When we first started Ignite Visibility, cleaning up bad links was a big part of our business. OTHER SEO companies were getting people penalized left and right. So we cleaned up the bad links and got their rankings back.
In this post, I’m going to cover our tried and true process. Here is how you get rid of 1,000+ bad links ASAP.
What You’ll Learn
- The difference between bad links and good links
- How to identify bad links
- Which tools we recommend for link audits
- How (and when) to submit a disavow file to Google
- When to expect improvement on your site
- How to maintain a healthy link profile
What Makes a Bad Link?
Good links come from authoritative sites with accurate, fact-checked content—think NPR, The New York Times, or Pew Research.
Government organizations like the EPA.gov also fit the bill, as do medical journals and other “expert” backed sources. Good backlinks also come from smaller news outlets and blogs that cite reputable sources and have a clean link profile themselves.
There are several elements at play when it comes to determining whether a backlink is bad and needs to be removed.
The more obvious cases of bad backlinks come from websites that promote pornography, gambling, or unregulated supplements. These websites often link back to legitimate websites as part of a scheme aimed at driving traffic to a site where the owner can collect ad revenue.
That said, any link that runs afoul of Google’s policies puts your site at risk of penalty. And quite often, violations aren’t quite as apparent as a sudden influx of comments with links to Viagra and Cialis.
A few examples:
- Text advertisements that pass through PageRank
- Advertorials disguised as articles containing links that pass PageRank
- Links containing optimized anchor text included in articles, blogs or press releases distributed on other sites. Essentially, this is a keyword-stuffed anchor text.
- Links to bookmark sites or low-quality directories
- Irrelevant keywords
- Content that appears to be generated automatically
- Links that appear to have been purchased through PBNs or other link schemes
- Widely distributed links found in footers or hidden parts of a website
The main difference between good links and bad ones is the quality of the website they come from and whether the links are relevant to the site’s content.
So, how do you know if you have bad backlinks, and more importantly, how do you clean them up?
Run an Audit to Identify Bad Links
The first step toward cleaning up your link profile is to bring all links, good, bad, and neutral into one location to assess the damage.
There are a couple of options here: if you have hundreds of bad links, you can clean things up manually through Google Search Console.
Thousands, and you’ll need to use a tool like Link Detox, which can help you identify “toxic” links and clean them up.
If you go the “Google route” the process is as follows:
- Log into your search console account
- Select Links to Your Site from the menu on the left-hand side
- Download links–you can choose to either download all links or drill down by selecting an option such as “who links most.”
The downside of using Google is they won’t tell you which links are hurting your site.
Instead, you’ll need to export your link profile in an Excel spreadsheet and manually review each one. Those links deemed toxic will need to be added to a disavow file, which you can then submit to Google for removal. We’ll talk more about the disavowal process later.
Link Detox is a tool designed to help you run an audit on your entire backlink profile. If you have thousands of bad links—or just want a better way to stay organized — this is a good choice.
Link Detox aggregates all of your links, pulls them into one report, and assesses the risk associated with each link at a glance. I like this one, as it’s affordable (basic plan is free) and it offers a quick snapshot of your link profile.
The tool is designed to highlight which domains put you at risk; unearthing PBN links, expired domains, and more. Link Detox isn’t the backlink deep dive you’ll find with something like Moz, but it’s a quick and easy way to run an audit and put together a list of links to disavow.
For more specific examples of what you should watch out for, here are some common bad apples that bring down your site’s reputation:
Google issues a penalty if they detect a pattern of unusual linking behavior. The algorithm scans for evidence that sites are purchasing links or participating in a link scheme. Red flags include a mismatch between your site and the linking domain (i.e. you have a fashion blog and some used car forum links to your site) or a sudden spike in new backlinks. In this case, Google issues what they call a “manual penalty,” meaning, you’re on the hook for getting rid of them.
Comment spam is a type of keyword stuffing where spammers automatically post comments to achieve higher search engine rankings. Most website owners combat this by marking comments as no-follow, to prevent Google from indexing them.
High Volume of Links to the Same Page
This case of backlink abuse is less obvious and primarily based on context. Several links back to the same internal page could signal to Google that someone is trying to manipulate the ranking system.
Weird Anchor Text
Overly optimized anchor text sets off the Google alarm bells because it registers as “duplicate content.” So, in the case that you’re doing a lot of guest posts and linking back to your site with the same anchor text, your efforts might backfire. Ideally, your backlinks should, well, link, to your site with contextual links. Meaning, the text lets the reader know what to expect after they click.
According to Google, true negative SEO isn’t super common, but you should still keep an eye out for SEO attacks. Negative SEO is a black hat practice designed to hurt a competitor’s SERP performance. The goal is to demote the target’s website rankings by say, pointing a high-volume of links containing words like Viagra, Cialis, or payday loans.
Next Steps: Use Tools to Find More Bad Links
Whether you’ve opted to go with GSC and an Excel sheet, Link Detox, or another auditing tool, your next move is all about diving deeper. Where are links coming from, and what kind of anchor text are they linking to?
Where your initial audit uncovered links from more obvious “trash” websites or things like a high volume of .ch or .ru domains, there are several tools that can help you further discern low-quality sites from the good ones.
Here are a few tools we think you’ll find useful:
One of the key benefits of using Moz is that the platform comes with a spam score calculation that shows the user how likely your website is to be penalized by Google’s algorithm.
Moz is also super useful in that they provide domain authority scores, which ranks sites based on quality and trustworthiness. Because Google’s algorithm is patent-protected, Moz’s tool is the closest thing we have to help us understand what factors into a site’s reputation.
