What Are Bad Links? Google, SEO and Disavow Tool
Almost simultaneously with the launch of powerful search engines, those who wanted to deceive them appeared. As a result, quality websites have become harder to find under the pile of dubious, substandard, and dangerous links. This is why Google and other search services fight this abuse by helping people find answers to queries and bringing search traffic only to honest websites.
Until 2012, webmasters often abused ranking influence tools to quickly achieve high positions in search results. In response to this, Google released the Penguin algorithm.
The algorithm immediately affected more than 3% of requests in English after the release and received more than 10 confirmed updates from 2012 to 2016, until it became part of the main Google algorithm in 2017. One of the most important updates was the fourth version, which Gary Ilyes commented that:
Despite this, many experts use the algorithm’s name to indicate Google’s reaction to the two main issues Penguin struggled with: link exchange schemes and keyword abuse. The most common examples of these schemes are published by Google and look like this:
- Buying or selling links that are considered in the PageRank system.
- Excessive exchange of links.
- Large-scale advertising using articles or comments with text links that are saturated with keywords.
- Using programs or services for automated link building.
Any website can get backlinks. According to their origin, they are divided into two categories, receiving for free and receiving through agreements or payment. Free links are also called editorial. Such links are completely free, no one asks to post them and no agreements are made with them. This is a kind of recognition and reward for having good content that is strategically placed. Received links are most often bought directly or by an agreement on their placement. Good links can consist of either editorial or received. The main thing is that they do not violate the recommendations made for webmasters and other Google documents and that they also benefit the website.
Several different parameters determine the effects of a backlink:
- Authority is a less subjective criterion; this depends on reliability and recognition of the site that posted the backlink.
- Value is a more subjective criterion, this has to deal with how well the content of the link corresponds to the user’s expectations and needs.
- Usefulness is a very subjective criterion that is based on secondary ranking factors, mentions, and social networks.
Depending on the effect they have on your site, all backlinks can be divided into three categories:
- Good links only have a positive effect, they do not violate recommendations, their authority is above average, and they have high value and usefulness.
- Doubtful or shady links have mainly a positive effect, they do not lead to direct sanctions, but indirectly, they can violate recommendations, their credibility and value are below average, and they imitate high utility.
- Bad links have a negative effect, direct non-compliance with recommendations, lead to sanctions, their low credibility, value, and usefulness are below average.
The combination of these factors is sometimes referred to as the link juice. How can you tell if a link is bad? Since the conditions and methods of promotion are constantly changing, there is no official or exhaustive definition of a bad link. Dubious links and bad links are the same, except some have not yet been recognized as bad and have not been explicitly banned. That being said, it is obvious that their origin is far from ideal, while the others are already directly prohibited. This is why it is more difficult to detect dubious links with the algorithm, and for the most part, they require a manual evaluation from Google employees. Bad links also include links that may cause specific negative consequences. The algorithm can automatically detect them, so human intervention is not needed. The use of such links can lead to a sharp as well as to a gradual deterioration in the ranking and it is rather difficult to determine which ones do the most harm. Most likely, this is when the second name appears – toxic.
Types of Bad Links
In general terms, Google warns that any link added to manipulate the ranking or to cheat PageRank may be classified as a link exchange scheme and considered a violation of the recommendations for webmasters. That is, bad links are not a specific kind of link, but rather they are links that violate a combination of rules and regulations. These links are also called unnatural. The most common examples of bad links include:
- Direct intentional spam or, for instance, the use of free hosting with a lot of built-in spam. Read more in our article What is SPAM and How To Protect Yourself.
- Violation in data structuring.
- Poor, missing, or useless content.
- Cloaking or redirects, including on mobile versions.
- Hidden images or hidden text.
- Explicit or latent abuse of keyword density, such as placement inside widgets.
- Inconsistencies in AMP content.
Therefore, to determine the types of bad links, we will describe the most common types of violations:
- Abuse of dofollow/nofollow attributes.
- Link exchange schemes.
