How to Handle Toxic Backlinks: The 2-Phase Approach
Toxic links are best handled like insects.
Get rid of the ones you can, and learn to live with the ones you can’t.
Because the truth is, you won’t be able to remove every bad backlink pointing back to your site—but you can still use them to your advantage.
That’s the two-phase approach to handling toxic backlinks:
Identify and remove as many as you can, and then use the rest to build a better online reputation.
What Are Toxic Backlinks?
In the early years of SEO, it might’ve been true that all backlinks were good backlinks.
But not anymore.
While there’s no universal definition of a toxic backlink, the term covers any backlink that comes from:
- Websites with major security flaws
Keeping up with cybersecurity is very difficult, but you have to make an effort. You don’t want backlinks from a hacked website if you can avoid it, because your visitors may view your site negatively by association.
Luckily, these sorts of websites are pretty easy to spot. Chrome and other web browsers will display warning messages like this:
- Excessively monetized websites
You know these sorts of websites when you see them. Think full-screen opt-in prompts and multiple exit popups, or aggressive wall-to-wall ads.
(You can take a look at a really drastic example here.)
- Link farms
You also want to avoid aggressive backlink practices like link trading websites, link farms and other websites designed purely to churn out a high volume of links.
Stay clear of PBNs (private blog networks), which are prime for link farms. While it’s very possible to run a high-quality blog network—you could see the Huffington Post as a blog network—many of them are crammed full of unrelated backlinks to many different websites.
- Websites that violate Google’s guidelines
When in doubt, it’s helpful to review Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Any website not following these expectations could be the source of toxic backlinks.
How to Handle Toxic Backlinks: The 2-Phase Approach
Phase 1: Remove as Many Toxic Backlinks as You Can
Now that you have some criteria to find toxic backlinks, it’s time to put your knowledge into practice.
1) Identify toxic links
Using Monitor Backlinks, you can quickly find the toxic backlinks that may be harming your SEO performance.
Simply log in to your Monitor Backlinks account and click the “Your Links” tab to view your website’s backlink report. (You can get a free 30-day trial of Monitor Backlinks here!)
Fundamentally, I like to use the “counterfeit principle” to find toxic links.
I once heard a story that fraud specialists spend much of their time handling genuine dollar bills. Through that experience, they can quickly spot a fraud.
We’ll use a similar approach here—it’s easier to identify toxic backlinks when you can compare and contrast them with high-quality backlinks.
Here’s what to look at:
- Trust flow
If the website has low trust, you have a possible candidate for a toxic backlink.
As a rule of thumb, good backlinks have a trust flow of 30 or higher on the o-100 point scale used in Monitor Backlinks. If the trust flow is 10 or less, you may have a toxic backlink on your hands.
There’s one caveat to this factor: Be wary of applying it to websites that are 1-2 years old. In those cases, the trust flow may be low simply because the website is in the early days of its development.
- Domain authority
The lower the domain authority, the more likely you have a source of toxic backlinks.
As a simple rule of thumb, I view websites with a domain authority of 40+ as unlikely to generate toxic backlinks. Below domain authority 40, you’ll need to use your judgment.
- Spam score
A high spam score of 8 or above indicates a high likelihood that the site is spammy, and therefore gives toxic backlinks.
- Editorial assessment
The numbers don’t tell the whole story. You also need to use your judgment.
For example, say you find a blog with a domain authority of 25. That sounds promising at first, however, a closer look at the blog reveals that it may be on the road to becoming a source of toxic links. Perhaps it links out to many different sites, with no coherent editorial process or vision holding them together.
Always visit the site in question to assess its overall quality.
- Backlink patterns
Look at the other backlinks on the website. Specifically, you want to check if the backlinks seem excessively optimized.
On a high-quality website, you’ll see a variety of anchor text used (e.g. brand names, product names and generic industry terms).
