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Toxic Backlinks: How To Deal With Bad Backlinks Ruining Your Site

Not all backlinks are equal. While you do want to have backlinks pointing to your domain, those that come from shady sources are often flagged by search engines. And when they do, your ranking can go down.

Links that could affect your site negatively are often referred to as toxic backlinks. And you want to proactively chase them down and get rid of as many as you can to improve your site’s SEO health.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into what toxic backlinks are and what actions you could take against them.

Let’s get started.

What Is a Toxic Backlink?

It’s true. Toxic backlinks are bad for your site.

But why is this the case?

If people link back to you frequently, doesn’t that mean you’re a trusted source of information? Why would search engines like Google penalize you for receiving backlinks?

And why are some backlinks considered bad in the first place?

Here’s the thing:

Search engines do their best to protect their users. That’s why they don’t like sites that put their users at risk when they’re online.

Even if your site complies with Google standards, getting backlinks from harmful sites ties you to those domains. Both your audience and search engines link you to these offenders by association.

That’s the reason why you get toxic links. They affect you negatively even if you’re in no way connected to the offending sites.

With that said, what are some examples of sites that could return toxic backlinks?

Here are a few.

1. Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

Private blog networks are also referred to in the SEO community as link farms. These interconnected blogs have one purpose — to make a site or a page rank higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs) by creating as many backlinks as possible.

You can already tell by its definition that PBNs intentionally dupes search engines into thinking that a site has generated lots of backlinks.

And for a while, this kind of trickery worked. But this is no longer the case.

Today, people view backlinks from PBNs as toxic links. If you receive inbound links from them, you will get penalized by Google.

2. Low Domain Score

To be clear: Just because a site has a low score doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad sites.

It’s just as possible that the site is just starting out or it’s facing issues that prevent it from gaining a better score.

However:

It’s just as true that domains with a low score indicate that it’s not a credible source of backlinks. Usually, sites get a low score when trusted sources won’t link back to them.

3. Mirror Sites

Getting backlinks from sources that seem too similar is bad for you. These are mirror sites. They usually have the same content and use the anchor texts to link to your domain.

This could also happen on a page level (mirror pages).

What scenarios would you get backlinks from mirror sites or pages?

It’s possible for an e-commerce site to have two or more product pages for the same product. This occurs when they have landing pages for every SKU. For example, the same shirt design might have two landing pages — one for black and another for white.

toxic backlinks - what is bad backlink - macys

So the content and site design would be the same, only the URL changes. And in both landing pages, there would be a link to your site.

This could potentially fall under the mirror page category.

Backlinks from mirror pages are bad because it looks like you’re trying to trick Google into thinking you have more links than you actually do.

4. Security Issues

Sites with security flaws such as those that experienced hacking or contain harmful programs can cause toxic backlinks.

So you want to be sure that you don’t get incoming links from compromised websites.

Why Do You Have Toxic Backlinks?

Let’s be clear here:

It’s possible to have toxic backlinks by accident.

Those bad backlinks could be there because sites genuinely wanted to link back to you with no malice involved.

Some webmasters might not know that their site has issues that make them an untrustworthy source of links.

But there are other questions worth asking, such as:

Why are you getting toxic backlinks?

1. You May Have Engaged in Link Schemes

One possible reason is that you—whether intentionally or not—participated in link schemes.

According to Google, a link scheme refers to any intended use of links to manipulate your ranking in the search results.

We’ve briefly discussed link schemes earlier. Using a PBN is a type of link scheme but it’s certainly not limited to that.

toxic backlinks - why do you have toxic - buy backlinks

There are other forms that you may have participated in.

  • Buying or Selling of Links — Did you pay someone to add links pointing to your site? This is one of the more common forms of link schemes. You are not allowed to pay someone, especially in cash form, to gain backlinks.
  • Link Exchanges — Did you do a deal wherein you linked back to someone after that person linked back to you? Or maybe partnered with certain people to achieve the same thing? That too is a link scheme.
  • Guest Posting — Guest posting is a legitimate link building strategy. However, if you asked people to use keyword-rich anchor texts, that’s when you could run into backlink problems.
  • Automated Link Building Tools — There are tools out there that allow you to get backlinks automatically. Using these violate Google’s best practices. You should discontinue the use of backlink automation tools if you’re using one.

toxic backlinks - why do you have toxic - auto link building tool

These are by no means the only link schemes in existence. But these are some of the more popular ones.

