Bad Backlinks: How to Identify and Remove Them From Your Link Profile

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Backlinks are the focal point of any SEO campaign, it’s been the #1 ranking factor since Google’s inception.

But here’s the thing:

Some backlinks are doing you more harm than good.

That’s not to say that you should avoid link building as a strategy. You just need to understand the difference between good and bad backlinks.

Today we’ll cover what constitutes as a bad backlink, how to find them, and what you can do to fix the problem.

What Is a Bad Backlink?

Google looks at backlinks to see if your site offers relevant content for their users.

Basically, the more relevant the backlinks are, the better chances your site has in showing up on search queries.

But for this system to work, you need to earn the links.

Unfortunately, some SEOs have tried to game the system by resorting to shady tactics. And while they’ve found success in the short-term, Google eventually finds ways to punish them for their actions.

Take BBC for example. Even one of the biggest news organizations in the world was not spared. Though it didn’t appear to be intentional, Google flagged the organization for its unnatural links.

The same can be said for Overstock. The online retailer hired an SEO company that used strategies that were considered bad practices. Overstock’s shares went down as a result.

The moral of the story?

Using black hat techniques to acquire links is bad for business.

So we go back to the original question: What is a bad backlink?

Bad backlinks are links that originate from untrusted sources. Google has guidelines on what users can and cannot do to improve their ranking.

When users violate these guidelines, Google proceeds to penalize sites by moving them further down the search results – That’s not to say it’s against the law or anything like that to break these guidelines, and Google does routinely and actively come after people that do.. but it still works a lot of the time.

So What Constitutes as a “Bad” Backlink?

Bad backlinks come in different forms. But they share the same purpose: They make your site look bad in the eyes of Google’s algorithms!

To help you see the bigger picture, below are examples of some of the widely used link building strategies and the downfalls of each that were used to kill off the sites using them.

Links From Sites With Bad Reputation

When it comes to link building, quality reigns supreme over quantity.

Links found on low-authority sites are borderline ignored by search engines.

Now, some of these sites are harmless. They are considered low-authority because they are relatively new and are still in the process of building their brand.

However, there are low-quality sites that share dubious qualities. These sites have either one of the following characteristics:

  1. Poorly written or thin content
  2. No Privacy Policy or Terms and Conditions pages
  3. Keyword-rich anchor text, which makes the links appear unnatural
  4. Questionable link profile

Therefore, if your backlink comes from this type of site, then it would have a significant impact on your ranking!

Take the case of JC Penney. The New York Times did an investigation and found that the retailer’s site had links coming from suspicious sources.

They also had links with very descriptive anchor texts.

As it turns out, JC Penney hired an SEO firm that bought into a link network. The firm was subsequently fired for their poor decision.

But Google eventually caught on and punished the company by taking manual action.

JC Penney used to rank high in the SERPs. That was no longer the case after Google got to them.

So when looking for link building opportunities, you only reach out to sites with an established online authority to increase your rankings in no time.

Sites With Content That Doesn’t Match

At the very least, your content should be related to the backlink’s source.

A used car dealership has no business linking to a mom-and-pop shop half a world away. It wouldn’t make sense to you. And it doesn’t make sense to Google.

When search engines can’t find any relevance between the two domains, it starts to question the link’s validity.

So make sure that your links are coming from sites that are similar to yours.

Linking to the Same Content Multiple Times in One Page

It’s only normal for links to appear more than once. Sometimes links are added at the start then show up again towards the end of a post.

But for a post to have multiple links going to the same landing page?

While it could be a coincidence, Google does not take risks. If it raises their suspicions, the site is flagged.

A page should ideally have 100 links or less. If a bulk of those links are pointing to your site, you might end up in a heap of mess.

So if you see pages that link to the same outbound page multiple times, then avoid those at all costs!

Participating in Link Exchange Programs

In the past, there were SEOs who made deals via exchanged links.

The idea was to scratch each other’s backs and give their sites a boost in the SERPs.

In social media terms, it’s comparable to the follow-me-and-I’ll-follow-you-back model.

It didn’t take long for Google to catch on to the scheme.

Today, it knows how to find traded links and squashes any chance these manipulative sites have at ranking.

One EDM DJ put his SEO skills to the test. He created a site that promoted music. He then approached similar sites and offered to exchange sitewide links.

