How do I manually create backlinks

How to analyze your link profile and avoid toxic backlinks

Backlinks are and will remain one of the three most important ranking factors for Google. Link building with a solid link building strategy or offpage SEO strategy is therefore a must for every successful website operator. Without good quality links, you won't get high rankings with competitive keywords and phrases.

The wrong links, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on your website's visibility in web search, which in turn has a negative impact on organic traffic and sales.

Regularly analyze your own backlinks and anchor texts, as well as those of your competitors, to discover new opportunities for more organic visibility through high-quality links, to identify problems that are affecting the performance of your website and to find the best possible solutions to these problems.

Content of this guide

What is a backlink analysis?

The deeper your insight into your own link profile and your competitors' backlinks, the greater your chances of using this information to improve your strategies.

Why should it be part of your SEO efforts?

With a backlink analysis you determine the link gaps between you and your main competitors, i.e. the differences between the strengths of the backlink profiles. If you can assess the quality of your link profile compared to your competitors, then you will also know your chances of asserting yourself against them and outperforming them. On this basis, you can then develop a strategy to close the link gap and gain a competitive advantage.

Identify link gaps

By contrast, without looking into the link profiles of the websites you are competing against, you are working blindly. SEMrush's backlink gap makes it quick and easy to compare the backlinks of up to five domains:

The more precisely you know how you stand compared to your competitors, the better your strategy can be and the easier it will be to find opportunities for links that will have a positive effect on your rankings. Finding competitor backlinks becomes a lot easier.

Identify malicious links and protect your rankings

The wrong type of backlinks (often referred to as harmful or toxic backlinks, spam links, or unnatural links) can result in a Google penalty and affect your website's organic performance. Also, negative SEO is a real threat and should always be kept in mind. A backlink audit is the most effective way to detect such threats so that you can take steps to protect your rankings.

If you are unfortunate enough to already be feeling the negative effects of bad links, do some analysis to fix the problem and restore your lost rankings.

You can think of a backlink analysis like a routine health check or MOT for your car. By taking care of this regularly, you can eliminate potential problems in the first place.

What is a quality backlink?

Quality links come from trusted sources and are in no way intended to manipulate search engine rankings. The Google Webmaster Guidelines put it this way:

The best way to get webmasters on other websites to point you to your website with high quality links is to create unique, relevant content that is popular with the Internet community without being tampered with. Creating good content pays off: Links are mostly editorial reviews that are submitted voluntarily. The more useful your content is, the higher the chances that someone else will find this content valuable to their readers and link it to your page.

We can simplify this: high-quality links are those that were placed editorially because someone thinks your content is valuable and chooses to link to it.

If a link was editorially placed, an author or webmaster made the conscious decision to do so because you created valuable content that they want to recommend to their readers. This is exactly what we need to do note and take seriously.

Digital PR and content marketing have become popular link building strategies because they directly lead journalists, editors and other content providers to mention and link to a story or piece of content. This will help you build high quality links and avoid the risks associated with toxic links. We have gathered some of the best link building tools for you in this article. There you will find the explanations of the tools and of course the links.

But what exactly do high-quality links look like?

In addition to the editorial placement, the following features speak for high-quality links:

  • They have the potential to bring referral traffic. Do you enjoy a particular link even if it doesn't affect Google's search results? If so, it's probably because it has a chance of referral traffic. Let's not forget that links are primarily for navigation purposes. If a link can drive high quality traffic to your website, it is likely high quality too.
  • They fit thematically to the content of your website. Few things are more unnatural than links between unrelated content. Quality links come from other websites that deal with topics similar to yours.
  • They come from trusted sources. A link is a vote of confidence by one website for another, and the highest quality links come from the most trusted sources. In other words, we trust a friend's recommendation more than a stranger's, and so do backlinks. A link from a trustworthy source like the New York Times is of higher quality than a link from an unknown blog - which on top of that has no clear focus and produces inferior content.

    This link, for example, "https://www.autoexpress.co.uk/car-news/93943/uks-cheapest-and-most-expensive-car-insurance-uncovered" in an article in the car magazine "Auto Express" fulfills all three criteria ", which refers to a study by Compare the Market that looks at where car insurance is cheapest and most expensive:

What is a "toxic" backlink?

