An In-Depth Guide to Link Quality, Link Penalties and “Bad Links”

David McSweeney

David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

Article stats

  • Referring domains 87
Data from Content Explorer tool.
    Not all backlinks are created equally. Here’s everything you need to know about link quality, link based penalties and Google penalty recovery.

    Read a few articles on SEO and you will almost certainly come across the phrase “build quality links”.

    It gets used a lot.


    Well, firstly, this phrase is incorrect.

    Because what SEO experts actually mean when they say this is “build high quality links”.

    Which raises a couple of questions:

    1. What is it that makes one link “high quality” and another one “low quality”?
    2. Why are low quality links bad for SEO?

    To answer the above and more, I’m going to deep dive into the darker side of link building. I’ll also be looking at link penalties (and giving tips for recovery).

    So whether you call them bad, spammy, or black hat, here’s everything you need to know about low quality link building.

    To work out what it is that makes a link “high” or “low” quality, let’s start by seeing what Google has to say on the matter.

    The very first paragraph of the “link schemes” section of their Quality Guidelines states:

    Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

    At first glance that looks a bit scary.

    Sounds like any time you build a link with the aim of increasing your search rankings, you’re violating their guidelines.

    But there’s one key word in the first sentence that makes a big difference to how this paragraph should actually be interpreted. Can you spot it?

    It’s the word “may”.

    Google don’t say “are considered part of a link scheme”. They say “may be considered part of a link scheme”.

    Which gives them (and us SEOs) some wiggle room.


    And it’s this wiggle room that defines whether an active link building campaign falls on the high, or low quality end of the scale.

    This is reinforced by the last paragraph of the article:

    The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

    The key takeaways from this part:

    • Google want you to create high quality, popular content
    • They want any links to that content to be editorially given

    So at the risk of upsetting a number of black hat SEOs, we can arrive at an overly-simplified definition of link quality:

    • Links which are editorially controlled by the linking site = good (high quality)
    • Links which are built automatically without editorial control = bad (low quality)

    But as I said, that’s overly-simplified.

    It’s certainly a good start, but the reality is a little more complex.

    It all comes down to how you define “editorial control”.

    What Is An Editorial Link?

    Before we can really define what a “bad link” is, we have to first figure out that editorial part.

    Here’s what is definitely is not:

    Publishing something cool and hoping that a webmaster will stumble upon it and link to your site.

    It just ain’t going to happen.

    Unless you’re really lucky, the best content in the world won’t magically pick up links by itself.

    You have to promote it. And you have to ask people to consider linking to it.

    In our link building guide we recommended a number of ways you should be building links to your site in 2016.

    Some of the tactics clearly focus on content creation and promotion (link bait, interviews, infographics etc). There’s an obvious editorial choice . But there are a few that perhaps need a little clarification as to what makes them Google safe.

    Let’s quickly run through them.

    Guest Blogging — In the first instance, the linking site has the choice of whether to accept your contribution. They also have editorial control over the links contained within the content.

    Directory Submissions — It was stated that you should only submit to directories which review all submissions (and importantly, reject low quality sites). In other words, directories which maintain editorial control.

    Press Release Distribution — Press releases should be issued for genuinely newsworthy stories that have a good chance of being of interest to (and picked up by) the press. The press release isn’t for the initial link, it’s for the distribution.

    Blog Commenting — Only high quality, insightful comments on a select number of blogs. The blogger has the editorial choice of whether or not to approve the comment.

    Niche Forums/Community Sites/Questions — Spam will be deleted by mods/downvoted by the community.

    So as we can see, all of the above tactics involve some element of editorial control.

    And in the case of guest blogging, we can also tick the

    create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community

    box, as all your guest posts should be super high quality.

    After all, Google didn’t say that the content had to be on your site did they?

    Now for the kicker…

    Not Every “Non Editorial” Link is a Bad Link

    To further complicate our definition, not every “non editorial” link is a bad link.

