Bad Links (Toxic Links): How to Identify and Recover

Picture of Ajay Deep
Ajay Deep

Founder, Authority Ventures
Chief Strategist, White Label Links

bad links toxic

The sites that link to you can make or break your search engine rankings. Backlinks from authoritative sites with content related to your business can lift you up in search rankings, but bad links will drag you down.

If you’ve optimized your site structure and content and aren’t seeing the search engine results you want, you may need to look at your off-page SEO. You can run a link quality analysis to see what types of sites are linking to yours. And if you find bad links, you can clean them up.

Bad links can sneak up on your site. Find out how to uncover them and take back control. This guide will give you the insight needed to identify, understand, and get rid of bad links effectively.

Key Takeaways

  • Bad links (including purchased links and spammy backlinks) can hurt a website’s SEO by reducing organic traffic, lowering rankings, or even getting your site excluded from search results. Avoid link schemes and make sure all backlinks are in line with Google’s guidelines.
  • Toxic backlinks can be found through manual audits and using Google Search Console, which can reveal unnatural or manipulative links. Backlink management requires both automated tools and a manual approach to have a healthy link profile.
  • Removing toxic backlinks involves direct outreach to webmasters and using Google’s Disavow Tool. But use the disavow tool with caution. Ongoing monitoring and periodic audits of the backlink profile are necessary to maintain SEO health and prevent future penalties.

What are Bad Links and How They Affect SEO

bad links vs good links

Bad links that violate Google’s spam policies and manipulate search engine rankings can hurt your website’s standing in Google search results. Not just a nuisance, unnatural links are a serious threat to your SEO. Having these toxic backlinks can reduce your organic search traffic and lower your rankings. In extreme cases, they can even get your site excluded from search results.

Bad link-building practices like buying links in bulk or spamming comment sections can get you penalized. Services that offer large-scale, low-quality link building, like bulk directory submissions, can get you penalized, too. Although Google tends to ignore spammy backlinks, it’s still important to prevent them from coming in through dubious means. Outgoing links from unrelated websites or pages can also hurt your SEO.

Recognizing Link Spam

Link spam is often identified by:

  • Aggressive link-building tactics like paid link schemes, spammy blog comments or forum posts

  • The use of exact-match anchor text in a high volume of backlinks from unrelated or low-quality sites

  • Incoming links with very specific anchors surrounded by other random anchors on pages that have no relevance to the linked site

  • The presence of numerous distinct referring domains linked to a site using identical or nearly identical anchor text

Another characteristic of link spam is multiple domains linking to a site with the same or very similar anchor text which could trigger spam alerts for spam links.

Tactics for link spam include posting website links in forum profiles and posts (forum spam) and leaving irrelevant comments with links on websites (comment spam). Not only is this unethical, but can also harm your site’s SEO.

The Risks of Paid Links Without Proper Attributes

Paid links without attributes like ‘nofollow’ or ‘sponsored’ are a ticking time bomb. They will get flagged by Google and can harm your site’s rankings. It’s like playing with fire; the temporary boost in rankings can turn into a nightmare when Google’s algorithms catch on.

But it’s not all bad. There’s a way to mitigate the risks. Using rel=’sponsored’ attribute for paid links or converting them to nofollow links can help in backlink profile cleanup. It’s all about playing by the rules and ensuring that your link-building practices are above board.

The Consequences of Engaging in Link Schemes

Link schemes are like playing a high-risk game where the odds are against you. Search engine penalties are the consequence of link spam. Excessive reciprocal links or link exchanges can be seen by Google as trying to manipulate rankings which is against webmaster guidelines.

A manual action from Google can suppress or remove the site from Google search results if there are a lot of toxic backlinks. Avoiding heavy reliance on reciprocal links, which are like link trades, is emphasized in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to prevent algorithmic devaluation or penalties.

