & Spammy Links
There are two ways to fix toxic and spammy links. The first isn’t always successful, but it is required by Google before proceeding to the second method.
1. Request Removal from Website
If you have a toxic inbound link that you’d prefer removed, Google first requires you to contact the site owner to request that the link be removed. If the request is unsuccessful, only then can you ask the search engine to ignore the toxic link.
So first things first.
Follow these outreach steps to request a website owner remove a backlink or number of backlinks that you suspect are toxic.
For the purpose of this example, we’ll use one of the spammy websites we identified earlier:
First, if the website has a contact section, use it to reach out to the offending site. In most cases, a spammy site either won’t have one, it’s only there for show, or, as with this example, it doesn’t exist. You can see here, we were redirected to a 404 page.
If this happens, another way to get into contact with a site owner is to use a tool like Whois Domain Lookup. Once here, run the offending site’s URL through their database.
When the search is complete, you will be presented with all the applicable domain owner’s information. Often, this will be limited (like in this example, BlogSpot is owned by Google) but sometimes you will get lucky and the search will return a site owner’s contact details.
If you were able to obtain the domain owner’s contact details, shoot them a personal email requesting that they take down the link that points to your site.
If you don’t hear anything back or weren’t able to find the owner’s details, it’s also considered a good practice to contact the hosting company and ask them to remove the toxic backlink. In this case, MarkMonitor Inc.
2. Create and Submit a Disavow File to Google
In some cases, the hosting domain will be able to help you get a toxic backlink removed. But in most cases, you’re likely going to have to take manual action using Google’s Disavow tool.
Google’s Disavow tool will allow you to, once and for all, clean up toxic backlinks that are affecting your organic traffic and site reputation.
Here’s how to remove toxic backlinks and leave your domain with a link profile that comprises backlinks from only quality sites:
To lodge a query with the Disavow Link tool, head on over to Google Search Console (GSC). Then, log into your Google account.
If you are yet to do so, add your site domain to GSC.
Using the Disavow tool, you can manually enter the URLs of sites that you wish to disavow into a text file using the below format. Just make sure the URLs you include in this list are an exact match. The last thing you want to do is disavow a high-quality backlink.
For larger sites or sites with lots of toxic backlinks, a better way to do this is to auto-generate a disavow list. A great way to do this is to follow this tutorial from Ahrefs’ David McSweeney. Here David details how to create a TXT file using an easy to follow backlink audit strategy.
Now you have your file ready, jump on over to GSC’s Disavow page. Once there, select your domain property from the drop-down list.
Next, click on the “Upload disavow list”.
Select your TXT file containing your disavow list and click “Open”.
Once the “Open” button is clicked, GSC will upload the list. You will then see a notification pop up at the bottom of the screen once the submission is completed.
If, afterwards, you feel you’ve made a mistake or would like to update your list at a later date, simply click the “Cancel disavowals” text or “Replace” button.
Bad Backlinks and SEO
Backlinks can be a valuable asset to a website’s SEO when they are obtained from quality sources. However, when links are obtained from spammy or toxic websites, they can seriously harm a website’s ranking and visibility on the SERPs.
With this in mind, it is important for site owners to be aware of the risks associated with toxic backlinks and take steps to remove them from their site on a regular basis.
Not only will this improve your website’s ranking and overall site metrics, but it will also help to boost the effectiveness of your content marketing efforts.