What are toxic backlinks and how to detect and remove them?

When it comes to search engine optimisation (SEO), backlinks play one of the most significant parts about it. They help to boost the website’s overall authority and ranking.

In short, they could be called the pathways that search engines evaluate to see the relevance and authority of your website, which impacts its ranking.

While having as many backlinks as possible might seem good at first, not all backlinks are healthy for your website’s ranking, and those with a negative effect are called toxic backlinks.

Note that link building is an expensive exercise but must be done well to get the desired ranking. You shouldn’t fall into the trap of getting poor or toxic links to gain a quick ranking. Learn more about link-building costs to plan better.

Let’s talk in detail about toxic backlinks and methods to detect and remove them.

Table of contents:

Toxic backlinks are often referred to as spammy links that are low quality as they have a negative impact on your overall SEO performance. The reason they are considered bad is because they violate search engine guidelines and thus harm the authority and reputation of your website.

In other words, imagine that you have a village with a well with the cleanest water the world can offer. However, the pipes that go away from that well are rusty, leaky pipes that poison the water and thus ruin the reputation of the clean well. In this analogy, the well is your website, and the bad pipes are toxic backlinks.

  • Low-quality sources – They originate from a website with poor-quality content
  • Irrelevant content – They link to a topic completely different from the one they are located in
  • Excessive quantity – Too many links from a single source
  • Over-optimised anchor text – Exact-match keywords that can sometimes trigger search engine penalties

While the topic of the negative effects of toxic backlinks can be inexhaustible, here are some key consequences that a website can suffer due to toxic backlinks:

  • Search engine penalties – Toxic link-building practices may lead to algorithmic or manual penalties from search engines like Google
  • Ranking drop – There are higher chances that your ranking will drop with spammy links even if you don’t get harsh penalties from Google
  • Decreased traffic – With poor search rankings, you will have fewer visitors to the site
  • Reputation damage – Your brand may suffer if it is associated with a malicious site through a toxic backlink
  • Wasted resources – If negative backlinks outweigh the positive ones, the resources you waste on SEO optimisation are going to be wasted

How to identify toxic backlinks?

Now that you know what toxic backlinks are, it is important to know how to identify them. Recognising toxic backlinks is an important step in improving the backlink profile of your website, and we will help you understand that by diving into topics of toxic backlink factors and tools that can help you find them.

We already went over the toxic backlinks factors earlier in the toxic backlink introduction, but here, we are going to explain them in greater detail. The better you understand the factors that revolve around toxic backlinks, the easier time you are going to have to identify them.

Over-optimisation of anchor text

Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. This plays a significant role in SEO optimisation as it gives the search engine an idea about the content and context of the linked page. However, when the text is over-optimised, the search engine will feel like it is trying to be manipulated, resulting in a penalty for your website. Identifying this factor is quite easy, as they are usually keywords that look unnatural.

Here is an example of a natural and over-optimised anchor:

  • Natural: If you want to stay healthy consider cleaning your carpet regularly.
  • Exact Keyword Anchor: Keep your home healthy, book carpet cleaning Melbourne now.

Irrelevant or low-quality sources

The quality of links matters more than the quantity. Irrelevant, low-quality links add minimum to no value.

When it comes to irrelevant or low-quality sources, those who happen to have no thematic relevance to your topic, the quality of the linked source is one with poor content and low credibility, and they have a negative user experience as they ruin the expectation of the user that visits it.

Here is an example:

You run a reputable technology news website, and to improve your SEO, let’s say you got links from the following sources:

  • A website selling discount pet supplies.
  • A personal blog about ancient history.
  • A website about home remedies for common illnesses.

As you can see, these websites have no relevance to news about technology, so the search engine may treat them as spammy if done in high numbers or may not give greater importance.

A practice that revolves around acquiring backlinks from other websites with some kind of compensation or payment is what is referred to as paid links.

While the general idea behind this act is to increase the ranking of one’s website, it violates the terms of use; hence, it is suggested to avoid it completely as it can lead to penalties to your website’s ranking.

PBN stands for “private blog network”, which is a group (network) of websites that are managed by individuals or groups purely for link building to boost ranking.

These days PBN links are easy to get picked by Google algorithm and hence it’s a risky move.

While some get away with limited use of PBN links but if you mover use these links then there are higher chances of getting a penalty from Google.

Blog & Forum Commenting

This is the old cheap method of getting links and they are spammy in nature.

Avoid getting links from blog or forum comments.

Irrelavent profile linkbuilding

Not every link adds value to website ranking.


