What is a Bad Backlink Profile and How to Clean It Up

Sarah Ramsey Updated on February 29, 2020

backlink profile

Good business owners want to drive traffic to their businesses by making it easy for potential customers to find them. Online businesses are no different.

As an online business owner, you want to make it easy for potential customers to find your website, and one of the best ways to do that is to ensure that your site comes up high in search engine rankings. Your search ranking increases in part based on how many people visit it, and more people visit your site if they find links to your site on other websites they visit.

A real-world corollary would be a brick-and-mortar restaurant that sends out a food cart or pop-up stand to festivals and markets in order to get their name noticed and give people a taste of what they can find at the main location.

You want sites to link to your content, because it gives potential customers a taste of what you offer. And if these potential customers trust the site where they saw you mentioned, they are more likely to transfer that trust to you.

Having a large number of sites link back to your website is good … unless those sites linking back to your site are questionable.

If that’s the case, you may have a bad backlink profile, and then you have a problem. But it’s a fixable problem; you can make your search results stronger by knowing what’s in your backlink profile, how to judge the good backlinks from the bad, and how to clean it up if necessary.


Why Having a Clean Backlink Profile is Important

A backlink is any website that links back to your website. A backlink profile is simply a collection or list of all the websites that link to your website.

You want other pages to link back to your content. Google uses an algorithm to rank pages by relevance when people search, and how many other pages link back to your page is one of the factors (the other two have to do with keywords and page longevity). If other sites link back to your website as an authoritative site, Google notices, and the result is an increase in your page ranking.

Gaming the system is one way to cheat the algorithm and try to increase your page’s ranking, but Google has a way to deal with that. If they find too many low-quality links in your backlink profile, they will hit you with a penalty. Google considers low-quality (aka bad) links to be those they suspect to be manipulated rather than organic. In other words, they’d like for you to create good quality content that people want to link to, instead of buying links or playing games with the system.

There are two kinds of penalties you may have to deal with if you don’t have a clean backlink profile: a manual penalty and an algorithmic penalty.

For a manual penalty, you’ll be notified with a message via Google Webmaster Tools, in which Google will let you know that they’ve identified your website as having too many unnatural (bad) links.

The algorithmic penalty is done automatically, after Google Penguin reviews your website. Penguin is a real-time, rolling review of a website’s link profile; if it finds too many low-quality links on your site, it will generate a penalty that drops your site in rankings.

Either method will result in a drop in organic traffic to your site. The difference is that with a manual penalty, you’ll get a heads-up. With Penguin, you’ll see only the drop in traffic.

One way to prevent that drop without you knowing what’s behind it is to keep a clean backlink profile.

If you don’t have a clean backlink profile, you could get walloped with a penalty. If you don’t have a backlink profile at all, you could get walloped with a penalty without knowing what it’s for.

Good Versus Bad

I want to circle back to the idea of good links versus bad links here. It’s like the old “Good Idea, Bad Idea” bits from Animaniacs.

Good Idea: Having lots of links to your content.

Bad Idea: Having lots of spam links to your content.

Links that lead to your content should make sense, or be what we in the writing business like to call editorial. Just like in a newspaper, something that is editorial is meant to be presented without opinion. Just the facts, ma’am.

As a writer, I try to link to articles and resources I believe readers will find useful. (You know, like a YouTube video of all the “Good Idea, Bad Idea” clips. I live to serve.) I do due diligence on those links, as best I can, to ensure that they are helpful, reliable, and above board.

Editorial links should make sense in the context of your content when you’re linking out to someone else’s site; they should do the same when your site is being linked back to.

It’s like product reviews. If you make them up and post them, that’s bad. If you pay people to write and post about your products, that can be questionable if you’re not transparent about the practice and if your reviewers aren’t reputable. But if those reviews are generated without coercion by real users, they mean something, and you can promote them as such.

The question of whether a link is good or bad can be judged by the equivalent of the Washington Post test, which says if you’re talking in public (or on social media or to a journalist or posting something online), don’t say or write something you wouldn’t want to appear on the front page of the Washington Post.

The same is true when you’re including links in your own online content: don’t link back to something you don’t want tied to your brand and reputation forever and ever. And this rule’s corollary is: Create good content that people will want to link back to.

Just like with any marketing technique, it’s not the marketing that’s bad, it’s how it’s executed. Look, we all understand when something is sketchy in marketing (that is, entirely self-serving and on or over the line of common decency). Don’t be sketchy with your links, either.

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How to Clean Up Your Profile

Getting to a clean backlink profile is time-consuming, but not complex. You need to make a complete list of your backlinks, audit it for quality, then take steps to get rid of or disavow the low-quality links.

Making a List

You’ll need to determine if your backlinks are good or bad, but in order to evaluate the quality of your backlinks, you first need to know what they are.

That’s right — it’s time to make a list! You need to be able to see all of your backlinks so you can review them. If you have a lot of them, yes, it’s going to take a while.

Open Site Explorer from Moz can help you research your backlinks to build that list.

The Majestic marketing search engine gives you a report on all your backlinks, which you can use to build your list.

Both of these tools search through millions of websites and return information about the pages that link back to your site.

Run a report from one of these tools and export it into Microsoft Excel, or build your own database with all your backlinks listed. Then you’re ready to start weeding through all the information.

Checking it Twice

Once you have your list of links, you’ll need to audit the list, or evaluate the quality of each link.

The first thing to do is go through the list and check for dead links. Fortunately, there’s a helpful plugin that makes that chore so much easier. SEO Tools for Excel verifies that your backlinks are still available by running a nifty formula over your data and returning information on which links have failed and which are okay.

