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Anna Lebedeva

How to Conduct a Simple Backlink Audit (and Save Your Site from a Google Penalty)

Anna Lebedeva
How to Conduct a Simple Backlink Audit (and Save Your Site from a Google Penalty)

When it comes to backlinks, there’s one simple fact that’s still true: the more quality backlinks a website has, the higher its chances of earning good rankings. At the same time, the more unnatural and harmful backlinks that are pointing to a website, the more likely it is to be penalized by Google. Recovering from a Google penalty is a long and complicated process. It’s less troublesome to avoid penalization and save your site from being demoted or even de-indexed by regularly auditing your backlink profile.

What Makes a Backlink High Quality?

To be considered high-quality, a link should meet the following criteria:

  • It should be relevant to the page it points to. For example, if your business offers financial services, relevant links will come from other finance-related sites, blogs, organizations, etc. On the other hand, links from home décor sites would be irrelevant.

  • It should be acquired naturally. In other words, it shouldn’t be a link that you paid for or gained in any other way that benefitted the linking website.

  • It should offer value to the user. Anyone who finds your site through organic search should be satisfied with the information they find.

Here’s one example of a link that clearly offers value to the user. It points to research that’s clearly relevant to this particular section of the post.


And now let’s talk about how to conduct a backlink audit and assess the quality of links pointing to your website.

How to Find All of Your Site’s Backlinks

To start, you need to discover all the links pointing to your site. Here are some tools you can use to do that.

Google Search Console (GSC) includes a section that lists all the backlinks Google has indexed for your site.

To extract this list, sign into your GSC account, navigate to the “Search Traffic” section and click on the “Links to Your Site” button.

Google Search ConsoleGoogle Search Console

The platform will display a list of all domains pointing to your site. Clicking on a domain will take you to a page that contains more information about it, for example, what page on your site the domain links to.

Unfortunately, GSC includes only very basic data for your audit: the linking domain, the number of links that point to your site from it, and the number of linked pages.

To conduct an audit with this information, you would have to research every link manually. And depending on the number of domains pointing to your website, this could prove quite time consuming.

Luckily, you could also use a dedicated link analysis tool. Here are two to consider:

SEMrush’s Backlink Audit Tool provides insights into your backlink profile, and you can integrate it with Google Search Console. This tool audits your backlinks according to over 30 toxic factors, sorts them by degree of harmfulness and allows you to submit links to Google’s disavow tool.

Backlink Audit ToolBacklink Audit Tool

Majestic. This tool focuses entirely on backlink indexing and analysis and provides thorough information on your backlinks. You can generate and download reports with all the necessary data.

Backlink Tool by MajesticBacklink Tool by Majestic

What Information Should You Pay Attention to When Auditing Your Backlinks?

  1. Referring domains

Start your backlink audit by assessing which domains link to your website. Here are a few aspects to consider:

  • Domain Authority

  • Trust Score

  • Domain Score

  • Relevance to your niche and topic

Backlink Audit ToolBacklink Audit Tool

At SEMrush, we use the Domain Score to denote the strength of a particular referring domain. We calculate it on the scale of 0 - 100 based on the quality and quantity of links pointing to it.

2. Referring Countries

At this stage of your audit, you will know how many domains point to your site as well as their overall strength. Next, you need to check the locations of those referring domains.

For example, if you’ve specified the UK as your target geo-location, then having a majority of your links coming from UK-based sites would look natural.

However, having links from domains located somewhere far away from you might get your site on a search engine’s radar.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all your links have to come from the country in which your business resides. But if you provide local services, then a majority of them should.

Backlink Audit ToolBacklink Audit Tool

3. Dofollow and Nofollow Ratio

Dofollow links carry SEO weight, meaning that Google considers them when ranking a site. Nofollow links, on the other hand, offer less help.

However, a natural, healthy link profile will contain both types of links. Having only dofollow links would certainly look suspicious.

Backlink Audit ToolBacklink Audit Tool

4. Anchor Text

Finally, you need to audit the text that companies linking to your site use in their link.

Why should you pay attention to anchor text?

Anchor text can affect your rankings. I admit, they aren’t as strong a ranking factor anymore. However, companies still try to game their rankings by including relevant keywords in their anchor text in hope that it would help them rank a page for that keyword.


What this does, however, is make their backlinks look suspicious.

So what is “good” or safe anchor text?

First of all, your anchor texts should be diverse and natural. Typically, a company might have the majority of their anchor texts pointing to them contain their brand name or other targeted keywords.

But if your backlink profile includes mainly links with commercial keywords in their anchors, then you should probably diversify those links.

Backlink Audit ToolBacklink Audit Tool

5. The Anchor URL

It comes as no surprise that majority of backlinks are leading to your website’s homepage. However, it’s a good idea to have some of links leading to the internal pages of your website to create diversity. So if you’re lacking that kind of links, you should start promoting specific pages of your website to get other websites linking to them.

Now, if you follow these steps, you should have a good idea of your backlink profile’s health. What’s left then is to decide if there’s something to worry about or not. If you’re concerned that certain links might cause you trouble, consider contacting sites that include them and ask to have them removed or submit those links to Google’s disavow tool.

New Google Update

We’ve asked some experts for their opinions on how SEOs should change their backlink audit approach to comply with the upcoming Google Penguin 4.0 update.

"The major thing anyone doing a link audit needs to look at is whether or not a link makes sense for the page on which it appears. I firmly believe that all links need to be manually reviewed, especially if you're considering disavowing them. I've seen good links show up as bad ones, according to numbers in various tools, and vice versa. So with the next Penguin, I think it will just continue to become more critical for us to use our brains when auditing and not simply rely on being able to take shortcuts."

"If you are doing a link audit in 2016 you need to ensure someone qualified is doing it. You can use backlink audit software, but you need to check your link profiles manually and use expertise. A high focus needs to be placed on low-quality links, generic commercial anchors and other spam signals."

"What we're looking for, in terms of quality, is semantically flavored links. It amazes me how many links that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand I’m still seeing. For instance, links to a heating and cooling site from a site that sells shoes – there's no relevance.

If you find links in your backlink profile that have nothing to do with your niche, replace them with another site that does, and then get them removed. They aren't helping you get visitors; they aren't helping you rank; they aren't helping you be an authority in your niche. Think of them as dead weight.

So in terms of changing your approach, I'd say don't gloss over the "okay" sites that aren't relevant. Target them for replacement as well."

"A real-time Google Penguin, which would update constantly instead of every once in a while, could, in my eyes, therefore have quite the opposite effect of what Google wants it to do. If people can start testing with what works and what doesn't work, and can get 'out of jail' pretty easily, this might actually lead to more link spamming, instead of less. Time will tell." (Source.)

If it truly becomes real-time, you can expect much easier testing and thus a more "let's see what works" approach. That means removing as few links as possible, instead of a "let's make sure we won't miss this penguin update" approach in which too many links often get removed.

Anna Lebedeva is the PR manager at SEMrush. She has a passion for digital marketing, new technologies and media. She’s worked with brands in IT, fashion, packaging, hotel and transportation industries and is now actively spreading the word about SEMrush around the world.

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