One of the most overlooked parts of building a backlink profile is monitoring and addressing spam backlinks.
There are links from low value referring domains that can do a lot of damage to a website if left unchecked.
What’s more, the only way to know whether or not you have a bunch of spam backlinks pointing to your site is to conduct a backlink audit–that or find yourself hit with a surprise Google penalty that can tank your rankings and traffic.
With the release of Google’s 2022 Link Spam Update, you need to be more aware than ever of the kinds of links your site is attracting.
You can monitor your backlinks for free using free tools, or you can use a paid tool or service.
The paid route is usually quicker and more effective, but if you’re willing to do some leg work, you can do a good backlink audit without spending much money.
Below, we’ll provide a comprehensive breakdown of what, exactly, constitutes a spam backlink, what to do when you find them, and how to respond if and when Google decides to penalize you for them.
So, what is a spam backlink and why, exactly, is it bad for your site?
Spam backlinks are inbound links coming from low-quality websites. You don’t necessarily have to do anything to build these links (although a lot of people do), they occur naturally over time.
Often, spammers will target a website for a multitude of reasons. When Google detects these kinds of links, they will do either one of two things: neutralize their SEO value (in this case, negative SEO), which is the best-case scenario for a website owner; or they could penalize you for it.
Typically, a Google penalty occurs when they believe you have been building those spam backlinks yourself.
Because backlinks are such an important part of the page rank puzzle, SEOs and link builders often build links by any means. Google only wants to see high authority backlinks, however, and if it notices too many unnatural, spammy-looking backlinks, it could hit you with a manual action penalty.
These can be hard to recover from and, depending on the severity, can have a material impact on your revenue.
If Google believes your spam backlinks are egregious enough–both in terms of quantity and shamelessness–it could potentially even deindex your website entirely, meaning you disappear from the search results.
Why might a website end up with spam backlinks?
There are basically three reasons that spam backlinks occur.
- You might have accidentally paid for spam links
- You might be the target of a negative SEO attack
- Spammers might be trying to build their own ranking and traffic
Paying for spam backlinks
A lot of webmasters don’t fully appreciate how much damage low quality links can do. This can lead to things like unwittingly hiring link builders (either freelance or agencies) that source their links from link farms.
A link farm is essentially a website that is created for the sole purpose of selling backlinks to anyone willing to buy.
Often they are created on expired domains that have good residual domain authority, giving them an air of quality. Google can see through this, however, and really doesn’t like farmed backlinks.
This is why it is so important to hire a link building service that both understands and is willing to put in the effort to satisfy Google’s link building requirements.
A lot of unscrupulous link builders will make wild claims about the number of links they are able to build for you and the enormous organic traffic increases that come with them, but behind the scenes, they’re building you a house of cards (spam backlinks).
Negative SEO attacks
Another scenario you could find yourself in is one in which a competitor has created spam backlinks pointing to your site in order to sabotage you.
They are doing this in the hopes that Google penalizes you in the rankings, which is a win for them.
Spammers using you for easy links
Lastly, you can accumulate spam backlinks when spammers link to your site in order to improve their exposure. The anchor text for these links will often be keywords that the spammers are trying to rank for.
A lot of the time, the logic behind these links is “if I link to a lot of high quality websites, more webmasters will notice me and check my site out.”
Now that we’ve detailed the main ways that spam backlinks occur, it’s time to explore the free and paid ways to combat them that you have at your disposal.
Uncovering spam backlinks for free
If you don’t want to invest in a paid tool, you can also use a free version of one of the big SEO analytics tools like Ahrefs to check spam backlinks for free. Ahrefs’ Free Backlink Checker, for example.
The issue that you will almost always encounter with these free tools, however, is that you tend to only get a snapshot of your backlinks.
If you’re using Ahrefs’ free tool, for instance, you’re only allowed to see your top 100 links.
This doesn't do much to help you find spam, because you only see your best links.
Even Google Search Console only provides a partial picture of your overall backlink profile. You can keep exporting new samples every time your backlink profile changes, but you will never see the whole thing.
With Moz, the other big analytics tool, it’s the same thing. You only get 50 rows of data per query if you’re using a free account.
The only way you’re really going to get a powerful free solution is if you sigh up for a free trial of a premium tool. This typically gives you around one or two weeks of unrestricted access to all of the best features, and you’re allowed to cancel before the trial period is over to avoid being charged.
You could also sign up for a number of different free sites and compile a larger amount of data.
Some good sites include:
- Google Search Console
- Bing Webmaster Tools
Bear in mind that even with free tools, you’ll probably have to verify the ownership of your domain before you can view your free results.
Ahrefs is a good example of this:
While using the free backlink checker, you can comb through the results manually and look at the domain authority and trust scores of the websites that are linking to you.