If all of the anchor text examples you see are exact match keyword phrases and appear to be purely designed to game Google, you have a greater likelihood of encountering toxic links.
- Brand alignment
Customers evaluate your brand through the company you keep. This principle applies to the sites linking to you, as well.
The brand alignment criterion is even more important if your brand has committed to certain causes or values. For example, what if a sustainable outdoor adventure brand received backlinks from websites that protested their environmental efforts?
If you’re brand new to identifying toxic links, I recommend taking a cautious approach. Focus your efforts on the worst toxic backlinks—those from websites with major technical problems, security flaws and aggressive monetization.
2) Remove toxic links with outreach
You should now have a list of toxic backlinks that you identified in step #1.
Asking website owners to remove links (and mentions of your brand) is the best way to get rid of these toxic links for good. It also takes the most effort and skill.
Here are the steps to follow:
- Identify the URL of the linking website
From the backlink report you produced earlier, choose one URL to focus on. If you have multiple toxic links from a single domain, you can bundle those together into one outreach message.
- Find contact information
Many websites have contact forms, about pages and contact us pages. Use those means to find the contact details of the person in charge of the site.
Whenever possible, I recommend using email over a web form because it’s easier to monitor and follow up.
If you don’t find any contact information on the website itself, you can search for email addresses using a tool like Hunter.
- Send a short, simple request message
In your message, you want to keep your request simple, polite and to the point.
As a starting point, use the following template:
Can you please remove the link [URL and anchor text] on your website? This backlink doesn’t fit well with our brand.
Regards, [Your Name].”
Resist the urge to explain your judgment of the website.
- Check the results
Using Monitor Backlinks, review your backlink report a week after you send the removal request. Does the link still show up?
- Follow up
If the link is gone, send the website owner a message to thank them for their efforts.
If the toxic link still shows up in your backlink report, send them a follow-up message.
If the website owner replies with a refusal, you can make an effort to convince them otherwise, but don’t push your luck too far. After all, if you come across as too forceful, you might get an angry post about your company—the ultimate toxic backlink!
The trick with manual outreach is to be polite and persistent. But if it’s not getting you anywhere, don’t worry—there are another couple of approaches you can take to remove toxic links.
3) Remove toxic links with the law
Without a doubt, involving a lawyer to remove toxic backlinks is an expensive solution—but it can also be very effective.
If you’re a larger company that’s spent years carefully building your brand, then this approach may be reasonable to pursue. Or, if the backlinks are associated with hate speech or some other highly objectionable material, it may be worth considering.
But in most cases, this approach wouldn’t be worth the time and effort. You’d be better off moving straight to step #4.
4) Disavow toxic links
If your outreach efforts fail and it’s not worth the effort to pursue a legal solution, the next step is to disavow the toxic links.
You can do this quickly and easily with the Disavow feature in Monitor Backlinks.
From your backlink report, all you have to do is select the toxic links that you want to disavow, and click on the gear icon next to the checkbox.
As you can see in the screenshot below, you can choose to either disavow the URL or the domain.
At first, I recommend using the Disavow URL option, which disavows the single URL over the entire domain. Disavowing an entire domain could impact a large number of backlinks, so you need to be confident before you make such a move.
When you’ve done this for all the remaining toxic links in your report, click on the Disavow tab to export your disavow file, and upload the file to Google’s disavow links tool.
Read this guide for more detailed instructions on disavowing backlinks.
The removal techniques covered above are all you need for 98% of the toxic backlinks you’ll ever encounter. But what about those remaining situations?
Phase 2: Use Toxic Backlinks to Improve Your SEO
In an ideal world, you’ll be able to remove every toxic link pointing to your site.
But in reality? You won’t be able to win every battle.
Think of it this way: Removing toxic backlinks is defense. You need a defense to maintain your position.
However, that isn’t enough to succeed in SEO and online marketing. You also need to keep up your offense: learning from your insights, earning great backlinks and improving your SEO strategy.
