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SEMrush Toolbox #14: Backlink Audit tool



SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool Overview

Craig: Hi guys and welcome to today's SEMrush Toolbox webinar. This is series number 14 believe it or not and I am back today with someone who's previously been on here. I'm sure many of you will know Mr. Kevin Indig. 

Kevin Indig: Yes, thanks for having me on again, Craig. It's always a pleasure. I am currently the VP of SEO and content at G2, formerly called G2 Crowds. We're a marketplace for software, or B2B software better said, and formerly I was head of SEO at Atlassian. So yes, thanks for having me on again.

Craig: No worries, always a pleasure to have one of the good guys on. Today's webinar is going to be about the Backlink Audit tool.  I'm going to give you a quick 10- to 15-minute overview of what the tool does, where all the kinds of functions are. 

Then we're going to go over to Kevin, who is going to give us a more in-depth analysis of the processes that he uses when he's using that tool and various other stuff.

So, I'm going to show you first of all, where to find the tool. When you log in to SEMrush, you will get your dashboard here, if you just go to the SEO toolkits, it will bring up this nice dashboard on the left-hand side and about halfway down, under Link Building, the Backlink Audit Tool is right there. 

I've already connected my own personal website to the backlink audit tool. But you basically put your website in and up at the top right-hand side, you can integrate your Search Console, your Google Analytics and you can also integrate Majestic SEO data, as well. 

With backlinks, and I'm not going to sit here and dismiss SEMrush's backlink power anymore because recently, their backlink data has been up massively. I'm sure you've seen the posts in the past few days of the backlink data here. 

But previously, to get all the backlink data that I possibly could, I was integrating Majestic Search Console and Analytics and that's still something I would encourage anyone to do anyway. You want as much data as you possibly can. 

Up here, where it says Mailbox, you can add a mailbox and that can be Gmail, Outlook or Office 365 or any other mailbox that you want to add. You can basically reach out to people if you have lost a backlink, through the tool so I will talk about that more later on in the demonstration. 

This is a kind of overview of what you get when you do a backlink audit and I would always recommend that you do a backlink audit every month or two just to make sure that everything is as clean as it should be. So, the overview gets me an overall toxic score of the medium. It gives me the amount of referring domain names I've got and how many backlinks have been analyzed. 

I've got three toxic links, 120 potentially toxic links, and 860 non-toxic links. So I'm going to go into the audit. Now here it will tell you that a score of 60 to 100, SEMrush is going to tell you that domain is toxic. 45 to 59, the domain is potentially toxic, and you want to possibly review them. 

I would always encourage someone to, first and foremost, click on the one percent there and look at the toxic links. Now that's obviously the ones that are getting a score of above 60 so SEMrush is telling me that I've got three links there. 

Now, I don't recognize any of these links. The toxic score is 63 out of 100 and this looks like some dodgy Chinese website, for whatever reason. It's got no anchor text and there's also another website here that I don't recognize, a couple of others there, as well. 

The anchor text for the middle one is SEO consultancy and that's probably flagging up because it's a keyword-rich anchor and SEMrush will use that as part of their algorithm to determine that that's potentially something I want to review. It may be toxic. 

Now I'm not sure how toxic that link is. That's something I would do my research on though. But for any reason, when you go through the list of toxic links, if you want to keep that middle link, I can just click Keep, and I can add it to a whitelist and it will remove it from the toxic websites that are on here. 

Now, for example, the top one, I may want to add that to a disavow file. So what happens is when you're auditing a website or auditing a backlink profile, you want to disavow any links that you don't want to be associated with your website. 

You can create a disavow file here so any links that you would like to disavow, click on the Delete button and then move it to the disavow file. Just click the To Disavow button and that will move it to the disavow file for you. 

Now, you can basically go through here and create a big disavow file, basically, using all these different filters. You can look at different toxic markers such as mirror pages and there's various other stuff here as well. Spam, TLDs, weak domain power, low domain power, you can set all of these kinds of filters up. Now you can group them by domain or URL and there's also an advanced search filter there, as well. 

