When was the last time you looked at your backlinks? I’m not just talking about the ones sending traffic to you, showing up in your referrals list. I’m talking about the links that have sat around for a while, the links that show up from sites you’ve never heard of, the links that aren’t necessarily valuable at all. When was the last time you performed a backlink audit?
Links pass link juice from one site to another. The better the relationship between the two sites, in terms of quality and content, the more valuable those links are. The opposite is also true; the worse a site is, the worse the link is. This can actually go into the negatives, believe it or not. Some sites are so bad that links from them can actively hurt your site.
It’s often impossible to get rid of these links in a natural way. Ideally, you would contact the owner of the site and get them to remove the link. However, most people who own sites that bad are either not paying attention to their email or are actively selling their links for negative SEO purposes. They aren’t going to simply remove the link. Your only option is to use the disavow tool.
The disavow tool is a tool Google has put out to allow webmasters to say “hey, I know these links are bad, I don’t want them but I can’t get rid of them, can you make them not count?” It serves two purposes; it’s protection against negative SEO, and it’s a way to clean up a shady past of black hat link building.
The tool is powerful and simple to use, but it’s also dangerous. If you disavow a good link, that link is basically gone. You need to read up on how to use the tool before you try to implement it.
The most important part of using the disavow tool is identifying links that are worth disavowing. I’ve compiled a list of criteria for you to examine; if a link meets too many of these, you might want to disavow it, to be better safe than sorry.
Note: before you dig into disavowing links, check them to see if they have nofollow tags on them. You don’t really need to disavow a link that is nofollowed, because that link already doesn’t count for anything. You can disavow it anyways if it’s from an obviously bad site, but it’s not going to kill you to miss it.
Also, don’t forget to do the link audit! You need to know what links you have in order to know what to disavow.
1. The link has low Domain Authority
Domain Authority is one of the prominent link metrics, measuring the overall value and power of a whole domain. You can check DA and other link metrics using the Moz Open Site Explorer.
Domain Authority is ranked on a scale of 0 to 100. It’s logarithmic, which means it’s significantly more difficult to get from 70 to 80 than it is to get from 20 to 30. Moz says that it’s a comparative ranking, not an absolute ranking, and thus there are no “bad” DA scores. I say that’s bollocks and that any site under 20 or so is probably not very good. Certainly anything under 10 has a higher chance of being spam.
Granted, certain good but small sites can have low DA scores, so make sure to combine this with other metrics. A low DA alone isn’t quite enough to blacklist a domain, at least in my eyes.
2. The linking site is not indexed in Google
There are only three reasons why a site might not be indexed in Google.
- They’ve intentionally blocked Google with a noindex tag.
- They’re too new and Google has not found them yet.
- They’ve been flagged as spam and Google has delisted them.
Any site linking to you is probably not one of the first two. It’s possible, I guess, but not likely. Generally, a site that doesn’t show up in Google has been removed for some reason or another, usually spam.
Check if a site is indexed by performing a basic site search. Just plug in site:example.com into Google and see if anything comes up. If the site exists but does not show up in Google, it’s been delisted, and that’s a good reason to disavow it.
3. The linking site has malicious code
Whenever you’re investigating links to see if they’re worth disavowing, you’re going to want to visit them. However, spam sites can very well carry malicious code that can infect your computer. This is why, before you visit a shady backlink, you should have an ad blocker and a noscript plugin installed and turned on. A good antivirus program is a good idea as well, so no McAfee. That said, newer viruses tend to get around antivirus by adapting faster, so don’t consider yourself safe just because you have antivirus.
Malicious code is a high priority red flag. If a site tries to download something malicious or execute malicious scripts, leave and blacklist the site immediately. It’s definitely worth a disavow, no matter how good the site looks otherwise.
4. The linking page is full of garbage links
Spammers will sometimes create pages that have hundreds or even thousands of links on them. Some of these pages are incredibly old, and might have a link to you from back when such links might count for something. Some of these pages are new and simply part of a negative SEO network. Regardless, any page with hundreds of links on it is going to be a bad page. It’s also pretty unlikely that the owner of the site is going to respond to a removal request, so you can go ahead and jump right to the disavow.
5. The link is coming from a bad directory site
Some blog and article directories can have some value. If you think that sentence has a lot of qualifiers, you’re right. For the most part, article and link directories are an outdated attempt to bring a “phone book” model to the Internet, and they’re something a search engine does infinitely better.
Very rarely you can come across a directory site that has some value. These tend to be highly specific directories for certain niches, and they have high quality control in place. They also don’t tend to request payment for inclusion; if you pass their muster, you can get in. However, in most cases, directories just aren’t worth it.
