Bad Backlinks: How to Identify and Remove Them From Your Link Profile

Bad Backlinks: How to Identify and Remove Them From Your Link Profile

Backlinks are the focal point of any SEO. So they do whatever they can to have as many as possible.

But here’s the thing:

Not all backlinks are beneficial.

In fact, some can harm your site's ranking and reputation.

Today, we’ll cover what constitutes a bad backlink, how to find them, and what you can do to fix the problem.

What Is a Bad Backlink?

Google looks at backlinks to see if your site offers relevant content for their users.

Basically, the more relevant the backlinks, the better your site's chances of showing up on search queries.

But for this system to work, you need to earn the links.

Unfortunately, some SEOs have used shady tactics to game the system. While they’ve found success in the short term, Google eventually finds ways to punish them for their actions.

Take BBC for example. Even one of the biggest news organizations in the world was not spared. Though it didn’t appear to be intentional, Google flagged the organization for its unnatural links in 2013.

The same can be said for Overstock. The online retailer hired an SEO company that used strategies that were considered bad practices. Overstock’s shares went down as a result.

The moral of the story?

Using black hat techniques to acquire links is bad for business.


Always get a trustworthy backlink seller who will only secure high-quality backlinks that'll only your site's organic traffic over time!

So we go back to the original question: What is a bad backlink?

Bad backlinks are links that originate from untrusted sources. Google has guidelines on what users can and cannot do to improve their ranking.

Link manipulation is one of the practices that are frowned upon by search engines in general.

When users violate these guidelines, Google penalises sites by moving them further down the search results.

So What Constitutes a “Bad” Backlink?

Bad backlinks come in different forms, but they all serve the same purpose: to make your site look bad in Google's eyes!

Below are examples of some of the widely used black hat link-building strategies and their downfalls to help you see the bigger picture.

Links From Sites With Bad Reputation

When it comes to link building, quality reigns supreme over quantity.

Links found on low-authority sites are borderline ignored by search engines.

Some of these sites are harmless. They are considered low-authority because they are relatively new and still building their brand.

However, there are low-quality sites that share dubious qualities. These sites have either one of the following characteristics:

  • Poorly written or thin content
  • No About Us, Privacy Policy, and Terms and Conditions pages
  • Keyword-rich anchor text, which makes the links appear unnatural
  • Questionable link profile

Therefore, if your backlink comes from this type of site, it would significantly impact your ranking!

Sites With Content That Doesn’t Match

At the very least, your content should be related to the backlink’s source.

A used car dealership has no business linking to a mom-and-pop shop half a world away. It wouldn’t make sense to you. And it doesn’t make sense to Google.

When search engines can’t find any relevance between the two domains, they start to question the link’s validity.

So make sure that your links come from sites similar to yours.

Linking to the Same Content Multiple Times in One Page

It’s only normal for links to appear more than once. Sometimes links are added at the start and then show up again towards the end of a post.

But for a post with multiple links to the same landing page?

While it could be a coincidence, Google does not take risks. If it raises their suspicions, the site is flagged.

A page should ideally have 100 links or less. If a bulk of those links point to your site, you might end up in a heap of mess.

So, if you see pages that link to the same outbound page multiple times, avoid them at all costs!

Participating in Link Exchange Programs

In the past, some SEOs made deals and exchanged links.

The idea was to scratch each other’s backs and boost their sites in the SERPs.

In social media terms, it’s comparable to the follow-me-and-I’ll-follow-you-back model.


It didn’t take long for Google to catch on to the scheme.

Today, it knows how to find traded links and squashes any chance these manipulative sites have at ranking.

Using Keyword Matching

Google doesn’t just look at the links. It also takes the anchor text into consideration.

You see, SEOs used to have a say on anchor texts used when third-party sites linked to their content. And for a while, that wasn’t a big deal.

But then they started using keywords they wanted to rank for.

And eventually, Google saw that as an attempt to cheat the system.

SEOs can no longer rely on this technique.

Links in Blog Posts and Forums Not Having Context

It’s not a good sign when links have no context to them.

This is reminiscent of old blog post comments and forum entries.

