Link Building

Yes, Toxic Backlinks Can Still Harm Search Rankings

When a website links to your online store, that site is indicating it finds your content valuable enough to share with its own audience. Google and other search engines recognize this vote of confidence, which may boost your site’s ranking.

For this reason, many search engine optimizers covet backlinks — those links from another website to yours. But not all backlinks are helpful. Some are bad or even “toxic” for your site’s search engine rankings.

Good Backlinks

Let’s start with a definition of “a good backlink.” There is no definitive SEO encyclopedia, but many professionals would likely agree with this list. A good backlink:

  • Comes from a trusted site. For SEO expert Neil Patel, this is a “link that comes from a high domain authority website that is well-trusted by search engines and searchers alike.” But any trustworthy site, even if it is just starting, with little domain authority, can provide a good backlink.
  • Is relevant. This is sometimes referred to as editorial, related, or natural linking. For example, a link from an article about hiking to a product page for hiking boots is relevant and editorial.
  • Has traffic potential. The link is also valuable to your site in that it can send traffic to your business without the search engine’s help.
  • Is not contrived. Finally, the link is earned because of the quality of your site’s content and not some other linking scheme.

Add to this list a description of a good backlink from Google’s Search Console Help Center.

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

Bad Backlinks

Bad or toxic backlinks are the opposite of good. A bad backlink:

  • Comes from an untrusted site. The site may have been built solely for outbound links. It could have links stuffed everywhere on every page, including comments.
  • Is not relevant. Imagine an article about investing that links to a product page for hiking boots. The link makes little sense in context.
  • Has little traffic potential. Relatively few human visitors would follow the link.
  • Is contrived. The link was created only to boost a site’s search engine rankings. The link could be paid, in a private blog network, or reciprocal, as examples.

One or two of these bad backlinks are likely harmless. But several, taken together, can harm your site’s backlink profile.

A backlink profile, according to Brightedge, an SEO consultancy, “describes the sites that link to your website.” This is important because “in April 2012 Google launched the Penguin update. This update was designed to downgrade sites that had artificially inflated their rankings by purchasing links or obtaining their backlinks through networks that were specifically designed to fool Google’s algorithm.”

“Since then, there have been regular updates made to Penguin to continually check for sites that are abusing the backlink building process. These updates also reward sites that have gotten rid of the poor backlinks and instead focused on building quality links,” the Brightedge site continued.

Identify Bad Backlinks

Many SEO toolsets include some form of backlink audit or analysis. Here are examples from two popular SEO suites.

SEMrush. The Backlink Audit tool in SEMrush identifies toxic links and provides a toxic link score. A score of 60 or above is likely damaging your site’s backlink profile.

SEMrush and similar tools can generate backlink audits to identify toxic backlinks.

SEMrush and similar tools can generate backlink audits to identify toxic backlinks.

The SEMrush tool will also help assemble a list of URLs to disavow (more on this in a moment), even submitting the removal requests on your behalf.

Ahrefs’ backlink audit tool does not judge backlinks on its own. But it does recommend ways to identify potentially spammy backlinks.

For example, in the Backlinks tab, set the filter to “Group Similar,” choose the “dofollow” link type, and sort by “Similar.”

Collectively, these settings will also identify a specific sort of bad backlink, those replicated on footers or headers on the linking domain.

Remove Bad Backlinks

Most SEO practitioners recommend two ways to remove toxic backlinks.

  • Contact the site publisher and ask to have the link removed or made nofollow.
  • Disavow the link with Google and other search engines.

The first of these options is straightforward. You find an email address for the linking site and send a professional (meaning not snooty) email message asking for the link’s removal. Some tools, such as SEMrush, will help you identify the publisher’s email. Otherwise, you may be able to find an email address on the site. If need be, try Hunter or a similar tool that lets you find verified email addresses for many domains.

The second option is to disavow links. This is fairly extreme. You might think of it as a nuclear option when Google or another search engine has penalized your company’s site for having too many toxic links.

Simply put, you assemble a list of the domains or web pages you wish to disavow and upload this list to Google, Bing, or other search engines that have a similar disavow option.

Disavowing a link or many links typically requires research and advice. Here are some additional resources.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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