  • GitHub is a cloud platform to manage software development and version control using GIT.
  • You may have noticed people creating profile links with industries like carpet cleaning, moving etc.
  • They are not relevant at all. They are pure form spam and toxic links.

Something that is considered quite a malpractice is when webmasters incorporate links that are detectable by the search engine but not by the users who visit the website.

Since their whole purpose is to manipulate the rankings in the search engine, sooner or later, the search engine is going to penalise your website for this act.

Low-quality directory submission

Submitting your website to online directories is a great way to gain traffic and increase your site’s ranking.

However, if you tend to link to online directories that offer no value to your visitors and customers, it is considered low-quality and can be the result of toxic backlinks.

Low-quality guest posts

They are similar to PBN, they often appear like news websites where one can write and contribute but are designed purely to get links.

You should use reliable and powerful tools to effectively and efficiently identify backlinks within your website’s profile. Ones that provide valuable insights, metrics, and data that you can use to assess the quality of backlinks. Here are some prominent tools widely used for backlink analysis:

Google search console

Of course, the tool that makes the most sense to use is Google’s own tool. This tool data on the backlinks Google has discovered pointing to your site. You can see the number of links, referring domains, and other relevant information. Its biggest benefit is that it is free, and the data is sourced directly from Google.


This is a comprehensive SEO tool that specialises in the analysis of backlinks as well as competitive research. Ahrefs allows you to explore your entire backlink profile, referring domains, anchor text, and more. The tool also provides a spam score for each referring domain.


For domain authority and spam score, Moz’s Link Explorer is fantastic. It provides backlink analysis as well as link management. It is a helpful tool to help you determine which backlinks should be kept and which should be removed.


Competitive analysis is the bread and butter of SEMrush, and on top of that. In short, this tool scans your backlink profile and identifies toxic backlinks. It is a valuable tool for proactive backlink management, especially if combined with data from other tools.

Identifying and addressing toxic backlinks requires a combination of automated tools and manual scrutiny. While automated analysis tools can efficiently scan many backlinks, manual review ensures a deeper understanding of the context and quality of these links.

We already mentioned a couple of useful tools that can help you identify and review backlinks. These same tools can be considered a part of automated analysis, so you are already familiar with them if you read the previous segment of this text.

On the other hand, manual backlink analysis is completely human-based. This means that a human person does all the research and analysis themselves, without using any tools or using only minor assistance from some. To perform a manual analysis, one would have to review each backlink individually, categorise backlinks, check anchor texts, visit referring pages, and reach out to webmasters so they can remove the toxic backlinks.

Even if your website may have been affected by poor links, it is important to know how to recover from Google’s penalty.

Before you think of removing toxic backlinks, it is important to find out the approximate number of toxic backlinks pointing to your website and then create a plan to remove them.

If you have access to the sites where you have those poor quality links then you can manually remove them or approach the website owner and get them removed.

The process can be painful but once done you don’t have to do it again and it will get cleaned forever.

Use the Google Disavow tool

If you have too many toxic backlinks or you can’t reach those sites where you got those links then you can use the Google disavow tool and submit the URL list for Google to disregard those links.

Monitoring and prevention

Dealing with toxic backlinks is not something that you should do only once. Instead, you are required to constantly do proactive things in order to maintain a healthy backlink profile. Monitoring and prevention are vital to keep toxic backlinks from emerging and, with that, to ensure the improvement of your website’s SEO rankings.

Consider establishing a schedule that you are going to follow for backlink audits. It is recommended to do them quarterly but semi-annually is also fine. Of course, depending on your website’s size and activity, the frequency can vary. Naturally, you should avoid using malicious software and use only the recommended tools for backlink analysis for reviewing and categorising.

Focus on building backlinks from trusted and relevant sources that have already stood the test of time. With this said, you should completely avoid link schemes as well as buying backlinks, as these practices are going to penalise your SEO strategy.

Link building is a gradual and long-term process, and strategy needs to be built by a qualified SEO consultant. You should also have clarity on how long backlinks take to work and ensure it’s done correctly.

Stay updated on Google algorithms

The internet is something that is constantly evolving, and because of that, so are the algorithms that search engines tend to use. Google is considered the most popular search engine, so whenever you are creating new backlinks or auditing old ones, it is important that you are up to date on the potential changes.

Proactive removing

Some links cannot be removed manually, and because of that, you will have to submit them to Google through the Google Search Console and disassociate yourself from the site that is considered toxic for your SEO results.

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