- Abuse of links in articles or press releases.
- Hacking and exploiting vulnerabilities.
- End-to-end links.
Abuse of Dofollow/Nofollow Attributes
The nofollow attribute was introduced on January 18, 2005, as a tool to combat spam in the comments of blogs and social networks. For 14 years, it has been one of the main tools used to combat unwanted links, including paid ones. The main instances for using nofollow were:
- Text ads that are considered by the PageRank system.
- Paid links, namely advertising articles or announcements paid for the links, which are taken into account by the PageRank system.
- Comments on forums with specific links in the text of the message or signature.
- Everything else that Google could consider to be “insecure content.”
In September 2019, paid links were decriminalized and nofollow received two additional attributes: ugc and sponsored. Google provided the ability to separate the links created by the users of your site from the links that are placed as part of affiliate agreements and described the basic rules for high-quality affiliate links. Nevertheless, it is still recommended that nofollow be used if you simply do not want to associate your site with some links, as this prevents the Google bots from clicking on them.
Link Exchange Schemes
They are also referred to as private blogging networks (PBNs), webmaster exchanges, or article exchanges. Link exchange schemes remain to be one of the main types of abuse. It is quite often that these networks only consist of blogs that are convenient for automation of the process, also called splogs (from the English “Spammy Blog”), and forums. The associations can be public, which indicates the number of sites participating in the network, or they can be hidden. They try to make the links appear to be natural by inserting them into posts on different thematic branches. This is a simple, relatively inexpensive, and thus a popular way to quickly increase the link mass that is often offered to customers of search engine promotion companies. As Gary Ilyes noted in an interview with SEJ:
“…penguin doesn’t work or doesn’t penalize anymore … doesn’t demote … it will just discard the incoming spam toward the side and it will just ignore the spam and that’s it no penalty no demotion and it works in real-time…”
This category also includes spam comments in guest books, blogs, and other FFA (Free For All) sites, as well as low-quality links from catalogs and bookmarking services. The distinctive features of such sites include:
- Blogs using a peer-to-peer system, such as CommentLuv.
- Blogs without spam protection.
- Private blog networks (PBNs) being run by the comment sellers themselves.
But one of the disadvantages of such a low-quality and cheap link building method is that it is easy to spot a created link. For example, almost all guestbooks have the word guestbook in their links. Google has effectively filtered such links for a long time, which makes these methods almost useless. On the other hand, the recommendations for webmasters indicate that the fine is only given for the abuse of such links. Google is well aware that it is normal and natural to want to post links to each other, which is why it should not be prohibited. It is believed that there is a healthy ratio of nofollow and dofollow links taken into account when ranking sites. As an interesting alternative to PBN, you can do link building through opinion leaders or PINs (Private Influencer Network).
Links in Articles or Press Releases
Another common violation occurs with links with text that is optimized for search engines being posted in articles or press releases that are published on third-party sites. The peak of popularity for this method was from 2005-2010 when the number of news agencies sharply increased. All that had to be done was to write an article in the form of a press release, embed the necessary links, and send the material to as many news agencies as possible. Like any other popular search promotion tactic, press releases began to be abused very quickly, which was facilitated by how quickly news aggregators of published material.
As John Muller specified in a video, Google mostly ignores links from press releases, significantly reducing the effectiveness of such a link building strategy. These links are mainly published by the company itself or by the author of the press release. Nevertheless, if you can’t do without press releases, you can reduce the likelihood of getting sanctions using branded links, without anchor text if possible. Also, try using no more than one link per publication.
Hacking and Exploiting Vulnerabilities
Hacking and the exploitation of vulnerabilities are also often used to force a link without the knowledge or permission of the webmaster. The two approaches that are most commonly used are:
- Embedding hidden elements in the HTML code of uploaded files.
- The downloading posts that contain spam into your WordPress database.
You should pay attention to the clicks on completely unrelated keywords or user complaints about irrelevant ads or spam. Fortunately, just searching for suspicious terms inside your files will be enough to find the source of the hack.