You generally won’t have directory links unless you used to try to use directory marketing for your SEO, or someone you paid to manage your SEO did for you. It’s an out of date technique, so the links will be old. It’s probably fine to request removal, but if they aren’t removed, disavow them.
6. The link isn’t visible on the linking page
If you visit the page that is supposedly linking to you and you can’t find the link, something is up. Something is fishy. It’s probably an example of link cloaking, which is against all sorts of best practices and search rules.
People cloak links so they can hide them on pages to make the pages look more legit, while they’re actually just thin shells for link spam. Check the common link cloaking methods. Look for links that are in the same color as the background text. Look for links hidden behind images or way off to the side. Look for links that are scaled down with a font size of .0001. Look for scripts that hide links.
Generally, you can view the source code of the page to look for the link. If it turns out to be in a reasonable place and you just missed it, that’s fine. If it’s hidden, or there are a bunch of other links hidden on the page, that’s a good sign to disavow the site.
7. The link is from a comment you didn’t make
Part of a negative SEO attack is blog comment spam. It’s not all spam blog links, after all. They’re trying to make it look like you bought a bunch of shady links or you’re trying to game the system with an old link spam technique.
When you look for your link on the page and it turns up in the comments, you need to think pretty hard about whether or not you actually left the comment. If it has your profile information, it’s possible you or an authorized user left it. On the other hand, if it’s simply text filled out when you would have used an account, it’s probably fake spam. Also, look at the comment that surrounds the link. Is it something you would have written?
Honestly, even if it’s a comment you left, the link might be worth getting rid of if it’s low quality. You can often get blog comments removed as long as they’re not an important part of a discussion chain, just talk to the webmaster.
8. The link is from a page in a foreign language
Foreign language links aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not helpful in most cases. If you’re running a US site and you’re getting links from Indonesia, those links probably are not very helpful.
Even if the links are legitimate, you’re going to encounter issues with the fact that the foreign users aren’t able to make good use of your site. The links aren’t really bringing value to your site, they’re just there. You don’t need to disavow foreign links, but you might as well.
9. The URL includes the word “profile”
A link that includes the word profile should only be included on pages that are profiles you own. Any other profile linking to you is probably a spam account made to tank your rankings. Review these with a fine comb; they could be benign, made for you like a Yelp account, but most are usually spam.
10. The linking site is obviously a spam site
You know how sometimes when you reach a site, you can just tell that it’s spam? There’s a certain “mouthfeel” to a spam site that sets off red flags even if you can’t point to exactly why. This alone isn’t always a reason to disavow a link – you might have the wrong hunch, after all – but it can be a good reason to get rid of it.
Often, these sites will simply be too heavy on the keywords and too light on the value. That’s often enough to tank a site, so it’s fine to get rid of the link. You can also do a bit of deeper investigation if you’re on the fence.
11. A manual action calls out the links specifically
Sometimes, if you’re penalized for unnatural links to your site, Google will place a manual action that hurts your SEO ranking until you fix it. You can see these in the webmaster console. Sometimes they just say “bad links exist, good luck.” Other times they will point out specific domains they consider spam for you to fix. If they point out specific domains, find and get rid of those links. It doesn’t matter if the site is actually good, if Google thinks it’s bad, get rid of the links.
12. The content on the linking page is stolen
Sometimes a link is on a page that looks fine, but you’re still skeptical of it, probably because of the URL, the branding, or the construction of the page. One test you can run is simply to Google part of the content, or run it through Copyscape. This will tell you if the content is stolen. If it is, you can often identify the original source of the content, which you might have a link from as well. Either way, disavow links on sites that steal content.
13. The linking site has a garbage TLD
There are a lot of TLDs these days. Sites that end in .xyz, .click, .party, .top, .gdn, and other such TLDs are statistically more likely to be spam sites due to their low cost.
Some, like .us and .biz, are on the fence; some legitimate sites use them, but many spam sites also use them. There’s a list of spam TLDs you can find here but, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Anything other than the main com/net/org/edu/gov/io/etc TLDs is potentially hazardous. At the very least, they’re a little worse than the main TLDs, so it’s a strike against a site on the edge.
14. SEMRush identifies the links as toxic
SEMRush is a link analysis tool you can use on a limited basis for free, or you can pay for an account. You can run an entire backlink audit through it and it will rank links according to 30 different measures of toxicity. If links come up looking toxic, you can export them in a list for further investigation and disavow tool submission.
15. The link violates any other Google guidelines on linking
Google has link guidelines, much like they have guidelines for everything else. Read up on them here, and see if any backlinks you have violate any of the other rules I didn’t mention. If so, well, go ahead and get those links removed.