Some commenters would leave replies without any context. Just a link going to the site they’re promoting.

They thought randomly placed backlinks work. They were wrong.

Links need to have context for them to be effective. Otherwise, webmasters can leave links on every blog post or forum and start ranking immediately.

However, the example above doesn’t automatically make blog commenting a black hat tactic.

Let’s be real here:

It’s not the SEO tactic that produces bad results. It’s the person who does it!

And if the person who builds links through blog commenting observes the best practices, it can lead to powerful results!

Case in point, a study found 26 good comments leading to 2,208 site visits.

One of the key factors for having such high traffic was the quality of the content. The study's author made sure his comments were relevant to the post.

He also went out of his way to ensure the comments added value.

Making comments sound like they’re from a real person is just as important.

It would also help if you used your real name and photo.

The author suggests making comments no longer than 500 characters but not dipping below 140.

Participating in Link Schemes

As mentioned earlier, people are responsible for link schemes and not the tactics themselves.

Once people perform a certain tactic the wrong way, it catches on with everyone else.

And just because it’s a link building technique that everybody can do, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing!

Therefore, you need to approach certain tactics cautiously.

However, there are link building strategies that that violate Google’s guidelines.

These link schemes can be very effective if your site doesn’t get caught doing any of them.

Once Google finds out that your site violates its link policies, you might as well say goodbye to that website. Google will penalise it and it will never be seen in SERPs again!

These link schemes include the following:

  • Cloaking - Presenting different content to users and search engines to manipulate search rankings and mislead users.
  • Doorways - Creating sites or pages to rank for specific, similar search queries, leading users to less useful intermediate pages.
  • Expired domain abuse - Purchasing and repurposing expired domains primarily to manipulate search rankings by hosting low-value content.
  • Hacked content - Content placed on a site without permission due to security vulnerabilities, often to manipulate search results or install malicious content.
  • Hidden text and links - Placing content on a page solely to manipulate search engines, not easily viewable by human visitors.
  • Keyword stuffing - Filling a web page with keywords or numbers to manipulate rankings, often appearing unnaturally or out of context.
  • Link spam - Any behaviour manipulating links to or from a site, intended to influence rankings in Google Search results.
  • Machine-generated traffic - Consuming resources and interfering with serving users by sending automated queries or scraping results.
  • Malware and malicious behaviours - Software or applications designed to harm computers, mobile devices, or users.
  • Misleading functionality - Intentionally creating sites with misleading functionality and services that trick users into thinking they can access content or services they cannot.
  • Scaled content abuse - Generating many pages primarily to manipulate search rankings, not to help users, typically with unoriginal, low-value content.
  • Scraped content - Basing sites around content taken from other sources without adding original content, value, or proper citation.
  • Sneaky redirects - These malicious redirects redirect visitors to a different URL than initially requested, showing different content to users and search engines.
  • Site reputation abuse - Publishing third-party pages with little or no first-party oversight, manipulating search rankings by exploiting the host site's ranking signals.
  • Thin affiliate pages - Pages with product affiliate links where product descriptions and reviews are copied from the original merchant without original content or added value.
  • User-generated spam - Spammy content added to a site by users through channels intended for user content, often without the site owner's awareness.

It is important to repeat that your site will only get penalised by Google if it catches you performing any of the strategies above in broad daylight.

The fact of the matter is this:

Link schemes, as bad as they are for your site, work!

You just have to be very, VERY careful when building these link types on your site.

Either you expect Google to penalise your site anyway and you’re doing this as part of your churn-and-burn strategy, or you have a way to cover your track from search engines.

Regardless, it’s mostly better to just stay away of these link schemes if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Examples of Sites with Spammy Link Profiles

Below, we delve into public case studies of sites that lost traffic due to bad backlinks.

But let’s first talk about how to contract these types of links in the first place.

While you can be responsible for building bad backlinks to your site, your site may also be experiencing a negative SEO attack.

This occurs when people want to de-rank your site because it’s overtaking their websites or client sites from SERPs.

So, instead of developing and launching a better link building strategy, they bombard their top competitors with spammy links.

