Good backlinks are a healthy part of SEO. But what happens when a few bad apples begin to spoil the barrel?

We wrote recently about the importance of building a backlink strategy for your website. This work takes time and patience, but through careful cultivation, you can gain the credibility and trustworthiness that will cause other businesses to link to you.

However, all links are not created equal. Links that come from the shadier corners of the Internet can actually damage your domain reputation, dragging your website down in the process.

When this happens, you will have to put in the effort of removing the bad backlinks. To use a metaphor, if building a good backlink profile is like growing a garden, then removing bad backlinks is like pulling weeds. It may seem like a nuisance, but it’s essential for keeping your website healthy.

Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know.

How do you gain bad backlinks in the first place?

There are a few primary ways you can end up with bad backlinks on your site. Sometimes it happens unintentionally. For instance, after reading our article on how to build good backlinks for your site, you might decide to hire an SEO specialist to help you out. You might expect that this specialist would go through the long, hard work of building links the right way, and only discover after the fact that this person destroyed your site’s credibility by buying a bunch of bad links.

Some companies also get into trouble because they aren’t aware that link buying is considered a black hat practice. To them, it seems about as harmless as purchasing ads. It’s only after the damage has been done that they realize their mistake.

There have also been instances of SEO sabotage, where a competitor has tried to destroy a site’s reputation by purchasing bad backlinks on their behalf. While this is fairly rare, it is still possible for this to happen. This is why it’s important for businesses to be proactive in defending their link quality and removing bad backlinks whenever possible.

How do you identify bad backlinks once you have them?

To find bad backlinks to your site, you should run a backlink audit. Most SEO tools will have an option to run this, but you can also use Google’s Search Console by navigating to “Search Traffic,” and then “Links to Your Site.”

From there, you will have to audit the backlink quality of these sites. While Google’s Search Console doesn’t offer this data, a good SEO tool, such as Moz, SpyFu, or SEMRush will. You can use these tools to check the domain strength of linking domains, and if any seem suspicious, those will be the ones you will want to remove.

Toxic links tend to come from places like the comments section on various blogs, often left by spam bots. They may also come from networks of back linking sites. These networks are full of shallow content, usually scraped off other sites and duplicated, and are not linked to by other sites. They exist solely to be the repository of bad backlinks as an artificial way to try to build a site’s profile.

In some cases, you may find that your backlinks are coming from low-quality directories. These directories will add your site to their lists to try to grow their own services. Unfortunately, if they’re doing nothing more than listing a lot of links with no added value, Google might view those links with suspicion.

How do you remove bad backlinks that are dragging your site down?

You’ve identified the bad backlinks. What now?

Don’t worry, you don’t need to burn your site down and start all over. (Probably—unless the situation is very bad and your domain has very little value to you and starting over is actually your preference.)

If you notice most of the bad backlinks are tied to a specific page on your site, you can remove that page and transfer the valuable content to a new page with a new URL. However, this isn’t usually the case. Most bad backlinks are problems for the whole domain, and that will take a more dedicated approach.

First, you can contact the site owners of the linking domains directly. Most site owners don’t respond, and if they’re owners of a massive backlinking network, they would have very little reason to. But in some cases, it might be worth the effort.

The more common response is to use Google’s Search Console to manually disavow bad backlinks. Google’s instructions on how to do this are:

  1. Create a list of the backlinks you want to disavow and put them in a .txt file.
  2. Include only one link per line. You cannot disavow an entire subpath.
  3. If you want to disavow an entire domain, prefix it with “domain:”, as in “domain:shadysite.com”
  4. File must be encoded as UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
  5. One you have your list, go to the disavow links tool page in Search Console
  6. Select your website
  7. Click “Disavow Links”
  8. Upload your file.

And that’s it. It will take a few weeks for Google to disavow everything, and in the meantime they will continue to show up in your links profile. Just have patience. While disavowing bad links can have some downsides (especially if they’re bringing in traffic, albeit of the low-quality variety), keeping up on this task will do a lot more for your site than leaving them be.

Disavowing old backlinks is a positive indicator to Google that your site is committed to white hat SEO.

Removing bad backlinks may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. After all, if you haven’t gone out and purchased links from a link farm, why bother making the effort? Won’t Google eventually figure out who’s content is good and be able to differentiate it from those acting in bad faith?

As much as we’d all like all our SEO problems to be solved by Google just “figuring it out,” the onus is still on site owners to make sure they’re properly maintaining their content and sending positive indicators to Google.

There’s nothing Google likes more than a site that’s willing to do its own part to improve its rankings. If you’re willing to meet Google halfway, their algorithms will have an easier time doing the rest. For as much of a pain as it can be to get rid of bad backlinks, doing so is like taking the parking break off. Without all that deadweight holding you back, you’ll be amazed how quickly you see the results in your rankings.

Published 08/07/20 by Laura Lynch