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Anastasia Sidko

Backlink Audit Basics #SEOcafe

Anastasia Sidko
Backlink Audit Basics #SEOcafe

Links from authoritative websites that point to your site are still an important ranking factor. On the other hand, links from low-quality websites have the power to damage your website’s rankings. If you don’t want to see your rankings drop, you have to conduct a thorough backlink audit. So when is the best time to do this? It’s now!

The easiest way to deal with a Google penalty is to prevent it. So let’s find out how to perform a comprehensive backlink audit and identify and remove bad links with our #SEOcafe chat participants and our special guest Bill Slawski, President of SEO by the Sea, regular columnist and international speaker.

What Are the Most Essential Things to Focus on While Performing a Backlink Audit? 

A thorough backlink audit is an essential step for checking your website’s health. It allows you to detect if your website is at risk of being penalized, and identify weak and valuable links. While it may seem time-consuming, a proper link audit requires a manual review.

There are several important elements that you should pay attention to when performing a backlink audit.

Referring domains

Today, building as many links as possible from any available source is a huge mistake. The quality of the referring domains is much more important than link quality. Apart from having high authority and a high trust score, domains linking to your website should be relevant to your industry. Wouldn’t you find it strange if a travel website linked to a nutrition shop? So does Google.

Referring countries

Not only do your links need to be from websites related to your business, they also need to be location relevant. For example, a link from a Japanese or Italian website to a local company website in Chicago doesn’t look natural (unless you’re targeting these particular countries).

Unnatural links

Unnatural links can be considered a violation of the Google Quality Guidelines. Actually, any link that is created solely to improve your website’s ranking is considered unnatural by Google. When a search engine detects such links, you will receive an unnatural-link warning message in the Manual Actions section of Google Search Console (previously, Google Webmaster Tool).

Regularly monitoring your link profile will help you keep things under control and avoid Google penalties.

Competitors’ backlink profiles

Checking your competitors’ backlinks can help you discover new backlink opportunities, and it can give you a good understanding of their strategy.

How Do You Identify Which Types of Low Quality Links Harm Your Site's Rankings the Most?

If you think that some low-quality backlinks are pointing to your site, you should check whether or not you have a good reason to worry as soon as possible. Even if you haven’t received a penalty yet, you could still be at a risk unless your link profile is clean. And it’s crucial to understand which of your backlinks are most harmful and to get rid of them first thing.

If you don’t have the time or resources to conduct a backlink audit on your own, entrust your website to a competent company that will perform an all-encompassing backlink audit.

But you can also conduct backlinks audit by yourself. Luckily, there are tools that can help you.

Pay special attention to the following types of links:

  • Links from blog networks. As early as 2012, Google started penalizing some blog networks and websites that have backlinks coming from them. If you have some, keep in mind that your website is in danger of being penalized.

  • Links from low-quality and spammy websites. Links coming from domains that have been penalized by Google can be harmful for your website.

  • Links from paid posts. Such posts usually have a tagline, which says, “This is a sponsored post.” If you accept such posts, which include a dofollow link to your website, Google will see it as a violation of its webmaster guidelines.

  • Links from directories. The general purpose of article directories is to generate endless articles on the same topic. The thing is that these sites don’t provide any real value to users, and that’s why Google devalues them.

  • Links from sites with duplicate content. We all know that Google encourages us to publish useful and unique posts that provide value to readers. But the search engine devalues websites with duplicate or low-quality content. That’s why backlinks that are coming from these sites will severely damage your rankings.

  • Link exchanges. This was once a very commonly used and simple way to build links. But the excessive number of link exchanges today has compelled Google to take measures.

  • Sitewide and footer backlinks. Since links from blog sidebars and footers will be placed on every page of your website, this may result in links that are not relevant. Google might consider this to be a spammy way to build backlinks.

  • Links from the comments sections of other websites. Beware of comment spam links; some of them can be bad for your backlink profile.

We've created an infographics, featuring the most harmful types of backlinks:

Backlinks that buried your website

When Do You Need to Disavow Bad Links on the Domain Level and When on URL Level?

Google’s disavow tool, which was launched in 2012, allows users to ask the search engine to remove a certain URL or domain as a ranking factor in its indexing system. Generally, this is needed when your website receives a manual or algorithmic penalty.

Also, as Matt Cutts recommends, if it looks like there’s some bot building up links to your website and you don’t know where they’re coming from, you can use the disavow tool as well.

First of all, make sure that you use this tool only when you’re sure you need to. You can find this note in the Help section of Google Search Console: “We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.

Let’s figure out when you need to disavow backlinks on the domain level and when on URL level.

URL-level disavow

This means that Google will ignore any backlinks pointing to your site from a specific URL. You should keep an eye on your backlinks, especially new ones, and use the disavow tool if you identified any poor-quality or suspicious backlinks at the URL level that you believe might hurt your site. You can also do this if a link to your website is from an irrelevant page, since relevant backlinks are crucial. There’s no sense for a digital marketing agency’s website to get links from a site that sells air conditioners.

