Backlinks are an important SEO tool. So important that even relative beginners now know how crucial they can be in trying to get a website to the top of search engine rankings. But not all backlinks are the same. Some of them can not only “not help” a website, but be harmful to it. Too many backlinks of this kind can even result in penalties. So how do you recognize harmful backlinks? And above all: How can you prevent them from damaging a website?
What are backlinks anyway?
The website gruenderszene.de describes a backlink as an “incoming link from one website to another”. In other words: Website A linked to website B, so you simply click on the linked text to switch between the two pages. Links are set to provide cross-references or point to related topics.
Why are backlinks valuable for SEO?
However, these links are not only used to refer to a source or to share information, but are also being used by search engine optimizers to move a website up the search engine rankings. Why? Quite simple: If a website is referred to freueqently as a reliable source, Google thinks that it contains valuable content and offers the searcher what he needs. And valuable content is promoted accordingly.
In fact, backlinks are so important that some really valuable links (i.e. from big websites with a lot of trust) can significantly advance an Internet presence. Of course, it is an advantage if the website you are linking to is thematically relevant to the linked page. If the respective keywords belong to the same topic, Google recognizes that the link is relevant.
In the past, SEOs often ensured that their websites had as many backlinks as possible – no matter where they came from or if they made any sense. As a result of these tactics, many websites improved their rankings.
What makes a good backlink?
Basically, a good backlink has three characteristics:
- It is relevant.
- Google trusts the page in which the link is embedded.
- It differs from other backlinks that a website already has. Diversity is important.
What makes a backlink harmful?
A few years ago, Google did something against spammy backlinks being used for SEO. They introduced the Google Penguin update, which no longer rates all backlinks equally. Google now requires backlinks to provide added value to the readers of its websites.
For example: If a link stands alone (is not embedded in text), it’s an indicator for Google that it could be spam. Even if the link was placed on a page that Google does not consider to be of very high quality, this can be harmful. For example, links in publicly accessible forums are not rated very positively. As a rule of thumb, it can be said: If the user of a web page would not click on a link, it’s considered out of place and Google regards it as spam.
How to recognize a harmful backlink?
Google usually classifies backlinks as spam if they are
- exchanged with other websites
- located on external websites
- appear in payable directories
- posted on forums
- in press reports that do not contain any real news
- appear somewhere through illegal tactics such as hacking
Again, diversity is important: except for the last point, none of the things mentioned above is bad per se. But if Google discovers a large number of backlinks on a website that apply to these categories, that’s a totally different story. In other words: If hundreds of backlinks for a website appear in forums that are completely irrelevant to the topic, then there is something fishy in Google’s eyes.
What are the effects of harmful backlinks?
In SEO, the sails have turned. Today, “quality over quantity” is the motto. This means that backlinks from familiar sources are viewed higher and therefore have a positive influence on the search result ranking. It also means that backlinks which Google considers spam can send a website’s ranking plummeting.
Once Google believes that a website is using unfair tactics, the tech giant takes action. However, this does not always result in deliberate discrimination in the ranking: whoever is regarded as the real villain can even be removed from the index. As a result, potential or existing customers would no longer be able to find a website via Google. And since Google has a market share of over 80 percent in Germany and even over 90 percent in mobile search, this would understandably be fatal.
Why does a website have harmful backlinks?
Websites often have harmful backlinks for one of two reasons:
Previous SEO Tactics
It is possible that in the past, an SEO’s strategy was aquiring as many backlinks as possible. This is highly likely since these tactics worked until a few years ago, even though they weren’t very highly regarded back then.
Harmful backlinks can also be created thanks to a spam attack by a competitor. In many cases this is done by abroad service providers in order to cover up traces. The cleansing of backlinks resulting from such attacks is often more complicated than those resulting from outdated SEO tactics. Often they are only noticed when the damage has already been done. In addition, in such a situation every single backlink haas tobe checked for quality.
How can harmful backlinks be removed?
Create a list of all backlinks
Before malicious backlinks can be removed, they must be identified first. Create a list of all backlinks for a domain. This can be done easily and free of charge with Google’s proprietary webmaster tools – a method that is especially recommended because the resulting list is identical to the one Google works with.
Recognizing unnatural patterns
This list is your basis for identifying backlinks that provide no positive effects for your website. If harmful backlinks exist due to previous SEO efforts, filter your list for links from a certain period of time. If this is not the case, try identifying them with the anchor text, for example. An anchor text is the visible (usually highlighted blue and/or underlined) text of the link, exactly the part you have to click on to follow a link.
If the text is often identical, contains of only one or two words and/or doesn’t relate to the linked content, it can indicate a spam attack – or bad link building. Those backlinks are always harmful. A search engine identifies backlinks as unnatural if, in a period of time where there was no link building, numerous links were created.
Get in contact
Once you identified unwanted backlinks, here’s what you do: Contact the webmasters of the pages on which they were posted. Usually, backlinks are removed if you send them a friendly request. But of course it can also happen that webmasters cannot be reached or do not cooperate. This requires a lot of time and nerves.
If your contacting the webmaster proves unsuccessful, you can use a disavow tool. Google itself offers a disavow tool to invalidate spam backlinks. Google’s disavow tool does not delete the backlinks (this would require access to the website’s backend), but registers your evaluation (you think of them as not providing added value) and takes it into account. Submitting a disavow list to Google usually does the trick. But if it doesn’t, you can contact the Google Webmaster Team. They will manually deal with the problem.
As with so many things, don’t wait until there is a problem before taking action. A good defensive is also the most effective offensive when it comes to harmful backlinks. Some time ago, XOVI itself released an in-house Disavow tool that quickly analyzes a website’s link profile and – if you wish – does so regularly and notifies you of any problems. This way, potentially harmful backlinks can be detected early and be removed before penalties are imposed.
Always up to date
Ultimately, only one thing is certain: Google will continue to change its algorithm. Just as the search results will not remain constant, the ranking criteria are not carved in stone. If you want to keep your website high ranked, stay up to date on search engine developments. Whatever you do, keep in mind: Google seems to be increasingly striving to eliminate unfair competition and reward honest business practices. So it pays off to tidy up and try to get quality backlinks from trusted sources in the future.