Toxic Backlinks: How To Identify Bad Backlinks

What are Toxic Backlinks?

Toxic backlinks, also known as bad or harmful backlinks, are incoming links to a website that can negatively impact its search engine ranking and overall online reputation. These backlinks typically come from low-quality, spammy, or malicious websites and can be a result of black hat SEO techniques, such as link farming, paid link schemes, or automated link-building tools.

Search engines like Google consider backlinks as a measure of a website's authority, relevance, and credibility. However, when a site has numerous toxic backlinks, search engines may interpret this as an attempt to manipulate rankings, leading to penalties or lower rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). Check out our off-page SEO article for more information on other aspects to be aware of.

Why Are Toxic Backlinks Controversial?

Although there are clear distinctions that make a backlink toxic which we’ll explore in this article, the classification of what puts a backlink into the toxic zone can still be a grey area, leaving it open to interpretation. Therefore, it’s very important to understand the definite warning factors that give major clues as to whether a link is toxic or not.

SEO is more of an art than a science, so more often than not, there can be differing views and opinions on what makes any given link “bad” or “good”. Our goal is to help you to identify toxic backlinks as easily as possible.

Where Do Toxic Backlinks Come From?

Most toxic links detected by search engines originate from spam websites, which are designed solely for artificial link building and negative SEO tactics. It is crucial to monitor your backlink profile to identify and counteract aggressive spam link building. By closely tracking your backlinks, you can proactively address issues and prevent future problems that could affect your search engine rankings.

One of the ways you can monitor the links that link to your content is on Google Search Console, by following these steps: 

- Sign in to Google Search Console

- Click on “Links” in the left-hand menu

- Click on “External links” to see a list of websites that link to your content.

Google search console graphic

How Do You Identify Toxic Backlinks?

Below are 12 various examples of how to identify toxic backlinks, however, use your common sense judgment to ultimately decide whether it is.

Spammy Websites

If a website looks like spam, it probably is. Here are a few examples that help identify a spammy website:

Low-Quality Content

Spammy websites often feature poorly written, plagiarised, or auto-generated content with little to no value for users. They may also be stuffed with irrelevant or excessive keywords.

Excessive Ads & Pop-ups

These websites may display an overwhelming number of ads, pop-ups, or clickbait, often making it difficult to navigate or access the actual content.

Suspicious Domain Names

Spammy sites often have unusual or non-relevant domain names, which may include a combination of unrelated keywords, numbers, or random characters.

Lack of Transparency

Legitimate websites typically provide information about the site owner, company, or organization behind it, while spammy websites often lack transparency.

Unusual Backlink Profile

A high number of low-quality or irrelevant backlinks may indicate that the site engages in artificial link-building schemes.

Poor User Experience

Slow loading times, broken links, intrusive ads, or an unresponsive design can be signs of a spammy website.

Unsafe Browsing Warnings

Modern web browsers often display security warnings if a website is suspected to be malicious or spammy. Pay attention to these alerts.

Paid-Link Schemes

Paid links refer to the practice of exchanging money or other incentives for a link placement, which directly violates Google's Webmaster Guidelines. This can involve paying for guest posts, sponsorships, or offering products or services in return for a link. Such links are not editorially placed, meaning they lack authenticity and credibility.

Although paid links are discouraged from an SEO standpoint, sponsored content can still be valuable for purposes other than link-building, such as tapping into another party's audience or generating referral traffic. To maintain transparency and prevent the links from being flagged as unnatural, be sure to add rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored" attributes to the links within the sponsored content. This way, you can adhere to proper guidelines while still benefiting from the collaboration.

Forum Or Blog Comment Links

It's important to note that not all forum links are harmful. Forum links from reputable websites with active users and relevant content can be beneficial to your overall backlink profile.

However, if you encounter an influx of low-quality links originating from unrelated and random discussion forums (much like link farms), it's crucial to remove or disavow them before they jeopardize your search rankings.

Hidden Links

Hidden links are hyperlinks that are intentionally concealed from users on a webpage, but still visible to search engine crawlers. They are often used as a technique to manipulate search engine rankings without impacting the user experience. Hidden links can be created in various ways, such as:

  • Using the same color for link text and background, making the text invisible to users.

  • Setting the font size to zero, so the link text becomes too small to be seen.
  • Using CSS to position the link off-screen or behind other elements.
  • Using HTML attributes, such as "display: none" or "visibility: hidden," to hide the link.
  • Placing the link within a one-pixel image or using negative text-indent techniques.

However the method, it’s a technique that should be strictly avoided at all costs! If you find your link has been hidden on another website, you know it’s a toxic link.

