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How To Find & Fix Toxic Backlinks

Toxic backlinks can impede your SEO progress and keep you from reaching your ranking and organic traffic goals. Keep an eye on your backlink profile and disavow toxic backlinks to protect your search visibility. Here’s how.

Apr 6, 2024

9 m read

Having a solid backlink profile is crucial for your site’s SEO success, but not all links are beneficial. Toxic backlinks can do more harm than good to your site’s ability to rank. What are they and how can you avoid these backlinks like the plague they are? Here’s how you can identify troublesome backlinks and remove them from your site’s backlink profile to safeguard your precious SEO wins. 

What Are Toxic Backlinks?

Toxic backlinks are unnatural links originating from low-quality websites that can negatively impact your site’s ability to rank well on Google. Any spammy links pointing to your site should be identified and disavowed to prevent them from damaging your site’s SEO. 

Toxic backlinks may come from:

  • Spammy sites: Some websites will sell backlinks to other websites, which can be seen as manipulative and therefore toxic by search engines.
  • Spamming: Some individuals or organizations will use automated tools to spam other websites with backlinks in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings.
  • Negative SEO: Some individuals or organizations may try to harm a competitor’s website by building toxic backlinks to it.
  • Hacked website: If a website is hacked, the hacker may insert links to malicious or low-quality websites, which can be seen as toxic by search engines.

Why Do Toxic Backlinks Matter?

A site’s naturally-acquired backlinks are supposed to act like votes of confidence in favor of the site, letting Google know others find the site valuable. 

However, toxic backlinks have the opposite effect. Since the sites from which they originate are viewed as low value, they can actually hurt another website’s SEO by linking to them. 

How Toxic Backlinks Affect Your SEO

Toxic backlinks can seriously damage your site’s ability to rank. That’s because toxic backlinks can expose your site to algorithmic and manual penalties from Google which can send your site tumbling down the rankings. 

There are two types of penalties your toxic backlinks can elicit: an algorithmic penalty or a manual penalty. 

An algorithmic penalty is a natural consequence of an algorithm update. While it’s colloquially called a penalty, it isn’t something that’s levied against a site. Instead, it occurs when Google updates its algorithm in a way that places more or less emphasis on particular ranking factors. If your website sees a sustained decrease in rankings following an algorithm update, it may be suffering from an algorithmic penalty. The only way to remedy this is to identify the ranking factor that led to the rankings drop and address it. Over time, you may be able to regain your SEO footing.

A manual action is a penalty that is handed down by Google itself. Manual reviews are usually triggered by things such as algorithmically detected issues or a competitor report. If you’re hit with a manual penalty, you’ll receive a notification in Google Search Console (GSC) under the ‘Manual actions’ tab. You can apply for a reconsideration request to have the penalty removed once you have addressed the issue. In the case of toxic backlinks, this may mean removing links from your site to another website or disavowing bad links.  

Doesn’t Google Ignore Toxic Backlinks?

Yes, in the best-case scenario, Google will simply ignore toxic links. In 2019, Google’s John Mueller mentioned that Google already ignored links from sites where “there are unlikely to be natural links.”

toxic backlinks discussion on twitter

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the toxic backlink conversation. 

While it’s great that Google ignores some toxic backlinks, we’ve found that they don’t ignore all toxic backlinks. 

Rather than trusting that Google will automatically ignore bad links pointing to your site, follow the steps below to find and disallow toxic backlinks to protect your SEO strategy.

Where Do Toxic Links Come From?

Before you can get down to developing a strategy to clean up and prevent toxic backlinks, it’s important to understand what they look like and where they come from. 

