Anyone who’s engaged in link building for SEO in the past few years can tell you the biggest—and most important—concern of the strategy: getting penalized for posting spammy links. The era of quantity-based link evaluation has gone away completely thanks to revisions in Google’s core algorithm. The search engine giant can now tell easily whether your link is built “naturally,” with the intention to increase value to web users, or “unnaturally,” with the sole intention of increasing your rank.
What are spam backlinks?
SPAM is as old as the Internet itself, so most people will know what it is, at least in a general way, just from hearing the word in context. Still, not everyone is so Internet savvy, which is why it’s important to define exactly what a SPAM backlink is. To be succinct, SPAM backlinks are like fleas on the hide of your digital puppy (or the analogically challenged, the puppy is your, or indeed any, website). They take without giving anything in return, and are a major nuisance to anyone plagued by them.
SPAM backlinks usually manifest in the form of comments to blog posts, replies to forum threads, and so forth. The offending SPAM – which, by the way, is just another way of saying “junk” – will contain a backlink. Backlinks are like breadcrumbs or a signpost pointing from one site to someplace else (usually the spammer’s own site or its affiliate(s). The goal of such things is usually monetary, but it can vary. For instance, SPAM backlinks may also be created on behalf of one’s own website without the knowledge or consent of the owners or administrators. Wherever they point to in the end, these SPAM links will hog site resources, damage your site’s credibility (no one likes to read machine-generated gibberish!), and generally cause a lot of unwelcome maintenance / clean-up headaches for those affected.
Worst of all, if your website gets a reputation with Google for allowing, promoting, generating, or otherwise engaging in SPAM-based activities, they may just decide to de-index your website, which is a fancy way of saying “Now you see it, now you don’t”. De-indexed websites can obliterate years of hard work in a millisecond.
Not all links are created equal, however. Some backlinks pass on positive ranking juice, others pass on negative ranking juice and still others are ignored by Google altogether. Toxic backlinks are backlinks that harm a website’s search engine optimization (SEO), or the ability to rank well in a Google search. Paid links, links received from link schemes, link wheels and blog networks, and links from porn, gaming or payday loans sites are all considered toxic.
Difference Between High and Low Quality Backlinks
Unfortunately, not all backlinks are created equal. High quality backlinks are extremely valuable, increasing your reputation, improving your domain authority, and ultimately increasing your visibility in Google. But low quality backlinks can actually have a detrimental effect on your SEO, lowering your authority and earning manual penalties that can seriously compromise your inbound traffic.
Knowing the difference between high and low quality backlinks is crucial if you want your SEO campaign to succeed.
Low Quality Backlinks
Low quality backlinks can damage your reputation with Google and compromise your visibility in searches.
The source you use to build your backlink is the most obvious indicator of its quality. As a general rule of thumb, the lower the quality of the site, the lower the quality of the link will be. Posting a link on a disreputable, very low-ranking, or poorly designed site is going to carry a negative impact. Similarly, posting any link on a source designed specifically to manipulate rank is sure to earn you a penalty.
However, you’ll have to consider more than just the quality of your source; you’ll also have to consider its appropriateness. Anything completely unrelated to your industry could qualify your backlink as low quality due to its lack of relevance to the source.
The intention of your link is also a contributing factor to its quality, and yes, Google has ways of telling why you build the links you do. The biggest thing to watch out for here is the intention to directly improve your domain authority or rank; if Google determines that a link has no purpose other than to artificially generate traffic, it will be treated as low quality.
The structure of your link usually correlates to its intention; for example, if your link is posted by itself in a blog comment, with no introduction or explanation, it will usually be seen as spam. However, if your link is structured in the context of supporting content that’s free from spam indicators like “click here,” you won’t have to worry.
If Google starts to see that you’re posting the same link on all your external sources, such as a link to your homepage, it can be treated as a bad link. You want your links to be relevant to specific conversations and platforms, so avoid relying on one or two common link destinations.
