A lot of SEO professionals and digital marketers describe link building as the practice of building out links to earn positive link equity. But in reality, this is just a part of the job. Link building also involves taking care of the links you already have.

Even if you did have to stop building links because you ran out of budget or decided to change digital marketing strategies, you would still need to keep a close look at your existing links. After all, you are not the only one who can create and modify links pointing to your landing page.

Webmasters of the sites you link out to also have their own agendas. They might try spammy tactics or even sell their site to a business you don’t want to be associated with. They may also be neglectful and cause their site to be penalized by Google.

If any of these are the case, then you probably don’t want backlinks from them because of the risk of degrading your own site’s search engine visibility.

Here, we’ll teach you how to differentiate good backlinks from bad ones. We’ll also show you our basic process for finding low-quality backlinks and your options for dealing with them.

What is a Good Backlink?

For typical search engine optimization purposes, so-called “good” backlinks tend to have the following characteristics:

1) Come from Reliable Websites

Generally, you want links from websites that have active communities and good editorial policies. You want to avoid content farms, article spinners, and other sites that primarily cater to bots instead of human users. Also, you may want to avoid websites that are overly dependent on user or AI-generated content, unless they offer some kind of specific value to humans.

2) Come from Authoritative Sources

Websites with expertly-written content, accurate information, and high-quality editorial practices are generally considered to be authoritative in the real sense. Because of those qualities, authoritative websites tend to get a lot of natural backlinks from other websites. These backlinks, in turn, create the signals that eventually increase these sites’ authority from the perspective of search engines.

Measuring true authority is not always possible or straightforward. Metrics like Domain Authority (DA) are not always reliable as they have a difficult time identifying authoritative sites that don’t have a large number of backlinks. Also, many authoritative sites simply lack SEO or are too new to develop enough backlinks to signal authority. Additionally, DA can sometimes be gamed by highly-determined black hat SEOs.

That said, DA and other authority metrics do offer a good starting point. To learn how we select link prospects based on DA, read Effective Link Outreach Guide for High-DA Websites.

3) Have a Dofollow Attribute

Of course, you want to make sure that the website you’re linking out to will pass link juice. Unless it’s a link from a very high-profile website that can bring in loads of referral traffic, you want to make sure that you can derive link equity from your backlinks.

Note that it’s not uncommon for some webmasters to convert your backlink into a nofollow link after a few months. This can be a bad thing because the links will no longer pass link juice. However, it may also be fine to just leave things as is since they won’t pass on any negative equity.

To learn some of our tricks for dofollow links, read Using Do-follow Links to Your Advantage.

What is a Bad Backlink?

Broken Link

If there are good backlinks, then there are also bad backlinks. Actually, most of the links that you can readily get are probably not great, to begin with. If a link comes from a site with these qualities, they’re likely to be bad:

1) Comes from Spammy Sources

You should be wary of links from poor-quality sites like article directories, low-quality press release sites that no human would be expected to see, as well as links in low-quality blog and comment sections. Links to any page that is purely constructed for the benefit of search engine robots are usually considered to be “bad” for most SEO purposes.

2) Has Exact Match Anchor Text in High Concentrations

A few exact matches are not bad. However, unnaturally high concentrations of exact match anchor text are now frowned upon by Google and are usually taken to be a sign of over-optimization. While that site may have good metrics for now, it may be just a matter of time before they are penalized along with the sites that are associated with them.

3) Comes from Illicit or Adult Websites

Sites from the seedy underbelly of the internet are chronically under-policed by Google and most major search engines. As a result of this lack of attention, these sites rarely get serious penalties. However, legitimate sites that are linked to these can be at severe risk because of their topical irrelevance and toxicity. Unless you are actually doing SEO for those industries, it’s best to just stay away.

4) Connected to Poor Quality Content

Sites that offer content with no value, bad grammar, and poor execution are not the ones you want to be associated with your site. While these low-quality sites are not always malicious, their backlinks are likely to be a drain on your backlink equity all the same.

5) Has a Nofollow Attribute

If a website is not at New York Times, BBC, or Wikipedia levels of prominence and authority, you have to consider if a nofollow link on them is worthwhile. If the site is only average, doesn’t offer high referral traffic, and does not have especially high relevance or value to your own website, you should probably just move on.

Why are Bad Backlinks Still Common?

Bad backlinks and unproductive link building practices are still commonplace for a few reasons:

1) Mistaken and Outdated SEO Practices

Best practices in SEO change all the time. For example, exact match anchor text used to be the best type of anchor text there was. It was even fully endorsed by most SEO experts, including white hats. Today, the excessive use of exact-match anchor text may even get your site penalized.

This is why SEOs should always keep up-to-date on their field. Following leaders in SEO like Google’s John Mueller as well as prominent SEO and SEM blogs such as Search Engine Journal, MOZ, Search Engine Land, and many others should help keep you clued in to what works and doesn’t work in your field.

2) Overly-Aggressive SEO Practices

In today’s fast-paced, hypercompetitive world, link building is one of the few tech disciplines that rewards patience. It can take months or years before your efforts bear any fruit.

The problem is, we are often under pressure to produce quick results from clients who are desperate for gains, are on edge, or don’t understand SEO. Other times, there is also pressure to use tactics that offer quick wins to justify budgets, often to the long-term detriment of the business.