    For example, linking to your site from your social media profiles is not going to do you any harm.


    And neither is repurposing your content as a video/slideshare (with a link), or syndicating it on an authority site.

    So why are these links ok?

    The answer is that these are all regular promotional activities. They have more to do with brand building and driving referral traffic than improving your rankings (although they will help to do that too).

    To clarify:

    In addition to editorially given links, any link you build for traffic/PR purposes is likely to be Google safe.

    Just don’t do something crazy like syndicating your content on THOUSANDS of sites all at once. That’s when PR becomes spam.

    So now we know what makes a link “low quality” or “high quality”, and in a moment we will look at specific low quality link building tactics. But first, let’s take a look a look at how bad links can affect your site.

    It used to be the case that low quality links would have little impact on your search rankings.

    Granted, there were some high profile cases of Google applying manual penalties for obvious manipulation. But generally, low quality links would simply be ignored by Google.

    This seemed to make sense.

    After all, you can’t (or shouldn’t be able to) control who links to your site and how they do it.

    So SEOs could adopt a fairly aggressive, quantity focused approach to link building without too much concern for anything bad happening.

    Worst case scenario the low quality links would be ignored. Build enough and they might just move the needle.

    But these days…

    Low quality links can see your Google rankings take a nosedive.

    Google Penguin: The low quality link crusher

    In 2012, Google rolled out the first iteration of Penguin. Low quality links (at scale) were their primary target.

    It was no longer the case that what you did off site was safe from scrutiny. Sites that had been indulging in manipulative link building saw their rankings tank overnight.

    And as Penguin has matured with subsequent updates, the filter has got better and better at catching link spam.

    There has also been an increase in manual penalties as Google puts more resource into their spam team and goes after link networks.

    Let’s take a look at link penalties in more detail.

    There are two main types of link penalty: manual and algorithmic.

    Type 1: Manual Link Spam Penalty

    This is when someone from Google’s webspam team has reviewed your link profile and applied a manual penalty.

    The review could have been triggered by:

    • a spam report from a competitor
    • something in your link profile (detected algorithmically) which has triggered a manual review
    • the fact you are in a competitive niche which Google actively monitors
    • just plain old bad luck!

    How Will You Know You’ve Been Hit With A Manual Penalty?

    If you have been hit with a manual penalty, you will generally receive a notification in Google Search Console. It looks like this.

    unnatural links warning

    image from KissMetrics

    There is a chance that you may receive this warning and not have been penalised (yet). But if so a manual penalty will definitely be in the post!

    Type 2: Algorithmic Link Spam Penalty (generally Penguin)

    An algorithmic penalty is a penalty which is applied automatically by Google based on your link profile. No human review is required.

    Most algorithmic link spam penalties are triggered by Google’s Penguin filter.

    How Will You Know You’ve Been Hit With An Algorithmic Penalty?

    With an algorithmic penalty you will not normally receive a notification from Google that your site has been penalised.

    But don’t worry, if you are hit, it should probably be pretty obvious…

    You’ll notice your organic traffic going like this.


    Ouch! (ok, maybe you should worry)

    See my post on how to conduct a quick SEO audit for a quick way of analysing whether you have been hit by an algorithmic link spam penalty. Or checkout this post by Karol K for a more detailed solution.

    Whether manual or algorithmic, a Google penalty will lead to a significant drop in your organic traffic. In extreme cases your site could be completely de-indexed.

    Now let’s take a look at specific types of link building that can get you into trouble.

    Here are some link building techniques that are definitely going to land you in hot water with Google.

    1. Links From Spun Content/Splogs

    Article spinning has long been a favourite tactic of the black hatter.

    The process goes…

    • Write one article
    • Use software to spin the article into tens, or hundreds of other articles (which will normally read as total gibberish)
    • Post those spun articles on article directories or spam blogs with a link back to your site.

    Incredibly, there are still a number of respected internet marketing blogs who advocate this as a solid link building tactic. Some even point readers to vendors who will automate the whole process.