Finally, the frequency at which you post backlinks can determine their quality. If you post backlinks on the same source multiple times a day in different instances, your links could be treated as spam. The same rule applies to multiple sources; if your backlinks suddenly skyrocket with no explanation as to why, you could be seen as spamming and your link quality could suffer.
The bottom line for low quality backlinks is that they serve no function other than to increase the target site’s traffic.
High Quality Backlinks
High quality backlinks will, when accumulated, reward your site with greater domain authority and higher search visibility.
The authority rule works for high quality backlinks in reverse; the higher the quality of your source, the higher the quality of your backlink. High quality sources generally include very reputable sites, with the most credible sites being those with a .gov or .edu distinction. Well-known authoritative sites, like major publishers and sources of information, are also great sources for high quality links.
You can also earn high quality backlinks by using highly relevant sources to your industry. Industry-specific blogs and forums are great opportunities for this, and the more specific your niche, the better.
The primary intention of high quality backlinks has nothing to do with rank manipulation. Instead, the highest quality links are built for a valuable purpose; for example, links that are built in order to establish credibility, elaborate on a point, cite a fact, or connect one important site to another all share a common goal to increase value or provide substance to existing content.
High quality links have a more reputable structure than a standalone link. Typically, they are framed in explanatory text; for example, a link could be introduced in a forum comment with a quick explanation for why it’s being posted, or the link could be housed in the body of a high quality guest blog.
Link quality increases with the diversity of links you use. Simply pointing to a homepage time after time is going to earn you a negative reputation, but high quality links tend to point to very specific internal pages as sources, serving a specific function and getting to a specific point.
High quality links also enjoy a reasonable frequency. They are posted sporadically over time, rather than in fits and spurts, and they are never spammed into one source all at once.
The bottom line for high quality backlinks is that they’re intended to improve a user’s overall experience.
Keep your offsite SEO strategy ripe with high quality backlinks, and avoid those low quality backlinks like the plague. If you’re ever concerned about the makeup of your current backlink profile, or if you’re interested in auditing your current link building efforts, use a tool like Open Site Explorer to analyze your backlinks and watch out for any low quality offenders. It’s a good idea to clean up your profile from time to time, and actively work toward keeping your links as high quality as possible.
How Spam Backlinks Can Harm SEO Rankings
The fact that old spam backlinks harm rankings is old news. In fact, there are a number of different backlinks that are current today that harm the ranking on your website. Old spam backlinks simply add to the amount of people who wander away from your website due to the amount of spam coming from you. If you have these backlinks on your site, find them and get rid of them right away. They are most definitely hurting your rankings and pushing users away from your website and ultimately, your business. While you are in the site cleaning out these old backlinks, make sure you complete some further backlink maintenance. Google is paying attention closer than ever because their reputation depends on their ability to give their users the highest quality possible; you want your website to be part of their high ranking algorithm.
Google and Inbound Links from Bad Sites
Some people claim that Google will not move your site down in the rankings due to links from bad sites. In fact, there have been articles written on the “myth” and how it’s not true. Recent publications from top SEO experts confirm that it is not a myth – inbound links from bad sites will hurt your ranking just as much as the old spam backlinks. You will need to know about these links, how to find them and how to get rid of them if you want your site to continue to rank high among Google.
What actually happens is that a black hat SEO master will link to your site and Google will “award” you with a bad point against your website. It happens, much to everyone’s chagrin. Google could penalize sites right away with bad links no matter how popular the site has gotten on the search engines. Unfortunately, no one knows with confidence how or why it happens, or how long the penalty will be attached to your site. While the situation is quite uncommon, it still happens. It’s wise to get rid of these backlinks as soon as you find them to avoid being penalized by Google and dealing with all the unknowns.
Updated Bad Links
Old spammy backlinks are bad enough, but building new backlinks in the wrong way is a double nail in the coffin. The links chock full of keywords with no readability or the sites linking to irrelevant websites are coming on strong, especially with all the rising competition. This is exactly why Google had to change the algorithms and make things harder for these culprits. New backlinks will be the new bane to your site after you have eliminated all those annoying old spammy backlinks, which are holding your site back in the rankings.