You can also look at all links, or follow links or nofollow links. You can use all of these search filters to go through all of the links that SEMrush are showing you and you can then go through this list and create a disavow file or whatever it is you choose to do when you're doing a backlink audit. 

So 12% of my links are potentially toxic so that would be the next place that I would go to.  It will give you the scores; 59, 58 and so on. And again, these are not links that I really recognize. There are again, some Chinese ones in there.

You can go in here, add it to the disavow file if it's not one that you're happy with. Continually go through that list and then once a month upload a disavow file or once a quarter, there are no set guidelines on when you should upload a disavow file.

So, moving along the tabs, this is the Remove tab. At the start of the campaign, like I said, you can set up a mailbox. This is where you can actually do the outreach using the SEMrush tool.

You can basically send an email through here and send it to the website owner, and you can send this through here and put in the email address for the website owner. You can then change the subject line if you wish. You can put in whatever you want there, but “please remove links to our website” is perfectly fine. 

And then you simply click send and what will happen is you have the status here, and it'll say the email was sent, it was delivered, it was read and then if you get a reply, it will also notify you. 

And if you're going to use a disavow, click on the Disavow tab and this will basically show you the disavow file so every link that you add to disavow, it will end up here. 

I've done disavows in the past, and you can see here that that particular domain name there and if I move over to the right-hand side, the status has been disavowed. I keep on top of the disavow file on a regular basis. 

The reason that I've personally been keeping on top of it is someone was doing negative SEO to my website, and I had to keep on top of it and tell Google that these were not my links, and I don't want any kind of penalties or anything like that as a result of those links pointing at my website so that's what a disavow is for and that's what the backlink site audit is primarily for, to be fair. 

You can export that disavow file using the big green button there and then you upload it. If you just simply Google “disavow tool”, you can upload it there. So you can export to your XT file, SEMrush basically clears the file for you for clients or whatever it may be. 

Lost and found. Any new domains that come through will come under New. Any broken links are there and lost links are there and basically what you want to do is click on any of these. 

There are 11 broken links that are coming up. That gives me the opportunity to go through these, reach out to them, find out why they're broken and advise the person that they're broken and potentially reclaim that link back. 

It's a really important tool just to make sure that your backlink profile is clean and tidy, and it now does also allow you the ability to reach out to some of these website owners. You can reach out to 500 people a day and ask them to remove backlinks to your website if you want to use that approach, or you can systematically go and disavow all of the links that you don't want to be associated with your website. 

What I'm going to do now is I'm going to stop sharing the screen and pass you over to Kevin, who will give us more insights as to how he uses the tool, and some of the things that have happened to him along the way, as well, so the stage is now yours, Kevin. 

Identifying and Removing Bad Backlinks

Kevin Indig: Thanks. Let me quickly share my screen here, so you can see what I'm doing. I want to jump into a couple of examples of how we use the backlink audit tool at G2 and a couple of other sites that I'm working with. And then also show you a little trick that I sometimes use. 

So Craig, I really like how you gave an introduction into the toxic score and how you highlighted that people should look into the actual backlinks that were deemed toxic. 

With G2, we regularly audit our backlinks, probably once a quarter I think is the frequency that we keep. We definitely look at the toxic backlinks but I think it's important to understand that the risk of toxic backlinks is different for every site. 

If you're a site like say, the New York Times, with a rock-solid backlink profile and hundreds and thousands of great referring domains, then you don't need to worry as much about negative SEO as maybe a young, fresh site. Or for example, a site that operates in a, your money or your life vertical like health insurance or credit cards. 

There are definitely some fields in which I would be more concerned about a negative SEO attack than in other fields, or more concerned about the toxicity of my link score. 

This is the G2.com link profile. You see SEMrush found a bit over a thousand referring domains and deemed 4% of them toxic. Now, you also see that we are using the disavow functionality and SEMrush here will have about almost 500 backlinks or domains that we did disavow.

I also really like how it gives you an overview of the anchors or the anchor text or link text of the link, which is really helpful to understand if you maybe are using too many hard anchor texts or money anchor texts. Or you could just simply look on the chart on the left side here and get an understanding of what that looks like. I really love it because I feel very strongly about having a somewhat organic backlink profile. 