    But believe me, going down this route will kill your site.

    2. Comment Spam

    Comment spam is another black hat link building tactic that has been around for a long time.

    It can also be easily automated using software such as scrapebox (a useful tool btw, which can be used for more ethical purposes).

    If you run a WordPress blog, you’re probably seen comments like this in the spam section.

    Comment spam

    Cool story bro.

    But no link for you today.

    Comment spam blasts rely on the fact that

    • Many sites allow comments to be posted without moderation
    • Others just simply let spam comments slip through the net

    And that happens a lot…

    comment spam google

    As you can see, this leaves a huge footprint for Penguin to pick up on.

    And to bash your site with.

    Commenting on a select number of authority sites in your niche can very much be part of a white hat strategy, but the comments should be manual and relevant. Good comments will also drive traffic!

    3. Forum Spam

    There are 2 ways to spam forums.

    Firstly, you can simply create multiple profiles and put your link in there.

    Secondly, you can place links in actual forum posts. Either in the signature or in the body of the post.

    Again, there is software that will do all that for you, or you can use a well known link building service (a guy’s name beginning with P) that’s been around for a long time.

    But, if you want to avoid a penalty…

    …then don’t!

    Forum marketing can be part of a white hat promotional/link building strategy. Become an active member of the community and share your link when it will genuinely be helpful for other members.

    4. Obvious Paid Links That Pass PageRank

    Firstly, not all paid links are bad, and Google doesn’t have a problem with paid links per se.

    Google’s issue is with paid links that are:

    • a) non editorial
    • b) designed to pass PageRank — giving them the potential to influence rankings

    This is a battle they have been fighting since the mid 2000s, when they clamped down on link buying/selling networks such as ‘Text Link Ads’.

    To comply with Google’s guidelines, any links you buy should include the rel=“nofollow” attribute.

    Now clearly it is difficult for Google to identify all paid links, but there are certain obvious red flags that you want to avoid

    • Dofollow sitewide anchor text links
    • Dofollow links from unrelated sites/content
    • Dofollow links from pages that have obvious footprints such as “sponsored post”
    I used the term ‘non editorial’, as certain links (such as those from premium directories), may be DoFollow and paid. But in that case the fee is technically for an editorial review. In theory the link could be refused by the directory and the fee non-refundable.

    5. Low Quality Directories

    And talking of directories…

    If you think that using something like this will help your site rank, then think again.

    fiverr directory submission

    This kind of low quality, bulk directory submission hasn’t worked for at least 10 years. These days a forum blast such as this is likely to get your site penalised.

    There are a few high quality directories left that may be worth the submission fee (BOTW for example). And if you can find a niche specific (and picky) directory then that’s also worth looking at.

    But as an effective, scaleable link building tactic, directory submission is done.

    6. Links From Bad Neighbourhoods/Hacked Sites

    Unless you happen to be in that industry (I hear it’s very profitable), then links from p*rn sites aren’t going to do you much good.

    Other bad neighbourhoods include obvious content/link farm sites which exist solely for the purpose of linking out.

    And if you are building links on hacked sites…

    Not only are you likely to be penalised, you are probably breaking the law.

    7. Links From Lots Of Foreign Language Sites

    If your site is in the UK, Google would generally expect to see a good percentage of your links coming from other UK sites. Certainly the bulk of your links should be from sites that are written in English.

    A high percentage of low quality foreign language sites (look for .cn and .ru in particular) linking to you is a big red flag.

    Of course, if the foreign language site linking to you is high quality, then that should probably be fine.

    8. Scaled Guest Posting

    Guest posting remains a highly effective way to get your site in front of a new audience and build some high quality, authority boosting links in the process.

    But only when done correctly.

    The days of scaled guest posting, with little regard for either content quality, or the quality of the linking site are over.

    Google went after this tactic in a big way in 2014 — completely de-indexing a high profile guest blogging community.

    If you are guest posting on authority sites in your niche, with primarily branded anchor links, then it’s all good.

