In this article I’m going to be talking about backlinks. More specifically, I’ll be talking through real examples of spammy links to help you:
- know when a backlink is dodgy, and
- know how to decide if a link should be disavowed.
My purpose with this post is to help anyone that is lumbered with a backlink audit to be able to easily spot those links which clearly should be disavowed.
As you can probably tell, I really don’t enjoy doing backlink audits. Apart from the fact they’re super dull and repetitive, they can also be really frustrating! Why? Because it’s hard to know whether a link should be disavowed or not. So many links fall into a ‘grey’ area, where you think it might be a bit dodgy but maybe it can get away with not being disavowed.
Don’t forget to check out the YouTube video that I made on this topic – if you prefer to consume this information via video, then be sure to check it out.
Let’s get started!
Backlink Audits Are Still Necessary
Before we dive into the fun of looking at these scammy links, I first want to clear up any confusion as to whether we should be doing backlink audits in 2020.
The answer is a resounding yes.
As recently as June 9th of this year, Google released an article on their official blog explaining how they combat web spam. You can read it in full here, but I just wanted to pull out a very important section:
“We may issue what’s called a manual action, when one of our human spam reviewers finds that content that isn’t complying with our Webmaster Guidelines. This can lead to a demotion or a removal of spam content from our search results.
When a manual action takes place, we send a notice to the site owner via Search Console… We send millions of these notices each year”.
So every year, Google are still sending millions (yes, millions!) of manual actions to web owners via Search Console. And note the use of the term ‘removal’ – your site can still be removed from search results if you’re found to be taking part in spammy behaviour (and link-buying definitely sits in the bucket of spammy behaviour).
So with that cleared up, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it!
Anchor Text Is The Key To Finding Bad Links
When you’re sat in front of your Excel spreadsheet looking at thousands of rows of backlink data, you might wonder where on earth you start when trying to spot bad links.
There is a simple answer: anchor text.
Anchor text that contains keywords (also known as ‘keyword-centric’) is a surefire giveaway when a link has been paid for, or has been unnaturally obtained.
For example, a link pointing to a page about red dresses with anchor text ‘red dresses’ is keyword-centric. The anchor text contains the keyword that the page is trying to rank for. You could also say the anchor text is ‘commercial’, because people searching for ‘red dresses’ probably have quite a strong intent to buy.
While it’s dreamy to get backlinks with anchor text containing keywords you want to rank for, it’s simply that: a DREAM. It’s rare that sites will naturally link to you with the keywords you want to rank for.
Links that have been obtained naturally usually have anchor text such as
- ‘click here’
- or your brand or domain name
You’ll find keyword-centric anchor text to be the common theme in all the links below.
Dodgy Backlink Examples
Blackhat Linking Tactics
The first examples we’re going to explore are backlinks that have very clearly been paid for.
1. Hacked Site Links
The first example I want to show you is from a hacked site. Yes – I thought I’d start us off with a bang!
This website https://www.laurakalister.com/ has been hacked. We can see from the homepage that at some point in time this was a pretty legit website, however when we navigate to the blog it’s obvious that something is very wrong!
The blog is full of totally random articles:
If we navigate into the articles themselves, we can see that they have been written purely with the aim of placing paid links:
- The articles are completely unrelated from the website and from each other;
- The articles contain lots of links with keyword-centric and commercial anchor text;
- Some of the articles actually don’t make any sense at all: they’re just a bunch of gobbledigook!
For example, this article titled ‘Day Trips In Provence With A Private Driver’ is written extremely poorly, with many sentences just not making much sense. It has two links with keyword-centric, commercial anchor text (‘private car service nice airport’) which both link to a car hire service website.
It couldn’t be clearer that this article has been written purely to place these links, and that these links have most likely been paid for.
Without hesitation I would disavow these links. They really aren’t subtle at all and if Google came across this site, it’s very obvious that the sites being linked to have participated in a link-buying scheme.
2. Content Farm Links
The next example I want to show you is this site: http://infanttoddlerspecialistgroup.com.
While this site may have been hacked, it also looks very similar to a typical content farm (a site that has been built purely to place links in low-quality articles).
There are two links in this article with unnaturally keyword-centric anchor text: ‘central heating boiler replacement’. Both links point to pages talking about central heating.
