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Bad Links: How To Detect Bad Backlinks & Fix Them

How do you find bad links to your site and fix them before they wreck your ranking? Read on to learn how to detect bad backlinks and what to do to fix them.

May 11, 2024

10 m read

When you’re trying to climb to the top of search engine rankings, the company you keep is important. Backlinks from authoritative sites with content relevant to your business can lift your position in search rankings, but bad links will drag you down.

If you’ve fine-tuned your site architecture and content and aren’t getting optimal search engine results, you may need to look at your off-page SEO. You can run a link quality analysis to see what kinds of websites are linking to yours. And, if you find bad links, you can take steps to clean them up.

What Is a Bad Link?

A bad link is a backlink that offers no benefit to the receiving website, such as an explicit website linking to a health and wellness site. Google can see there’s no correlation between the two sites and consider the link toxic. Most bad links come from spammy websites and are thus considered spammy themselves.

What’s the Difference Between High-Quality & Low-Quality Backlinks?

Backlinks help visitors find your site, but you need to be picky about who’s sending traffic to you. Google uses inbound links as one of the determining factors in search engine rankings.

bad link vs. good link - badlink example

High-Quality Backlinks

Links from trusted sources reflect well on your business — think of them as endorsements of the value of your content.

 High-quality backlinks come from sites that are:

  • Curated by real people
  • Regularly updated with unique content
  • Use link text with natural language instead of trying to shoehorn keywords in where they don’t fit.

Learn more about what makes a quality backlink.

Low-Quality Backlinks

What you don’t want are spam links from low-quality websites. These sites contain poor or irrelevant content and are of little use to visitors. 

Suspicious backlinks often come from places that:

  • Contain thin content
  • Use content scraped from other sources
  • Exist only to provide backlinks
  • Feature over-optimized anchor text that exactly matches popular keywords
  • Contain inappropriate, explicit, or illegal content
  • Are in a foreign language
  • Are penalized and not indexed by Google

Search engines once considered the volume of inbound links as a sign of a website’s value, but as link spam became more common, Google took action to protect its user experience.

In 2012, the search engine introduced a new algorithm aimed to make manipulative link schemes less effective. Now known as Penguin, this algorithm has become increasingly sophisticated. As Search Engine Journal explains, Penguin is so integral to Google’s efforts to detect spam links it’s now folded into the core algorithm.

When Google’s crawlers find bad links leading to your site, Penguin goes to work, and the value of your site drops. The unfortunate ripple effect? Lower organic search rankings and less traffic to your site. In the worst-case scenario, your site disappears entirely from search engine results.

What’s a Google Backlink Penalty?

Google can flag your site for bad links through an algorithmic or manual penalty.

Algorithmic Penalty

When search engine crawlers detect an unusual level of bad links to your site, you might be on the receiving end of an algorithm penalty. You won’t receive official notification, but you might notice a decrease in organic traffic and rankings.

Manual Penalty

Sometimes, Google’s webspam team is alerted to suspicious behavior and manually reviews your site for unnatural backlinks.  A manual backlink penalty is applied if a reviewer suspects you’re using link schemes to manipulate rankings.

Google sends notifications of manual actions through its Search Console message center. You can also open the Manual Actions report section of the console for more information about affected pages, the source of the problem, and steps to fix it.

10 Bad Link-Building Tactics To Avoid

Building high-quality links is a foundational piece of a solid SEO campaign. Referrals from the right source can help your rankings and naturally bring target customers to your website. Just build those bridges the right way, and focus on the quality of links, not the quantity of them.

Search engines have cracked down on many bad link-building practices. Here are some to stay away from.

1. Bulk Link Purchases

When you buy links in bulk, they’re placed on sites randomly and without any context. Not only are these links not likely to drive qualified traffic to your website, but they’re going to pop up on Google’s radar. 

I want to take a minute here to draw a clear line of differentiation between paying someone for link-building services and making a bulk link purchase from someone on a gig website who offers 1000 backlinks for $100.

Thoughtfully placing high-quality links on domains that are contextually relevant to yours is labor-intensive, and the price you pay for those services should reflect the effort that goes into them.

2. Spamming Comment Sections

Don’t post comments on blogs or articles just so you can link to your website, especially at scale.

3. Using Low-Quality Directories

As Moz explains, avoid placing your business on directories that prioritize making money over being helpful to a community. Search engines watch for these sites and penalize outgoing links accordingly.