You can also have a more general look at the referring domain. Does it look like a legitimate site? Do you see a lot of .cn or .ru domains? These are cause for concern.
Check for spammy backlinks with paid tools
As you might expect, to really do a thorough job of uncovering all of your spammy backlinks, you need to be using a premium too.
These will pull a lot more data and you are going to miss far fewer links.
The two best tools for a comprehensive backlink audit are Ahrefs and SEMrush.
How to use SEMrush to audit spammy links
SEMrush backlink audit tool allows you to create a backlink audit project that will pull a huge amount of search engine data to check for toxic backlinks.
After you’ve linked your site and created your project, you can begin narrowing down the spammy websites and bad backlinks.
There are three primary metrics that you will want to focus on when using SEMrush.
The overall toxicity score
This is the macro metric that essentially lets you know how much toxic backlinks are, on aggregate, affecting your website.
A low overall indicates that you don’t have a large number of spam backlinks pointing to your site. Obviously, this is what you want.
A high overall toxicity score is cause for concern and means you need to do some deeper digging.
Referring domain toxicity
SEMrush ranks referring domains by toxicity, which means it tells you exactly how many low quality links and bad backlinks you have.
The idea is to filter the results from highest to lowest toxicity score so that you can go after the biggest offenders.
SEMrush will provide a list of issues for each link, including:
- Low domain authority
- Suspicious follow-nofollow ratios
- Irrelevant geolocations or niches
How to find spammy links using Ahrefs
The other paid option for finding low quality backlinks is to use Ahrefs.
This is the tool that we at dofollow use most, although different link builders and SEOs will have their preference.
After you’ve run an audit (which requires a paid account), you can then rank your results by Domain Rating.
The idea is to investigate the domains with the lowest Domain Rating first and evaluate them for spamminess. A low DR isn’t necessarily indicative of a low quality link, but it can be a red flag.
To check whether a low DR domain is spammy, have a look at things like the anchor text and where in the world the link is coming from. Visit the page/site linking to you and ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this site give off spammy vibes?
- Is it low quality?
- Is there little content or a lot of very thing, keyword stuffed content?
- How new is the site?
- Is the site completely irrelevant to your niche and/or does it sell products or services related to things like gambling, cannabis, pornography etc.?
Evaluating spam backlinks is not always a science and involves using your own best judgment a lot of the time. For most of the above questions, there are no set metrics that will tell you definitively yes or no whether you’re looking at spammy backlinks.
A lot of new sites with new blogs might not have a ton of content and they may have low DR ratings, but there may not be anything nefarious about a link from them.
Responding to spammy backlinks
Ok, you’ve uncovered your spammy links, what do you do about them?
There are essentially two ways to get rid of spam backlinks. Outreach and directly petitioning Google.
The outreach method
If there aren’t that many spammy backlinks and if you believe the site owner will be willing to help you out, you can also send a short email requesting a website stops linking to you.
You can do this manually, but SEMrush actually helps you automate the job if you are able to get your hands on the email addresses associated with the links you want removed.
SEMrush gives you email removal templates that you can quickly personalize and send to site owners.
If, on the other hand, someone links to you maliciously, it is unlikely they’re going to be open to playing fair.
In that case, your best bet is to have Google do it for you using the disavow tool.
Google disavow tools
This tool lets you essentially reject links to your site. It’s free to use, although you will need to connect Google Search Console to the website you want to disavow links to.
SEMrush and other backlink audit tools will let you download a XLS file of all of the suspicious links you uncover and then upload them directly to Google.
Sometimes, you either don’t act fast enough or Google has decided that it is going to penalize you for some of the spammy backlinks you have.
In that case, you are going to have to ask Google to, essentially, drop the charges.
How to respond if your website has been penalized
Whether as a result of negative SEO attacks or because search engines simply don’t like the number of spam links you have accumulated, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a manual action penalty.
In that case you will have to request that Google review the decision and, based on your justification, rescind their penalty (of your ranking and traffic).
This is the only way to reverse a manual penalty.
The best way to see if you’ve received a manual penalty is to visit the Manual Actions Report area of your Google Search Console.
It is very important to stay vigilant when it comes to spam backlinks. You don’t need to do this every day, but if you run a report once every 3-4 months, you can make sure you don’t find yourself to any drops in ranking and organic traffic.
For businesses that rely heavily on organic traffic as a source of leads, Google penalties can be incredibly damaging.
To make sure you stay on the right side of Google and only build links that will improve your visibility in the SERP, you either need to devote a lot of time to building links the right way or reach out to a reputable link building agency like do follow.
We’ve been building high-authority, user-centric backlinks for our clients for years and we’ve honed the processes and cultivated the relationships necessary to build high quality backlinks at scale.
Why Trust Us On SEO
Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.
Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.
While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.