Again, this is not subtle at all , especially the repetition of the commercial anchor text.
If you’re wondering how to find this kind of link, look for keyword-centric anchor text in your spreadsheet and then scan an eye over the linking domains. Notice any that are completely unrelated to the site being linked to.
If I was auditing the backlink profile of a heating website, it would definitely pull my eye to see a link from a domain about toddlers!
3. Links Pages
The next two examples I want to share are ‘links’ pages:
The links on these types of pages aren’t necessarily paid for, however as we will see they are certainly not natural. It may have been a case of a link exchange, however bear in mind that Google frowns upon link exchanges too.
What’s the giveaway?
- The pages exist purely to list links;
- Many of the links are completely unrelated, not only to the site in question but also to each other;
- And last but not least (you guessed it) – keyword-centric anchor text!
The first website (http://karmadi.com/links.htm) is supposedly a website about English Springer Spaniels. Given this, I do wonder why it lists links such as ‘low income resource guide for seniors USA’, ‘alcohol misuse, abuse, addiction and treatment’ and ‘a guide for senior housing in Canada’.
All of these links point to pages that are clearly hoping to rank for these keyword phrases. It’s not subtle!
There are many links on this page that are related to dogs. What do you do if one of those links is pointing to a client website? Personally, I would still disavow: even if it’s plausible that you could have been linked to from this page naturally, it’s very clear that many of these links are not natural at all. You’re therefore at risk by association.
The second example is http://southturnermaineweather.com/wxlinks.php/homeweather.htm/. I love this example, because they have literally stated in their webpage:
“www.southturnermaineweather.com website may contain links to external websites that are not provided or maintained by or in any way affiliated with South Turner Weather
Please note that the South Turner Weather does not guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of any information on these external websites.”
It’s like they’re waving a big red flag to Google saying ‘yoohoo! These links have been paid for!’ Otherwise why would they be linking out to sites that they haven’t even checked are credible? If you’re going to link to a website, do your users a favour and at least make sure it’s good quality!
Other giveaways are once again keyword-centric anchor text such as ‘home security systems’ and ‘smoke detector placement.’
If you’re wondering how to find these types of links, it’s as simple as looking in your backlink spreadsheet for backlink URLs or page titles that contain ‘link’ or ‘links’.
4. User Profile Links
The next type of link we’re going to look at is user profiles, such as https://thelearnandburnconnection.com/forums/users/domeniccorona91/.
We can see a user profile that, once again somewhat unnaturally, has keyword-rich anchor text pointing out to various sites.
For example, there is a link with anchor text ‘require’ linking out to a dictionary page about the word ‘require’. Clearly the dictionary website wants this page to rank for this specific keyword term.
It’s pretty clear this isn’t a legitimate user profile, and that it has been created for the sole purpose of placing links to manipulate the Google algorithm.
These types of backlinks are easy to find: simply search in the backlink URL for ‘user’, ‘user-profile’, or something else along those lines.
Just as an aside, if you buy links on Fiverr.com, this is definitely one of the places your links end up. I know because I’ve done it! I was doing a work project once (just to be clear, not for a client!) where my manager asked me to build a website and to get it to rank in a high position for a competitive niche.
It was a really great way to practice my SEO skills and have a bit of fun at the same time. I went and bought some links on Fiverr.com for about £5 and this is the type of link that was placed (I know because I received a spreadsheet showing where all my links had been added). It was a good experience because then I knew how to spot bad links when I went on to do backlink audits!
Greyhat Linking Tactics
In the rest of this article we are now shifting focus to looking at links that can be less clear-cut when it comes to disavowing.
The tactics we’ve seen so far have been either downright blackhat (links in hacked sites!) or very clearly placed with the sole purpose of achieving rankings on certain keywords.
5. Sitewide Links
We now move on to the importance of link location, because where a link is placed on a page does matter.
Achieving a backlink in a prominent position – such as in a main navigation, sidebar or footer – is the ultimate goal for people acquiring links. Why? Because links in these positions are site-wide, so the site being linked to receives link equity from every page.
Achieving such links naturally is rare, and so especially in combination with keyword-centric anchor text, it’s normally a sign of a link-building scheme.
5.1 Sidebar Links
This site http://aeroretirees.org/ is an example of (potentially paid) links in a sidebar.