Any of these tools can help you uncover low-ranking links, but some require further investigation to determine whether the content is, in fact, low quality, or just something you don’t recognize.
SEMRush is an all-in-one marketing tool for SEO pros. As with Moz, users can review domain quality, link sources, and the number of links in a user-friendly report, then decide if they want to keep or remove them.
Additionally, SEMRush offers a Toxic Score, which ranks each backlink on a scale from 0-100, with 100 being “very toxic.”
What I really like about this tool is there are several filtering options, so you can sort links based on toxicity, anchor text, and more, then remove them directly from your dashboard.
While any of the above tools will help you put together a list of bad links, rmoov comes in handy for getting rid of links that may result in a manual penalty.
Per Google’s recommendation, you’ll need to reach out to the webmaster associated with each bad link and ask them to remove the link, add a no-follow tag, or prevent the link from passing PageRank.
Rmoov is a backlink removal tool that helps users remove low-quality or unnatural links from their backlink profile. According to the official website, rmoov allows you to upload a list of URLs and the software will pull contact information for each domain.
From there, you can customize email templates and set up an automated campaign that sends your requests, follows up with reminders, and sends your results back to a Google Doc for review.
Disavowing Bad Links
Google’s Disavow tool allows you to let Google know that you want specific backlinks to be excluded from the ranking process.
Google’s support guidelines state that disavowing isn’t necessarily appropriate for all bad link situations; rather, the goal is to help you get rid of backlinks that come from a source that’s out of your control.
For example, if your site contains unnatural links from past mistakes like buying links, you should take those down manually.
Disavowing links is relatively straightforward. Many of these tools make it easy to compile a text file you can upload to Google. That said, formatting matters—a lot—here.
According to Google Webmasters, your disavowal file must meet the following criteria:
- Must end in .txt
- All links and domains must be listed on a separate line
- All domain-level removals must begin with “domain:”
- The file must be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII, no special characters allowed.
Additionally, you can include an explanation detailing your removal efforts for each link or domain. These are for you, and will be ignored by Google.
Again, rmoov, Moz, Link Detox, and SEMRush, among others, are all capable of creating the file for you, so this might be your best bet.
A word of caution about disavowing: accidentally removing links or disavowing with abandon can cause your SEO to suffer. When preparing links to be submitted, make sure they’re handpicked (by you or an aforementioned tool) and correctly identified as harmful.
Along those lines, don’t rely solely on a tool to do all the work for you. Always review the links compiled to ensure they all warrant submission to Google.
Once you’ve made it through Google’s warnings, you’ll follow a series of simple steps:
- Go to the disavow links tool page.
- Choose your website from the dropdown menu
- Then click “Disavow Links.”
- Click Choose file, then choose the file you created.
When to Expect Improvement
After you’ve performed your audit, disavowed, and sent your takedown requests, your site likely won’t spring back to the top of the SERPs right away, especially if you got caught up in a Google penalty.
Google mentions on its support page that it takes a few weeks to process your disavowal request. From there, they upload the results into the index, and next time Google’s bots crawl the site, you should see an improvement.
Additionally, you may want to re-submit your sitemap after removing links manually so Google can log those changes ASAP.
It’s worth mentioning that your disavowed links will still show up in the Link reports. Disavowing means that you’ve essentially decided not to associate with the link, allowing you to avoid a penalty.
Maintenance—Improve the Quality of Your Link Profile
Long-term, you’ll want to conduct regular audits to ensure that you keep your site out of trouble. If you’ve subscribed to a tool like Moz or SEMRush, it’s easy to keep track of any incoming spam attacks and low-quality links.
It’s also worth pointing out that cleaning up and monitoring backlinks isn’t the only thing that impacts your Google ranking.
A few things to think about after the initial clean-up:
Because Google’s main objective is helping users find what they’re looking for, high-quality content matters more than ever.
Content with “little or no added value” may be subject to penalty. This includes scraped or duplicate content, poorly written content, and content that is too shallow. Check your on-site content using a tool like Copyscape to make sure no one is plagiarizing your content.
In a piece we ran on improving off-site SEO, we outlined some best practices; namely tha from a link-building perspective, your content should aim to position yourself as an expert in your niche, across channels. Think Reddit’s AMAs, relevant guest post opportunities, and relationship building with other influencers in your niche.
Optimize for E-A-T
Google’s guidelines state that web pages are rated based on expertise, authority, and trust. While the search engine’s take on this is oh, 164 pages, EAT is all about making sure that websites offer credible information that matches searcher intent.
The algorithm scans for things like content quality as well as whether backlinks are relevant and above-board (in other words, backlinks with references to buying drugs or harmful products are strikes against you).
The takeaway here is you should always be on the lookout for low-end links that don’t align with your niche, and only seek out guest posting opportunities with reputable, on-brand sites. It’s all about consistency.
Turn Quality No-Follows into Follows
As we mentioned in the above section, no-follow links don’t factor into your SEO score. So, while that protects you against spammy comments, it could also mean that there are some untapped opportunities for link building hanging out on your site.
If you’re using a tool like SEMRush, the website link checker will indicate whether each link has a follow or no-follow note attached. You can review no-follow links against its domain authority and decide whether it’s worth asking the site owner to change the link to “follow.”
Wrapping Up: Removing Bad Links
Dealing with bad backlinks takes a lot of effort. But I promise, it’s worth it.
As I mentioned at the top, cleaning up your backlink profile is one way you can increase your SEO performance and reduce the risk of getting caught in a Penguin penalty.