    If on the other hand you are going for quantity (and exact match anchor text), then you might get penalised.

    Karol K (@carlosinho) wrote a nice post on the topic here on Ahrefs in which he stressed the importance of building a relationship with the host blog/blogger when guest posting.

    In fact, it’s really quite simple. The closer your relationship is with the blogger, the more you’ll be able to do in terms of linking. Once someone trusts you, they will have no problem linking to your pages with whatever anchor text you wish.
    Karol K
    Karol K

    9. Private Blog Networks (PBNs)

    There are many SEOs who will disagree with me here, but I would say that using PBNs to build links to your site is certainly a high risk strategy (at best).

    There was a big panic in the SEO space in 2014 when Google took targeted action against PBNs. Many well established sites lost their rankings overnight.

    It is clear that Google is on a mission to detect, penalise, and shut down PBNs. I suspect that as they get better at sniffing them out, this will all be baked into the algorithm.

    Notwithstanding the risks, Perrin (formerly of Niche Pursuits who before they were hit in the PBN update had been big advocates of the method) made a great point on their podcast.

    We talk to a lot of people still building PBN links, and they know there is a risk.  They do it because it’s PERCEIVED to be easier, cheaper, and overcomes the barrier of having to interact with real human beings.

    However, the business case for outreach is that it actually is much easier and cheaper than everything that goes into building out a real PBN.

    Overall, the amount of time and money needed to build a real PBN is not easier than genuine outreach.  And the links that you get from outreach are obviously “real”, there’s no risk here with Google.

    Perrin Carrell
    Perrin Carrell Authority Hacker

    Since refocusing on white hat link building Perrin realised that it was actually more expensive (both in time and money) to build out links on a PBN than to pick up the equivalent number of links through outreach.

    10. Excessive/Non Niche Relevant Reciprocal Link Building

    Reciprocal link building happens naturally on the web on the time. After all it makes sense that you would talk about other sites in your niche and they would talk about you.

    Linking out is also a great way to get the attention of other sites in your niche. If they return the favour by linking back in the future, then that’s definitely going to help your site.

    But if you are going round contacting hundreds of site and asking to exchange links (particularly on stand alone, non niche relevant ‘links’ pages), then that’s eventually going to cause you some harm.

    There’s nothing wrong with links pages, provided they are on topic and relevant. In fact, links pages can be prime targets for broken link building.

    So, quality, niche specific and selective links pages good.

    Non niche specific free for alls bad.

    In fact a good question to ask yourself is

    is this links page here for users or just to swap links?’

    If it’s the former, go and grab that link. If it’s the later, then avoid it.

    Before moving on to how to use Ahrefs to audit your link profile, let’s quickly touch on outgoing links.

    I’m going to keep this part brief, but before I run through some of the types of outgoing links to be wary of (or avoid completely) I want to make 2 points.

    1. Don’t be afraid to link out (if the link is deserved)
    2. don’t add nofollow to all your outbound links.

    I’m seeing this more and more and it’s a damaging trend which again is caused by confusion over what is safe when it comes to links.

    If someone deserves a link, then link to them.

    After all, links were the web’s original path to discovery. They were around for many many years before Google came along and turned them into a commodity.

    And notwithstanding that, linking out is a big part of SEO. Well placed outbound links can get you on the radar of larger sites and build your topical authority. What’s not to like?

    So, having got that off my chest, here are some quick rules of thumb for outgoing links..

    • Don’t link to bad neighbourhoods (spam, warez etc)
    • Moderate and remove any obvious spam from user generated content and apply nofollow to any outgoing links (forums, comments etc)
    • Don’t link to low quality content/sites (I don’t mean metrics here, I mean your human brain opinion on the site’s quality)
    • If you are selling links, you should add the nofollow attribute to the links
    • Add the nofollow attribute to any affiliate links (they are paid links after all)
    • Don’t hide outbound links (tiny fonts, white text on white, pushed off page etc)
    • Periodically review and clean up broken outbound links (you can easily find these by running Outgoing Links > Broken Links in Ahrefs Site Explorer)

    We’ve covered a lot of different types of link above (both incoming and outgoing), so you might want to download and save our ‘what are bad links’ infographic as a quick reference.