These links are doing damage to your website consistently. As an entrepreneur found out recently, these links can hide and pull your ranking down quickly before you realize what is going on. Sometimes, this activity isn’t found until your website completes a full audit of the full site. The problem is that incoming links are essential to Google’s new algorithm, so how does Google now view links?
At its most basic, Google looks at how many links are pointing to a website and uses that to determine how well the site will rank on its search engine. If the world were a fair place, a site with a greater deal of incoming links would rate higher on the search engines and life would proceed as usual. However, this isn’t a fair world, thanks to those black hat SEO pirates.
Thankfully, however, quality is rising above quantity and web searchers don’t need to weed through bad, possibly even harmful, links just because there happen to be a greater deal of links on one certain site. Those off-shore SEO companies which linked everything to everyone are no longer valid in the eyes of Google.
These Google changes happened in 2011, when Google began to realize what was really happening. Bad links were hurting websites continuously and people were beginning to wander away from Google to keep their computer safe from spam. Gone were the days when links were a dime a dozen; quality needed to matter to get yourself high on Google’s rankings.
Unfortunately, some webmasters, and companies, didn’t keep up with the trend fast enough. When the switch happened, it happened fast. Some companies didn’t have time to update the site, didn’t know the links were on the site or simply ignored the inevitable, that Google was going to penalize them for these links. The results were dramatic.
The fallout was terrible. Many websites fell in rankings quickly. A number of businesses got caught in this crossfire and were left dramatically low on the search engines, where they had once been top-notch in their business categories. The scramble to fix the problem was on for many website and SEO companies. Obviously, bad backlinks, old spam backlinks and black hat SEO can upset your website and can make your rankings completely tank.
Why is it Important to Remove Toxic Backlinks?
Toxic backlinks reduce the Page Rank of the sites they link to so website owners want as few of them as possible. If Google notices that a site has a fair number of toxic backlinks, it likely will reduce the site’s Page Rank. If Google notices that a site has a very large number of toxic backlinks, it likely will exclude the site from its database altogether.
How Do I Know if I Have Toxic Backlinks?
There are several ways you can find out if your site has toxic backlinks. Here are four common ways.
You Know Because You Created Them
If you created the toxic backlinks yourself through suspicious web activity such as paying for links or content spamming, then you already know the links exist.
You Receive a Warning Notification from Google
It is possible that you didn’t create the toxic backlinks yourself. They may have been created by a scammer or a questionable SEO company you hired in the past. If you are genuinely unaware of the toxic backlinks, you may not find about them until you receive a warning message from Google.
You Notice a Sudden Drop in Traffic
If your organic traffic levels suddenly dropped, particularly around May 22, 2013 when Penguin 2.0 took effect, toxic backlinks are likely the cause.
You Pull Up a List of Your Backlinks to Check
If you are nervous about the latest Penguin 2.0 update like many other website owners are, you may want to pull up a list of your backlinks just to check for any suspicious links. You may or may not find any, but it never hurts to make sure.
Where Can I Find a List of My Website’s Backlinks?
Google recommends that the first and only place you should look to find a list of your website’s backlinks is in your site’s Google Webmaster Tools. To do this, log into your Google Webmaster Tools account and select traffic, then links to your site, then more. Here you will find a sampling of the backlinks to your blog. However, if you wanted a complete list, you will need to pay a backlink checking service such as Ahrefs, SEOmoz or Majestic SEO.
How Do I Determine Which Backlinks are Toxic?
Take a look at each of your links to see where they are coming from. You will want to keep links that come from high-quality sites and get rid of links that come from low-quality or spammy sites. If your links come from any of the following types of sites, they are most likely toxic links and need to be removed.
Sites with an unusually large number of external links
You will also need to remove all paid links and some site-wide links, such as those that show up in website footers and blogrolls. Not all links that come from sites such as these are toxic, however. It is important that you go through each of your backlinks manually so that you can be sure to delete all the negative ones while maintaining all of the positive ones.
How to Remove Toxic Backlinks
There are a few steps that need to be taken to ensure you can do this manually.
