On the World Wide Web, backlinks are a social currency. They’re one of the main factors that determine a website’s rank on Google.
When combined with quality content, the more good backlinks you have, the higher your positioning on search engine result pages (SERPs). To achieve that, you must step away from building irrelevant and low-quality backlinks.
Join us as we discuss the characteristics of bad backlinks, and teach you how to recognize and remove them before they hurt your website rankings.
What are bad backlinks?
Bad backlinks are links from spammy or low-authority websites that search engines don’t value.
While there is no such thing as too many backlinks, too many bad backlinks can set your SEO goals back by months or even years. They can lead to:
- Google penalties: If Google thinks you’re engaging in black-hat SEO tactics, it can penalize you for a violation of its webmaster guidelines. This can destroy your organic traffic.
- Terrible user experience: Forced backlinks often go hand-in-hand with practices like keyword stuffing and poor-quality content. All this affects user experience negatively and lowers brand trust.
- Low-quality link profile: Backlinks from irrelevant, low-ranking websites diminish the overall quality of your link profile, reducing the overall authority of your domain.
- Damaged reputation: The quality of your links acts as an authority signal to search engines. Spammy or poor-quality backlinks will damage your reputation and domain authority.
A regular analysis of your backlink profile will tell you if any of your existing or new backlinks are a threat to your website.
Types of bad backlinks
Sooner or later, Google will penalize you for building low-quality and spammy links.
These penalties can be covert, like a sudden drop in organic traffic, or overt, like a penalty notice. Either way, they have the potential to undo painstakingly built SEO strategies overnight.
To avoid this scenario, it’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with different types of bad backlinks.
1. Private Blog Network (PBN) links
Think of PBNs as the bot accounts of the SEO world. They are groups of websites, often identified by shared IP addresses and common hosting providers.
PBNs are created for the sole purpose of linking to a specific central website in an attempt to increase the number of backlinks and manipulate search rankings.
In recent years, marketers started to use the term for any site whose purpose is to sell links to whoever is willing to buy. These are often sites with no audience and traffic, covering every niche you can think of.
Some PBNs are easier to spot than others. Here are a few examples of such sites:
A link from these and similar sites is automatically a bad link.
2. Paid links
Building backlinks the right way is a long and time-consuming endeavor. By getting other websites to link to you in exchange for a fee, you can significantly speed up that process.
These can be through product placements or sponsored links that point back directly to your domain, with prices often proportional to the referring website’s authority.
Google considers this a buying-links scheme aimed to artificially boost rankings. If you want to play by the book, links you paid for in any way should be marked with a specific link attribute: “rel=”sponsored” tag. Learn more about link attributes here.
3. Forum and comment spam links
Forum spammers are people (or bots) that create posts on public forums like Reddit, Discourse, or Quora, aimed at generating visibility for the target website. These are easily identified due to their irrelevance, but they can sometimes be targeted.
A PUBG forum might be overrun with comments referencing a website selling discounted gaming hardware. But a quick look at the user’s history and/or post quality should be enough to tell if the post is spam.
Another type of spammy links are low-quality comment links. Comments containing hyperlinks to seemingly unrelated websites, like a comment about a ‘life-changing’ bitcoin and forex trading course on a blog post about 10-minute dinner recipes.
4. Link farms
These function almost exactly like PBNs. The difference is that PBNs are created to link to a website outside the network, whereas link farms link to websites within the group.
The purpose they are created for is the same — to artificially inflate the ranking of one or more websites. Which is a big NO-NO.
5. Irrelevant links
Backlinks are votes of confidence you get from other websites for producing quality content.
However, if the referring sites are from unrelated businesses, the search engine will not consider them while determining site authority. For example, classical music, perfume blogs, and t-shirt printing businesses, linking to a medical waste management company. Such links have no impact on the site’s ranking or authority.
6. Low-quality directory links
A web directory is essentially a list of similar businesses in an industry — e.g., beauty service providers and spas in Denmark.
Profiles in directories that aren’t curated by an editor (self-submit), or that are otherwise untrustworthy, will not get you any useful backlinks.
How to spot bad backlinks
Regardless of the cause, identifying and removing bad backlinks is crucial for maintaining the health and visibility of your website in search engine results.
Otherwise, there’s a high chance Google will penalize your website — you don’t really want to go through the penalization recovery process, do you?
Use backlink analysis tools
A backlink analysis tool like Ahrefs’ Backlink Checker dives deep into the quality and source of your backlinks and determines:
- the overall quality of your link profile
- the dangerous and potentially dangerous links you should consider removing.
We used the free version of this tool to do a backlink analysis of Cabinets To Go, an American modular kitchen supplier.
The first few backlinks are good quality. They come from reputable websites and have relevant anchor text. When scrolling a little further through the list, you’ll start spotting irregularities.
A lot of the websites have low domain ratings and there are multiple discrepancies between the content and anchor text, pointing to problems in the link profile.