Now you’ll know the links you don’t have to worry about because they’re not active, and you can concentrate on sorting through the active links to determine quality. (Quick side note: Google doesn’t count broken backlinks against you, but it’s a good reminder to make sure anything you are linking out to from your page is still active, because that is a metric they use to calculate your page ranking.)

You don’t want to eliminate all backlinks, because the good ones will be working exactly like they’re supposed to — driving traffic to your website and increasing your search ranking.

Bad backlinks are what Google considers low-quality links. They fall into five main categories.

  • Backlinks that aren’t in Google’s index because they’ve been penalized or are too new.
  • Backlinks with too many external links. If the page linking to you has an overwhelming number of links, it’s a sign to Google that something’s up. For example, it may mean that there is little to no moderation of comments on the page and so those comments are spammy and link-filled. Thus, it’s considered a low-quality page and the links from it are counted as low-quality links.
  • Backlinks that come from locations that don’t make sense. If you’re in the U.S., most of your traffic, and thus backlinks, should be from English-speaking countries. If you have a lot of Russian backlinks to your site, unless you’re talking about politics or caviar, that’s a red flag to Google.
  • Backlinks from sites that don’t make sense, content-wise. If your site is about cars, a site on kitchen equipment probably shouldn’t be linking back to your website.
  • We’re not here to judge the moral content of any given site, but to judge the quality with which it’s presented. And, yeah, a lot of adult sites linking back to your content is a negative sign to Google, because a lot of those sites are known for being spammy.

Not all links are inherently bad, but it’s important to find the ones that are.

Once You’ve Figured Out Who’s Naughty and Who’s Nice

Now that you’ve narrowed your list of links down to the bad ones, the next step is to clean up those links by either getting rid of them or by disavowing them. Before you send a lump of coal to the webmasters who have a questionable backlink to your site, it’s better to try a polite email first.

Be specific on the backlink you’re asking them to remove: give them the full URL of the site the backlink is on, as well as your domain, so they know which links to remove from their page. Make it easy on them and they’re more likely to help you out.

Be nice. Really. As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Asking someone for their help and saying thank you will get you a lot farther than demands and virtual yelling.

If you’ve got more than triple digits of bad links to go through, you might find a tool like BuzzStream helpful. BuzzStream looks up contacts and automates part of the email process, so if you have to find email addresses for a lot of webmasters and write a lot of emails, it could save you time and frustration.

For sites that don’t respond, give you a negative response, or that you’d prefer not to contact or can’t find contact information for, you can disavow those sites.

Disavowing a site means that Google won’t consider them when they crunch the numbers in the algorithm that results in your page ranking.

You’ll need to create a disavow file (must be a text file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII, with one URL per line) from your existing spreadsheet of bad links and upload it to the Google Disavow Tool. Here’s a handy article from Google on how to let them know you want to disavow a set of links.

If this whole process sounds like a crazy time sink, well, it is. But there are a few services you can use to make it easier. With each of these services, you’ll still need to do some manual work, like uploading your disavow file to Google, but each of them also offers help for building good backlinks.

Ahrefs can help you build your backlink profile and then clean it up. They have a handy-dandy video that walks you through their whole process.

LinkResearchTools is another service that will help you create a backlink profile and then get it in the shape it should be.

Web CEO is another service that will help you evaluate your links and deal with any potential problems.

All three sites offer a free trial and all promise to make it easier and faster to analyze your backlinks, clean them up, and maintain a clean backlink profile. They all also promise to help you build good quality backlinks, build competitor link profiles, and perform other link analysis.

Keeping it Clean

Because Google Penguin runs in real time, you should see improvements in your traffic and page ranking fairly quickly if you’ve already been hit with a penalty.

But it’s important to maintain a good backlink profile so you know when you’re vulnerable to a penalty.

We all want to conquer SEO, and there are, technically speaking, ways to play the system. But there are also penalties when you get caught (and let’s be realistic — it’s when, not if). So do yourself a favor and be mindful of what level of risk you’re willing to take when it comes to your backlink profile.

If you keep a clean backlink profile, you greatly lessen the risk of incurring a penalty. And if you do get hit by a penalty, you’ll be better prepared to clean it up.

The best thing you can do, though, is create great, high-quality content so other sites will want to link back to your website as an authoritative site. Do that, and your backlink profile will reflect it.

Photo credit: AndreyPopov

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  • Vikas says:

    Thanks for this guide to identify bad backlinks. I also will clean my website bad backlinks.

  • Mike says:

    Well, this is a good guide on how to get rid of bad backlinks in your link profile, but from what I understand going through the trouble of disavowing/removing links is mostly unnecessary. People often say something like “Google knows which links to count and which ones not to, they don’t really need your help”, and I think it makes sense.

    I think sites getting penalized for bad backlinks is actually quite rare, since if it was easy you could just spam your competition and they’d get penalized right away – I think because of that, the worst that most spam links do is nothing at all. I’m pretty sure you have to go really, really hard with spam in order to actually get punished for it.

    I think the exception where it’s worth it to go through the trouble of contacting site owners/etc to get links removed would be if you wanted to sell a website, and so you want its profile to look nice and clean to your prospective buyers.

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Mike,

      In many ways you’re right. Nowadays it is much more difficult to spam a competitor and see them sink in the SERPs. When the disavow tool first came out though, that wasn’t so much the case since those bad links still counted against you rather than just passing off zero power.

      Nowadays, it’s less so. Still, disavowing bad links is good practice as they can carry weight in the grand scheme of things. It also helps Google to re-index your website and all the good healthy links you have pointing towards the site

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