Find the Spam Links
You have to figure out how to find the spam links before you can do anything. Even if your site hasn’t been affected by the search engine updates, it’s good to perform a backlink scan anyway just so you know exactly who is linking to you.
The low-quality links that have been addressed with the Penguin 2.0 update include those that:
Are from pages with lots of external links
Are link farms
Come from new domains
Come from low traffic domains
Are site wide
Come from Page Rank (PR) 0 or n/a sites
If backlinks have any (or all) of these qualities, they should be added to your list of spam links that you need to remove. You don’t want them pointing to your website.
You always have the choice to do absolutely nothing, but if you do have spam links and you have even received a Google warning with a caution symbol in the email, it means that some spam links have been detected. If you choose to do nothing, you are going to see your ranking go down and potentially your site traffic will dropas well. This is because the spam links are causing you to look bad in the search engines and you may not appear in the first or second page anymore.
The Downside to 404
Many people will simply 404 the page that the link is pointing to. Essentially, this means getting rid of the page so that it’s no longer there. This is likely going to fix the problem because the Google Webmaster Forum has said that a 404 page is not counted by Google.
If you were to 404 a page, it isn’t going to make your site very search engine friendly. No one wants to encounter 404 pages when they are navigating.
Also, if the spam link is pointing to your home page or a page that you want to rank within the search engines, you don’t want to 404. Otherwise you are going to have the page that you need missing.
Link Removal Request
One of the popular ways for manually removing a spam link that points to your website is requesting a link removal. You have to dig up the contact information of the webmaster and ask them to remove a link that is on the site. In most instances, you probably put the link there in the first place and now you have to ask for it to be removed.
There are link management tools as well as outsourcing services on Odesk and Fiverr that can do some of this for you.
When you write a link removal request, go at it gently. Don’t make a demand. Simply ask that it be removed and tell them why. If a link is in a comment and you didn’t put it there, be sure that you mention that in the request. You can also mention that Sprint was recently penalized by Google for spam comments.
If the linking site has a lot of spam on it, you may want to mention that if they do not adhere to your request that you will have to disavow their links. This could end up hurting their page rank – and they don’t want that to happen.
Use the Disavow Tool
If you have done all that you can to remove some of the links that are out there but they are still not helping you to get the ranks and traffic that you need, it may be time to use the disavow tool that is available so that you can get rid of all of the other spam links that are out there.
Google wants you to clean up your links using ever other means possible before you go right to this tool. This means that you may want to delete links if you can or contact the webmasters of the site. If you are still unsuccessful, only then should you use this tool. If your site ranking is being harmed by the low-quality links, you can include the link that is pointing to your site. This disavow tool will ensure that Google doesn’t use the links against you.
There have been rumors that humans are the ones looking at the disavow requests. If you submit a ton of requests without having evidence of trying to remove them on your own, you could get hit with a special manual penalty from Google.
Create a New Website
There is another way of getting rid of the spam links and that involves starting with a clean slate. If you haven’t invested a lot into your website and it’s still relatively new, you may want to get rid of the domain and start with a new one. This is going to wash away all of the spam links out there so that it’s one less thing for you to worry about.
How to Use Moz Spam Analysis to Test Links
Up until this point, determining whether your link is “natural” or “unnatural” has been grounded in solid evidence, but it’s mostly come down to a guessing game. If you choose a reputable source and post a link you genuinely think is helpful to the conversation, then in theory, it should be considered a high-quality link. Still, it’s easy to doubt yourself and worry about whether or not Google is picking up on your link building attempts and considering them to be unnatural.
Fortunately, Moz just released a new tool that might help put an end to those speculative worries. Operating under the Open Site Explorer tool you’ve probably used to map out your backlink profile in the past, the new “Spam Score” is designed to objectively measure how natural or unnatural your link appears.
How the System Works
After a few thorough rounds of research, Moz data scientist Dr. Matt Peters eventually boiled down the deterministic qualities of an unnatural link to 17 factors, which he called “spam flags.” The more of these spam flags a link has, the more likely it is to be penalized and the less authority it’s going to pass.