4. Spamming Forums

Online forums are often a target for spam, with bots littering links throughout discussion boards. Add comments and links to forums only when they’re relevant to a community, and you’re contributing value.

5. Relying on Exact Match Anchor Text

Don’t overuse popular keywords when backlinking. Make sure there’s variety in the anchor text. There’s actually a lot of value in creating some backlinks that use generic anchor text.

6. Spinning Content

Content spinning is a “black hat SEO” practice where a single piece of content is changed just enough to trick crawl bots into thinking it’s unique. There’s software that can spin dozens or hundreds of “new” pages from one that contains backlinks back to a given website, artificially inflating the number of backlinks to that site. When Google catches on, this practice will earn you a manual penalty. 

7. Using Blog Networks

A private blog network (PBN) is a network of websites that exist for the sole purpose of hosting poor-quality content with backlinks to other sites. PBNs are a blatant violation of Google’s Search Essentials and can result in your site being penalized.

8. Swapping Links

Swapping links with well-matched partners might be an innocent marketing tactic, but if you have excessive reciprocal links, Google could interpret it as an attempt to manipulate rankings.

9. Syndicating Press Releases

Keep press releases for newsworthy occasions. This type of PR outreach can offer valuable coverage if picked up by a high-quality news service but avoid issuing press releases as a link-building tactic.

10. Using Link Farms

A link farm is a group of websites that exist for the sole purpose of artificially boosting the page rank of another website with backlinks.

11. Exchanging Links

Quid pro links seem harmless, but they aren’t considered high quality. While you may not be penalized, these types of links may not really help your site either.

How To Find Bad Links to Your Site

There are several subscription-based SEO tools that let you access link profile reports.

Choosing a Link Building Tool

While these paid tools offer various SEO and link-building features (and many provide a trial, so that you can check them out before purchasing), I recommend getting started with Google Search Console. It’s easy to use and available at no cost.

Google Search Console lets you monitor your presence in search engine results for free. Once you’ve added your domain and verified that you own it, you can generate reports to view backlinks and decide if they’re useful or spammy. 

After you log into Google Search Console:

detect bad backlinks
  1. Choose the website property to run a link report on.
  2. Click Links from the navigation menu.
  3. View External Links.
  4. To see the external domains with the most links to your site, click More under Top Linking Sites.

Top Linking Sites Report

You can now view up to 1,000 websites with backlinks to your domain. 

how to find bad links to your website
  1. Linking pages indicate how many of their pages link to your website.
  2. Target pages indicate how many of your web pages they’re linking to.
  3. To filter the results, click the triangle at the top of the data.
  4. Download data by clicking Export External Links in the top right corner of the page

For more detailed information about your backlinks:

  1. Select one of your pages to see which pages from other sites link to it.
  2. Select an external domain to view the pages it links to on your site.

Google Search Console is a great tool that can help with more than just bad links. Read our Google Search Console Guide to unlock its potential.

How To Remove Bad Links to Your Site in 3 Easy Steps

When you have low-quality backlinks that you can’t get removed, you can disavow them and ask Google to ignore them when it ranks your site. 

Google suggests you only disavow links if you have a significant number of them and they triggered a manual action, or you think they’re likely to trigger one. 

1. Define the Links You Want To Disavow

  • Run a report to see the sources of your backlinks.
  • Review the results to see which links may be affecting your rankings.
  • Attempt to remedy the bad links by asking site owners to remove them. You may or may not be successful. If the bad links point to outdated pages on your site, it may be easier to simply delete the target pages.
  • Prepare a list of sites to disavow. Most of the time, you should disavow an entire referring domain, but there may be occasions you choose to list a specific page URL.

2. Create a List of Links To Disavow

Once you have a list of links to disavow, compile them in a text file to send it to Google. The list should be formatted as follows:

  • Type of file: Text file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
  • Filename: Ends in .txt
  • List format: List each URL or domain on a separate line, with domain: as a prefix. For example, “domain:”
  • Comments: Add comments for your own reference by starting the line with #. These lines are ignored by Google.
  • Maximum URL length: 2,048 characters
  • Maximum file size: 2MB and 100,000 lines total

3. Upload Your List to Google as a .txt File

Use the disavow links tool to send your list to Google. You can only have one list of disavowed links at a time. When you successfully upload a list, it replaces any previous list, so make sure your new list contains any previous URLs you’d requested Google ignore.

  • Go to the Disavow Links tool.
  • Choose a website property.
  • Follow the instructions to upload the appropriate file from your computer.