Domain-level disavow

In this case, Google will ignore any backlinks to your website from any specific URL on a whole domain. The search engine cautions users about disavowing links at the domain level, because it can cause serious damage. If valuable domains are left in your disavow file, your website won’t be able to benefit from any links from these domains.  

If you find a spammy link coming from a good site, have the link removed manually, if possible. If it’s not, disavow that particular URL, not the entire domain. Also, if you find some unnatural links on an authoritative domain, you can try to contact the webmaster and ask for removal.

But if a domain is filled with spammy content, the only way to safely extract it is by disavowing the entire domain.

Which Common Myths Must Be Debunked on How Google Judges the Impact of Backlinks?

Search engine webmasters constantly update their ranking algorithms, and those who don’t keep up with all their changes and innovations will be surpassed by more successful players of the SEO game.

The same link-building strategies that might have bumped your website up to the top positions in Google SERPs before may no longer work. It’s crucial to keep track of all the latest trends in the industry and understand what works and what doesn’t. No let’s take a look at some common link-building myths and misconceptions.

Link building is dead. Many webmasters are so afraid of Google penalizing their website for spammy links that they don’t even try to build links at all. However, backlinks still remain one of the most important important ranking factors for Google today.

The right link-building or link-earning techniques continue to work.

Link quantity is more important than link quality. This used to be true several years ago, but today, one backlink from a relevant, authoritative website is more beneficial than hundreds of poor-quality, suspicious links.

All backlinks should be from pages with a high PageRank. There’s a common misconception that a backlink is beneficial only if it comes from a page with a high PageRank. Nevertheless, a PR backlink won’t tank your rankings. When earning backlinks, you should focus not only on a website’s PR status,  but on other important elements, such as relevancy, domain age and number of outbound links.

High link velocity will hurt your rankings. If your content goes viral, it’s promptly linked from numerous websites. Although it’s true that quality is more vital than quantity; if your backlinks are being naturally followed and not just artificially created, it doesn’t really matter how fast they appear.

Nofollow links have no value. Using rel=”nofollow" you can tell Google not to follow certain links. And many people think that link juice isn’t passed on to the website, simply because Google bots ignore those links. But, actually, nofollow links are important for your site’s backlink profile.

The thing is that if Google notices that you have zero nofollow links, the search engine can decide that you’re only building links, rather than earning them naturally, which is considered to be a black hat technique.

Every paid directory link is bad. The truth is that not all paid directory links are bad. John Romaine assumes that it depends on which directories you submit your website to, as well as your intent and approach you take. If a website is authoritative and has strict moderation, you can think about listing your site. Actually directory listing in local directories generally give websites an SEO boost.

How Can a Backlink Audit Help You Recover From a Google Penalty and Where Should You Start?

Every month, numerous websites receive manual and algorithmic penalties. The good news is that a thorough backlink audit is helpful not only when you want to improve your link building strategy and avoid a penalty, but also when you want to recover from a penalty. And here are several ways you can do this.

Briefly, the steps of the penalty recovery process are:

  1. Using Google Search Console

  2. Performing a backlink audit with other tools

  3. Defining which links to disavow and which ones to keep

  4. Requesting the removal of links

  5. Documenting your removal efforts and submitting a reconsideration request

Backlink audit tools

It’s worth starting with exporting links from your Google Search Console account and then importing them into whichever SEO tool you prefer. You can identify and clean up toxic links that were found in Google Search Console.

There are several tools that can provide you with a more in-depth picture of your website’s link profile, such as Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer by Moz, Majestic and SEMrush’s Backink Audit tool.

Disavowing a link

If done correctly, disavowing a link is one of the safest and most straightforward solutions in several different cases: if a link cannot be found, if a page is no longer on the Web, if a link cannot be located on the page, and even other situations As we said earlier, you can disavow a URL or entire domain.

Link removal request

When you request that a link be removed, it’s important to take the right approach. When dealing with other webmasters, you will have to prove that you’re not a spambot and identify yourself as a member of the webmaster’s community. Neil Patel described six removal request techniques that can be very helpful.

Documenting removal efforts and submitting a reconsideration request

Google wants webmasters to prove that they’ve made certain efforts to remove bad links that are pointing to your site. This means that you need to document all the steps you’re taking to get rid of the harmful links.

When documenting your reconsideration request, pay attention to the following important elements:

  • Explanation of quality issue on your website

  • The steps you’ve taken to fix the problems

  • The results of your efforts

Make sure that you didn’t miss any important details when you were documenting your website repair process. Then you can submit your reconsideration request. Generally a search engine’s response to requests takes up to 30 days.

As you can see, the importance of a backlink audit cannot be overestimated. Google evaluates all links that are pointing to your website, even old ones that you may not even be aware of. That’s why you should always keep track of your site’s link profile.

Have any thoughts on the topic? Leave a comment and let us know!

Anastasia Sidko, Content Manager at SEMrush. I have four years of experience in content creation and public relations. My areas of interest include SEO, digital marketing and content marketing.

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