Paid Or Sponsored Links Passing PageRank

Although links are used within pay-per-click ads, they should have a clear marking of either rel=”nofollow” or re=”sponsored”, so that Google knows it’s a sponsored link and should be ignored for SEO. Any attempt to pass PageRank through a sponsored link or ad by having it follow by default is against the Google Webmaster Guidelines and is a toxic link that could harm your website search rankings. A simple fix would be to add the above attributes within the link to highlight to search engines that it’s a link to ignore.

Exact Match Anchor Text Links

Links with an exact match (keyword-rich) anchor text tend to be toxic, regardless of their source. They can occur naturally but are very few and far between other more commonly used anchor texts.

For example, people wouldn't typically link to a tech gadget store using anchor text like “affordable gadgets online”. Instead, they are more likely to use the store's brand name or domain. Excessive use of keyword-rich anchor text may signal that the links are paid for or not editorially placed, raising suspicions about their legitimacy.

When you manipulate anchor text to match precisely the keywords a page aims to rank for, the links become unnatural. For instance, if you see a link labeled "organic skincare products", that would be an example of an exact match anchor text.

Private Blog Networks

Private Blog Networks (PBNs) are a group of websites, often built on expired domains with existing authority, created and controlled by a single individual or organization for the primary purpose of generating backlinks to a target website. These networks aim to manipulate search engine rankings and improve the target site's visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs).

PBNs leverage the domain authority and link equity of the expired domains to pass on link juice to the target website, potentially boosting its ranking. However, using PBNs is considered a black hat SEO technique and goes against search engines' guidelines.

Links From Spun Content & Articles

The practice of creating spun content for link-building was quite common, especially between 2000-2010. This method consisted of producing one original article and using specialized software to create numerous altered versions, often of poor quality. These modified articles were then posted on article directories with links incorporated within the content. One of the most popular platforms that were used for this during that period was EzineArticles, which started in 1999.

Low-Quality Directory Submissions

Being listed on legitimate directories that provide genuine value to users poses no risk, and these links can often be quite beneficial, as long as they are relevant to your business. This means the directory should either be specific to your niche or cater to your local area.

That being said, if the directory offers no value to end users and isn’t related to your business, it is considered low-quality and links from these websites should be avoided.

Scaled Guest Posting

Although guest blogging is still a common practice and can be effective if done properly, overdoing it can be counterproductive. According to Google’s Matt Cutts, he said:

“Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time, it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging, then you’re hanging out with really bad company”. 

Even though his statement was made many years ago, it still is relevant today. You can still build high-quality guest post backlinks, but the anchor text needs to be natural, and the website and page need to align with the topic of the page that is being linked to, and also add value to the users landing there.

Widget Links

If you are a developer or have had a widget or software plugin developed (for example, for WordPress) and distributed it with an embedded link, you are breaching Google's Webmaster Guidelines and generating toxic links. It’s best to avoid having links within widgets or plugins, and if you need to, make sure they are marked as nofollow.

Reciprocal Link Building

Reciprocal link building is a practice where two or more websites agree to link to each other, usually to improve their search engine rankings and visibility. While exchanging links can be a natural outcome of genuine collaborations or partnerships, excessive reciprocal link building — especially when it involves low-quality or irrelevant sites — can be seen as an attempt to manipulate search engine algorithms. This could lead to potential penalties or lower rankings in search engine results pages.

Other Signs

In addition to the above toxic backlinking techniques, here are a few additional clues to look for to identify potential bad links:

  • The number of outbound links on a linking page is high (e.g. 50+)

  • The number of backlinks from the same domain or subdomain is high (e.g. 25+)
  • A page has at least one dofollow sitewide link
  • The URL of a linking page or domain has a low Trust Level (e.g. < 0.7)
  • The Alexa Traffic Rank is high (e.g. > 100,000)
  • No links from this page are “nofollow”
  • Links coming from websites that aren’t indexed by Google
  • Links that are unnaturally placed within blog comments
  • Links in the footer that look like they shouldn’t be there

What Are Quality Backlinks?

In contrast, quality or good backlinks have the following attributes:

  • A competitor submitting a spam complaint

  • Algorithmically identified problems that prompt an evaluation of the website
  • Operating in a niche notorious for rampant link spam

If your website has been affected by a manual action, it’s critical that you identify the backlinks that may have caused it, and disavow them using Google Search Console’s disavow tool.

How Can You Fix a Backlink Profile That Has Toxic Backlinks?

Even if your website didn’t get a manual action, but you have identified potentially toxic backlinks, it’s important to first try to contact the website owner to ask them to remove the links, or if all else fails, disavow those links. Read more about the risks of disavowing links here.

For strategies on backlink building, read our article for ideas & insights.

Hike + Toxic Backlinks

Hike allows small business owners to easily identify potentially toxic backlinks in the Backlinks Healthcheck tool and then export a shortlist of the identified backlinks in a disavow file that can be uploaded and submitted via Google Search Console’s disavow tool. It also allows importing of backlinks from an existing disavow file to double-check the links if they are indeed toxic and need to be kept disavowed.