    If your site has been hit with a link based penalty, then you will have to attempt to remove (or disavow) the low quality links to see recovery.

    For manual penalties, you can then submit a reconsideration request to Google. The good news is that Penguin is now operating on a rolling basis, you will no longer have to wait for a refresh. Which means that cleaning up your link profile should see your site recover fairly quickly.

    Either way, you’ll want to start the process of finding (and dealing with) bad links as soon as you know you have been penalised.

    Here’s how to do it with Ahrefs.

    How To Find Low Quality Links With Ahrefs

    You can use Ahrefs Site Explorer to:

    • find low quality links pointing to your site
    • create a disavow file for uploading to Google

    Watch the video below for the full process, or follow the steps below.

      While the process of finding bad links remains the same, for manual link penalties you will want to submit a reconsideration request.

    Step 1: Add the domain to your Ahrefs dashboard

    The first step is to add your domain into your Ahrefs dashboard. This will allow you to create and manage a disavow file from within the tool.


    Step 2: Enter your domain into Ahrefs Site Explorer, then run the “Referring Domains” report

    Site Explorer > Enter domain > Explore > Backlink profile > Referring domains

    Click on “DR” to re-order the report with the lowest quality links at the top.

    Step 3: Scroll through the report and look for low quality links

    Here are a few things to look out for:

    • links from sites you don’t regognise
    • sites with suspicious/spammy sounding domains
    • links from foreign language sites (i.e. chinese domains)
    • links with spammy anchor text

    When you find a suspicious domain, click the number under the “backlinks” column for more details.


    Above we can see the individual linking URL and the anchor text of the link.

    Step 5: Manually review any suspicious links

    If a link looks suspicious, click through to the linking page to manually review it.


    In this case we can see that the link comes from a low quality, spun page. So it’s definitely one we will want to get rid of.

    Step 6: Add low quality domains to disavow file

    Tick the checkbox next to any domains you wish to disavow.


    Then click on “Disavow Domains” at the top of the report.


    Step 7: Create a disavow file

    Once you have added all the domains you wish to disavow, return to your Ahrefs dashboard and click “Disavow links” above your domain.


    The domains you added previously will be listed in the report. Click on export to begin creating your disavow file.


    Check the box to save the disavow file in .txt format.


    You will now have a properly formatted disavow file, ready for uploading to Google.


    Before submitting a disavow file to Google you should make an attempt to remove any low quality links by reaching out to the linking sites. If your removal request is unsuccessful, you can then disavow the link/domain.

    Step 8: Upload your disavow file to Google

    To upload a disavow file to Google, first login to the Google account associated with your domain (in Search Console).

    Then go to the disavow tool, select your domain, and click “Disavow Links”.


    Click “Choose File” and upload your disavow file to Google. Below you can see that I have previously submitted a disavow file for this domain.


    Step 9: Google Transitions to Real Time Penguin Updates

    Here’s the good news!

    As of 23/09/2016, Penguin is operating on a real-time, rolling basis.

    So you will no longer have to wait (a long time) for recovery.

    We don’t know yet just how quick this will be, but it’s not unreasonable to think that within 30 days of removing bad links/disavowing, Google will have picked up on the changes and removed the penalty.


    Over To You…

    An essential part of modern SEO is actively monitoring your link profile and checking for low quality/suspicious links.

    Even if you are sure you haven’t built any yourself, there’s nothing to stop a competitor paying a shady company to launch a negative SEO attack against your site.

    It’s not nice, but it happens.

    If you haven’t checked your link profile recently, you should make it a business priority to audit your links using your Ahrefs account asap (if you don’t have one you can sign up here!) and deal with any issues you find.