And because reciprocal links were against Google’s guidelines, he hid his links through an embedded iframe.

He thought he outsmarted Google. But it wasn’t long before his blog’s organic search plummeted.

Trust us:

It’s better to gain links with custom campaigns and high quality content than trying to do 2 way link exchanges.

So don’t attempt to exchange links between sites.

Using Keyword Matching

Google doesn’t just look at the links. It also takes the anchor text into consideration.

You see, SEOs used to have a say what anchor texts are used when third-party sites linked to their content. And for a while, that wasn’t a big deal.

But then they started using keywords they wanted to rank for.

And eventually, Google saw that as an attempt to cheat the system.

SEOs can no longer rely on this technique.

For example, HCGDiet.com was once ranking #1 for the term HCG Diet. And yet, they found themselves at the bottom of page 1 almost overnight.

When an SEO firm investigated, they deduced that the root cause was the 900 backlinks with keyword-specific anchor texts.

It took a while but they eventually bounced back from the ordeal.

The lesson?

If you aren’t sure about anchor text strategy, then just go with white hat / branded looking anchor texts.. Don’t try to overmanipulate the keywords within your anchors, Google has enough data to detect this – And if you want help with anchor text selection, orders over $1,500 on DFY Links can get you it for free!

Links in Blog Posts and Forums Not Having Context

It’s not a good sign when links have no context to them.

This is reminiscent of old blog post comments and forum entries.

Some commenters would leave replies without any context. Just a link going to the site they’re promoting.

They thought randomly placed backlinks work. They were wrong.

Links need to have context for them to be effective. Otherwise, webmasters can leave links on every blog post or forum and start ranking immediately.

However, the example above doesn’t automatically make blog commenting a black hat tactic.

Let’s be real here:

It’s not the SEO tactic that produces bad results. It’s the person who does it!

And if the person who builds links through blog commenting observes the best practices, it can lead to powerful results!

Case in point, a study found 26 good comments leading to 2,208 site visits.

One of the key factors for having such high traffic was the quality of the content. The author of the study made sure his comments were relevant to the post.

He also went out of his way to make sure the comments were adding value.

Just as important: make comments sound like they’re from a real person.

It would also help if you used your real name and photo.

The author suggests making comments no longer than 500 characters but not dipping below 140.

Participating in Link Schemes

Strategies that violate Google’s guidelines are referred to as link schemes.

They include (but not limited to) buying links and using programs that automatically create backlinks to your site.

This includes everything we’ve discussed — only performed on a grander scale.

At one point in time, guest blogging was considered as a terrible way to build links.

Even then-head of Google webspam team Matt Cutts confirms that guest blogging is dead “as a way to gain links.”

This practice turned sour in the eyes of Google because of MyBlogGuest.

It’s a guest blogging network that connects brands looking for backlinks from authoritative sites with publishers who own said authoritative sites.

While the idea makes a lot of sense, the site bred poorly written and useless articles whose purpose is to simply gain a backlink.

At the same time, the site filled up with content-starved publishers who wouldn’t bat an eye publishing these terrible articles.

Therefore, Google put a stop into this ongoing link scheme by penalizing MyBlogGuest for good.

This act put a stop at guest blogging for building links, at least in the meantime.

Eventually, guest blogging enjoyed a resurgence and is considered to be one of the best ways to build natural links.

So what’s the point of this?

As mentioned earlier, people are responsible for link schemes and not the tactics themselves.

Once people perform a certain tactic the wrong way, it catches on with everyone else.

And just because it’s a link building technique that everybody can do, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.. Likewise, just because someone has told you “That’s a bad link technique” isn’t always the case..

There are often times when we get told that guest posts or blog comments are spammy techniques, but most of the affiliate community is ranking off them.

Therefore, you need to approach certain tactics cautiously, but also look at links opportunistically.

How to Identify Bad Links

Knowing what bad links are is one thing. But finding them is another.

For this purpose, you will need the help of tools and software to make the job much easier for you.

Because the act of manually combing your site for backlinks without the use of any application is crazy!

Not only is it a time-consuming process, but it’s also not a smart way of using your resources.

And as far as the tools are concerned, Ahrefs is a cut above the rest.

Considered to have arguably the largest link database online, Ahrefs can help you find as many backlinks to your site as possible.