And organic or authentic in this case, is dependent on the backlink profile of other sites and we'll talk about that just in a second. But these are two modules that I really like and that I try to compare whenever I do a new backlink audit. 

Every quarter, we look at this distribution and try to assess, are we moving too far on the “money anchor text” side of things or are we building enough brand links?

So, when we go to the Audit tab what I really like is that you can then filter by your own markers. You can select toxic markers and I love that because I think, I love how SEMrush does a lot of work for yourself, but you should still double-check some of the links and shape your understanding of what a toxic link actually is. 

Google changes their perception of toxicity over time, as well. I remember like almost ten years ago when I came up, it was totally fine to have hard anchor text in backlinks. That changed relatively quickly when Penguin was rolled out so even though the backlink audit tool takes a lot of work off of your plate, still go in and filter the backlinks here for markers that you would deem spammy yourself. 

I often, especially when I have the time, open the site and see what's up but that does not mean I would keep the link. I would still add it to delete, and I would select the domain here and would add it to the Remove tab or could even add it to the Disavow tab.

Identifying Lost and New Backlinks     

Another thing that I really like is the Lost and Found tab. There were a lot of new backlinks that we got in the middle of May and then there was a bit of a drought in the last couple of weeks. That's always super helpful for me to understand. 

When I get a lot of links, I want to make sure that they're kind of clean or that they're fine. One signal that I saw Google reacting to in the past, negatively, in most cases, obviously, was a high link velocity or a sudden spike in referring domains or links to a site. 

It's relatively straightforward and logical because for Google, this could be...some sort of a link acquisition or something other manipulative that webmasters do to get a lot of links.

You want your link profile to grow, but you don't want to add a million backlinks overnight. That's usually not the best signal. It's similar to how a site grows, and I reason through that by saying that most sites organically grow their link profile step by step and not overnight, right. 

Analyze Competitor Backlinks

Now I mentioned that I was going to show a little trick and I don't know if you really call it a trick or something. I basically abuse the backlink audit tool a little bit because I thought that if I can crawl or audit the links of my own domain, like what would I get if I audited the links of a competitor. 

And this is exactly what I did. So Capterra is one of our competitors, and I love that you get a wave of fresh data when you analyze a domain's backlinks with the audit tool, and you can throw any domain in there. 

Now mind you that you obviously don't have access to your competitor's search console or analytics account, so you don't get the full swoop as you would get from your own domains, but there's still some interesting stuff. I'm going to walk you through a couple of examples of how you can do this for yourself. 

So again, Capterra is one of our friendly competitors in the space. They seem to have a pretty good backlink profile. But the thing is, in this case, I'm not even looking for toxic backlinks, I'm actually looking for the really good ones. 

I would hop over to the audit tool, and I would then look, I would group by domain and then I would use the advanced filters and then I would pick the follow links.

Then under audit types, you can select toxic, potentially toxic or non-toxic so I select non-toxic, right? I basically turn this whole tool on its head and try to find some good links from my competitors. 

Now you can see the anchor text here, of course, you can see the toxic score and the domain or basically the URL that the link comes from and now what you want to do is you want to scroll all the way to the bottom of the tool because it's sorted by toxic score. 

See, some backlinks with a toxic score of zero. You see some cool anchor text here. Some brand links, onboarding tools and all that but if you want to take it even a step further, you can filter for a certain anchor text. 

So now you can say okay, "I can look into my competitor's backlinks or, "I can reverse engineer some good links that they got over time and now I want to build some links for a certain anchor text." 

A general approach for link building for me is I don't just build links into the blue, but instead, I think about which page do I need links to? Very often it's a query that we're not ranking for as good as we want to, or that we know we need more backlinks for.

Serum Software is one of the biggest queries in our space, so let's filter the competitor's backlinks for that specific query. And here we go, we already see some cool links with good anchor text here. Again, I scroll all the way to the bottom because that's where the non-toxic backlinks are and there we see some cool stuff. 

