Guide to finding and avoiding toxic backlinks for better SEO performance.

Toxic Backlinks: All You Need to Know In 2024

Zemfira Meloyan

Table of Contents

Having a strong backlink profile is important for your website’s SEO success, but there are links that are not as beneficial. Actually, quite the opposite – they can be very harmful.

Those are toxic backlinks that can do more harm than good to your site. Because of them, your link-building process might take longer than expected.

According to 46.6% of SEO professionals, the process of link-building now demands 1-3 months more time than in previous practices.This can be largely due to the need of carefully avoiding toxic backlinks.

Now, let’s explore the causes and types of toxic backlinks, as well as how you can find and remove them.

What Are Toxic Backlinks?

Toxic backlinks, also called bad backlinks, are links from external websites that can potentially harm the rankings of a website they are pointing to.

These links are considered “toxic” because they come from spammy or irrelevant websites that violate search engine guidelines.

Causes of Toxic Backlinks

Let’s look at seven possible causes of toxic backlinks:

Unmoderated user-generated content — Websites that allow user-generated content without proper moderation are an easy target for toxic links.

Spammers may use comment sections and forums to insert links to their own websites or spammy content, resulting in the spread of harmful backlinks.

Blacklisted websites — Backlinks from websites that have been penalized or blacklisted by search engines can also become toxic.

Associating with such websites can signal to search engines that your website is engaging in manipulative practices, leading to potential penalties or loss of credibility.

Negative SEO attacks — Competitors or malicious actors may attempt to sabotage a website’s rankings by building toxic links pointing to it.

This tactic, known as negative SEO, involves intentionally creating spammy backlinks to trigger search engine penalties against the targeted website.

Outdated SEO tactics — Practices that were once considered acceptable in SEO but are now outdated or prohibited can result in increased toxic backlinks.

For example, overloading content with excessive keywords in an attempt to manipulate search rankings can result in low-quality backlinks from spammy websites.

Search engines can penalize these websites engaged in keyword stuffing. So, analyze your backlinks regularly to make sure you don’t have this type of links.

Unnatural link growth — Rapid and unnatural growth in a website’s backlink profile, especially from unrelated or untrustworthy sources, can raise red flags for search engines.

This may occur as a result of aggressive link-building campaigns, leading to toxic links at the end.

Listing your business on bad directories — There are some bad directories that often contain spammy or irrelevant content.

Backlinks from such directories are considered low-value and can negatively impact your website’s credibility (we’ll talk about this later).

Using link-building bots — Link-building bots operate autonomously and can generate a large volume of backlinks to a website without human oversight.

This can also lead to the acquisition of backlinks from irrelevant or spammy websites.

So, now that we understand some of the causes of toxic backlinks, let’s look at the main types of bad links that should be avoided.

7 Main Types of Bad Links You Should Avoid

We have already discovered that toxic backlinks can be no good.

By identifying and avoiding the pitfalls of bad backlinks, you can safeguard your online reputation and maintain a strong appearance in search engine results.

Let’s learn how you can do it.

Backlinks From Spammy Websites

It is not always easy to identify and check spam backlinks, even though most people are aware of what they are. It usually includes irrelevant ads or websites about illegal products. It is the same for spammy backlinks, too.

These are links pointing to your site from domains you would probably not like your business to be associated with. Such links could hurt your brand’s reputation.

Therefore, you should avoid spammy websites as much as possible.

Spammy websites are usually about pornography, poker, and pharmaceuticals. If your website receives too many backlinks from these types of sites, search engines may penalize you.

Are backlinks still important in this case? Yes, only if you regularly monitor them.

There are many tools that can help you check toxic backlinks. A proper backlink tool will enable you to monitor and do link profile analysis and understand if there are any weak sites that link to you (more about this later).

Link Schemes

Link schemes have been quite famous for years. Link schemes, also called link spam, are the practice of manipulating rankings in Google. These can be links pointing to your website as well as outbound links from your website.

Below, you can find some examples of link schemes according to Google’s Spam Policies for Web Search:

  • Exchanging links for monetary benefits, products, or services
  • Automated link placements created by special automated programs or services
  • Requiring links as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or other agreement
  • Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of different websites
  • Keyword-rich or over-optimized links in guest posts and comments

So, you should avoid such link-building activities as they can harm your SEO and contribute to toxic backlinks.

Search engines are getting smarter, and regardless of how clever the link scheme seems, it’s going to be discovered eventually.

Therefore, consulting and finding the right link-building agency that can help you with your strategy might be a good idea.

It can help you achieve your link-building goals much easier. However, make sure to analyze the link-building practices they engage in so as not to fall into the trap of a scam and collect toxic backlinks.

Backlinks From Comment Sections/Forums

Forum backlinks are types of backlinks to your website you get from forums or online communities. There are various types of forums.

These forums are discussion websites or large platforms like Quora and Reddit. The key is that users can sign up for these platforms and join discussions.