Not only that, but Ahrefs can help you determine which backlinks are bad!

Aside from backlink research and analysis, most SEOs trust Ahrefs to manage their strategies.

It has tons of SEO-focused features like being able to generate millions of keyword ideas. If you need to know the organic traffic your competitors get for a certain keyword, they have that too.

But for this purpose, I will show you how to find bad backlinks using Ahrefs.

How to Find Bad Links With Ahrefs

Start by creating an account and adding your website in the dashboard. Head on over to Site Explorer and enter your domain in the search bar.

This will bring you to the overview page of your domain. Click Referring Domains located in the sidebar.

You will be given a list of sites that are linking to your domain.

By default, the list is sorted by the sites’ domain ranking (DR). It shows sites with the highest ranking on top.

To find low-quality links, click DR to reverse the order.

Work your way through the list to find suspicious sites — unfamiliar domains or foreign-sounding ones.

The backlinks column will tell you how many links Ahrefs found within the source.

Clicking Backlinks will show you more information about the link including the anchor text used.

Clicking the link will bring you to the source of the link. Here you’ll be able to gauge if the link comes from a reputable source.

You don’t want links coming from a site that simply spins content. In cases like this, you’d want to do what you can to have the link removed.

Continue working your way down the list. You can tick the boxes next to the Referring Domain column to select the offending sites.

Once done, you can click Export to download the report in your preferred format.

Side note:

Aherfs can also be used to perform a competitive analysis. This is useful especially when you want to compare and contrast your link profile against competitors in the industry.

So I Found the Bad Backlinks. What’s Next?

Now you have a list of backlinks you need to get rid off. That’s great.

Well, now it’s time to send webmasters a request asking them to remove the hurtful backlinks!

But is it as easy as it sounds?

The short answer, unfortunately, is no.

Hell no,” to be exact.

Bad people have taken advantage of link removal requests. They do so to gain the upper hand over the competition.

This made webmasters more discerning while going over link removal requests. And though your intention is not malicious in nature, they might see otherwise if you’re not careful.

It’s important that the requests you make are not spammy in tone so they’re not ignored.

How do you that?

Here are some tips to make sure your requests are heard and acted on.

Use the Right Email Address

It’s all about establishing authority.

Remember:

You’re not only contacting webmasters; you are a webmaster yourself.

So you should definitely act the part. If you send an email using a Gmail account, you lose credibility. They will not trust you.

Think about it:

You could have competitors asking site owners to take down your links. And naturally, these requesters use a free email service like Gmail or Yahoo Mail.

These site owners, however, are no dummies.

As a safety measure, they ignore these requests. That way, they’re not blindly acting on requests from unverifiable sources.

But if you do the same, then they might think you’re one of them.

The best thing for you to do is to use your @domain email account when contacting other site owners.

That way, your requests have some legitimacy behind it.

Webmasters are more open to processing requests from a reliable source.

Don’t Be Stingy With the Details

Don’t just say what link you want to be removed. Give more details.

What details, you ask?

Start by telling what specific page or pages contain the link. Then tell webmasters where the links are pointing to.

Your goal is not only to provide contextual clues for the email recipient but to make it easier for them to act on your request.

Telling them everything they need to know right off the bat incentivizes them to process your request sooner rather than later.

Just as important:

Don’t forget to tell them why you’re making the request.

Some webmasters, quite frankly, don’t know much about link building.

So it’s only logical that you include a brief explanation as to why the links need to be removed.

For example:

Hi. I’m currently trying to trim down on backlinks and need your assistance. I noticed a few pages on your site have links pointing to my site. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the articles and appreciate the backlink, I’d like the link removed at this time. This will help me refocus my SEO strategy. Please see the attached document to find all the details. Thank you.

This should be sufficient. If the webmaster replies and asks for further details, try to provide them if you can.

In summary, provide the following details in your email:

  • What links need to be removed
  • Where these links are located
  • What page are the links pointing to
  • Why they need to be removed

Be Courteous

There are SEOs who resort to aggression when drafting an email.

Their requests are with threats of legal action or warnings about penalties and whatnot.

Having to deal with stubborn webmasters can’t be fun. Especially those who would rather ignore your emails than coordinate.

But resorting to bullish behavior is not going to bring you anywhere.

Remember:

Treat other people the same way you want to be treated.