If you have done any of the strategies mentioned, you should look into cleaning up your backlinks as these would certainly cause your rankings to go down.

And if you’re using an SEO agency to build backlinks, ask them if they’re participating in link schemes. This could clarify why you’re getting penalized by search engines.

2. You Could Be a Victim of Negative SEO Attacks

What is negative SEO? And could this be the reason why you’re getting toxic backlinks?

You could say you’re experiencing negative SEO when people, typically competitors, are the ones linking back to you through iffy websites.

They could use sites that promote gambling, illegal substances, illegal firearms, pornography, and other sites of that nature to add links to your pages. And because search engines are not welcoming to these industries, the backlinks they produce are toxic.

Are these attacks effective? In some cases, yes.

Niche Pursuits published a case study that details just how powerful negative SEO attacks can be. Making matters worse, it’s not that easy to trace who made these attacks unless you do a thorough analysis. All you can really do is report these to Google and hope that they take action.

The attacked site, Best Survival Knife Guide, enjoyed steady growth until Penguin 2.1 (a Google algorithm update) came along.

toxic backlinks - why do you have toxic - bestsurvivalknifeguide

It found that someone placed paid links hidden in blog rolls that pointed to the victim. There were also off-topic links that hurt the brand. Basically, the attacker resorted to using link schemes to bring Best Survival Knife Guide down the rankings.

You too could be a victim of negative SEO attacks.

How to Identify Bad Backlinks

Regardless of why you have toxic backlinks, you should learn how to identify them. You can do this through different SEO tools.

SEMrush, for example, has the Backlink Audit Tool.

toxic backlinks - how to identify - semrush backlink audit tool

This tool finds all your backlinks and helps you take action by removing the dangerous ones. It sends the list of toxic backlinks to Google’s Disavow Tool so you can return your backlink activity back to normal.

If you need more information, you should check out this SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool guide.

The only problem is that SEMrush might be too expensive for average users. For those who would like a more affordable solution, Monitor Backlinks might be the answer.

toxic backlinks - how to identify - monitor backlinks

Note: Monitor Backlinks offers a free trial. Use it to review your site at no cost to you.

Once you opened an account and entered your domain for assessment, you’ll find several metrics you could use to identify toxic backlinks.

By comparing low-quality backlinks to those on the higher end of the spectrum, you’ll easily see which backlinks you should flag.

These metrics are the following:

  • Trust Flow — This measures site quality. The lower the score, the more toxic the source is. If the site has a score between 0 and 10, the link is probably bad for your domain. However, keep in mind that newer sites would probably have a low score since they’re just getting established.
  • Domain Authority — A high domain authority means the site is a trusted source. The higher the score, the better backlinks it produces. In general, you want backlinks from domains with a score of 40 or higher.
  • Spam Score — If the site has a score of 8 or above, then the link is probably toxic.

toxic backlinks - how to identify - monitor backlinks trust flow

But of course, these scores should only serve as a guide. You’ll have to check each one to confirm if these sites are bad.

As mentioned earlier, a site could only be in its infancy. What if that site grows into a high-quality site down the road? It would be a shame to have your backlink removed if this is the case.

You may also want to look at the anchor texts used. A webmaster could use the same anchor texts over and over to refer to your site. That could be the reason why Google sees those backlinks as toxic.

In this case, backlink removal isn’t the only answer. You could simply request the webmaster to use better anchor texts when linking to you.

Once you’ve marked which sites are potentially giving you toxic backlinks, place all entries in a list. This will come in handy as you work your way through removing each bad backlink which is the next step in the process.

How to Remove Toxic Backlinks

Before moving on to removing the spammy/toxic backlinks, you’ll need to gather more information about the links you want to remove.

This would help you quickly reach out to the webmasters concerned.

First, you’ll need the URL where you found the backlink. Most backlink monitoring tools would provide this information.

toxic backlinks - how to identify - monitor backlinks landing pages

Once you have the URL, you need to find means of contacting the webmaster. This can be tricky since not all websites make their contact information available.

If you’re lucky, the website would have a Contact or an About page that lists the email address of the site owner. In some cases, there would be a contact form you could use to message the owner directly.

If there are none, here are alternative methods you can use to contact the site owner.