Spam Score, the name for Moz’s objective measurement, is a calculation of how many spam flags a subdomain shows. At this time, it does not function at a page level, nor does it function at an overall root domain level, but this shouldn’t stop you from gaining some key insights into whether or not your link has been posted on a high-quality site. You can find the Spam Analysis tab under Open Site Explorer—right now, it’s only available for subscribers, but you can sign up for a free trail to access the feature or wait until Moz inevitably rolls out the feature for free to all users.
Once you’ve selected a specific subdomain, the system will evaluate it based on those 17 spam flags, and tell you how many of those spam flags it is demonstrating. Between zero and four flags means the site is low risk, between five and seven flags means it is a medium risk, and eight or more flags means it is a high risk. The 17 flags are as follows:
Low MozTrust or MozRank Score—this is a calculation of overall domain authority.
Low site link diversity—this means the types of links pointing out isn’t diversified and seems unnatural.
Abnormal ratio of followed to nofollowed domains—high or low ratios make Google suspicious.
Low-quality content—if the content is thin or low-quality, it signifies a low-quality site.
Excessive external links—too many links pointing out mean it could qualify as a link directory.
High ratios of anchor text—improper anchor text use triggers a red flag.
Lack of contact information—without a phone number, address, or email address, the site could register as spammy.
Top level domain is associated with spam—if a subdomain is linked to a low-quality TLD, the subdomain becomes low quality by extension.
Numeral-containing subdomain—numerals are a bad idea for inclusion in a URL.
Few inbound links—if the site is large but contains few inbound links, its authority is weakened.
Abnormal ratio of followed to nofollowedsubdomains. The rule about domains applies to subdomains as well.
Few branded links. A lack of branded anchor text in inbound links triggers a red flag.
Few internal links. Without internal links, the quality of a site comes into question.
External links in main navigation. Hosting external links in a main navigation or sidebar makes a site appear less authoritative.
Few pages. The number of pages on a subdomain plays into how authoritative it is.
Excessive length. If a subdomain’s length is higher than average, it appears as a red flag.
Even if you don’t use Moz’s automated tool, you can use these 17 spam factors to evaluate whether you should post links on a particular domain.
Best Spam Backlink Checkers
In order to maximize your link profile, you need a top flight link checker. Below is a comparison of three of the best.
SEO Spyglass Is a unique type of back link checker in that it is part of a larger suite of applications. It is, however, quite an effective tool in and of itself. If you are looking for a back link checker that is easy to use with a simple layout and intuitive structure, then this might be the application for you.
When it comes to getting rid of spam back links, the Spyglass application will download your back links from many sources around the Internet into a proprietary database. You will be able to access these links from the software directly and receive real-time data on the links that have been created.
Within each of the listings, you will be able to determine the page ranks, the anchor text and many other features of links that have your website as the underwriting entity. You will be able to easily export these reports into PDF format for the benefit of clients or for internal use in your company.
You will be able to see if your website links back to these internal links and the total amount of links that each link service such as Alexa credits your website with. With these tools, you can actually limit your exposure to different aggregation sites depending on the type of search optimization that you are looking to create for yourself.
The Spyglass application is available for a one-time fee, which can be reduced significantly if you purchase the entire suite of applications that it is a part of. It is also one of the few top-flight back link checkers that has a free trial that is available online to the general public.
The overall functionality of the Ahrefs.com back link checker is second to none. Even on the most basic of functions, the data includes the number of links that your site has, the number of IP’s that the links are coming from, which pages are being linked to and the anchor text that is being used as well. This data can be viewed in a number of different formats depending on the characteristics that you feel are most important. The program also has its own proprietary ranking structure that has proven to be quite useful when used in conjunction with the ranking structures of the major search engines.
Data is presented with many different, completely customizable characteristics including do follow links, no follow links, links that are sitewide versus links that are not sitewide, redirect links, links that include an image, links from.gov and.edu sites and any other determining characteristic that you can think of or create. The reports also include errors, warnings and noticesso that you can easily locate and destroy any links that are old or which lead to a misdirect.