So continue to be courteous no matter the odds. Your perseverance and kindness will be rewarded eventually.

Keep It Short

Imagine the many emails you go through every day. There’s seemingly not enough time in the world to go through all of them.

Now imagine how many link removal requests webmasters have to sift through.

Respect the site owner’s time. State your case and move on. Keeping things simple makes your request easier to understand.

You can even argue that a brief email makes your case more compelling.

Hubspot did a study and found the optimal email length to be between 50 and 125 words. The response rate for these emails is just above 50%.

Want to increase your chances of getting a reply?

The same study concluded that emails written on a third-grade level had the highest response rate. It even outperformed emails written at a college level by 36%.

Link Removal Template

Here’s a simple link removal email that works. Feel free to edit the letter to your liking.

Personalization is key. So try to personalize it if you can. Like, use the webmaster’s name if you know who you’re talking to.

Subject Line: Link Removal Request

Hi [Name],

I’m trying to remove as many backlinks as I can and I need your help. I noticed a few articles on your site are linking to a page on my site. While I appreciate the backlink, I’d like those links to be removed at this point. This will help me refocus my SEO strategy.

Please see the attached document to find all the details. I’d appreciate it if you could send me an email after you’ve removed the link so I can keep track of all changes.

Thank you!

You can add more details if necessary. But remember that a short email yields better results.

When All Else Fails, Disavow!

You sent a kind email but webmasters are not responding at all.

The idea can be unsettling and put SEOs spiraling into despair. But not all hope is lost. There’s still one thing you could do to disassociate yourself from bad backlinks.

What is it?

Well, there’s always the option of disavowing links.

What Does Disavow Mean?

Disavow is Google’s way of letting users telling them what links they should ignore.

So if you have a list of bad backlinks, you can send it to Google. This way, you can protect yourself from the negative effects these links can bring.

To disavow unnatural links, you’d need to familiarize yourself with the Google Disavow Tool.

Note:

You should only use the Disavow Tool as a last resort. Abusing the tool can harm your website and pull it down the search results.

That’s why it’s best to perform a link removal request first. If all else fails, only then should you disavow the bad backlink.

The tool was primarily designed to disavow links from spammy, low-quality sources. Only use the Disavow Tool if your situation matches that criterion.

The NoFollow Attribute

Just a quick refreshing on how the Google Disavow tool came about:

Google’s ongoing fight against bad backlinks started a couple of years back.

It started with the introduction of the NoFollow attribute.

You see, Google does not crawl all links. Those who have the NoFollow attribute applied to them are exempt.

When a link has a NoFollow tag, it tells Google to ignore that link altogether. That way, these links won’t have any impact to search rankings.

A regular backlink would look like this:

A NoFollow backlink looks like this:

The addition of that extra code can mean a world of difference ranking in the SERPs or not.

But as Google expanded their algorithm changes, some sites that used the NoFollow tag started getting hit. The tech giant cited patterns of unnatural and deceptive artificial outbound links.

So webmasters needed some say over what links Google used to penalize sites. That’s when the Disavow Tool was born.

When to Disavow

We’ve talked about how users shouldn’t abuse disavow and that they’re only effective against bad backlinks.

But when is it a good idea to disavow links?

The formal answer is when the links go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

But some SEOs have formed their own opinions on the matter.

The consensus so far is to remove links that aren’t relevant to your site. If the link serves no purpose other than to improve the site’s SEO, it needs to go.

Also, if you notice a sharp decline in rankings as a result of an influx in low-quality links, it’s time to disavow.

If you’ve paid for backlinks before, you should remove those links right away.

Should You Ignore Bad Backlinks?

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that by this point you’re wondering if removing backlinks is even worth the trouble.

According to Google, the answer is yes. Ignore them.

Google’s very own John Mueller said that they have systems in place that ignore questionable links.

But that doesn’t seem to track. John himself said that you can use disavow in the event of manual action and can’t get the links to be removed.

Plus, there are cases when not disavowing caused search rankings to drop.

Take the case of Ginger Software who hired an online marketing agency called yellowHEAD.

Ginger Software is an online service that offered grammar and spell check tools.

They had a great site and were often linked to by news outlets, review sites, and forums. All of which were high-quality sources.

But one day, yellowHEAD received a notice from Google. It said Ginger Software had site-wide unnatural backlinks.

