It’s easier to get found online when lots of people point in your direction. When the people pointing are beautiful and credible, people and programs tend to follow where they point. But not every person pointing is beautiful and credible, or even friendly.
Not every backlink is equal and helpful. Some are downright toxic. Here’s what you need to know about backlinking, toxic links, and how to avoid being poisoned before you get found.
But first, let’s lay some groundwork
What is a Link and What is Link Building?
Links are the connections made when one website refers to another website in a way that the reader can move from one to the other. Website A’s reference to website B is made in the form of a hyperlink — a link, in short form. Link building is how you — the owner of website B — get other websites (A, C, D…) to make links to your site.
What are Backlinks?
A backlink is the link created when a website links to another website. When website A links to your website B, you have a backlink from website A.
Why is Linking Important?
Moz provides a great and short answer to this question. “Backlinks to your website are a signal to search engines that others vouch for your content.” Search engines’ web crawlers — think Google — crawl through the internet, your website, and from website to website by moving from link to link to link.
These crawlers notice which sites have collected lots of backlinks from other sites. Your website’s collection of backlinks is a piece of information that Google’s algorithms use to calculate where your page should rank in search results relevant to your content.
Is it just a matter of “the more backlinks the better”?
Now that we know what links are and — at least very generally — why backlinks are important, it can be tempting to jump immediately to the question: how do I get more backlinks? It’s an important question, but it assumes that more links are better and that all links are created equally.
Some Backlinks Carry More Weight than Others
Beyond the quality of the website linking to you, certain types of links are better than others. Let’s look at the gold standard types of links, then move to the opposite end of the spectrum — the sludge.
Links that will carry the most weight and give the biggest potential boost to your website’s ranking are natural editorial links and links built through outreach.
Imagine your website has a page with a 1,500-word article about butterflies in South America. Now imagine a writer at a highly credible and top-quality website like National Geographic was working on a post about butterflies in the southern hemisphere.
If that writer came across your page about South American butterflies, they might link to it. You’ll have earned a backlink from National Geographic. That is an example of a highly impactful and editorial backlink.
It’s not always as easy as that — and that’s not even easy. Especially with new and growing websites, earning links is not as easy as write-it-and-they-will-link.
More often, earning links requires a proactive effort to reach out to credible communities with common interests to ask for links back to your site. This process is called link-building outreach. It can pay off with backlinks from credible and high-quality sites that charm Google’s crawlers and boost your ranking.
Links that don’t fall into these two types of categories are common, but not influential with Google’s crawlers and ranking algorithms. Moz identifies 11 types of low-weight links that they call “self-created, non-editorial links.”
The Opposite End of the Spectrum: Toxic Backlink Slime
We know the gold standard: editorial and outreach-built links. We know the unhelpful: self-created, non-editorial links. Some links are much worse than unhelpful — they’re toxic and poisonous. A toxic backlink can actually drag your ranking down and cause your site to be penalized.
Here’s what Google itself says about this:
“In some circumstances, incoming links can affect Google’s opinion of a page or site. For example, you or a search engine optimizer you’ve hired may have built bad links to your site via paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines. First and foremost, we recommend that you remove as many spammy or low-quality links from the web as possible.”
A backlink can inflict damage to Google’s impression and ranking of your site if:
- The website providing the backlink has an exceptionally low domain trust score because that website itself has minimal backlinks. A website whose credibility has not been boosted by backlinks can not boost the credibility of yours by providing a backlink to you. Backlink mills will poison your site.
- If you’ve received backlinks from multiple sites — usually a good thing — but those sites look so similar as to be mirrored and the anchor text for those backlinks is suspiciously similar. Those types of links are not credible and don’t add credibility to you. Rather, they smell of a link building scheme that can poison the credibility of your site.
- Websites that are well designed and provide positive UX (user experiences) can boost your site by providing backlinks to you. How do crawlers know if a backlinking website is well designed and provides positive UX? One way it does that is by looking at the text: code ratio at the backlinking site. If there’s minimal content for the amount of coding present behind the page, Google will treat the site as low quality. A backlink from that site may be toxic.
SEMrush has identified nine tactics for generating toxic backlinks in 2020 that should be avoided to escape the poisonous effect on your pages and sites.
What Damage Can Toxic Backlinks Do?
Beginning with the 2012 Penguin update to Google’s algorithm, Google upped its targeting of unnatural links. As Google has shifted to a preference for quality backlinks over the number of backlinks, toxic links can cause the following types of harm.
Manual Actions by Google
A human being at Google can manually impose a penalty on your site or specified pages — which you’ll find in Google Search Console. A manual action can be prompted by a spam complaint or triggered by Google’s algorithm.
What’s the penalty? Commonly, the penalized site or page loses any ranking it had established and is barred from restoring any ranking until the penalty is lifted.
Automatic Algorithm Adjustments
If Google’s crawlers detect unnatural links to your site or page, the algorithm may adjust your site or page’s ranking — automatically and downwards.
When these automatic adjustments are made, you don’t get any notification. You just see your ranking slip or disappear. Rescuing your ranking requires rejecting the backlinking techniques that triggered the adjustment in the first place and earning natural links.
They’ll Be Ignored
Google’s crawlers and algorithms know a manufactured and hollow link designed to pump up a site’s credibility artificially when it sees one. What does it do when it recognizes such a link? Increasingly, Google simply ignores it.
How to Fight the Poison of a Toxic Backlink
Toxic backlinks do not have to kill your site. Penalties imposed on your site as the result of toxic backlinks can be resolved by the disavowal of toxic backlinking strategies. Many SEO consultants and tools offer assessments for identifying and removing toxic backlinks.
Backlinks are a possible shortcut to establishing credibility with Google’s crawlers and thus climbing the SERPs. Earning and reaching out for backlinks from highly credible and authoritative websites takes time and dedicated effort. As a result, some sites fall to the temptation to take a shortcut to the shortcut, by engaging in manipulative link building schemes.
Other sites are victimized by being barraged with toxic backlinks to trigger penalties or suppress a ranking. A commitment to quality over quantity and due diligence in tracking backlinks to your sites and pages can ensure that your linking efforts pay off rather than poison your website.