Check for irrelevant or low-quality content
Another dead giveaway of a spammy backlink is its content quality. Quantity-oriented link builders aren’t too keen on investing the time or money to write niche articles or 1000-plus word blog posts.
Before you write off a backlink as detrimental to your SEO, check the content it has been placed in. It’ll only take a few seconds to gauge whether it’s relevant or not.
Remember, domain ratings aren’t always reflective of link authenticity. The backlink from this website (DR: 9) turned out to be original content — a detailed review of Cabinets To Go.
Similarly, just because a website has high Domain Authority, it doesn’t mean it’s not a spammy website. It’s less likely, but you would be surprised how many high-DA, spammy websites can be found in the wilderness.
Look for links from spammy websites
Modern-day PBNs and link farms use AI to generate anchor text and accompanying content for their backlinks. In such cases, it’s necessary to verify the origin of the backlink, i.e. the referring domain, and its authority.
If you have an Ahrefs subscription, you can view the domain rating, page traffic, and Ahrefs rank for each referring website that you get a backlink from.
Ahrefs grades websites based on their backlink profile and size. If you have too many websites with low Ahrefs ranks linking to you, it is necessary to perform a backlink cleanup.
Moz has a similar tool called Link Explorer you can also use — you’ll just need to create a free account.
To analyze the referring websites, click on the Linking Domains. You can check their domain rating and assigned spam score.
Spammy websites usually have low internal-to-external link ratios. Excessive external linking could mean they are paid links.
Analyze anchor text
Ahref’s Backlink Checker shows the anchor text associated with each backlink. Over-optimized or irrelevant anchor text is usually a clear indicator that a backlink is bad.
We only had to eyeball our case study’s backlink profile to spot a number of suspicious-looking anchor texts. Like this one here containing the word “pingback”.
It links to an article about a film festival with outbound links to websites from every conceivable industry on the planet, from weight loss to appliance repair.
Or this backlink, which has clear signs of keyword stuffing in the anchor text.
And the three identical ones right after.
All of these links lead to a random article about top-ranked universities. Completely unrelated to the industry that Cabinets To Go should be targeting.
How to quickly remove bad backlinks
Now that you’ve seen how to tell bad backlinks from good ones, you can start eliminating them from your profile.
In the past, people have usually contacted site owners or hosting providers and asked them to remove the bad backlink. It was a time-consuming and sometimes challenging process.
These days, most site owners opt for disavow tools so the whole process is pretty straightforward.
Let’s explain both options!
1. Identify the source
Once you have identified all the bad backlinks in your link profile, choose a mode of action depending on their source. If the backlinks were created by you, or someone employed by you in the past, delete them.
If you have no association with the link builder whatsoever, or you suspect you’re the target of a competitor’s attack, you’ll have to use Google’s disavow tool.
2. Use Google’s disavow tool
When you disavow a link, you’re not completely removing it. You’re only asking the search engine to overlook its existence and not let it affect your SEO ranking — negatively or positively.
Depending on the backlink analysis service you’re using, you’ll see an option to export a file of the bad backlinks you’ve identified. This file needs to be in .txt format so it can be uploaded to Google’s Disavow tool straightaway.
Before you go to Disavow Tool page, you’ll have to be signed in to the Google Serch Console account linked to the site you want to use.
Check for errors before you submit the file. If you discover one later, there’s no need to panic. Submitting a new file will overwrite any older versions you may have uploaded and restore the wrongly disavowed links.
The Disavow Tool is often the only way to clean up link profiles, but it is not to be used frivolously — only if you have a substantial number of bad backlinks not in your control.
3. You can try to remove bad backlinks the old-fashioned way
Removing bad backlinks with disavow tools is the standard usual practice these days. The alternative is to directly contact the site owner and ask them to remove the spammy link.
We tested the process for one of Cabinet To Go’s spammy-looking backlinks.
The first step was to find relevant contact information, so we used Hunter’s free email finder tool. The tool found two email addresses that can be contacted if you wish to remove that particular backlink.
The next step is to send a removal request to the website owner. Be sure to include the details about the bad backlink and specify the page URL it’s on.
If you can’t find an email address or don’t get a response, you’ll have to resort to disavowing these backlinks. This is the case more often than not, which is one of the reasons why this practice fell out of use with time.
Revamp your link profile
A robust backlink catalog is an essential feature of every SEO campaign. Regular checks of your backlink profile will help keep it in top form and safeguard you against negative SEO practices.
Doing SEO yourself can be overwhelming for first-timers and those dealing with high volumes of bad backlinks. If you feel stuck, consider outsourcing link building to Point Visible and letting them help you correct the course of your SEO campaign.
Antonio Gabrić is an outreach manager at Hunter and co-founder at Saasmatic. He is passionate about testing different outreach tactics and sharing results with the community. When he is not connecting with industry leaders you can find him on his motorbike exploring off-the-beaten paths around the world.