The data is also presented in a highly attractive visual format that is easy to interpret, even if you have not had a great deal of experience with back links for search engine optimization. You can view links using line charts, line charts or numeric charts depending on your preference.
The pricing on this particular tool is expensive; however, there is a free option that allows you to pull a limited amount of reports and results. The data is so intensive that even the less expensive packages will provide plenty of results for small businesses. This is definitely an enterprise-level program that is scalable for growing companies. The pricing is also per month rather than a one-time fee.
Be sure that you have the money set aside in your budget every month, because once you begin using this tool, it can quickly become an integral part of your online marketing strategy. Losing it after relying on it for even a short period of time can be devastating to online strategy.
Raven Tools is the reason that the much more well-known link tracking tool SEOMoz is not on this top three list. The two programs have a great deal in common; however, Raven Tools builds on many of the weaknesses that SEOMoz has failed to patch during its long tenure as one of the most well known programs on the market.
If you are familiar with the SEOMoz layout, then you will take warmly to the Raven Tools landscape. Aside from being a simple back link profiler, Raven Tools is actually a complete suite of online marketing tools that can manage your online campaigns from beginning to end.
The functionality of the reports is much wider in scope than either of the other two entries within this article; however, it may simply be too much for a company that does not have a need for a full search engine optimization suite. As a matter of fact, Raven Tools is actually much better suited for a company that has its own IT in-house, as many of the data that you receive are only useful if is able to be acted upon in real time.
The reports are easily customizable according to the data that you feel is most important within your online campaign. You can receive reports on the number of links that you have online, the ranking that the linking sites have as well as the effect that these links are creating on your own Page Rank. The tools will allow you to easily disassociate yourself from any website that is pulling down your search engine rankings.
One of the best features of Raven Tools is that it has a full month trial that is completely free and fully functional. You will be able to determine if this solution is the best back link profiler for you without any hangups in the functionality.
The blog that you can access from the website is also one of the most informative social media tools that is available within any search engine optimization company. You will always be kept up-to-date on the latest happenings in technology and how you can apply them to your current Raven Tools suite in order to give yourself a leg up on your competition. Raven Tools is also one of the best companies when it comes to creating updates based on the needs of its client base, updates that will be profiled in their blog.
Ultimately, you have to weigh the options to see which method is going to work best for you. Before you do anything, you have to see how many spam links are pointing to your website. If you are in the single digits, it’s likely going to be something that you can clean up on your own. However, if you are in the double or even triple digits, you’re going to need some help. You cannot submit all of the links into the disavow tool without trying to get rid of them on your own.
You have to be careful about what spam links are pointing to your site, especially if there are multiple things wrong with the website. One or two may not be so bad because they won’t impact your domain authority. However, if you begin to have so many spam links that it’s affecting ranking and traffic, you are going to have to do all that you can to get them removed. Seeking help to write the letters and make improvements may be the best way. Ditching a particular page may also be what needs to happen.
The good news is that there are multiple ways to manually remove spam links from sites that are pointing to your website. You may have put them there yourself prior to learning about the rules of SEO and before the last Penguin update. Now that Google and the other search engines are cracking down on what will and won’t help you with SEO, you have to clean up your reputation online. If after submitting requests to webmasters proves unsuccessful, the disavow tool should be your last resource – but a resource that may help to save your website from the spam links that are currently dragging it down.
Once you have cleaned up your website’s backlinks, you will want to file a reconsideration request with Google. In this request, you should admit your mistake, outline the steps you took to correct the problem and promise to use only best practices in the future. Be sure your request is polite and detailed. Once your request has been submitted, expect to wait between two to three weeks for a response.
While performing a backlink audit can be arduous and time consuming for websites that have a large number of toxic backlinks, it is worth the effort for website owners who want their websites to do well. Google seeks to reward websites that have high quality content and that gather positive backlinks naturally. Removing toxic backlinks is one essential steps website owners must take if they hope to rank well.
Everyone’s situation is different, so knowing about the various ways will ensure you choose the best method for you.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.