The links look suspect for several reason:
- They’re in the sidebar, which is sitewide;
- The header to the section is ‘links’ (bit of a giveaway!);
- The anchor text of all these links is keyword-focused.
The reason we start getting into a grey area is that, despite the signs listed above, these links aren’t obviously bad. The majority of links are related to people of retirement age, so sit with the theme of the website (Aero Retirees) pretty well.
The question to ask yourself is, would this pass a manual review from a Google employee?
The way I would answer that question in this case would be to consider the general backlink profile of the site I’m auditing: if it’s pretty clean, with little to no evidence of participation in link schemes, I would leave it. However, if the backlink profile has numerous examples of manipulative link-building tactics, I would definitely err on the side of caution and disavow.
5.2 Main Navigation Links
For examples of suspect links in a main navigation, we have https://www.r-healthyresources.com/.
Again, it’s less obvious as to whether some of the links in the main navigation have been paid for, however for me the cause for suspicion in this case is:
- The backlink profile I was auditing was very suspicious overall, so it didn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine the link here had been paid for;
- Keyword-focused anchor text.
Again, the links are pretty inline with the theme of the domain, so these are definitely more subtle. If the overall backlink profile hadn’t been so questionable, I probably would have left the link in question and not disavowed it.
5.3 Footer Links
Last but not least, footer links! In many ways, these can be the most common type of paid sitewide link. The reason for this is that they are less visible to users, so site owners are more willing to place links in this section of the site.
For this example we have http://veterans.nosbiz.com/. It’s a bit more obvious here that at least one of these links has been paid for.
The footer area section is called ‘Helpful Links’, which in itself is a bit of a red flag. We can see a link at the top of this section with the anchor text ‘financing home’. This is incredibly commercial, keyword-focused anchor text and it links to a site about finance.
If this isn’t a paid link, then I don’t know what is! I would definitely disavow it.
How Can You Find Sitewide Links?
You’re probably wondering how you know where a backlink is in a page.
At Distilled we use Kerboo backlink audit software, which helpfully provides a column called ‘link section’ that tells you if a backlink is in the navigation, footer or page body.
Other tools such as Majestic and Ahrefs don’t appear to provide this information, but perhaps other backlink tools do.
Comment below if you know of other SEO software that helpfully provides this information!
6. Directory Links
Back in the day, acquiring directory links was a really common tactic used by SEOs to manipulate the Google algorithm.
The practice has generally died out, especially as Google has officially stated that “low-quality directory or bookmark site links” are considered malpractice.
Note the use of the term ‘low-quality’ – directory links aren’t inherently bad, and in some cases it’s actually a perfectly legitimate way to be linked to. For example, if you’re a physical store, it makes perfect sense to get a link in a (good quality) local directory.
This website is a clear example of a low-quality directory. It’s very clearly been built purely for the purpose of link-building, not users.
It fulfils all the criteria for a low-quality directory:
- It link to all sorts of category of website;
- There’s the option to ‘add URL/link’ or ‘submit URL/link’;
- It looks like crap (sorry to be blunt but it’s true!)
7. Blogger Links
Last but not least, we’re now onto blogger links.
Paying (or bribing!) bloggers to link to your website isn’t inherently a problem for Google, as long as you handle it correctly: any such link should indicate that it has been obtained unnaturally, for example using the rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attributes (read more here).
In fact in Google’s guidelines on link schemes, they list these types of links right at the top of their list!
This website https://www.alisonathome.com/ is a perfect example of blog links that violate Google’s guidelines. In particular this article, which contains seven links to the same website (yes, seven!) which are all:
- Linking to product pages;
- Have keyword-centric anchor text.
This. is. not. natural!
Worst of all, there’s nothing on these links (such as rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow”) to indicate the relationship between the blog website and the site being linked to, which is clearly a paid one.
I would disavow without hesitation.
If you’re wondering how I found this example, it was as simple as looking through my linking domains list for women’s names: reason being, many bloggers (such as this lady) put their name in their domain. To save yourself filtering endlessly for women’s names, you could use Regex in Google Sheets to flag any domains containing women’s names.
To wrap up
I’m sure you’re relieved to know that this is all for today! I really hope this article is helpful for you and makes your job of deciding if a link should be disavowed (or not) a bit easier. Thanks so much for reading!