Do not forget about the links distributed in the footers or templates of various sites. They are often called end-to-end links or site-wide links. An end-to-end link is displayed on all pages of the site, which is done easily by embedding it in the appropriate sections or navigation elements of the site – the footer or the main menu, for example. Recently, adaptive end-to-end links have also appeared, they are specially designed to point to not one, but any page of the target site.
If you can’t or don’t want to give up site-wide links, there are a few simple tips on how to reduce the likelihood of a fine:
- Brand anchor link text.
- Post end-to-end links only on relevant resources.
The Consequences of Using Bad Backlinks
Google’s position on unnatural or poor links is often changing as they are gradually acquiring new details. 2012-2017 was especially rich in high-profile statements. Site owners have expressed concern that this struggle will affect many, if not all webmasters. There was also the version that, over time, any site can fall under sanctions if it has accumulated a significant number of low-quality backlinks. But, by the beginning of 2019, Google softened its position, it being that sanctions would only be used in the case of prohibited schemes being used in real-time. John Muller tweeted:
Also, a year later, John Muller made a similar statement about toxic links:
The penalties for using bad backlinks occur after checking your site. Google algorithms are developed and improved by professionals in the field of data processing and statistics until their results become autonomous and have consistency in quality. If a site has been automatically checked by the Google algorithm and it was able to detect violations, then the consequences will not be too bad. As John Muller stated in a video:
“It’s something where our algorithms, when we look at it, and they see, oh, they’re a bunch of really bad links here, then maybe they’ll be a bit more cautious with regards to the links in general for the website. So if you clean that up, then the algorithms look at it and say, oh, there’s kind of, it’s ok. It’s not bad”
That is, the ranking in search results will suffer but this can be fixed if your site passes the next check with better results. When the algorithm cannot determine whether or not spam is present, human intervention is necessary.
The consequences of manual assessment are very difficult to fix, as it is a lengthy process. First of all, the site owner is not notified of the verification, its results, or sanctions applied anywhere except on the Google Search Console and the corresponding report Manual Action report item. Secondly, the sanctions will remain in effect until you pass a re-examination. To get permission to re-check, you need to provide substantial evidence that you have made a sufficient effort to remove spam or bad links. This video explains the process of rechecking in more detail. This includes chatting with the webmasters who posted your links, call records, and more. Google employees must be sure that you will not resort to dubious promotional methods in the future.
You can determine if your site has been fined by Google by several secondary signs:
- A downgrade or absence of a site in search results for a query that previously showed good results.
- A gradual or sharp decrease in monthly search traffic.
- The disappearance of one or more keywords by which the site was previously ranked.
- Newer publications get search traffic in a more complex and slower way than normal.
In the case that you are sure that sanctions have been imposed, you need to clean your site of malicious backlinks.
How to get rid of bad links?
How to remove bad backlinks?
The Google Webmasters Guide recommends using the Disavow tool.
“If you have a manual action against your site for unnatural links to your site, or if you think you’re about to get such a manual action If you can’t get these links removed, then you should disavow those links to your website.”
Brian MacDowell tweeted that the Disavow tool should only be used if your site has not passed a manual verification of bad backlinks by a Google employee:
Over the past few years, many cases have been published about how a well-composed, often aggressive disavow yielded great results. It is difficult to accurately say that an improvement in ranking is directly related to disavow but webmasters actively try to use this tool to optimize their link mass. However, manually analyzing and comparing all the backlinks can take a long time. Despite its potential, John Muller does not recommend counting on the automation of such a process, since the algorithm likely already ignores most of the links that you find.
Detecting spam or bad links, and responding to them are two different tasks, both of which are real challenges for webmasters and search services alike. Your position in search results can and should be earned. While great content does not guarantee a high ranking, it is a good start. There will always be people that dedicate most of their effort in an attempt to use less effort. Thus, we recommend being wiser and using this energy to work on a quality product and content.