If we consider links to be of good quality that are editorially earned, come from trusted sources, and have the potential to generate referral traffic, what are toxic backlinks?

Let's turn back to Google and its guide to link exchange programs, which clearly states:

Links designed to manipulate the PageRank or ranking of a website in Google search results can be viewed as part of a link exchange program and as a violation of Google's webmaster guidelines. This includes all measures with which links to your website or outbound links from your website are manipulated.

If Google interprets a link as an attempt to manipulate rankings, it is against the guidelines. But when is a link considered manipulative?

Put simply, if it was not set editorially, but by an optimizer for the primary purpose of increasing the ranking of the landing page. Toxic backlinks often show signs of poor quality or an attempt to manipulate rankings, such as:

  • They come from websites that have only been set up for the purpose of linking.

  • They come from websites and content that are not thematically relevant.

  • They come from websites that have not been indexed by Google.

  • They were obviously forced into blog comments.

  • They're hidden in the footer of a website.

  • They're present on every page of a website.

  • They use "exact matching anchor text" (that is, commercial "money" terms and target keywords as the link text).

  • They are recognizable as sponsored, but not marked with a corresponding nofollow or sponsored attribute.

These and other signs of manipulative links flow into the SEMrush Toxic Score - a practical metric for the detection and analysis of toxic links with the aim of removing or disavowing those classified as unnatural.

We'll get back to how you can do a full backlink audit to find toxic links in a moment.

How do toxic backlinks affect your organic performance and rankings?

In the early days of the internet, the use of manipulative links was commonplace and could have a huge impact on a website's ranking. The search engine algorithms have developed significantly since then. Much has been said about Google's actions against web spam (the broader issue that includes unnatural links).

In 2020, successful link building is about quality rather than quantity. Poor quality links can have a significant impact on rankings and organic traffic. Unnatural links were the target of Google's 2012 Penguin update, which changed the link building landscape for the better.

Let's take a look at how toxic backlinks can affect your website's SEO today using three scenarios.

Your website is penalized with a manual action for unnatural links

If the Google webspam team is reviewing your domain's link profile and discovering spam, they may be taking manual action for unnatural links. In Google's own words:

Google takes manual action against a website when a human reviewer at Google determines that pages on the website do not meet Google's webmaster quality guidelines. Most manual actions relate to attempts to manipulate our search index.

Manual actions are far rarer today than they used to be. Manual review of a website takes time and resources. Therefore, Google has gone to enormous lengths to better identify manipulative links with its algorithm. Even so, manual actions can still be taken, especially if webmasters repeatedly spam.

Possible reasons for a manual review:

  • A competitor filing a spam report.
  • Certain patterns that have been algorithmically recognized and trigger a review.
  • Working in a niche known for link spam.

If you have received a manual action (penalty), you will find out about this through a notification in the Google Search Console. You can find them on the Manual Actions tab:

When you are given a manual action, an example of the affected pages is shown. The action can target specific sections or your entire domain. Typically, you will find that the affected sites lose all of the rankings they had before the penalty was imposed and cannot return to those rankings until they are lifted.

To have a manual action overridden for link spam, you must try to remove the toxic links that caused the penalty or ask the webmaster to give them a nofollow, UGC, or sponsored attribute. Disavow the links that don't do both before submitting a re-examination request. You can find more information about this process here.

Your website is negatively affected by an algorithmic filter

Probably the most common scenario caused by toxic links is a loss of visibility for your website due to an algorithmic filter (often called an algorithmic penalty or adaptation). Here the algorithm corrects your rankings automatically and without human intervention.

If this happens due to malicious links, the Penguin filter is usually responsible.

You will not receive any notification if this occurs, and you will not be able to request a re-examination to remove an algorithmic penalty. However, it is common for Google to publicly announce that an algorithm has been updated, and you will often see large fluctuations in the sensor.

Organic changes

Most of the time, if you are hit by an algorithmic filter, you will notice it as you will see a significant drop in organic traffic and visibility. Again, this can affect the entire website, specific pages or sections of your website, depending on the number and destinations of the unnatural links.

To escape an algorithmic filter on toxic links, tune in to the tactic that caused the problem and disavow links that you think are suspicious. Your rankings will probably not be as high afterwards as they were before the adjustment, as they were artificially increased through manipulative links.

There is no getting around getting better links to make up for lost ground completely.