How to Find Toxic Backlinks that Harming Your Site

Knowing how to identify toxic backlinks and removing them is key to maintaining a good online reputation and protecting the site from search engine penalties. Toxic backlinks are unnatural or over-optimized anchor texts, links to manipulate search engine algorithms, and patterns of unnatural links that can harm a site. It’s like detective work; you need to go through your backlink profile, find the culprits, and take action to neutralize them.

Google Search Console is your friend in this. It can help you find bad backlinks by showing you the websites that link to your site, downloading data in CSV, and finding broken links. Google’s systems will also ignore or devalue links that are seen as manipulative or spammy so it will help reduce the impact of toxic backlinks.

Using Google Search Console for Backlink Analysis

Backlink profile with GSC

Google Search Console is a powerful tool in our SEO toolbox. You can use it to monitor backlinks and find potentially spammy or low-quality links so your site performs well in search results. Think of it as your secret weapon, giving you the insights you need to keep your backlink profile clean and healthy.

Users can generate a list of sites linking to their site from Google Search Console to find potentially harmful backlinks. It gives you a list of top linking sites and allows you to focus on the most linked or most recent backlinks. With that information, you can proactively manage your backlinks.

Conducting a Manual Link Audit

Beyond using automated tools, you need to do a manual link audit to find and manage toxic backlinks. Use Google Sheets and Remove Duplicates to organize backlink data from Site Explorer and find duplicate backlink domains. It’s like a physical health checkup; you need to diagnose the problem and then fix it.

During your manual audit, check the anchor text of backlinks for signs of toxicity, and focus on money and compound anchors as indicators. Also, be aware of toxic backlinks that were created unintentionally by automated content scraping and linking back to your site.

Lastly, ensure that backlinks are naturally integrated within the content, as this is a mark of their value and reduces the likelihood of being considered toxic.

How to Clean Up Your Backlink Profile

Cleaning up your backlink profile is part of maintaining good SEO. Google’s Disavow Tool allows you to tell Google which backlinks should not be counted when ranking your site. Think of it as a clean-up crew, removing the junk from your backlink profile.

But use the Disavow Tool wisely, as it can hurt your rankings if not used properly. Disavowing links should only be done to links that are known to harm your site’s ranking; this is a big deal with ranking implications.

Disavow File for Google’s Disavow Tool

Creating a disavow file is part of the process of cleaning up your backlink profile. A disavow file should be in plain text, each domain on a new line, with ‘domain:’ in front of it, and URLs on a new line as well. Comments can be included and are marked with ‘#’.

When updating a disavow file, add the previously disavowed domains and append the new toxic backlinks, don’t replace the old file with a new one.

Upload the disavow file to Google’s Disavow Tool by selecting the property in your account. Use the Disavow Tool to tell Google of low-quality or spammy links you want to disavow to prevent future penalties.

Removing Links and Contact Webmasters

Google recommends contacting webmasters to remove unwanted links. It’s like talking to a neighbor about a shared problem. Direct communication can work best.

To remove toxic links, website owners can be contacted via email or contact form. When contacting a webmaster, here’s what to do:

  • Send a personalized email with the specific URL on their site and the page on your site.
  • Explain why the link is bad.
  • Provide any supporting evidence or documentation.

By following these steps, you can increase the chances of successfully removing any toxic link from your website.

Monitoring Your Profile Post-Cleanup

The cleanup doesn’t stop with the removal or disavowal of the bad links. After actions against unnatural links, you need to monitor changes in organic traffic and search engine results page rankings. Once Google processes the disavow file (which takes a few days), the disavowed links will no longer impact the site’s ranking.

A healthy link profile requires periodic analysis, at least bi-annually, to prevent new toxic links from causing damage. It’s like regular dental checkups; preventive maintenance can help spot problems early and take action before they cause big damage.