The software company found their traffic drop by 94%. That’s bad — especially since most of their traffic comes from organic results.

A quick investigation showed that they were being linked to by pornography, gambling, and pharmaceutical sites.

The sleazy articles would often use words like “occurred” and then link to Ginger’s site.

At a glance, one would think that the site was a victim of negative SEO.

Negative SEO is when black hat techniques are used to sabotage a competitor’s rankings in Google.

They can manifest in different ways such as site hacks or building spammy links that point to your domain.

It’s a real issue for sites that rely on link building to improve their search traffic.

But in Ginger’s case, the culprits were spammers using a program that automates link building to rank their own domains.

This case was brought to John Mueller’s attention at a conference where he offered his thoughts:

“You mean like when somebody creates spam links but also links to Wikipedia? … We have seen it happen before. Sometimes we can tell but sometimes it’s a little bit harder… but [if] you get a manual penalty from it you will know about it so you can just disavow the links.”

That quote kind of contradicts his earlier statement about the systems they have in place that ignored bad links.

So:

Going back to the original question. It appears there is still a need for disavowing backlinks at this point in time.

Maybe Google’s system will improve in time. But right now, not taking any action can result in terrible search ranking.

How to Disavow Bad Backlinks

To disavow bad links, you will need the list of backlinks you exported earlier. You have the option of using one of two tools: Link Research Tools or Kerboo.

Disavow With Link Research Tools

You’ll have to format your list to conform to Google’s requirements.

What are some of these requirements?

First, you should save your list in .txt format. Google will not accept submissions saved as Word or Excel files.

In some cases, even documents saved using Notepad will not work. You can use WordPad instead.

Your file also shouldn’t exceed 2 MB.

Your list should have one URL per line. It is possible to disavow links from a site entirely. This is useful if you’re receiving spammy links from one domain.

But if a site has a subdomain, it’s better to list the subdomain as its own entry.

This is what a disavow file should look like:

There are no naming conventions set for disavow files. But do create a meaningful file name.

Once done, you can upload your file using Link Detox, a feature of Link Research Tools.

Note:

You can also use Link Research Tools to export disavow links.

Alternatively, you can use submit your disavow request directly to Google through their Search Console.

Log into your account and add your domain. Then head on over to the Disavow Links page.

Select your domain from the drop-down list. Click Disavow Links to continue.

On the next page, click Disavow Links. A pop-up window will appear. Click Choose File to upload your file.

Click Submit to finish.

You can continue monitoring the status of your request using Link Detox. You simply upload your disavow file and it will track how the included links are performing.

Disavow With Kerboo

Kerboo is another link audit tool that we at DFY Links recommend.

Similar to Ahrefs, it’s great software to analyze your backlinks and determine which links are helping (or hurting) your site on organic search.

But for this example, you can also use Kerboo to create a disavow file for your site.

Create an account with Kerboo then head to the dashboard. On the sidebar, click Disavow.

Upload your list by clicking Disavow File. Doing so will submit the file to Google.

You can also use the Upload Disavow List button found within your profile.

Conclusion

It’s important to weed out the bad backlinks to improve your search rankings.

However, you should also work on increasing your high-value backlinks. This will help combat the negative effects of bad backlinks.

If you want to sustain your organic growth, you will need to gain link presence on prominent, authoritative blogs.

You should try using DFY Links – Just saying.

We can do guest blogs on your behalf so you can focus on other pressing matters.

Organic links will always triumph over shady deals, we have a range of ways to make sure our links look as natural as possible to Google. Don’t wait until Google catches on. Get rid of bad backlinks today.

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2 Comments

Reply Eric May 12, 2019 at 8:17 am

Good article. I just went into ahrefs and found about 25 urls with DR of N/A, 0 up to 13. Many of these have no contact info, are expired domains or one blog that they guy says he is abandoning the blog. So there is no way to contact most of them. So what happens when I do a disavow on all those at one time? Does Google flag that?
Also, my site in question is not an SEO site. So if I put in my website, I will get a link back probably, but it’s not relevant to my blog’s topic. So maybe better not to include my url, right?

Reply Charles Floate May 14, 2019 at 3:19 am

No flags, you may see an initial loss in traffic though.

Yes if it’s not 100% relevant then best not to, unless the site is of quite high authority.

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