Website owners and SEO professionals go to great lengths to get their sites ranked on the first page of Google and other search engines.
But unfortunately, unscrupulous competitors are not above launching negative SEO attacks against top-ranking websites. These attacks are not as dangerous as they used to be, but done properly, they can still have negative - and lasting - consequences to a site’s organic rank.
Negative SEO can take many forms but it’s usually a combination of the following tactics:
- Building spammy backlinks to your domain
- Removing your quality backlinks
- Website hacking
Building spammy backlinks (also called 'bad' or 'toxic' links) to a website is the most common method used to try to de-throne top performers.
As we can see from this 2018 Search Engine Roundtable poll, a significant number of SEO professionals (for the lack of a better term) have resorted to these tactics at one time or another.
In the last couple of years, Google has got a lot smarter, and it’s now completely ignoring a lot of these spammy backlinks.
Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team, went on record with that in the video below:
Still, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally clean your link profile and remove the offending links - because some of them might be slipping through Google’s webspam net.
The process of removing bad backlinks is relatively simple, if time-consuming:
- Understand what makes a backlink 'toxic'
- Use a tool to identify all bad links pointing to your website
- Contact the webmaster and request removal
- Create and submit a 'disavow' file to Google to ignore those links
1. Types of Link Spam You Want to Avoid
Pretty much every link which is irrelevant to your website falls in the category of bad backlinks - with the exception of editorial links from large publications.
That said, there are some backlink types that you absolutely never want to connect with your website:
- Links from penalized domains
- Links from link directories and link farms
- Links from ‘bad neighborhoods’ (porn, pharma, online gambling)
- Links from foreign language sites
- A large number of links from unrelated websites
- A large number of exact-match anchor text links.
The danger in links from penalized domains and websites pushing knock-off Viagra is obvious - they are poison, and equivalent to building a house right next to a junkyard. Thankfully, Google knows that no one who's trying to rank high would build these links on purpose, so they generally ignore them completely.
Exact-match anchor text links and links from foreign sites are a different story - from Google’s perspective, you could easily be building these yourself to manipulate rankings. That could trigger an algorithmic penalty, or a manual action, which is why it’s always a good idea to try to get rid of them as soon as they show up.
2. Find Where Those Toxic Links Are Coming From
Tools like Ahrefs, Moz, SEMRush, and Monitor Backlinks are useful for this purpose, because they flag all the links that fit their definitions of a 'toxic' link.
Each of these apps uses different metrics, but if you’re using Monitor Backlinks, it'll show you everything from Moz’s spam score to Ahrefs’ Domain Authority, which is helpful when a link is teetering between “spammy” and “likely harmless”.
Whichever tool you’re using to identify your bad links, try to find an export option.
A downloadable CSV file will enable you to sort and order the data, which will come in handy when determining which websites to contact first to ask them to remove the links pointing to your site.
3. Request Removal from Website
That said, the chances of getting a low-quality backlink removed by asking the offending webmaster nicely are close to zero. It’s a step Google requires you to take before asking them to ignore the link, however, so you should at least attempt it.
In almost 90% of the cases, you won’t be able to find the contact information of the person who has access to that website. Most won’t even have a generic contact page for you send an email through - if that’s the case, use WHOIS Domain Lookup to try to track down the owner.
You'll get something thing like this, but most of the time, the listed name won't ring a bell (as in this case), and the listing will be similarly devoid of an email address.
If you happen to find an email that you can use, but you don’t hear anything back, it’s a good idea to contact the hosting company and ask them to remove the toxic backlinks you’ve identified. They'll be able to assist you in most cases.
To find out which company is hosting a website, use WhoIsHostingThis.
4. Create and Submit a Disavow File to Google
At the end of the day, it’s highly likely that you'll have to turn to Google’s 'Disavow Links' tool to sort out your link spam problem - you can listen to Matt Cutts explain what it is and how it works here.
It’s a simple enough tool which enables you to import a text file (using Google Search Console) containing all the links you want Google to ignore. You can record specific URLs in it, or you can go broad and ask Google to ignore all the links from a specific domain.
Use the Disavow Links tool carefully, and only after a thorough analysis of your backlinks profile - the last thing you want to do is disavow high-quality backlinks and negatively impact your organic rankings.
After submitting, be patient - it takes time for the file to get processed, and at this point, all you can do is wait for your rankings to start slowly recovering.
Ahrefs published a detailed video walkthrough on how to identify bad backlinks, and create and upload a disavow file through the Disavow Links Tool:
Spammy Backlinks - Still A Threat In 2019
While I do believe that Google is doing everything within its power to limit how negative SEO impacts websites, I still think it’s prudent and necessary to occasionally do a backlink audit, and clean out the spammy links.
It’s a small enough job when done regularly, and it could save you from major future headaches.