There are several kinds of common low-quality links to avoid: 

  • Paid Link Schemes: Paid links are one of the most obvious examples of toxic links because they’re as unnatural as could be. Exchanging money for a link with the intent to boost your site’s SEO is against Google Search Essentials. However, Google does acknowledge that not all paid links are bad links and that sometimes “buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web for advertising and sponsorship purposes.” In these cases, you can add a rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute to the link’s <a> tag in order to qualify and protect these links. 
  • Links That Lack Relevance: Links that lack relevance within the context of a piece of content or a website can be considered toxic, especially if used in excess. 
  • Links From Low-Quality Sites: Backlinks from low-quality sites can sometimes be considered toxic, especially if the site they originate from operates primarily for the purpose of SEO link farming. Sites with very low DR and DA scores are prime candidates for this type of toxic link. 
  • Private Blog Network Links: Private Blog Networks (PBNs) are networks of sites built for the purpose of posting content and linking to it from other blogs in the network. However, experts can usually spot these networks easily enough and they are actively penalized by Google. According to recent research by SEMRush, PBN links were the third most common reason for link penalizations among their sample of penalized sites.
  • Comment Spam Links:  Placing links in irrelevant forums or discussion posts is a legacy link-building strategy that is frowned upon by Google. These links are obviously unnatural and nowadays Google’s algorithms can pick up on this toxic strategy. 
  • Excessive Keyword-Rich Anchor Text Links: Having an excessive amount of exact-match keyword backlinks can be considered a toxic link-building strategy (ex: a large number of links pointing back to your site with the anchor text “buy shoes now”). 
  • Spun Content Links: Spun content is content created by using software to produce multiple variations of the same piece of original content. Placing links in these pieces and uploading them across the net was a popular way to gain backlinks once upon a time, but these links are toxic in nature. 
  • Low-Quality Directory Links: Directories can sometimes be a useful tool for getting your name out there and even scoring some valuable backlinks. But not all directories are equal. Some directories are spammy in nature and offer very little value to visitors. It’s probably a good idea to avoid being listed in these, especially if they are irrelevant to your niche. 
  • Excessive Guest Post Links: Guest posting is actually a very valuable link-building strategy. However, using this tactic excessively to gain links from low-quality, irrelevant, or spammy sites is a no-go, and Google’s Matt Cutts even called out the practice in 2014 – ironically in a blog post. 

Toxicity Score

One way of conceptualizing link toxicity and the damage it does to your website is by using a metric like SEMRush’s Toxic Score. A site’s toxicity is scored using a 0–100 scale with 0 being clean and 100 being extremely toxic. The more toxic links piled up in a site’s backlink profile, the higher its toxicity score. Ideally, you want your site to register as close to 0 as possible in toxicity score, and the more toxic links in a site’s backlink profile, the worse off the site will be. 

Link building is not a black-and-white discussion. While some links are obviously high-quality and others are obviously toxic, there is generally lots of gray space in between. T

How To Find Toxic Backlinks

How can you know if you’ve got toxic links in your backlink profile? You’ll need to perform a thorough backlink audit and carefully comb through every single backlink on your site. 

Auditing tools like SEMRush’s Backlink Auditing Tool and Ahrefs Site Explorer can help you to dive into your site’s backlink profile and gain a better understanding of where links may be coming from and what their toxicity score is like. These tools can identify any toxic and potentially toxic links in your backlink profile and provide you with specific information about the originating domains, the toxicity score of the backlinks in question, and more. 

You can also use Google Search Console Links report to see where your backlinks are coming from. While it doesn’t have the same functionality as a paid tool like SEMrush or Ahrefs, it is free and available to everyone. You will need to familiarize yourself with the domains linking to your site to determine which ones aren’t legitimate.

What Do Toxic Backlinks Look Like?

When scanning referring domains, look for:

  • Spammy sites (fake pharmaceutical sites, adult sites, sites with long strings of letters and numbers)
  • Sites with a high toxicity score in SEMrush

Even if some domains don’t have a high toxic score, they can still be dangerous. Similarly, even if some domains have a high toxicity score, they don’t mean they’re actually dangerous. This means you may need to dig in and visit sites that you don’t recognize to determine whether you should disavow them or not.

How To Fix a Toxic Backlink

There are two ways to fix toxic backlinks, by contacting the linking site owner to request removal or by disavowing them yourself. 

