What are backlinks? How do they impact SEO? Can I get penalized for bad links pointing to my website? These are common questions that come to mind for many when the subject of backlinks or link-building come up. Learn what you need to know to make good SEO decisions for what to do with backlinks gone bad.

What are Backlinks and Why Do They Matter?

Backlinks are external links (links that come from a source outside of your own website) that point to pages on your website. Successfully attracting external links to your website has been a major focus in SEO due to this tactic’s high impact on improving rankings in search results.

Backlinks acted as the first quality signal in Google’s algorithm with the PageRank update, which was announced shortly after they entered the search engine industry in 1998. This quality signal was updated further to analyze links at a higher-level of sophistication with the Penguin update in 2012 and later updated again in 2016.

Terminology Tips:

  • Backlinks: links coming from a source outside of your own website (aka inbound links or external links)
  • Link-building: attracting external links to the pages on your website

The Impact of Backlinks Has Changed Over Time

While backlinks have been important to SEO since the start of Google, the way that backlinks have helped determine where you rank in search results has changed as Google has updated its algorithm over the years.

PageRank Update (1998): a Way to Identify Quality Content

Before PageRank, search engines relied heavily on the words used on a webpage to identify which pages to rank for different keywords. PageRank changed this by using the number of inbound links to act as a voting system for identifying quality content and used the words in the anchor text of these links to identify how the page being linked to was related to different keyword searches. When Google introduced the PageRank update, the practice of “link-building” began—both black hat and white hat versions.

Terminology Tips:

  • White Hat Link-Building: attracting external links to your website with high quality content and effective content distribution strategies
  • Black hat link-building: buying links from a link-seller (paid links) or creating poor quality content on an external website and linking from that content to your website’s content

Penguin Update (2012 and 2016): a Penalty for Bad Links

In light of shady SEO practices of trying to manipulate the PageRank signal through spammy link-building, Google introduced the Penguin update in 2012. This update penalized websites by using “spam signals” to identify when false links were pointing to the website. This update also played off the “Panda” content quality update of 2011 in order to reward websites that received backlinks from high-quality and authoritative content.

At first the penalty for spammy links was applied to entire websites, and later in 2016 was updated to be applied at a more granular level, as disclosed by Google’s Gary Illyes in his blog post, Penguin is now part of our core algorithm: “Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site.”

Backlink Sabotage

Because of the penalties dished out to websites practicing spammy link-building, a form of sabotage that developed in the SEO industry post-Penguin was Backlink Sabotage. This tactic involved buying links to point to competitor websites with the goal of getting their website penalized for black hat link-building practices.

Why are Some Backlinks Good and Some Bad?

So, if your rankings can be penalized for bad backlinks and can improve for good backlinks, how do you distinguish between whether a backlink is hurting or helping your SEO? Learn the difference between False Links, High-Impact Links, Luke-Warm Links, and links that are Missed Opportunities.

False Links: Links That Get You Penalized

Links that get you penalized are links that look false to search engines. Here’s what to avoid:

  • Paying for links
  • Participating in link schemes
  • Getting surprised by backlink sabotage

High-Impact Links: Links That Get You Rewarded

When links come from high-quality content that is relevant to your own content, and which also receive many high-quality backlinks, you'll likely be rewarded in your SEO results.

High-impact backlinks come from pages on other websites that:

  • Are relevant: related to the same topic or theme as your web page
  • Are quality: authoritative, trust-worthy, high-value content
  • Have a good backlink profile: have many backlinks from relevant, quality content

Illustration showing what makes a high impact link: A good backlink profile and relevant, quality content.

Luke-Warm Links: Links That Don’t Matter

If an external source touches on something that you cover in your content and links to your website, it’s okay if it’s not the highest quality backlink in the world. You shouldn’t expect a penalty when this type of link points to your web pages.

Missed Opportunities: Links Like Nofollow Links and Irrelevant Anchor Text

Links that have a nofollow rel attribute applied in page code are not followed by search engines and provide little to no value to the SEO of the page being linked to. Often times, this is done by mistake by the link source who would have no reason to want to block search engines from following the link to your site. The best way to gain back your backlink is to reach out to the source directly to request that a do follow rel attribute be applied to the link.

Backlinks that are linked from anchor text that is irrelevant to the content being linked to also pose a missed opportunity. This is because search engines use anchor text to help determine which keywords the content relates to and whether or not to rank for that page for a keyword. A common example of this is when external websites link to your page from your brand name or from the word “here” as opposed to words that are relevant to the content on your page.

Let's use an example for a gardening website called "Gary's Gardens":

If someone was sending a link to one of Gary's Gardens' pages about how to maintain the juiciness of a tomato, linking from certain words within the following sentence would be more beneficial than others.

"Gary's Gardens says it best in their article about maintaining your tomato's juiciness, see more here."

  • Bad: When the word "here" is the anchor text for the link, it doesn't provide any context to search engines for what the page is about.
  • Bad: When the brand name is the anchor text, it's also unclear what keywords the page is related to.
  • Good: When you link to the article from something that's more relevant to what the page is about like "maintaining your tomato's juiciness", it provides context to search engines about what keywords the page is relevant for.

Image with example link text. One bad example linking the word "here", one bad example linking a brand name, and one good example linking the topic of the article.

When reaching out to request changes to backlinks, remember:

  • Be polite with the request
  • Show appreciation for the backlink
  • Provide an example of how to implement the change you are requesting

What Should You Do with Bad Backlinks?

No one wants to see their website fail for something like bad backlinks. Here’s what to do to avoid a penalty:

Monitor Your Backlinks

Don’t get caught by surprise–monitor your backlinks using an SEO analysis tool. A good backlink tool will report on:

  • All backlinks pointing to your pages – gives you an idea of your Backlink Profile
  • Lost and gained backlinks – helps you see changed to your Backlink Profile
  • Backlinks from spammy sources – helps you identify False Links
  • Level of quality across your backlinks based on their backlink profile – helps you identify High-Impact Links
  • Backlink rel attribute and anchor text – helps you identify Missed Opportunities

When to Disavow

Google launched their disavow tool in Google Search Console in October of 2012 to allow websites to provide a list of external links that they’d like Google to ignore when the search engine ranks their content. Google’s advice on when to disavow a link is fairly straightforward: Do what you can to reach out to link sources and request that spammy or low-quality links be removed naturally, and when you’ve exhausted these efforts you can disavow what’s left:

“If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy or low-quality links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links. In other words, you can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.”

Tying It All Together

Now that we've gone over the basics of backlinks, you should be ready to face bad backlinks with these three key takeaways:

  • Request removal for, or disavow links that could look spammy to search engines (False Links)
  • Ignore low-quality links that don’t matter (Luke-Warm Links)
  • Reach out to the link source to request do follow rel attributes and better anchor text when applicable (Missed Opportunities)

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