Stupid, I know, but that’s what some people desperate to get their rankings up do.

That said, the examples below are cautionary tales that any site can get hit with bad backlinks, whether it’s their own doing or somebody else: was once ranking #1 for the term HCG Diet. And yet, they found themselves at the bottom of page 1 almost overnight.

The reason? Half of its backlinks use key phrases as part of its anchor text, making them look unnatural and spammy.

When an SEO firm investigated, they deduced that the root cause was the 900 backlinks with keyword-specific anchor texts.

It took a while, but they eventually bounced back from the ordeal.

The lesson?

If you see backlinks to your site that use keyword-centric anchor texts, they could cause your sudden decline in rankings.

This is an oldie but goodie.

Spencer Haws of Niche Pursuits built a site in 2013 for his public Niche Site Project.

While building the site, he noticed in his backlink report that websites were linking to it on their blog rolls without his knowledge or permission.

A few of these shouldn’t worry site owners. But the massive spike in referring domains in such a short period is definitely a cause for alarm!

In the actual post, the website was still ranking fairly high, but it eventually was de-ranked and penalised on Google.

This is one of the main concerns of public site-building. Since people know the domain you’re working on, those with malicious intent working in the same industry as yours will put your website down by any means necessary.

The lesson? Don’t share your site’s URL with anyone!

Ginger Software

Ginger Software who hired an online marketing agency called yellowHEAD.

Ginger Software is an online service that offered grammar and spell check tools.

They had a great site and were often linked to by news outlets, review sites, and forums. All of which were high-quality sources.

But one day, yellowHEAD received a notice from Google. It said Ginger Software had site-wide unnatural backlinks.

The software company found their traffic dropped by 94%. That’s bad — especially since most of their traffic comes from organic results.

A quick investigation showed that they were being linked to by pornography, gambling, and pharmaceutical sites.

The sleazy articles would often use words like “occurred” and then link to Ginger’s site.

At a glance, one would think that the site was a victim of negative SEO.

But in Ginger’s case, the culprits were spammers using a program that automates link building to rank their own domains.

This case was brought to John Mueller’s attention at a conference where he offered his thoughts:

“You mean like when somebody creates spam links but also links to Wikipedia? … We have seen it happen before. Sometimes we can tell but sometimes it’s a little bit harder… but [if] you get a manual penalty from it you will know about it so you can just disavow the links.”

How to Find and Identify Bad Links

Knowing what bad links are is one thing. But finding them is another.

For this purpose, you will need tools and software to make the job much easier.

Because the act of manually combing your site for backlinks without the use of any application is crazy!

Not only is it a time-consuming process, but it’s also not a smart way of using your resources.

And as far as the tools are concerned, Ahrefs is a cut above the rest.

Considered to have arguably the largest link database online, Ahrefs can help you find as many backlinks to your site as possible.

Not only that, but Ahrefs can help you determine which backlinks are bad!

Aside from backlink research and analysis, most SEOs trust Ahrefs to manage their strategies.

It has tons of SEO-focused features, like the ability to generate millions of keyword ideas. If you need to know the organic traffic your competitors get for a certain keyword, they have that, too.

But for this purpose, I will show you how to find bad backlinks using Ahrefs.

Start by creating an account and adding your website to the dashboard. Then, head on over to Site Explorer and enter your domain in the search bar.

This will bring you to the overview page of your domain. Click Referring Domains located in the sidebar.

You will be given a list of sites that are linking to your domain.

By default, the list is sorted by the sites’ domain ranking (DR). It shows sites with the highest ranking on top.

To find low-quality links, click DR to reverse the order.

From here, click on the Links to target drop-down menu to see the exact page on the site that links to your site page.

Work your way through the list to find suspicious sites.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done since you have to do this manually.

But to make this a bit easier for you, check if the site has:

  • A foreign name for its domain URL
  • Has 0 on all metrics listed by Ahrefs (in particular, Traffic and Keywords)

From the example above, clicking the link will bring you to the source of the link. Here you’ll be able to gauge if the link comes from a reputable source.

When visiting the page, the site looks exactly like Hotjar’s, even though it doesn’t have the same domain!