Your links will be ignored and will not affect your rankings

Google is getting better and better at ignoring unnatural links. In fact, in 2019, John Mueller confirmed that Google is ignoring the links from websites that are unlikely to appear natural links.

He even suggested that there was no need to disavow these links. In a sense, this is the good news - it is now less likely than it was before that unnatural links will cause algorithmic or manual penalties if they do not spam on a significant scale. On the other hand, any links that Google ignores will have no effect on your rankings. Investing in such links is therefore a waste of resources (and probably money)!

It is therefore important to understand and take into account the effects of each link you set up yourself or through an agency. There is always the possibility that Google will simply ignore a link if it seems to be of inferior quality.

Toxic Link Building Tactics To Avoid In 2020

It is important to be aware of link building tactics that can lead to toxic backlinks. Below is a summary to help you stay away from them and identify potential issues through a link audit.

Paid links

If money changes hands in exchange for a link, those involved are directly violating Google's webmaster guidelines. This also includes paying sponsorship money for guest posts and exchanging products or services for links. When a link is paid for, it was not editorially placed.

But while paid links are a no-go from an SEO perspective, sponsored content can serve legitimate purposes other than link building - for example, to reach a new audience and gain referral traffic. In such cases, use the rel = "nofollow" or rel = "sponsored" attributes to create transparency and avoid categorizing the links as unnatural.

Exactly matching keyword anchor texts

Links that use precisely matching anchor texts or anchor texts that are heavily enriched with keywords are often toxic, largely regardless of the source.

Most people would not link to an online shoe store with a link text like "Buy cheap shoes". They'd rather use the brand name or domain. Excessive occurrence of keyword-containing anchor texts is an indication of paid, non-editorial links.

If you design anchor text to exactly match the keywords that the linked page is trying to rank with, those links are unnatural.

The link to "long term dog boarding" in the following example uses such a precisely fitting anchor text.

Private blog networks

A private blog network (PBN) is a black hat link building tactic that involves creating and maintaining a number of websites that are primarily used to link other websites. They mostly use expired domains from websites that have been abandoned or moved.

Many black hat SEOs would argue that a truly private blog network would never be discovered by Google. However, many PBNs are easy to spot by seasoned SEO experts and therefore also by Google, even if they seem natural to the average web user.

Using PBN for link building results in unnatural links, and Google has been actively trying to shut down such networks for years. Examples of this are known from 2014. Sooner or later, Google will recognize pretty much every PBN, and the penalties imposed can be severe.

Nathan Gotch comments on Gotch SEO:

Not only has Gotch SEO been put on the curb for using PBN, but so have some of my clients. Before that happened, I believed I was in complete "control" of my SEO because I was in control of my backlinks. It's crazy how wrong I was about this. But sometimes it takes a tough lesson to change.

PBN links can be difficult to spot and often come in combination with other link spam signals, such as: B. with exactly matching anchor texts.These links were not placed editorially.

If you've purchased links that you know came from a PBN, either remove them or add them to your disavow file. Some insist that some PBN work and bring traffic, and certainly there are always rare exceptions. However, if you want to be on the safe side, you should avoid this practice.

Links from alienated articles

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, building links from alienated articles was a popular tactic.

The approach was to write an article and use software - called an "Article Spinner" - to create hundreds of variations of the article, which were usually junk. These articles were then uploaded to article directories with built-in links (does anyone still know eZineArticles?). Here's an example:

Did you notice the exact matching anchor texts?

This article is of no value or benefit to anyone, and it is clear that it was only published to link (twice ?!) to a giveaway provider.

Such links are pure spam and this tactic must be avoided at all costs, including cleaning up old links of this type.

Links from spam comments on blogs and forums

Another ancient link building tactic that leads to toxic links is comment spam. These comments are often automated using software that posts a large number of irrelevant comments on blogs (again, often with precisely fitting anchor texts). The hope is that some will go through without moderation so that as many links as possible appear in comment areas.

If you run a WordPress site, you will likely get numerous notifications of comments in the moderation loop that are unrelated to the article content and that contain a link. This is comment spam.

The same tactic is often used on forums that post nonsensical comments and replies that contain links. Google provides an example of this in its guide to link exchange programs:

Not only are these links worthless, but they also leave a footprint that Google's algorithms can (and will) become aware of as many identical or similar comments pop up, all pointing to the same page.