Here are a few ways to use your toxic links to your advantage, even if you can’t remove the links themselves.
5) Overcome toxic links with healthy links
As I said above, removing toxic backlinks is a defensive technique. Like saving money to become rich, it’ll only take you so far.
You also need an offensive strategy—attract excellent backlinks.
With this method, you’re aiming to drown out the toxic backlinks with an avalanche of positive, healthy backlinks. Eventually, Google and the other search engines will get the message and will be more likely to ignore the toxic links.
To put this strategy into effect, I’ll assume that you already have excellent content on your website. If that’s a gap for you, read “The Definitive Guide to Earning High-Quality Organic Backlinks” first.
Then, use Monitor Backlinks to find out which of your pages are currently attracting the most backlinks.
Simply navigate to the Link Analysis tab, and look at the “Top Linked” report about halfway down the page.
Here’s what it looks like (click the “Export as CSV” button in the top-right corner if you want to download the report and review it in-depth):
Use the following steps to build on your past backlink successes:
- Review the content
Take a few minutes to review the content that’s been most successful. What aspects of it stand out most to you? Who would be interested in reading it?
If you’ve mentioned specific influencers or brands in the article—especially if they’re positive mentions—those people would be good to reach out to.
- Craft your outreach request
Find other websites in your niche and relevant influencers and blogs by using BuzzSumo for research. Then, send them a friendly email to let them know about your content.
Keep your outreach email request to 150 words or less. Remember that the person who receives your email doesn’t sit around all day waiting for backlink requests.
I recommend using Kai Davis’s “The Importance of Writing You Focused Emails” for further guidance.
- Send the request
Nothing happens until you press send!
If you’re sending a large number of requests, use a tool like Followup to help you manage the emails and follow-ups.
- Follow up and monitor the results
Check your backlink report in Monitor Backlinks about a week after you send your outreach message.
If you received a backlink on your first request, send a thank you message to the website owner. If they didn’t reply or provide a backlink, send one more follow-up message. If that doesn’t succeed, move on to reach out to another person.
6) Respond to toxic links from social media
If the United Airlines debacle of 2017 taught us anything, it’s that social media users don’t pull their punches online when they’re upset. A viral tweet or Facebook post condemning your brand for poor customer service is tough.
There are a few ways to address this type of toxic backlink:
- Look for patterns and fix them
Are customers tweeting about a late delivery week after week? If so, you may need to have a tough conversation with your shipping provider.
Once you have a definite solution, you can announce an improved service standard on social media.
- Jump-start positive customer comments
Without your encouragement, your fans may not say much about your brand on social media. That’s why I recommend periodically encouraging your customers to share their positive experiences.
An Icelandic airline had great results promoting their hashtag #MyStopover online and onboard their planes. These positive brand mentions will sometimes include positive backlinks as well.
See below for an example of one such Tweet:
- Hug your haters
For more inspiration on how to engage with toxic link givers and webmasters, read “Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers” by Jay Baer. Baer’s empathetic approach will have you rethinking your online haters!
You can’t convince everyone to love your brand, especially if you’ve made a mistake.
However, don’t underestimate the value of helping a customer through a problem—you’ll win points for going the extra mile. Take inspiration from Morton’s Steakhouse, for example, which noticed a tweet jokingly asking for a steak at Newark airport. The company delivered in a few hours!
Check out this excellent article from Buffer for more examples of brands using social media to provide amazing customer service.
The Long-Term Plan to Handling Toxic Links
The best way to counter toxic backlinks is to have an overwhelming number of high-quality backlinks and positive word of mouth.
Building an awesome product or service is part of the solution, but I wouldn’t stop there.
Work on cultivating a loyal following to achieve the best long-term results.
Bruce Harpham provides SaaS marketing services to B2B SaaS companies so they can get high quality leads. He is also the author of “Project Managers At Work.”
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