Toxic Backlinks: How To Spot And Fix Them

Toxic Backlinks

If you limit your definition of “toxic backlinks” to SEO tools, you will likely disavow a legit backlink.

Tweet about Toxic Backlinks by Lily Ray

And that will be painful, eh?

BTW, we’re not saying you should disregard toxic backlink reports. Do this instead:

Review your links INDIVIDUALLY and MANUALLY before tagging them as “toxic.”

Tweet about Toxic Backlink Report by Lily Ray

In other words, you must FULLY understand what makes a link toxic. That is the only way to avoid losing your hard-earned, high-quality backlinks.

So, what makes a link toxic? What are toxic backlinks?

Read along as we teach you how to identify and fix toxic backlinks.

According to Search Engine Land, a toxic link is any backlink that can harm your site’s ranking ability.

WowVisible paints a vivid picture — likening “toxic backlinks” to an artificially ripened fruit. And because of the “artificial-ness,” such links can endanger the body (your website).

Toxic Backlinks

With such definitions, any spammy link could pass as toxic. And talking of spammy links, they are clearly defined by Google.

Link Spam Guidelines

Funnily enough, you won’t find “toxic” on the long list of Google’s examples. Maybe Google doesn’t think of any backlink as toxic.

What Is Google Saying?

A while back, a tweep raised a query about backlinks with high toxic scores.

Tweet about Backlinks Audit

John Mu replied that the tweep should ignore the scores. And that “some tools make assumptions about Google.”

In the same thread, another tweep specifically asked how to identify and remove toxic backlinks. Here is John Mu’s reply:

Tweet about Disavowing Toxic Backlinks

If Google doesn’t have anything like “toxic backlinks,” where does the phrase come from? More importantly, what does it mean?

Like “link juice,” “toxic backlinks” is one of several popular phrases used by SEOs.

In fact, the term “toxic” is culled from SEO tools. The tools use programmed “toxic scores” to determine if a link’s unnaturalness can hurt your website.

In short, toxic links are backlinks deemed unnatural by SEO tools because of their spammy nature. And frankly, the reports from the said tools are USEFUL.

But as we advised earlier, verify the list before disavowing your backlinks.

Whether toxic or spammy, unnatural links have telltale signs. You can always sniff the shady elements if you know where to look.

Follow the two-step process below.

Let’s say you got a toxic backlink report or notification from Semrush or even Majestic — or whatever SEO tool employed.

Backlink Audit

Don’t act instantly!

Instead, go over to your Google Search Console. Scroll to:

  • Search Traffic > Manual Actions, or
  • Security And Manual Actions > Manual Actions

Did you find any instructions about any unnatural links?

If yes, are they (the links) the same as your toxic backlink mail?

Use the questions to trim down the long list.

Step 2: Use A Checklist

At Serpreach, we use a 5-way checklist to verify our clients’ backlink reports. You can also adopt the method — or create your own.

Either way, here’s the checklist:

  1. The content — what is the quality of the article? Is it spun content? More importantly, does it match users’ intents?
  2. The anchor text — is the anchor unnatural and unrelated? Was it too long and obviously designed for link building purposes?
  3. The website — is it another templated design? Are there bylines for the content written — even if it is as generic as “content team”? Is there an “about page”?
  4. Organic traffic — are search engines sending any traffic to the backlink source?
  5. The number of links sent — is the content or page sending backlinks to other sites? How many?

Overall: if a suspected toxic backlink features in Google Search Console’s Manual Action and fails the checklist, it is indeed “toxic.”

So, should you be worried if you have such backlinks on your site?

In a poll of 182 votes organized by a tweep, over half of the respondents ignore spammy links (toxic links included).

Tweet about Spammy Links

Maybe you should ignore the reports and emails too?

It depends on the nature of the backlink!

You should be worried if the toxic link is as “toxic” as black hats. Such backlinks shouldn’t be ignored.

Otherwise, you could be temporarily banned from search results.