Whenever I build backlinks, I'm not just thinking about the direct, like the link from the domain that I want to have immediately, but I also think about which links they got. I can start even earlier on in the journey.

This is how I use this tool. I'll find some really cool ideas and how I use it for backlink outreach for creative content ideas and for building my own backlink profile and maybe snap a couple of backlinks from my competitors. Or just building on top of their backlink profile without taking away from them. So I hope that was well and good for you guys out there. 

Craig: Was perfect, Kev, always good. Good insights. We have 18 minutes left so make sure that you fill the YouTube up with as many questions as you can. So I will get started. 

Google Updates and Spammy Backlinks 

And so Food Pharmacist was on the YouTube chat and they said, "traffic tanked at the last algorithm update due to spammy backlinks and Google Search Console updated the disavow file. Have you got any ideas on how long it takes to get the traffic back up?" What's your opinion on that, Kevin?

Kevin Indig: I wish I could give you a definite answer. I've seen it take seven days. I've seen it take a couple of weeks. I've even seen it take a couple of months. It definitely depends on the size of your backlink profile and the industry or vertical that your site is in. Again, your money or life verticals seem to be much closer evaluated than others. 

In the past, I've lifted a couple of spam or link spam penalties, but it was a real, I think this is one of the hardest penalties to lift out there and for some sites, it took me multiple reconsideration requests until Google accepted this and started ranking the site again. 

At this point, I would love to understand... like did the traffic just tank across the site or did it tank for certain pages? And if it tanked for certain pages, did it tank for certain queries. If you want to start cleaning up your link profile, start cleaning up links that are spammy that point to pages that you lost traffic for. Or that have a certain anchor text that you lost rankings for the keyword. 

I wish I could give you a great answer of how long it takes but it's completely up to the team. Usually when they roll out some link-related corrections in the algorithm or kind of adjust what they deem spammy, then usually they have a flood of reconsideration requests and disavow. 

I think it will take at least two to four weeks until Google kind of reassess that kind of evaluation of data but again, don't hold me accountable for that, because unfortunately, I can't say for sure. 

Craig: It's a hard one to ask because it depends on the Google webspam team, as well. Some things they can be really quick at your reconsideration request, and I've seen people just the other day saying that it's been two months, and they've not heard anything. 

Kevin Indig: Yes. One quick food for thought that I wanted to add is I'm not a hundred percent sure that the recent June algorithm update only looks at links. I would also reassess your site in general. 

I've seen lots of other factors seemingly play a role and once again, it's probably too early to tell. We don't have all the information. There have been some weird claims out there by sites that have lost traffic and in the end, it turned out it wasn't the update, but it was technical issues. 

Don't just look at links, reassess your site as a whole, look at stuff like sentiment towards your site, trustworthiness, authoritativeness, quality. 

Do Backlinks Build Website Authority?

Craig: Cool. No worries. Does building backlinks build page authority and web authority?

Kevin Indig: The answer is yes. In SEO, often we have to be very careful about the words we pick and when we speak about page authority or domain authority or page score or trust score, in lots of cases, we don't often enough distinguish between the proprietary metric of a tool and what we mean with that.

So those, backlinks, yes, they transfer page rank. They are an important or maybe the most important factor when it comes to assessing authority and expertise and trustworthiness of a site, besides the content of course. 

Sites that have a link from Wikipedia or another domain that Google highly trusts, could also be the New York Times or another big player out there, of course, that backlink passes a certain trust and authority to another site, yes. 

I'm bringing this up because on Twitter, I often see people arguing about domain authority and even though the concept, I strongly believe is anchored in the whole link building concept, I think Google often sees it as the proprietary metric of Moz. So I just want to add the perspective on be very careful what words you use. 

Craig: What I would also add to that is don't go about chasing domain authority or any of these other third-party metrics. You know what I think you're thinking about, I think if you get good quality and relevant backlinks from trusted sources, the rest of it will come naturally. 

I wouldn't sit there and say, "I have to chase specific metrics." I think if you start to think with that, then you're doing it wrong. 