This should immediately be a red flag for you.

You don’t want links coming from a site that simply spins content. In cases like this, you’d want to do what you can to have the link removed.

Continue working your way down the list. You can tick the boxes next to the Referring Domain column to select the offending sites.

Once done, you can click Export to download the report in your preferred format.

Side note:

Aherfs can also be used to perform a competitive analysis. This is useful especially when you want to compare and contrast your link profile against competitors in the industry.

When Should You Take Action on Bad Backlinks?

Once you’ve found the links, you’re probably wondering if removing backlinks is the best course of action.

Let’s answer this question matter of factly:

If the newly created spammy backlinks start to affect your organic traffic, you may have to disavow them to stop the bleeding.

But until the above happens, not taking any action is probably the best move.

So I Found the Bad Backlinks. What’s Next?

Now that you’d decided to take action on bad backlinks affecting your keyword rankings, the next step is to send webmasters a request asking them to remove the hurtful backlinks!

But is it as easy as it sounds?

The short answer, unfortunately, is no.

Hell no,” to be exact.

Bad people have taken advantage of link removal requests. They do so to gain the upper hand over the competition.

This made webmasters more discerning while going over link removal requests. And though your intention is not malicious in nature, they might see otherwise if you’re not careful.

It’s important that the requests you make are not spammy in tone so they’re not ignored.

How do you that?

Here are some tips to make sure your requests are heard and acted on.

Use the Right Email Address

It’s all about establishing authority.


You’re not only contacting webmasters; you are a webmaster yourself.

So you should definitely act the part. If you send an email using a Gmail account, you lose credibility. They will not trust you.

Think about it:

You could have competitors asking site owners to take down your links. And naturally, these requesters use a free email service like Gmail or Yahoo Mail.

These site owners, however, are no dummies.

As a safety measure, they ignore these requests. That way, they’re not blindly acting on requests from unverifiable sources.

But if you do the same, then they might think you’re one of them.

The best thing for you to do is to use your @domain email account when contacting other site owners.

That way, your requests have some legitimacy behind it.

Webmasters are more open to processing requests from a reliable source.

Don’t Be Stingy With the Details

Don’t just say what link you want to be removed. Give more details.

What details, you ask?

Start by telling webmasters what specific page or pages contain the link. Then, tell them where the links point.

Your goal is to provide contextual clues for the email recipient and to make it easier for them to act on your request.

Telling them everything they need to know right off the bat incentivizes them to process your request sooner rather than later.

Just as important:

Don’t forget to tell them why you’re making the request.

Some webmasters, quite frankly, don’t know much about link building.

So it’s only logical that you include a brief explanation as to why the links need to be removed.

For example:

Hi. I’m currently trying to trim down on backlinks and need your assistance. I noticed a few pages on your site have links pointing to my site. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the articles and appreciate the backlink, I’d like the link removed at this time. This will help me refocus my SEO strategy. Please see the attached document to find all the details. Thank you.

This should be sufficient. If the webmaster replies and asks for further details, try to provide them if you can.

In summary, provide the following details in your email:

  • What links need to be removed
  • Where these links are located
  • What page are the links pointing to
  • Why they need to be removed

Be Courteous

There are SEOs who resort to aggression when drafting an email.

Their requests are with threats of legal action or warnings about penalties and whatnot.

Having to deal with stubborn webmasters can’t be fun. Especially those who would rather ignore your emails than coordinate.

But resorting to bullish behavior is not going to bring you anywhere.


Treat other people the same way you want to be treated.

So continue to be courteous no matter the odds. Your perseverance and kindness will be rewarded eventually.

Keep It Short

Imagine the many emails you go through every day. There’s seemingly not enough time in the world to go through all of them.

Now imagine how many link removal requests webmasters have to sift through.

Respect the site owner’s time. State your case and move on. Keeping things simple makes your request easier to understand.

You can even argue that a brief email makes your case more compelling.

Hubspot did a study and found the optimal email length to be between 50 and 125 words. The response rate for these emails is just above 50%.

Want to increase your chances of getting a reply?