Avoid this tactic at all costs and make an effort to clean up older links built this way as well.

Entries in inferior directories

Directory entries sometimes get a bad rap. Right? The answer is: it depends.

If your website is listed in directories that offer real value to users, you are not taking any chances. These are often good links, provided that they are relevant to your company. That is, the directory is either niche specific or specific to your region.

The following example is from the New York Chamber of Commerce and is a directory of its members. You will not be penalized or accused of toxic links for appearing on a website like this one:


Quite different with a directory like this:

This is a poor quality directory that is completely worthless to users. When looking through the website, it quickly becomes clear that there is no niche or location-specific orientation:

Avoid these kinds of low-quality links. They offer no value and can do you far more harm than good.

So if it seems worthwhile to appear in a directory alongside other providers in your niche or region, an entry is worth considering. However, directories are not a good tactic for building a significant number of links - decide carefully on a case-by-case basis and only sign up if there are other reasons besides wanting a link.

Massive guest posts

Links in guest posts are not always spam. Often they are far from it. However, after the Penguin algorithm was rolled out, search engine optimizers began to publish guest posts on a large scale, which were often of poor quality and appeared on thematically irrelevant platforms.

There were even entire platforms that only served the purpose of exchanging guest posts. In January 2014, Google's Matt Cutts declared guest blogging dead, noting, "Okay, I'll be honest: if you're using guest posting as a link building method in 2014, you'd better stop. Why? Because it over time has become increasingly spam, and if you guest blog a lot, you are in bad company. "

Today, Google's guide to link sharing lists the following as a policy violation:

Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich text links

When you use guest posting to create keyword-rich text links on sites that are not topically relevant and actually offer no value beyond the link, you are creating toxic links.

However, writing a monthly column for an industry publication could also be classified as guest blogging. But since this is not done on a large scale, has the primary purpose of building your brand, and is thematically appropriate, it remains a legitimate tactic.

Widget links

If you develop a widget or plugin (e.g. for WordPress) and distribute it with a link (as it used to be seen in various sidebars), you are violating Google's webmaster guidelines for building toxic links:
If you've done this before, it's time to clean up those links. But be warned, their numbers could run into the tens of thousands!

Reciprocal linking

Reciprocal linking often occurs naturally (two websites link to each other). However, when it is done on a large scale and the links are placed on largely irrelevant "link pages", a collection of unnatural links is the result.

The offer to return the favor for a link with a counterlink does not provide any editorially placed links and is an approach that you better avoid in 2020.

A note on unnatural outbound links

Many mistakenly assume that they can only be penalized for inbound links. But Google can also take action against outgoing unnatural links - for example, if you get paid for links that pass PageRank, if you use overly keyword-rich anchor texts and much more.

How to find toxic backlinks to your website

Every SEO practitioner has to check their projects for toxic backlinks. Some do this routinely, others in response to a drop in their rankings or some manual action.

Below, I'll show you how to use SEMrush's Backlink Audit to find spam links pointing to your website.

Step 1: Set up the backlink audit

When setting up the audit, we recommend analyzing the root domain (unless you are specifically interested in a subdomain). Enter your brand name and country of destination and choose the appropriate category. The latter three are optional and should already be filled in, but it doesn't hurt to double-check the information.

Start your backlink audit and be notified by email when the audit is complete.

Step 2: Connect Google Search Console

While you are waiting for the results of the audit, you can connect SEMrush to your Google Search Console to be able to submit a disavow file and get more information about your backlinks. To do this, you need to be a verified owner of the property as you need to give a SEMrush email address access to the account.

You should then see confirmation that the connection was successfully established.

Step 3: Get a quick overview and view the results

After completing the audit, you will get a quick overview of the statistics and a rating of the overall status of your backlink profile.

Now is the time to look at the results and delve deeper into the information from the audit.

Step 4: understand your backlink profile

First you will get an overview of your backlink profile:

At this point, note the entire Toxic Score. A high Toxic value was found in the example, which indicates that an adjustment is necessary.

Now open the "Audit" tab.

Step 5: start checking your toxic backlinks

Make sure you've sorted the results by the Toxic Score column so you can edit the most dangerous links first.