Forum links aren’t beneficial for SEO, and they don’t contribute to high rankings compared to other types of backlinks.

Keep in mind that stuffing online forums with links to your site can hurt your SEO efforts. Google penalizes attempts to manipulate the website’s rankings on Google’s search results. Therefore, you should avoid spammy manipulation practices as much as possible.

Nowadays, Google automatically determines links from forums and comment sections as no-follow links.

So, if your website has numerous backlinks from comment sections or forums known for hosting spam or low-quality content, search engines may consider your website as being associated with toxic backlinks, potentially harming your rankings.

No follow Backlinks

No follow links are not followed by search engines. Such links are considered to be devalued in terms of SEO.

While both do follow and no follow links can potentially become toxic backlinks if they are obtained from spammy sources, no follow links are often considered less risky from an SEO perspective.

A no follow link does not have any immediate positive impact on a website’s ranking, but it is also not considered to be a negative signal.

Even though no follow links are not crawled by Google, they come with a few benefits.

First, they drive traffic to your website. When people click on a no follow link and land on your website, they interact with your site and content. This brings your site more traffic.

The more traffic you have, the more awareness you have around your brand.

These no follow links can help prospects discover and learn about your company. If people are familiar with your brand, they’re more likely to choose your business since they recognize you.

Backlinks From Irrelevant Websites

Are backlinks still important if they can be from any website? Or do they just lose value?

It’s worth mentioning again that website relevance is important when it comes to building links. If you have a real estate company and you get a backlink from a popular pet store website, this will seem fishy to Google.

Therefore, you should avoid getting irrelevant links since they make you look suspicious and unnatural.

If you are unsure about how to get backlinks, you can always outsource link-building to a reliable SEO agency that will identify relevant websites for backlink opportunities.

It is recommended to keep an eye on links pointing to your site. As mentioned before, you can use a tool to check toxic backlinks and track what links your website has from other sites.

Even if you are about to get a backlink from an irrelevant site, make sure the placement you do in a blog looks natural and fits the overall context of that specific part.

Backlinks From Directory Websites

Directory submission services love giving promises that you will gain great benefits from backlinking by using their links.

Plenty of suspicious directory websites have appeared over the years that sell directory links to unknown businesses and brands.

Indeed, you should avoid such practices of gaining toxic backlinks because they can harm your website’s reputation and even result in penalties from search engines.

These suspicious directory websites often engage in black hat SEO techniques, which violate search engine guidelines.

Buying links from them not only gives little to no value in terms of organic traffic and real engagement, but it can also raise red flags for search engines, potentially leading to a decrease in rankings or even complete removal from search results.

Instead, it’s important to concentrate on more ethical methods of building backlinks for long-term success.

Start by creating valuable, relevant, and unique content that naturally attracts attention and encourages other reputable websites to link back to you.

This could include writing informative blog posts, creating insightful videos, or designing visually compelling infographics. By consistently delivering top-notch content, you increase the chances of earning organic rather than toxic backlinks from trustworthy sources within your industry.

Besides, you can actively engage with your audience and participate in relevant online communities that can enable you to establish relationships with influential people and websites.

By networking and building solid connections, you may be able to collaborate on content, guest post on reputable blogs, or participate in industry events, all of which can generate good backlinks.

Keep in mind that the goal should always be to create value for your audience and build a strong online presence via legitimate methods.

By avoiding suspicious directory websites and focusing on more sustainable link-building strategies, you can establish a solid foundation for long-term success, enjoy the benefits of backlinking while maintaining the trust of both search engines and your target audience.

Header and Footer Links

Including excessive links in the header or footer sections of a website with the sole purpose of manipulating search engine rankings can lead to over-optimization.

If these links use exact-match anchor text or are irrelevant to the website’s content, they can trigger search engine penalties, potentially harming the site’s SEO efforts.

In some cases, website owners may participate in footer link networks, where they agree to exchange footer links with other websites for the primary purpose of link-building.

While not all footer link exchanges are harmful, those involving irrelevant websites can lead to the getting toxic backlinks.

Certain plugins, themes, or scripts may automatically insert links into the headers or footers of websites without the website owner’s knowledge or consent.

These links can originate from spammy sources or be part of black-hat SEO tactics, resulting in the creation of toxic backlinks.

To prevent header and footer links from contributing to toxic backlinks, website owners should ensure that all links in headers and footers are relevant, useful, and add value to the website’s content.

Let’s explore how you can find and prevent these toxic backlinks from spreading a little bit further.

How to Find And Remove Toxic Backlinks

If you start regularly monitoring your backlinks — keep track of all of them, assess their quality, identify and remove them, you can noticeably improve your SEO.

There are several ways you can find toxic backlinks and remove them.

Let’s start by how you can find toxic backlinks:

Use a backlink checker

This is probably the easiest way to find toxic backlinks.