Kevin Indig: By the way, Craig, one hundred percent. I would love to rant for an hour, but I know we don't have that hour, but you couldn't be more right. And another problem is that when people only look at certain metrics and don't think a step further, they miss a chance to maybe get a link from a site that doesn't have a high domain authority or page score yet but does in the future. So yeah, you're one hundred percent on point here. 

How Much Time to Spend Auditing Backlinks

Craig: And so the next question and you're going to love this one, Kevin. “How long would you recommend spending on cleaning up a backlink profile?” The person who asks says backlink profiles can tend to be relatively big, so I'd love to hear your answer on that one. 

Kevin Indig: Yeah. Here's the thing, so that's why I mentioned in the beginning that you want to make it kind of based off of the size of a profile a little bit. First of all, I do this maybe on a quarterly basis, and I spend maybe one to three hours on it depending on how much I find. 

That's why I said before, I'm looking at the link velocity or the number of links built over time to assess, "Hey, do I need to spend a lot of time on this or can I just do this in ten minutes and be fine with it?"

If you have a super new site and the link profile is not that built out yet, sure, take a look at it every month, but don't drive yourself crazy. Like if I can spend four hours writing awesome content versus four hours cleaning up my link profile, I'll probably chase the four hours for content every time. 

Craig: I think you've also got to take into consideration when you're doing a backlink audit, whether you're using SEMrush or any of the other tools that are out there, they're doing a lot of the dirty work for you. It's not as if you're going to a company the size of Kevin's for example, and he put his in and there was 500 toxic links or whatever. 

If you just joined the project, it may be something you have to clean up and spend a few hours on at the start but as long as you keep on top of it, I don't see it being one of those things that are going to take you 10 hours or something crazy like that. 

We'll move onto another question. It says here it's from Amit Pucali. It's saying they understand that they need to disavow most of the links but where and how can we track the progress? Would it be site ranking? How would you track progress cleaning up links?

Kevin Indig: Yes, that's a fantastic question, actually. I think the toxicity score at SEMRush is a good idea to look at it. Also, the relationship of toxic, neutral and non-toxic links. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to tell a perfect relationship, I would probably try to keep the number of toxic links below 10%.

I think that's a relatively arbitrary but good number and the way that I would measure the progress is really hard because it’s one of these things that it might not hurt you in a little amount but there is a threshold of when you overstep it, then it can become very detrimental. 

I've seen in the past that when you keep your link profile organized and clean to a certain degree that your site just grows well. This is something that would more assess if your site stops growing well or if your link toxicity score or toxic score is really high and you see a lot of those problems.

Craig: Always a good answer. I think you've always got to have something in your head to trigger what point would be you have to take action. For me, driving a car, in that different scenario, as soon as it hits a quarter, I'm going to the petrol station. I see that as empty. 

That's the point I have to take action so yes, I'd probably always say 10% for me is the one where I start getting the finger out and doing a bit of work. 

If you can't be bothered doing all this kind of stuff and its tedious and you'd rather write content, there are services out there and guys that look after that stuff and do that stuff on a daily basis. So, always bear that in mind as well. You can always delegate these horrible tasks out to other people.

The last question... It says, "How do you keep your spam links to under 10% when you have no control on who links to you?"

Kevin Indig: Its a question of disavowing, right? So, that's where I like SEMRush audit tool because you can add links to the Disavow tab or the Remove tab and then they're not being counted for your link toxic score anymore. So, that's a quick and short answer.

Craig: Make sure you do manual checks would be my last bit of advice for anyone using any kind of tool, just always check out and make sure that it is accurate.

Sadly we are out of time today Kevin so thank you very much for jumping in and doing another one of those with us and much appreciated and thank you to everyone else out there who's watching. 

It’s always a pleasure to have you guys watch and hopefully, we've given you some decent answers and some stuff like that and we will be back in a few weeks time with another Toolbox webinar. 

Kevin Indig: It's always nice being your guest, thanks, man. You're doing a great job and you're a great host, always fun.

Craig: Cheers, man.

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