Disavowed links do continue to appear in link reports but aren’t taken into account by Google’s algorithm.

8 Ways To Detect Bad Backlinks for SEO

Some backlinks are easily recognized as high-quality because they’re from well-known, authoritative websites, but you may find backlinks from sites you’re not familiar with.

Here are some questions to ask as you run a link quality analysis.

1. Is the Website Relevant?

Referrals should come from sites that cover an industry or niche related to your own.

2. Does the Site Link to Unrelated Content?

A site that features a large number of random, unrelated outbound links may not offer any value to visitors and be considered a link farm.

3. Is It Full of Uncurated Content?

Sites with editorial control tend to be of higher quality than those that accept any content.

4. Is the Directory Stuffed With Links That Don’t Add Value?

Low-quality directories often accept listings without standards, resulting in an endless list of links and no additional resources. These types of open directories offer little value.

5. Is the Site Trying To Sell Links?

Remember, Google frowns upon paying for links. If a website has clear advertising regarding the opportunity to purchase link placements, remove your links from it.

6. Are There Signs of Life?

Look for interaction by visitors — reviews, comments, or shared posts. It’s a good indication there’s a community engaging with the site.

7. Does the Site Look Well-Maintained?

Site owners are more likely invested in the quality of a site if it seems to have recently updated content, links to current articles, and a clean appearance.

8. Have I Seen This Before?

Stay away from sites that scrape content or republish material from other sites.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bad Links

How do I know if I have a link penalty?

If you receive a manual penalty because of spammy links, Google will notify you through Google Search Console and explain the reason for the penalty.

If you haven’t received a manual penalty notice, but you’ve noticed a severe and sudden drop-off in traffic, it could have nothing to do with the quality of your links. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to run a link quality analysis to rule out the possibility that bad backlinks are at the root of the problem.

Should I look at the link profiles of sites that link to me?

In the same way Google looks at your backlinks to determine the relevance of your site; you can use backlinks to evaluate websites that are linking to you. This adds another layer of link quality analysis, and while it certainly requires extra commitment, it does help ensure your backlinking strategy is sound.

What can I do about negative SEO attacks?

When you’ve been targeted by negative SEO, your only option is to remove the link spam. Identify suspicious links (especially recent ones) by running a link audit and sending a disavow list to Google. Once you clean up the low-quality backlinks, you can focus on positive link building to strengthen your link profile. You can also regularly monitor your backlinks to catch any future attacks early.

Do I have to be careful about outgoing link quality?

Google provides a lot of details about how it judges backlink quality, but not much about the impact of outbound links on SERPs. However, it’s good practice to apply the same thoroughness when linking out.

Only link to reputable websites and make sure the links you provide are useful to your readers.

Do I need a link quality analysis?

A link quality analysis is an essential first step to evaluating the health of your link portfolios. Depending on your resources and experience, you may want to outsource to a professional to find and remove low-quality backlinks to your website.

Experienced search strategists have tools that can quickly separate high-quality and low-quality links. SEO providers also have the expertise to perform a comprehensive and meaningful analysis of your backlinks.

How long does it take to remove an algorithmic downgrade?

Contingent on how much your search engine rankings have been impacted, it may take several weeks or months to recover from a penalty. Once you complete the process of finding and removing or disavowing bad links, you need to wait for the search engine crawlers to collect new data and for the changes to take effect.

How do I recover from a Google link penalty?

The best way to recover from a Google link penalty is to implement a positive link-building campaign. Once you’ve eliminated bad links, focus on creating high-quality referrals to your site. The stronger your backlink profile, the less you have to worry about occasional bad links affecting your rankings.

What’s the best way to implement a positive link profile?

There are many strategies for building positive links, such as editorial coverage, local citations, resource building, link reclamation, and guest blogging.

Focus on genuine, useful content that emphasizes reader experience over keyword stuffing and unnatural links.

How do I remove bad links to my site?

Follow the steps outlined in “How to Remove Bad Links to Your Site In 3 Easy Steps” or contact an SEO agency to help you.

Optimize Your Backlinks To Boost Search Engine Visibility

Properly placed backlinks elevate your search engine rankings and bring qualified traffic to your site. Although cleaning up and optimizing your backlinks isn’t necessarily a complicated process, it is a time-consuming and painstaking one.

If you lack the internal expertise and bandwidth to address bad links, we can support you with a link quality analysis and link-building services to help you build a robust, penalty-free link portfolio. 

To learn more about Victorious and our full suite of SEO services, request a free consultation today.

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