A Beginner’s Guide to Toxic Link Analysis and Removal

By Gabriel Grossman, Director of SEO & Performance Content

When it comes to organic search, links are the fuel that can propel a website to the top of Google. High quality inbound links are the holy grail of SEO. Google assumes, if the sites linking to you are credible, then your website must then be pretty important too. But did you know that links can also be detrimental to SEO health? The wrong kind of links can land brands in hot water – attracting penalties or demotions aimed at punishing websites that don’t follow Google’s quality guidelines.

If you want to avoid the Google sin bin, early detection and treatment of toxic links is crucial. Read on for a beginner’s guide on how to maintain a clean looking link profile and keep the Google wolves at bay.

Step 1 – Use a Backlink Checker Tool

The first step to safeguarding SEO health is by “lifting the hood” on a site’s backlinks. There are several great tools out there designed for this. The best of the bunch is ahrefs Site Explorer. Its powerful, yet easy-to-use interface makes it a breeze for even an SEO novice to spot potential hazards before they get out of control.

For best results, you don’t want to limit yourself to any one tool, but ahrefs is a great starting point if you’re looking to conduct a basic audit.

Step 2 – Export Your Link Data

Once you’ve signed up for an account, you’re ready to go. Plug your domain into the search field at the top and head to the “Backlinks” report in the left navigation menu to view all links pointing to your site.

For enterprise brands, the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming and sometimes it’s simply not realistic to comb through ALL links. To counteract this, click on the “One link per domain” button, applying the “DoFollow” filter from the “Link Type” drop down, and selecting “Live”.

Voilà! Your unwieldly list of links should now be considerably shorter (in the example of Microsoft.com, this would leave you with just 43,314 links out of a possible 26,346,676!).

Time to hit “Export”. At this point you might be asking yourself, “what does a spammy link look like?” According to Google’s own definition:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

As is often the case with Google, this is a pretty vague explanation that leaves plenty open to interpretation.

The Performics take:

Unless you’re suffering from one of Google’s manual penalties, your primary concern should be to identify those links which are obviously unnatural.

If a link is coming from a low quality site but doesn’t have the appearance of being manipulative, ignore it and move on. They might not be helping you surge up the organic leader board, but they’re unlikely to be hurting you either – think of it as striking a fine balance.

On one hand, you want to future proof your site against a Google action, but on the other hand, you don’t want to go in with a shotgun and blast links that could potentially be assisting your organic search visibility – even if only marginally. Taking a surgical approach is best, but it will ultimately be up to you to determine your comfort threshold.

The main categories of links that Google penalize include:

  • Paid links
  • Reciprocal link schemes
  • Links resulting from automated programs or services
  • Links on press releases
  • Links embedded in widgets
  • Forum signature links
  • SEO directories.

Ahrefs simplifies this process by categorizing links by platform, including “Blogs”, “Comment Systems”, and “Message Boards.”

Step 3 – Put Your Detective Hat On

Although there are tools that can automate the process of classifying links as potentially hazardous, there really is no substitution for doing things manually and using your own common sense and seeing what a machine may not.

Create a column in your spreadsheet with the heading “Toxic Link” and beside each URL, assign a rating on a scale of 1-5 (1 being very clean and 5 being very toxic). Aside from reviewing the category of link, you should also be on the lookout for:

  • Keyword rich anchor text: Anchor text is a fancy term for the clickable part of a textual link. The anchors of natural links typically contain a variation of the site’s domain or company’s own branded terms. When the anchor text of a backlink profile is dominated by generic SEO-relevant keywords such as “buy mobile phones online”, it should raise an eyebrow.

Expert tip: For a quick glance at your website’s most popular inbound anchor link terms and phrases, head to the “Anchors” report under “Backlink profile > Referring domains” in ahrefs, select “Dofollow” from the drop down filter, and make sure that it’s sorted by “Referring Domains” high to low.

  • The site’s country of origin: The geo-location of an inbound link can also be a red flag. For example, if you’re operating a site for a Brisbane based clothing retailer, it probably wouldn’t make sense for you to be receiving a large quantity of backlinks from a remote village in Russia. Expert tip: Ahrefs does a great job of illustrating which countries your inbound links originate from. Simply navigate to the dashboard and scroll down the page to view the top level domain distribution. Hover your cursor over a country to see the percentage of links attributed to that particular location.

  • The link environment: Often the best way of validating a link is simply to look at the website it originates from. Ask yourself, “does this site look like a credible source of information?” If your gut is telling you otherwise, mark it down in your spreadsheet.

Step 4 – It’s Detox Time

With the investigating out of the way, it’s time to look at the results.

If you haven’t identified any potentially toxic links, you’re in a good spot. Your job is done (for now at least). But if your spreadsheet is littered with questionable websites, you will want to take quick action to protect the SEO health of your site. You can reach out to each site owner individually and politely request that they either change the link into a “nofollow“, or failing that simply remove the backlink from their website altogether.

In our experience, the success rate from this kind of outreach is likely to be low. A less complicated and more efficient approach is to use the disavow tool. This tool allows you to upload a list of the spammy domains directly to Google Search Console, letting the search giant know that you don’t want these links to be taken into account when assessing your website’s domain authority. While there is some contention surrounding its effectiveness for preemptive link curation, it is still the preferred backup option.

To create:

  1. Copy your toxic links into a new Excel tab
  2. Create a column containing the root domain for each URL e.g. “https://www.spammysite.com/spammy-link.html” will become “spammysite.com”
  3. If you haven’t already, dedupe the list so that each root domain is only represented once
  4. Assuming the root domains are in column A, add “domain:” before each domain in your list by typing the following formula into B1:


  1. Create a new file in Notepad
  2. Copy the contents of column B into Notepad and save it as a “.txt” file
  3. Upload the file to your site’s property in Search Console.

Word of warning: The incorrect application of this tool can harm your rankings, so it’s best to consult with an SEO expert before upload.

The Final Word

Just as your website is going through constant change, so is your backlink profile. Given how important links still are to the SEO equation, it pays to be vigilant. By scheduling regular link reviews and clean-ups, you can stay a step ahead and protect against the devastating effects of a Google penalty.

If you would like to maximize your brands potential and avoid Google penalties, contact Performics today.


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