Yes, Toxic Backlinks Can Still Harm Search Rankings

When a website links to your online store, that site is indicating that it finds your content valuable enough to share with its own audience. Google and other search engines recognize this vote of confidence, which can improve your site’s ranking.

For this reason, many search engine optimizers covet backlinks – those links from another website to yours. But not all backlinks are useful. Some are bad or even “toxic” for your site’s search engine rankings.

Good backlinks

Let’s start with a definition of “a good backlink”. There is no definitive SEO encyclopedia, but many professionals would probably agree with this list. A good backlink:

  • Comes from a trusted site. For SEO expert Neil Patel, it is a “link from a high domain authority website that is trusted by search engines and Internet users”. But any trustworthy site, even if it’s just getting started, with low domain authority can provide a good backlink.
  • Is relevant. This is sometimes referred to as editorial, related, or natural linking. For example, a link from an article about hiking to a product page for hiking boots is relevant and editorial.
  • Has traffic potential. The link is also valuable to your site as it can send traffic to your business without the help of the search engine.
  • Is not artificial. Finally, the link is earned because of the quality of the content on your site and not some other link system.

Add to this list a description of a good backlink from Google Search Console Help Center.

The best way to get other sites to create high quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique and relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the internet community. Creating good content pays off: links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chance that someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to this one.

Bad backlinks

Bad or toxic backlinks are the opposite of good. A bad backlink:

  • Comes from an unreliable site. The site may have been built for outbound links only. It might have links stuffed all over every page, including comments.
  • Is not relevant. Imagine an article about investing that links to a product page for hiking boots. The link makes little sense in its context.
  • Has little traffic potential. Relatively few human visitors would follow the link.
  • Is artificial. The link was created solely to improve a site’s search engine ranking. The link can be paid, in a private blog network, or reciprocal, for example.

One or two of those bad backlinks are probably harmless. But several, taken together, can hurt your site’s backlink profile.

A backlink profile, according to brightedge, an SEO consultancy, “describes the sites that link to your website.” This is important because “in April 2012, Google released the Penguin update. This update was designed to downgrade sites that had artificially inflated their rankings by buying links or getting their backlinks through specially designed networks to trick Google’s algorithm.

“Since then, regular updates have been made to Penguin to continuously scan for sites that abuse the backlink building process. These updates also reward sites that got rid of bad backlinks and instead focused on building quality links,” the Brightedge site continued.

Identify bad backlinks

Many SEO tools include some form of backlink auditing or analysis. Here are examples of two popular SEO suites.

SEMrush. The Backlink Audit tool in SEMrush identifies toxic links and provides a toxic link score. A score of 60 or more is likely damaging your site’s backlink profile.

SEMrush and similar tools can generate backlink audits to identify toxic backlinks.

The SEMrush tool will also help assemble a list of URLs to disavow (more on that in a moment), even submitting takedown requests on your behalf.

Ahrefs’ The backlink audit tool does not judge backlinks by itself. But he recommends ways to identify potentially spammy backlinks.

For example, in the Backlinks tab, set the filter to “Similar group”, choose the link type “dofollow” and sort by “Similar”.

Collectively, these parameters will also identify a specific type of bad backlink, those replicated on footers or headers on the linking domain.

Remove bad backlinks

Most SEO practitioners recommend two ways to remove toxic backlinks.

  • Contact the site editor and request that the link be removed or nofollowed.
  • Disavow linking with Google and other search engines.

The first of these options is simple. You find an email address for the linking site and send a professional (i.e. not pretentious) email asking for the link to be removed. Some tools, such as SEMrush, will help you identify the publisher’s email. If not, you may be able to find an email address on the site. If needed, try hunter or a similar tool that lets you find verified email addresses for many domains.

The second option is to disavow the links. It’s quite extreme. You might consider this a nuclear option when Google or another search engine has penalized your business site for having too many toxic links.

Simply put, you assemble a list of domains or web pages you want to disavow and upload that list to Google, Bing, or other search engines that have a similar disavow option.

Disavowing one or more links usually requires research and advice. Here are some additional resources.

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