  • Social Media — Most sites have social media pages. And it’s usually monitored by the site owner. So try finding the site’s social media pages across all available platforms. If you can’t email the owner, you could send a direct message instead.
  • Hunter — Use Hunter.io or similar apps if you can’t find the email address. For those unfamiliar, Hunter is an application for lead generation. It finds email addresses of potential leads based on the URL you enter. While you’re not necessarily hunting for leads, the same tool can give you the address of the person who gave you the toxic backlink.
  • Newsletter Subscription — While this might seem like a long shot, there’s a chance that the email address used to send newsletters (if the target site has any) is the same one used by the site owner for personal correspondences. If you’re not having any luck finding that person’s email through any of the other means mentioned, you might get lucky by subscribing to newsletters.

Have all this information ready in a spreadsheet. You’ll need it for the next step.

1. The Outreach Approach

The recommended method for removing toxic backlinks is through outreach. The best way to contact the webmaster is by email although, as mentioned earlier, social media is also an option.

Draft your email. Remember that you want to be polite. Not all webmasters understand the inner workings of link building so take that into consideration.

Be clear and direct to the point.

Here’s a sample link removal request email.

Subject: Request to Remove Link

Body:

Hi [Webmaster/Author Name],

Thank you for mentioning and linking to [Your Site/Page]. But while I appreciate the backlink, I’d like to request that you remove it from the post. We’re making changes to our linking strategy and are currently in the process of removing a majority of backlinks to our pages.

Below are details that might help:

Post: [URL where you found the link]

Anchor Text: [Anchor text used]

[Screenshot of the post with the anchor text]

Thanks!

[Your Name]

toxic backlinks - how to remove - email sample

Wait for a couple of days. If the webmaster doesn’t reply, send a follow-up email.

2. The Disavow Approach

Unfortunately, the outreach approach doesn’t work all the time. And when it doesn’t, you’ll have to move on to something stronger.

That’s when you move to the disavow approach.

The disavow approach should always be a last resort. It’s the worst-case scenario solution. Only use if the webmaster ignores all your emails and the toxic backlink starts to affect your rankings in a horrible way.

But what does it mean to disavow a link?

Google introduced the disavow tool as a means for SEOs to submit links they’d like the search engine to disregard when running its algorithms. You can disavow specific pages but it’s recommended that you disavow an entire domain so you don’t miss other toxic links that could lurk in the site’s other pages.

It’s a powerful feature. And that’s why users should not abuse it.

Experts agree with that notion. Take Marie Haynes, for example. She is an expert in dealing with unnatural links. And she believes that disavowing should only come into play in certain cases:

  • When users send money or gifts in exchange for a link
  • When there’s excessive use of reciprocal linking that serves no value for users
  • When there’s a tool or widget that requires owners to link back in order to use the said resource
  • When the link is on a large-scale directory (to the point that no human could read them)
  • When there’s a negative SEO attack

Tools like Monitor Backlinks have built-in features that allow you to disavow links.

toxic backlinks - how to remove - mb disavow

You simply select the URLs of the pages you want to disavow and choose Disavow.

However:

You don’t have to subscribe to an SEO tool to disavow a link. While it can be a complicated process (especially for first-time users), Google lets you disavow links from the Search Console.

toxic backlinks - how to remove - google disavow

Those who would like to disavow links should format their files correctly before uploading them to Search Console. If you need more information, Google put out a guide to disavowing links.

If All Else Fails, Build Better Links Instead

There are times when the best way to combat toxic backlinks is by building high-quality backlinks.

How?

There are different paths you could take to accomplish this goal.

Blogger Outreach

Again, there’s nothing wrong with strategies like guest posting as long as you don’t pay for it and you don’t go overboard with the backlinks. So not only is blogger outreach perfectly fine, but it’s even encouraged to build great backlinks.

Just make sure you’re reaching out to sites that are highly authoritative and well-respected.

Outreach Link Building

You can also try creating some positive buzz about your brand to attract the right people. Appealing to PR companies is a great way of earning backlinks. It’s even better if you attract news organizations and educational institutions since their sites often have high domain authority.

Skyscraper Technique

Skyscraper Technique is a content strategy that gets posts to gain backlinks from all the right sources.

Put simply, it’s all about creating better, more informative posts than your competitors.

If you have better posts than your competitors, you’re improving your chances of getting backlinks.

For example, your main competitor often gets backlinks for a post about tips on growing herbs from home. You could make a post that covers the same topic — only this time, you could add more information that wasn’t included in the original post.

You could add more tips, remove outdated information, mention new studies, or include quotes from industry experts.

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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