You can use Ahrefs. Even though it doesn’t have a tool just for toxic backlinks, there is a way to find them.

Write down the domain you want to inspect, such as https://www.hubspot.com/

You can use the Anchors report to see the words and phrases people use when linking to you.

If there are lots of exact matches of keywords you’re trying to rank for, that could be a sign you have paid or other links to manipulate rankings.

See the example below:

Using Ahrefs Backlinks checker to analyze the keywords a website is ranking for.

You can also use the Backlinks report to dig even deeper. 

Click on Backlinks on the left sidebar.

You can set a low DR, for example, if we put the DR up to 10, and websites come up, it means they are most probably spammy (see below).

Using Ahrefs Backlink checker to analyze website with low metrics such as low DR.

It will be quite easy to spot paid or unnatural links. Remember that you’re looking for patterns of unnatural links, not just one or two. 

Another way is to click on the Lost button, which will give you other potential toxic backlinks.

You can then choose from the Status section what type of backlinks you want to view; e.g., removed, not found, etc. All of these are signs of spammy backlinks. 

Checking the Backlink status on Ahrefs to find toxic backlinks.

Moreover, you can use the Broken Backlinks section in the left sidebar to see the links that aren’t working.

Using the Ahrefs Backlinks section to find broken backlinks and toxic backlinks.

Moving forward to removing toxic backlinks. It is a fairly straightforward process.

Let’s look at the main ways.

Option 1: Manually removing

You can manually find toxic backlinks and remove them by reaching out to the webmaster of linking websites and requesting them to remove toxic backlinks.

Start by providing them with information about the harmful link and politely ask them for a removal.

This option may seem a little bit time-consuming and boring, but the advantage is that the webmaster can do a backlink cleanup and remove toxic backlinks from the web completely.

You can use tools, such as Ahrefs or SEMrush to look through and find site admin’s email. It makes the process of email integration much easier.

However, if the links are on spammy websites or PBNs, the webmaster most likely won’t waste their time on taking down your toxic backlinks.

So, let’s explore the second option as well.

Option 2: Disavowing

For links that can’t be removed manually, use Google’s Disavow Tool to instruct search engines to ignore them.

If you send a disavow request it will tell Google to just ignore the toxic backlink.

Carefully look into the links you think are toxic; however, be attentive so that they don’t turn out to be good ones in the end.

You can remove toxic backlinks in two simple steps:

  • Create a disavow file containing the URLs of toxic backlinks

This file will be a simple text file (.txt) where you can add the links you want to disavow.

You can also open a Doc and paste the links you want to disavow into it. Google Docs can be saved as .txt, for example, “disavow.txt.”

Here’s an example of how the file can look like:

The process of disavowing backlinks in a Doc file to remove toxic backlinks.

You can add the # symbol before leaving a comment. Google Search Console will understand these lines as additional comments and not as URLs to disavow, so don’t worry.

  • Access Google’s Disavow Tool

Go to Google’s Disavow Tool page, select your website from the dropdown menu, and click “disavow links.” 

Select a Property (website) from the list.

Using the Google Search Console to disavow toxic backlinks.
Google Search Console interface showing the domain that you can disavow backlinks for.

Write down the URLs you want to disavow.

Click Continue to upload the file to Google’s Disavow Tool.

Verifying domain ownership on Search Console to later remove toxic backlinks.

After completing the steps, click Verify. 

It can take Google several weeks to apply its modifications as it recrawls the web. 

If there are any errors in the file you submitted, the tool will provide you with a list of errors that you need to fix.

Make sure to remove only those links that certainly have a negative impact on your website, otherwise, if you remove the good links, your site’s search performance can decrease. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, understanding and addressing toxic backlinks is important for maintaining a healthy and high-performing website.

As we’ve explored, toxic backlinks can significantly threaten your SEO efforts and even lead to penalties from search engines.

By being aware of the potential threats that toxic backlinks have, website owners can take steps to avoid engaging in practices that may lead to acquiring these backlinks.

Furthermore, the process of finding and removing toxic backlinks doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Whether through manual outreach to webmasters or utilizing Google’s Disavow Tool, there are effective methods available to address toxic backlinks and remove them from your website.

Hopefully, this article helped you understand how to get rid of bad links and take proactive measures to maintain a clean and reputable backlink profile.

Good luck, and may the algorithms be ever in your favor!

FAQ about toxic backlinks

How do I know if my backlink is toxic?

By monitoring for warning signs, such as a sudden drop in website rankings.

Do toxic backlinks hurt SEO?

Yes, toxic backlinks can harm SEO by negatively impacting a website’s reputation.

Does Google ignore toxic links?

Yes, it does as part of its efforts to ensure the quality and relevance of search results.

What is the difference between good backlinks and bad backlinks?

Good backlinks come from reputable sites, while bad backlinks originate from spammy sites.

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