With the Toxic Score, the backlink audit shows which links could damage your rankings the most. He uses a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being good and 100 being maximally toxic. More than 50 toxicity indicators are checked and included in the Toxic Score.

Before deciding what to do with it next, take a look at the link's toxicity marks.

Go through your backlinks and decide on a course of action for each. It is imperative that you either remove or add high toxic score links to your disavow file.

Step 6: create your whitelist

For clarity, whitelist domains that have a low Toxic Score or that you know are natural and harmless.

You can add links to your whitelist as soon as they are ticked.

After that, there should only be links left that you need to take action on.

How To Remove Toxic Backlinks

After you've created your whitelist, you are left with the toxic referring domains. Now is the time to take action on these links to clean up your link profile and improve your Toxic Score.

If you have been given a manual action, you should be dealing with a significant number of toxic links to remove. If you want to do a routine cleanup or escape an algorithmic filter, you can skip this step and go straight to the disavow process.

Step 1: Create a remove list

You can create a removal list directly in the backlink audit as soon as you have selected one or more links.

If you want to try to have these links removed, use the "Delete" button to move them to your "Remove" list. This assumes that you have found an email address to which you can send the request for removal. Otherwise, all that remains is disavowing.

You can also use the Remove tab for change requests. An example would be to ask a website operator to provide a link with a nofollow attribute.

Step 2: connect your email

The Remove tab allows you to connect your email account to the tool if you are using Gmail or a Microsoft. As soon as this is done, simply send removal requests with a click.

Use the "Add" button next to "Email Account" to establish a connection.

Step 3: Send a removal request

From here it is easy and uncomplicated to send a removal request based on the available templates. Just click the "Submit" button next to the links in your remove list.

You can customize the template as needed before sending your email.

Step 4: Track the status of your requests

The final step in the link removal is to monitor the responses you get. The status column of the report is used for this. There you can see which phase of the process the individual links are in. This allows you to return to the e-mail tool to resend your message or to follow up if your original e-mail has not been opened or has not been answered.

If you can't remove a toxic link, all that's left is disavowing it. This process invalidates the link on Google.

How to Disavow Toxic Backlinks

If you routinely analyze your links, have failed to remove toxic links, or refrain from attempting to escape an algorithmic filter, you can disavow those links.

In the following you will learn:

A disavow file is a request to Google to ignore the links you have uploaded and not to use them as ranking factors for your website. It is a valuable way to neutralize toxic links.

Disavowing toxic links can help your website recover from penalties or avoid them in the first place. However, use Google's disavow tool with caution, as careless use can affect the visibility of your website. Accordingly, the following warning is displayed before using the tool:

But how does the disavowing of unnatural and spam links work?

Step 1: Upload your disavow file

Please note the following points:

  • Uploading a new disavow file to the disavow tool will overwrite any previously uploaded files.
  • The user must always ensure that the file also contains all previously submitted links, not just the new ones.
  • After uploading your disavow file, it will take up to six weeks for Google to consider the file.

If you have previously submitted a disavow file for your domain, you can upload the new version directly to the tool from the "Disavow" tab.

If you've never submitted a disavow file, ignore this step or run the import to verify.

Step 2: put links on your disavow list

Return to the Backlink Audit, highlight the links you want to disavow, click the "Delete" button, then click "To Disavow".

That's it! It is almost always advisable to disavow entire domains rather than individual URLs, as this also includes page-wide and other problematic links that may appear on the domain in the future.

Now you should see these links on your disavow list:

Step 3: export your disavow file

When your disavow list is complete, you can export it as a file. To do this, use the "Export as TXT" button.

The file is immediately ready to be uploaded to Google's disavow tool, divided into URLs and domains.

Step 4: Upload the disavow file to Google

Access Google's Disavow tool while signed in to Google Search Console.

Upload your TXT file, hit "Submit" and you are done.

Perform regular backlink audits as part of your SEO work

It is important to conduct regular backlink audits as part of your daily SEO activities. This will help you spot toxic links before they become a problem and help you clean up past mistakes. By default, the SEMrush Backlink Audit carries out a new check of the link profile every two weeks and sends you appropriate updates.

A variety of tools will help you to examine your link profile carefully and to take immediate action against problem links. So there is no reason to suffer the negative consequences of a Google penalty. The effects of toxic links can be enormous, and the more carefully you avoid them, the stronger you can grow in the long run.