How to Identify Bad Backlinks for SEO

In this blog post, we’re going to show you how to identify bad quality backlinks through the following checklist: 

  • Check if you received a manual actions penalty in Google Search Console
  • Analyze whether your keyword rankings were affected by an algorithm update
  • Download your backlink profile through Google Search Console
  • Identifying shady backlinks through the naked eye test (visit the site and judge for yourself)
  • Conducting a manual Google Search to see if text within the article is found via Google Search
  • Leverage technology to identify toxic domains
  • Look for keyword heavy anchor text
  • Determining whether or not you need to disavow the bad backlinks
  • Focus on quality links moving forward

Businesses are typically blindsided by bad backlinks based on the following scenarios: 

  • Hired an SEO company in the past that built shady backlinks 
  • Hired an in-house expert and they built shady backlinks 
  • Purchased backlinks for $99 in 2012 and didn’t realize the negative ramifications
  • Used keyword heavy anchor text on external backlinks
  • Tried backlink building tactics and didn’t know any better 
  • Spammed by a competitor with low quality links 

In most instances, the bad backlinks are discovered when one of the following occurrences happens: 

  • Received a manual actions penalty from Google for unnatural links
  • Detected a dramatic drop in keyword rankings
  • Detected low quality backlinks early enough where you can take proactive measures
  • Someone is talking about building backlinks to your site and you’re doing preliminary research
  • SEO rankings aren’t as good as you think they should be and you’re thinking it could be due to bad backlinks 
  • An SEO expert who is good at their job analyzed your backlink profile and brought this to your attention.

DON’T PANIC

Before going into a state of panic about low quality links hurting your site, it’s important to note that Google is doing a better job at discounting low quality links pointing to your site [learn more]. This theory makes perfect sense. In the past, if a competitor wanted to hurt your SEO, they could build 1000’s of low quality links to your site for $99 from a foreign link building company. This shouldn’t be the case and Google’s done a better job discounting low quality links  while putting more emphasis on the quality links .

A lot of these low quality websites also disappear over time, which is a good thing since your site will no longer be associated with the bad neighbor domain. 

Even though Google does a better job of ignoring low quality backlinks, it’s important to have high quality links pointing to your site. This showcases authoritativeness. 

I don’t want you to think low quality links still can’t hurt your site. If Google believes manipulation is taking place to acquire more links in an unnatural way, you can still get penalized. 

BLINDSIDED BY SHADY BACKLINKS

A lot of companies get blindsided by low quality backlinks and it’s unfortunate. I’ve seen reputable website hosting companies and national legal marketing firms build terrible backlinks to their clients website. The client never detected this when they were paying the company thousands of dollars per month because they are not the SEO experts. They are focusing on the day-to-day of their business while relying on experts to do their work the right way. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Shady backlink building was more commonplace prior to 2016 when link building was outsourced but it still happens today.

Back in 2012, I conducted a backlink audit and found 2.5 million backlinks coming from spam sites and inappropriate sites from other countries for this car insurance company. Many of the sites weren’t even in English. This is an example of low-quality backlinks that you would never want your customers to visit. They are irrelevant, with no correlation to your business.  

Related Podcast: How I helped a car insurance company recover from a Google penalty by disavowing over 2.5 million backlinks

If you find a backlink on a website that seems low in quality or not relevant, I would view this as a low quality link. Just like you don’t want your kids hanging out with shady friends, you don’t want your website to link from shady sites. A site like BlogSpot is a common one where we see low quality links coming from  (continue reading to see this example). 

LOOK AT YOUR BACKLINK PROFILE IN SEARCH CONSOLE

Google Search Console is a free service offered by Google that helps you monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot your site’s presence in Google Search results. It detects the backlinks that are pointing to your site. This is why you want to either create a Search Console account or login to your existing account. Search Console is where you’ll be able to analyze your backlinks and any issues with those links.

  • Login to Google Search Console to see if you’ve been hit with a manual actions penalty [learn more]
  • Click on the “links” section within Google Search Console and “Export External Links” to see what type of backlinks are pointing to your site [view step by step instructions
  • Utilize a third party tool like SEMRush. They have a “domain analysis” tool where you can detect the backlinks, anchor text, referring domains and more [learn more] –> More information on this below 
  • Check the history of algorithm updates to see if your drop in ranking on Google coincided with an algorithm change that pertained to low quality links. 
    • We strongly recommend tracking your keyword rankings in a software like SEMRush so you can detect trends amongst your site and competitors sites. 
  • If you feel you have low quality links, you can disavow entire domains or specific URL’s utilizing Google’s Disavow Tool. This tool tells Google to discount certain backlinks that you deem not credible [learn more]. 

Note: If you feel auditing your backlink profile is outside of your realm of expertise, you can reach out to our SEO experts.

HOW TO IDENTIFY SHADY BACKLINKS

Below in the screenshot is a list of domains I helped disavow for a carpet cleaning company. This was done back in 2015, before I had many of the tools I do now at my disposal. We exported our backlinks via Google Search Console and visited each website manually to detect the authenticity of it.

  • I like walking business owners and marketers through the manual process of identifying low quality links so they can better visualize it
  • Later in this article, I show how to leverage tools to move through this backlink identification process quicker.
 Start by visiting 10-20 of the websites within your backlink profile, which you should have been able to export via Google Search Console.  