The same study concluded that emails written on a third-grade level had the highest response rate. It even outperformed emails written at a college level by 36%.

Link Removal Template

Here’s a simple link removal email that works. Feel free to edit the letter to your liking.

Personalization is key. So try to personalize it if you can. Like, use the webmaster’s name if you know who you’re talking to.

Subject Line: Link Removal Request

Hi [Name],

I’m trying to remove as many backlinks as I can and I need your help. I noticed a few articles on your site are linking to a page on my site. While I appreciate the backlink, I’d like those links to be removed at this point. This will help me refocus my SEO strategy.

Please see the attached document to find all the details. I’d appreciate it if you could send me an email after you’ve removed the link so I can keep track of all changes.

Thank you!

You can add more details if necessary. But remember that a short email yields better results.

Also, if you plan on A/B testing which version performs the best, create different variants of the template above using ChatGPT.

When All Else Fails, Disavow!

You sent a kind email, but webmasters are not responding at all.

To tell you the truth, there’s a 99.9% chance they won’t replay.

Why? Because they don’t care, simple as that.

The idea can be unsettling and put SEOs spiralling into despair. But not all hope is lost. There’s still one thing you could do to disassociate yourself from bad backlinks:

The option of disavowing links.

Disavow is Google’s way of letting users tell them what links they should ignore.

So if you have a list of bad backlinks, you can send it to Google. This way, you can protect yourself from the negative effects these links can bring.

To disavow unnatural links, you’d need to familiarize yourself with the Google Disavow Tool.

Just a quick refreshing on how the Google Disavow tool came about:

Google’s ongoing fight against bad backlinks started a couple of years back.

It started with the introduction of the NoFollow attribute.

You see, Google does not crawl all links. Those who have the NoFollow attribute applied to them are exempt.

When a link has a NoFollow tag, it tells Google to ignore that link altogether. That way, these links won’t have any impact to search rankings.

A regular backlink would look like this:

A NoFollow backlink looks like this:

The addition of that extra code can mean a world of difference ranking in the SERPs or not.

But as Google expanded their algorithm changes, some sites that used the NoFollow tag started getting hit. The tech giant cited patterns of unnatural and deceptive artificial outbound links.

So webmasters needed some say over what links Google used to penalize sites. That’s when the Disavow Tool was born.

When to Disavow

We’ve talked about how users shouldn’t abuse disavow and that they’re only effective against bad backlinks.

But when is it a good idea to disavow links?

The formal answer is when the links go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

But some SEOs have formed their own opinions on the matter.

So far, The consensus is to remove links irrelevant to your site. If the link serves no purpose other than to improve the site’s SEO, it needs to go.

Also, if you notice a sharp decline in rankings as a result of an influx of low-quality links, it’s time to disavow.

If you’ve paid for backlinks before, you should remove those links right away.

Keep in mind:

You should only use the Disavow Tool as a last resort. Abusing the tool can harm your website and pull it down the search results.

That’s why it’s best to perform a link removal request first. If all else fails, you should disavow the bad backlink only then.

The tool was primarily designed to disavow links from spammy, low-quality sources. Only use the Disavow Tool if your situation matches that criterion.

How to Disavow Bad Backlinks

First, you need to create a disvow file that will be uploaded to Google.

There are many free tools available that can do this, but we’ll use FatRank’s tool as an example.

After generating the file, navigate to the Google Disavow Tool and choose the domain property from the list to instruct Google to disregard links from the domains in your generated file.

Finally, upload the disavow list.

That’s it! You’ll have to wait for a few days or weeks before the possible changes take place.

 Ideally, your site should recover the organic traffic it lost during this period.


It’s important to weed out the bad backlinks to improve your search rankings.

However, you should also work on increasing your high-value backlinks. This will help combat the negative effects of bad backlinks.

If you want to sustain your organic growth, you must gain link presence on prominent, authoritative blogs.

Your SERP presence should significantly improve through a combination of building good backlinks and removing the bad ones.

Remember that while black hat tactics can work short term, you are better off investing in white hat link building strategies.

Organic links will always triumph over shady backlink deals. Don’t wait until Google catches on. Get rid of bad backlinks today.

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