Recovering from Google Algorithmic Downgrade

You can expect to get back up after cleaning up bad links within a few weeks to a few months. However, the time taken can vary significantly depending upon the as the severity of the downgrade, the quality of your website’s content, and the effectiveness of your cleanup efforts. You may see some initial recovery within a few weeks to a few months. This is because Google’s algorithm updates are rolled out gradually, and the impact of the cleanup can be felt during this period. However, full recovery can take much longer, often spanning several months to a year or more. This is because Google’s algorithm continues to evolve and adapt to changes in the web, and it may take time for your website to adjust and regain its rankings.

Preventing Future Bad Link Penalties

Prevention is better than cure, as they say. This applies to backlink management as well. Read and follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to prevent manual action on your site. Make sure all links pointing to your site are natural and relevant to avoid penalties and stay compliant with search engine guidelines.

Keep an eye on website traffic and rankings to spot link penalties early and act fast. These preventive measures will save you from future penalties and cleanup headaches.

Acquiring Quality Links the White Hat SEO Way

High quality backlinks

Create valuable, unique content, and you’ll attract high-quality links from other sites. Here are some ways for credible link-building:

  1. Create comprehensive resources or guides that other sites will reference and link to.

  2. Do ethical outreach to sites in your industry and offer to collaborate on content or share knowledge.

  3. Guest blogging on relevant sites is a way to get backlinks and share expertise.

By doing these, you’ll get more high-quality links pointing to your site.

A good link profile is made up of many organic high-authority backlinks with relevant nonspammy anchor text from related sites. Variety in anchor text helps links look natural and not manipulative to search engines which is important for a healthy backlink profile. Social media engagement can help natural backlink acquisition by sharing content and engaging with followers. Getting ‘follow links’ that search engines can crawl and use to pass link juice is in line with Google’s guidelines.

Auditing Incoming Links

Regularly auditing new links is important to stop subpar or spammy links from building up and harming a site’s SEO. Use tools like Ahrefs or Majestic to perform backlink audit and find low-quality or spammy links.

In the case of a Negative SEO attack where malicious links are pointing to a domain, the best thing to do is to find and disavow those bad links. Auditing regularly will keep you ahead of the game and keep your backlink profile clean.


In summary, managing your backlink profile is key to your website’s SEO. Bad links can hurt your SEO, but with the right knowledge and tools, you can find them, clean up your backlink profile, and prevent future penalties. As we navigate the minefield of bad links remember it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Auditing regularly, following Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and ethical link building will keep your backlink profile healthy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are bad links and how do they affect SEO?

Bad links are links that breach Google’s spam policies and are trying to manipulate search rankings. They can harm your site’s search rankings and can even get you penalized or removed from search results so you need to regularly audit and disavow harmful links.

How do I find toxic backlinks?

You can find toxic backlinks by looking for unnatural or over-optimized anchor texts, signs of manipulation, and unnatural linking patterns. Use Google Search Console to help you with that.

What is Disavow Tool and how do I use it?

You can disavow backlinks by useing the Disavow Tool to tell Google about backlinks that should not be counted for your site’s ranking by uploading a Disavow file with the links.

How do I avoid future penalties?

Avoid future penalties by following Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, monitoring your website traffic and rankings, and getting high-quality, relevant links through ethical link-building outreach and content creation. This will keep your website in good standing and avoid penalties.

What are the best practices for getting quality links?

Get quality links by creating valuable content, guest blogging on relevant sites, diversifying anchor texts, and engaging on social media. This will improve the quality of links pointing to your web pages and drive more traffic to your website.

What can I do about negative SEO attacks?

To protect your website from being targeted with negative SEO, regularly monitor your traffic, backlinks, and rankings. Implement security measures like strong passwords, antivirus protection, and two-factor authentication. Use tools like Google Search Console and Ahrefs to detect suspicious activity. Respond to negative reviews and maintain a healthy backlink profile.

Picture of Ajay Deep
Ajay Deep


I provide link building strategy and growth marketing services to businesses and enable them to conquer their markets with unmatched authority and impact.

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