Example of Bad Backlink

Below is an example of a bad backlink on BlogSpot (a bad neighbor website). It’s obvious that this personal injury post is unnatural. The article has no substance and the purpose was clearly to get a backlink. This raises a red flag. Continue going through your list of websites in Search Console within your backlinks profile to see if there’s a pattern of low quality sites linking back to your site.

Conduct a Manual Google Search

According to Marie Haynes, if you do a Google search for some of the text within the article and see that no legitimate articles come up from which the content could have been copied, it is a tell tale sign that the website is low quality. Below is an example of this from the Wisconsin Personal Injury Lawyer example via BlogSpot. You can see that no results were found.

Leverage Technology

A lot of businesses have thousands of low quality links pointing to their site. Back in the day, I would do this all manually! Now I leverage the SEMRush Backlink Audit tool, which helps you detoxify your backlink portfolio and strengthen your website rankings by getting rid of potentially harmful inbound links.  I strongly recommend using this tool to save time and improve efficiency.  

You can see in the example below on our website, SEMRush analyzes the different backlinks (19,015) along with the referring domains (849). It provides you with an overall toxicity score. While we have some bad backlinks pointing to our site (which will happen for any business) the majority of our links are non-toxic.

Dig Into the Toxic Domains

You are able to connect your Google Search Console to SEMRush. It will pull in all of your backlinks and identify the toxicity score (see example below).

The Toxicity Score is how the Backlink Audit Tool determines which of your links are the most dangerous for your website. Toxic Score is based on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being good and 100 being very toxic. There are currently over 50 different toxic markers that SEMrush uses in determining the Toxic Score for a link.

We like to not only look at the toxicity score but also visit the website. Even though a tool like SEMRush might tell you it’s a toxic domain, this isn’t always the case.

If you visit the domain and feel it’s a bad neighbor site, you can checkmark the link in question and add it to your disavow list within SEMRush.
This will create a disavow file you can upload to Google Search Console to tell Google you don’t want your site associated with those bad backlinks.

Note: While Google stated they are doing a better job ignoring bad links, if you’ve identified domains you don’t want to be associated, I’d still recommend leveraging the disavow tool. There’s been back and forth within the SEO community that you don’t need to upload a disavow file but we still recommend this for our clients.

LOOK FOR KEYWORD HEAVY ANCHOR TEXT

A lot of links that have been acquired by unnatural means will often be keyword anchored.” – Marie Haynes.

I love this explanation for Marie. It’s similar to a crime. Oftentimes, there are fingerprints and clues leading up to a crime. The same holds true for keyword heavy anchor text. This means backlinks are trying to be acquired in an inorganic manner.

Webmasters link aggressively internally and externally using keyword heavy anchor text not knowing it can cause more harm than good.

An example of this would be a personal injury attorney in Phoenix linking internally to another page on their site using “Phoenix Personal Injury Lawyer” as the anchor text. [Related Blog: Beginners Guide to Internal Linking]

Alternatively, if this Personal Injury Lawyer wrote an external article for Justia and they linked back to their site using a keyword they wanted to rank well for, this would constitute as keyword heavy anchor text.

Once again, SEMRush has a tool to showcase the anchor text used in your backlink profile! You can see for The Media Captain, there are a lot of anchors that incorporate our brand name. If you were to see a lot of domains for a keyword like, “Columbus SEO Company” that wouldn’t be good as it could showcase aggressive keywords in the anchor text. 


The mindset of many in the past was the hyperlink containing the keyword you want to rank for would improve rank. Anchor text should be linked back in a natural manner.

If you have a lot of keyword heavy anchor text, the easiest place to start is changing it on your own site. We recommend also reaching out to webmasters on external sites to change the anchor text to make it more natural. 

Additional Resources on Keyword Heavy Anchor Text: 

BEING OVERLY AGGRESSIVE

What’s fascinating about Google and SEO is that time involvement doesn’t always correspond to solid rankings. I’ve seen plenty of businesses spend hundreds of hours on SEO but since they were going about it in the wrong way, it caused way more harm than good.

This is common when it comes to link building. Many people know that backlinks are a core foundation of Google’s algorithm. They figure the more backlinks they get, the better. A business owner will then reach out to all of their friends to link back to their site. The backlinks are keyword heavy anchor text on non-relatable websites and all come through within a couple of weeks. This is an obvious pattern that Google can detect.

It’s great when you can contribute external content showcasing your authority. Don’t be overly aggressive and make sure to build your links in an organic manner.

A good rule of thumb to follow is checking your referral traffic in Google Analytics. Are the backlinks on external sites actually driving relevant traffic to your site? When they arrive at your site, are they staying on the page for a substantial amount of time? If the answer to those questions is yes, you are likely building the right kind of backlinks.

IMPORTANCE OF QUALITY

There are many ways that low quality links can get built to your site. It’s important to detect these bad links and find a solution to fix what could be causing red flags to Google. 

Don’t just harp on your low quality backlinks. Google wants to see quality, authoritative, local and relatable sites linking back to your site. Having a proactive mindset when it comes to link building will help with your SEO. This is why you need to focus on getting quality links back to your site