This naturally leads some SEOs to be more aggressive, turning to over-optimization and even black hat strategies to push their landing pages up Google’s search results. So long as these pressures exist in digital marketing, there will always be SEOs who will take things too far.

3) Negative SEO

Speaking of taking things too far, some competitors may resort to negative SEO to bring down your rankings. Negative SEO is when someone intentionally does bad SEO practices to bring down a rival brand or website. This type of SEO is particularly common in some illicit industries and also happens to political candidates during elections.

Fortunately, you can easily find and control these and other kinds of bad backlinks with the steps below.

How Do We Identify Low-Quality Backlinks?

There’s more than one way to audit your backlink profile. However, at SearchWorks, we tend to follow one general process for finding low-quality backlinks. We’ve found that this process not only makes it easy to find bad backlinks but also gives us enough leeway to make effective judgment calls for unique situations.

Step 1: Subscribe to a Link Intelligence Tool

Link intelligence tools by reputed developers like MOZ, Majestic, and Ahrefs are a necessity if you plan on doing SEO professionally. While their free or trial versions are powerful, we recommend that you get paid full versions as these offer superior functionality.

If you can only afford one and need to do a log of backlink audits, we recommend Ahrefs. However, all the tools we mentioned are good in their own ways and we use all of them to ensure we have the best backlink intel available.

Step 2: Use Your Preferred Tools to Audit Your Page

On most of these tools, all you need to do to run a site audit is to select the options for backlink analysis and paste your website in the correct field. In a few minutes, they should give you a spreadsheet containing all the target site’s backlinks and sources.

We like MOZ, Majestic, and Ahrefs in particular because their data is readily exportable as .CSV files that you can open in Excel. This function allows you to sort and manage backlink data in any way you need.

Step 3: Sort Your Data

Once you’ve extracted your backlink data and exported it to a spreadsheet app like Excel, it’s time to sort it. Sorting your data will make it easier to spot low-quality links and make decisions on how to handle them, later on.

A rookie mistake a lot of SEOs make is to rely on MOZ’s Domain Authority, Ahref’s Domain Rating, or Majestics’s Citation Flow as a basis for determining quality. This is a big mistake, as these metrics are easily manipulated and cannot easily determine the true authority and reliability of many legitimate websites.

Rather, we use other data offered by these tools. On MOZ, we like to use the Spam Score rating, which determines the “spamminess” of the websites links originate from. Generally, we prefer to use Majestic’s Trust Flow. With Trust Flow, we generally only review anything scoring below 15.

Ahrefs does not show metrics similar to Trust Flow or Spam Score. However, it does give you an estimate of organic traffic. You can use this estimate and compare it with its DA or DR to make a judgment call about the legitimacy of the website and the real value of its backlinks

However, these are just internal guidelines and we don’t use the same tools and processes for each website we work on. At the end of the day, you have to draw from your training and experience to know what the data is telling you.

To find out why we like using Trust Flow, read Trust Flow Explained.

Step 4: Use Your Link Intelligence Tools to Give You an Anchor Text Report

Most link intelligence tools should be able to give you a report detailing the profile of a site’s anchor text.

As mentioned earlier, anchor text profiles can give you a clue to the spamminess and reliability of a website. A large number of exact matches is a red flag, possibly indicating negative SEO activity or a Google Penalty risk. You can also check out the source websites to see if links are coming from comment sections, forums, or other less-desirable types of content.

Step 5: Shortlist and Manually Review Each Problem Website

Another rookie mistake made by many SEOs is to make decisions on how to treat links without actually visiting the source websites. Rather than taking immediate action when you see a potential low-quality link, simply shortlist these links and manually review them. This will give you a much better clue of how to handle them later on.

3 Possible Actions for Low-Quality Backlinks

Once you’ve manually checked out the source websites and determined that their backlinks are low-quality, you can do the following actions:

  • Ignore. Believe it or not, this is often the best idea. Google is now good at contextualizing the nature of different backlinks. If the link is not from a malicious source and isn’t actively harming your site now, removing it won’t help your site. If anything, it may cause you to miss out on the link’s future potential, should the site become a more authoritative and trusted source, later on.
  • Request for Backlink Removal. If the source website is harmful or very low quality, you may contact the webmaster to request the backlink’s removal. Unfortunately, there is sometimes extortion involved with these interactions, which leads us to the last option.
  • Disavow the Domain or URL. You can effectively separate the transfer or link equity from sketchy websites with the use of Google’s Disavow Tool. To access the tool, you’ll need to get into the Google Search Console and upload a .txt file containing the URLs and domains that you want to be disassociated with. After a few weeks, the backlink should no longer return any link equity.

However, disavowals are not without risk because they also stop the flow of positive link equity. Also, many newbie SEOs simply do not have the discernment to use the tool wisely. To learn about our approach to disavowals, read How to Use Google’s Disavow Links Tool.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how to find low-quality backlinks in your link profile is an important part of avoiding Google’s penalties and maintaining search engine visibility, regardless of whether or not you plan to do extensive link building.

So long as Google and other search engines continue to use backlinks to assess landing page and website quality, SEOs will need to understand how best to maintain their sites’ backlink profiles. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, as even the best AI and machine learning components of search engines are still reliant on backlink signals to provide context and indicate relevance in online searches.

How do you handle low-quality links in your link profile? Do you agree or disagree with our approach? If you’d like to discuss these and other SEO-related questions, feel free to contact us to set up a meeting.