Read more about black hat backlinks!

[Hyperlink to our article on the topic]

Our take: disavow all the links on your Manual Action list. Indeed, ignoring them might have no impact.

Disavowing the links, on the other hand, might increase your ranking.

That said, let’s discuss how to disavow toxic backlinks.

To better teach you how to disavow toxic links, we will split this section into 3 parts:

  • Understanding why SEOs get toxic backlinks
  • Knowing the common types of toxic backlinks
  • Removing toxic backlinks from your site

If you are actively seeking to disavow a toxic backlink, the chances are that you outsourced your link building campaign. Otherwise, you won’t waste time attracting “bad” flies.

So, why did your hire take the toxic route?

Unfortunately, the so-called “gurus” are often clueless. After building your links naturally, they might add shady promotion techniques — and spoil the good work.

In such a case, your backlinks can become toxic and unhealthy.

In other cases, SEOs want quick results — to amass more wins and revenue.

What should you do?

Update your knowledge on link building and how to spot “spam services” before hiring any help.

Our blog is the place to start.

The often-used spammy link techniques include:

  • Pillow links
  • PBNs
  • Link farms

Pillow links are backlinks obtained from low-quality sites such as directories and forums. By design, they (pillow links) are not toxic. But that could change when you use them unnaturally to send link juice to your site.

PBNs, on the other hand, are shady from the get-go. How so?

In PBN link building, you send backlinks from a network of hidden sites to manipulate your rankings on search results.

Note: PBN links are not only toxic; they are outrightly manipulative.

Link farms are PBNs that have been discovered by Google. They can no longer pass any juice to your site.

Beyond being toxic, getting backlinks from link farms is time-wasting. Avoid such techniques.

Generally, you remove backlinks by contacting the webmaster of the source or using Google.

However, we won’t advise the webmaster method because it is time-wasting. How would you even find the contact details of a site without an “about page”?

Let’s say you found the contact. The site owners might never answer you.

On the other hand, you only need to submit a list to Google to get the stench of toxic backlinks off your site.

However, there are a few rules.

  • The list must be submitted in a text file
  • The domain, subdomain,  and subpath for each link must be on a line
  • You can only have 100k lines per “disavow file.”

After the list is ready, upload it to Google’s disavow link tool.

At Serpreach, we encourage SEOs and business owners to build links naturally. It is more comfortable but takes time and resources.

However, you won’t constantly fear decreased rankings or a temporary ban from search results.

So, how can you build links naturally?

Do everything that is not toxic or spammy. This image by Attrock summarised the points.

Quality Links vs Toxic Links

But we’ll add this point:

Focus on building relationships with other businesses and individuals. Then, leverage the relationship to grow your digital marketing.

Further reading: White Hat Link Building

[Hyperlink to our article on the topic]

Going with what Google thinks, spammy links violate the ranking system. They involve the use of unnatural link building techniques.

On the other hand, there is nothing like toxic backlinks in Google’s dictionary.

Practically, however, the two phrases are almost the same. One is Google-defined, and the other is attributed to backlinks by SEO tools.

Either way, they both suggest that something is wrong with your backlinks.

By definition, SEO tools reveal the toxicity of backlinks. But as we have explained, the suggestions are not always correct.

In that case, here is how to know if your backlink can TRULY harm your site:

  • Crosscheck the backlink report with your Manual Actions list on Google Search Console
  • Manually vet the links with the checklist described in this article

According to Google, it doesn’t matter if your site has toxic backlinks. The bots won’t interpret them or add/reduce link juice to your site.

In other words, spammy/toxic backlinks can’t influence SEO.

However, we recommend that you disavow your toxic and spammy links — not just for Google but because of the benefits of building links naturally.

Short answer: yes!

BTW, it’s okay if you decide to ignore spammy backlinks. Even if that is the case, ensure you disavow black hat links.


Google hardly bans a site permanently from search results. They only do so temporarily — for the illegal, criminal black hat strategies.