Manual Removal

The advantage of requesting a link removal directly from a site admin is that it removes the link from the web completely, not just for SEO purposes. So even though the process of looking for a site admin’s email and trying to communicate with them directly may seem a bit time-consuming and tedious, it can be worth it in many cases. Luckily, backlink auditing tools like the ones from Ahrefs and SEMRush mentioned above offer email integration that makes the process of finding addresses and sending emails much easier.

Disavowing Backlinks

The other and more immediate way to remove a toxic link is by disavowing it. A disavow request will tell Google to simply ignore the link so it doesn’t affect your site’s SEO. If you have a large number of spammy low-quality backlinks and your links have already caused, or are likely to cause, a manual action, Google suggests disavowing the links you think may be causing you trouble. 

Proceed with caution, though. Look into the links you think may be causing trouble so that you don’t inadvertently disavow good links.

Disavowing backlinks is a pretty straightforward process that you can complete in two simple steps.

Step 1: Create a .txt File of Links to Disavow

Your disavow file will be a simple text file (.txt) which you can populate with the addresses of the links you would like to disavow. 

Since Google Docs can be exported as .txt, you can easily open a Doc and paste the URLs you want to disavow into it.

You can disavow specific URLs and entire domains, but not specific subpaths. 

For example, the following is acceptable:

But not the following:

#You cannot disavow links from this entire subfolder altogether. 

As you add lines to the file, you can include comments alongside entries by starting a line with the “#” symbol. GSC will understand these lines as additional comments, and not as URLs to disavow. 

Once you save or export your doc to .txt, it’s time to share it with Google.

Note: A disavow file must be under 2 MB and 100,000 lines in size, and must be UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII. 

Step 2: Upload Your Disavow File to Google

Navigate to Google Search Console’s disavow tool.

disavow backlinks in google search console

Select a property (website) from the list, click the upload button, and add your file.

If your upload is successful, it can take Google several weeks to apply its modifications as it recrawls the web. However, if there are any errors in the file, the tool will provide you with a list of errors to fix and Google will not accept or upload the new disavow file. 

If you already have a disavow file in place, you’ll get a button that says “Replace.” If you are updating your disavow file this way, it may be a good idea to download a backup copy of the old file first. 

Unfortunately, even though Google will disallow the links in your report, they’ll still show up in Google Search Console, so don’t be alarmed. 

You can always download your disavow file directly from Google Search Console if you’d like to see an up-to-date list of disavowed links or to back up your current version. This is an especially good idea if you’re taking over a website and looking into its backlink profile for the first time. 

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you want to re-introduce all previously disallowed links, you don’t have to go through your file line by line. From the Disavow Links Tool page, just select the property and click ‘Cancel Disavowals’ to wipe the disavowal list clean. 

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Toxic Backlink FAQs

What is a toxic link?

A toxic link is a link acquired unnaturally that has the potential to hurt your site’s SEO by going against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines for linking.

How do you know if a site has toxic backlinks? 

You will need to perform a backlink audit in order to find any toxic links in your site’s backlink profile. 

Do toxic backlinks affect SEO?

Yes. Having toxic backlinks in your site’s link profile may result in a penalty action from Google and a hit to your site’s SEO. 

Should I remove toxic backlinks?

Yes. You should disavow toxic backlinks or otherwise remove them from your site’s link profile before they trigger an algorithmic or manual penalty from Google. 

Do I need to get more backlinks after disavowing links? 

Ideally, yes. Keeping your backlink profile clear of toxic links is just one piece of the puzzle and is not a substitute for acquiring high-quality backlinks. A solid backlink strategy is one that seeks to consistently grow the number of quality links in your backlink profile.

Support Your Link-Building Strategy With a True Partner

Don’t stunt your site’s SEO growth by using a suboptimal link-building strategy. Our SEO link building services take a scalable and practical approach to building a healthy backlink profile and moving your site up Google’s rankings. Book a free consultation with Victorious today and let’s chat about how we can grow your site link by link.

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