Toxic backlinks
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Toxic backlinks - poison for your website SEO

What are toxic links? How do they affect your SEO? And what should you do about them? Find out in this post.

Ever since Google's Penguin update 4.0 back in 2012, backlinks (and links in general) have been a hotly debated topic.

SEO-specialists have always had divided opinions about toxic links - whether it concerns the degree of the toxic link, whether it is a ranking factor, or simply whether it matters at all for SEO on the domain in general.

In recent years, this issue has become more prominent as Google continues to demonstrate that their search engine is designed to differentiate between low quality links and toxic links.

Andreas Jacobsen
- SEO-specialist
Last updated: 12. dec. 2022

What are toxic links - and should you fear them?

Toxic backlinks are either low quality backlinks or backlinks that aim to manipulate search engine rankings.

Google considers such links to be a violation of their so-called Webmaster Guidelines. As a SEO specialist, you should therefore be more focused on the quality of links rather than the quantity in order to avoid falling rankings or penalties.

Here are some examples of toxic links:

  • Links from domains that have nothing to do with your own website.
  • Links from domains whose sole purpose is link building.
  • Links from domains that are not indexed on Google.
  • Links that spam comment sections on websites.
  • Links from a link network, often all with the same IP address/anchor text/domain.
  • Links from porn and gambling sites.

For example, SEMrush's Backlink Audit identified no less than 4,078 backlinks on our client's website that had been attacked by spam links over a long period of time. As you can see from the image, a good proportion of them had the character of being pornographic - in other words: toxic! Many of them also came from the same IP addresses, and all within a short period of time.

Here are some examples of toxic links

How does a link become toxic
- and how do you spot toxic links yourself?

There can be various reasons why a link becomes toxic.

1. Sites with low authority

Often, domains with very low authority also provide low quality links. These may be pages that are not indexed at all or pages with a non-existent backlink profile. They can also be pages dedicated to porn/gambling etc.

A good way to see a domain's authority is to use a tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush - here you just enter the website into the tool and it will show a DR (domain rating). If the domain rating is below 10, it will require a review of the domain/link and you should investigate whether it should be removed.

2. Mirror sites

It may be multiple copies or clones of websites (with different URLs) all linking to your website. They usually use exactly the same anchor text, have the same page layout, etc.

Google will consider these pages as duplicate pages with the sole purpose of building a larger link profile to its own domain.

3. Private Blog Network (PBN)

PBN is a method of building and maintaining a collection of websites whose sole purpose is to create backlinks to other websites - typically old, expired domains that are being acquired restored.

Many SEO specialists would argue that Google is never going to detect a PBN. However, Google has been actively tracking PBNs for many years, and has penalised sites as far back as 2014. Ultimately, Google will catch the PBN, and their punishment can be quite devastating to the website's rankings.

How can toxic links affect your SEO?

Now you know what a toxic link is and what makes it toxic - but how do toxic links get detected by Google?

1. Manual actions for toxic links

If your website gets too many toxic links, Google may take manual action to penalise your website. Google has a dedicated team that keeps an eye on spam links and whether websites are breaking their Webmaster Guidelines.

Your website may be targeted for manual punishment if:

  • Your competitors keep reporting your website for spam links.
  • If Google's algorithm spots something irregular in your website's backlink profile.
  • Some niches are known to have spam links. If your website falls into this category, there is a high risk of manual penalty.

2. Your website is spotted by the algorithm

Unlike manual actions, Google's search engine also uses its crawlers to scan websites for toxic links. If their crawlers spot too many toxic links pointing to your website, it can impose an algorithm penalty.

When Google imposes an algorithm penalty, you get no notice. It is therefore necessary to find the error yourself in order to get the website back in the search results. But remember, it's not necessarily toxic links that have earned your website a penalty - Google uses around 200 factors to rank websites, so there could be many reasons why your website has been penalised.

Like manual action penalties, your website will be removed from the SERP until the problem is resolved. You should therefore review your website step-by-step with a sharp SEO eye and review any changes to the site to find and fix the error.

Here are some things you can do to avoid being penalised by Google's algorithm in the future:

  • Identify and take action against toxic backlinks.
  • Continually add informative and relevant keywords to the website.
  • Do organic outreach link building.

What to do about toxic backlinks?

If you discover a toxic link, or link network, you can use Google's disavow feature, which can be found here.

What to do about toxic backlinks?

Here you need to upload a .txt file listing the toxic links (or domains).
The formatting should look like this:


How will link building be in 2022?

As mentioned earlier, Google has continuously documented in recent years how their algorithm has become better at distinguishing between toxic links and even claims that the search engine can ignore low quality links as well as toxic links

The team from Ahrefs put this to the test back in December 2021, when they simply tried to disavow ALL 3,476 backlinks to three of their very large blogposts.

The study was to test whether links actually affected rankings. Interestingly, they immediately saw a drop in traffic and rankings on their three blog posts, with one of them losing 18% of its traffic from search, and some of their rankings had dropped from 1st to 4th place.

This study shows how important your backlink profile can be for your website. Just think what a strong backlink profile could do if your website was ranked fourth with good content and a strong technical profile, but had no backlink profile.

So do we even need to use the disavow function in 2022?

Just because Google claims their algorithm can differentiate between low quality and toxic links doesn't mean we should throw in the towel.

However, you can get a sense of this when the subject is discussed so much. In a twitter poll from January 2021, it turns out that 32% of respondents don't think disavows were an important tool anymore. Of those surveyed, 42% thought it depended on the situation. I understand that.

For me personally, having worked with backlink profiles for several years, I believe that we need to keep a constant eye on our backlink profiles, where we should use the disavows tool if things are really bad with the backlink profile.

We can't ignore the fact that there are lots of spam links out there, and even if Google is getting better at spotting these links, we also need to keep an eye on the evolution of our backlink profile to avoid manual actions. For example, if you see a link network or mirror pages linking to your site, it's a good idea to upload these to the disavow page to ensure they are ignored rather than blindly relying on Google's algorithm.

But be careful! The Disavow tool must be used with care. As Google itself writes:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site's performance in Google Search results.

One thing is for sure: if you are not 100% sure whether a link can harm your website, just don't disavow it.

Get help identifying toxic links

Does it seem too long-winded to have to identify and reject toxic links? At Webamp , as a SEO agency, we specialise in link building and best practices for SEO. So if you're concerned about your website's backlink profile, don't hesitate to get in touch.

FAQ - toxic backlinks

What are toxic backlinks?

Toxic backlinks are poison for your SEO. They are backlinks of low quality or which aim to manipulate the rankings on Google. 

How do I remove toxic backlinks?

If you have discovered one or more toxic backlinks, you can submit them for removal via. Google Search Console. You need to upload a .txt file with the toxic domains.

Why do toxic backlinks affect SEO?

If you have a lot of toxic backlinks, you could risk Google penalising you and your rankings. They will do this if they deem your website to be in breach of their Webmaster Guidelines.

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