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Melt Digital
June 15, 2016

How to identify and clean up bad backlinks

Whether they're a legacy of old SEO activity or a targeted attack, bad backlinks can be disastrous. Here's how to manage your backlink profile

Bad backlinks can trigger negative SEO and make your website invisible on search engines overnight. The knock-on effect is tarnished credibility, plummeting traffic and plunging sales. Watching for and dealing with harmful backlinks should therefore form a key part of your regular SEO housekeeping.

In 2016, Negative SEO is a real activity. With search engines policing their rankings like never before, SEOs everywhere are closely monitoring inbound links. Make a regular habit of reviewing new inbound links. Is it spam? Can it! You don’t need to wait for a penalty to take action.

Have I been hit by a penalty?

It’s important to establish whether your site has actually been the victim of a search engine penalty. Google uses two types of penalty. The first is a ‘manual action’ which appears as a notification in Google Webmaster Tools. These manual actions can be either a partial or full assignment. Partial only hits some sections on your website, full effects the entire domain. The second is an algorithmic penalty which comes with no notifications. Both can be detected by a sudden and sharp drop in traffic and visibility.

You may have noticed a drop in your traffic already, but check in an SEO visibility engine to see if there’s a correlation. Traffic drops aren’t only caused by bad links. Check your site for other causes too – 500s and 404s preventing crawling of javascript can all affect the situation.

Finally, stay on trend. If you’ve identified a drop, check SEO news sources. There may be something industry-wide going on.

The best way to deal with bad backlinks is the old-fashioned way: contact the original publisher and ask them to take the link down

How to identify bad backlinks

If you’re certain that backlinks are the issue, the next step is to view and analyse your backlink profile. Backlink checkers such as Majestic, Moz and AHrefs offer an automated way to do this. It’s wise to utilise a variety of backlink checkers as no single platform will capture all of the backlinks to your site. Google Webmaster Tools is an invaluable source, but don’t forget about little old Bing. It’s actually much more generous with backlink profiles and provides a much larger view of things.

Once you’ve collated the data, the only real way to detect bad backlinks is to manually vet each one and decide whether it looks natural or not. If you’re unsure, here are some other ways of deciphering a harmful backlink.

  • Low domain authority (and low Trust Flow if you’re using Majestic)
  • Links from domains in countries where your business has no target audience
  • Links from websites with no relevance to your business or content
  • A high volume of links coming from a single source
  • Over-optimised, keyword-stuffed anchor text
  • Links from domains with very low social shares
  • Comment or forum spam

How to deal with bad backlinks

The best way to deal with bad backlinks is the old-fashioned way: contact the original publisher and ask them to take the link down. If they don’t respond, try contacting the domain hosting company. Websites such as and can help you find the relevant contact details. Alternatively, online platforms such as LinkDelete and Kerboo help to manage the entire process by analysing links and finding the best way to contact the owners of the sites they’re coming from.

The nuclear option: Google’s Disavowal Tool

A final resort is to disavow links using Google’s Disavowal Tool. Disavowing links means telling search engines not to include the harmful backlinks in your ranking. But proceed with caution, because doing this incorrectly can harm your site. Google recommends only disavowing links where there are a considerable number of spammy, low quality links to your site, and only if you’re certain they’re causing harm.

Once your backlink profile is clean, you can focus your full attention on the good stuff: building high-quality links with compelling and relevant content. Unless you suffer a targeted attack, you’re unlikely to see any further bad backlinks crop up – but remember to keep an eye out and fix problems as soon as they arise.

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