    Any questions or comments? Any dodgy link building methods I’ve missed? Do you love PBNs and think I’m talking nonsense? Does comment spam rock your world? Your feedback is always welcome, so please leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help in any way I can (or indeed take your abuse).

    David McSweeney

    David is the owner of Top5SEO and a white hat SEO evangelist. SEO case studies make him a lot happier than they should, and he has a tendency to overuse ellipses...

    Article stats

    • Referring domains 87
    Data from Content Explorer tool.

    Shows how many different websites are linking to this piece of content. As a general rule, the more websites link to you, the higher you rank in Google.

    Shows estimated monthly search traffic to this article according to Ahrefs data. The actual search traffic (as reported in Google Analytics) is usually 3-5 times bigger.

    Get notified of new articles

    46,451 marketers are already subscribed to Ahrefs blog. Leave your email to get our weekly newsletter.

    • Raz Klinghoffer

      David seems to be more of a guitar player…

      • SEO by day, guitarist by night (and sometimes the other way round)

    • Gr8jimmy

      Black or Grey Hat SEO Techniques- It Doesn’t matter.…. hehehehehe …still ppl buy SEO plans such as 150web2.0 profiles, 25blogs, 500wikis post, 1000forum profiles and EXPECT to get RANK… and whola Google gives them Rank for 1night 😉

      Thanks David for your post on ” Bad Links “… now a silly thing that many visitors want to know ” Good links ” 😀

      • hey mate! I tried quite a few of the linkbuilding gigs on WickedFire a few years back.. and almost all of them led to having my site banned within a few months.. so in 2015 (or even 2016) I would never buy such stuff for my legit sites

        • Gr8jimmy

          Now a days buying link building service plan is like striking hammer on own head 😀 , those stupid service providers doesn’t know what is your requirement for getting better ranks. Ideally it should be understanding requirement, do best analysis, gather sources, implement and keep monitoring and optimizing the way of making process to Lean.
          But wait.… what others do : plan#1 , 5 keywords, bla bla bla bla links… “pr = yes” ‚” linkwheel=yes”, “media distribution=no” … PERFECT, we need only 4 keywords to rank, we should purchase this plan, its cheaper… you see they have their proof of work
          Next= Payment sent
          Next= content writing ( manual + automated ) and finally LINK BLAST 😀 & in bonus they had blasted few more links to make customer happy…

          isn’t it 😀

          • its true, and it was what happening in real. they just want to build huge backlinks to make the record that they have worked.

        • I agree 100% with you

    • awwwsome article, i got many tips from this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks David,
      Read every line carefully and learnt a lot new things. Please share your thoughts with good links with some example and screen shots then we may get some reference or deep idea and i beleive without that every readers will have the same questions like me., BTW, thanks for clean advises.

    • Divya Prasad

      Hey David,

      This is very informative! Loved the way you presented it. I have checked the new disavow feature in Ahrefs and it is pretty cool!

    • Nice article, Glad to see you referencing Perrin from over at Niche Pursuits…They have some good stuff going on over there

      • They sure do. I’m a big fan of the podcast — it’s my standard driving listening 🙂

    • Sunita Datta

      Its Probably a full stack guide for a noob who is just get into the Backlink building !
      Still appreciated the way you present the title .

      • take the time to learn how to do it right from day one and you’ll have less problems down the road 🙂

    • Finally someone who gets the SEO and guitarist combination right. Thanks for the post! 😀

    • A very useful article. Thanks.

    • Oh yes… this is a very useful article and presentation is so simple yet comprehensive… I did share it on my Facebook group and determined to read it 5 times…

      But I just wonder whether naked links from profiles on various platforms like Disqus add value to your domain or it hurts. I start my SEO with profile creation but also take note first that there is not a profile made by previous SEO guys. Duplicate profile I am sure can be spamming.

      Please correct me if I am wrong…

      • by all means link from profiles where you are active (and disqus would seem to fit that bill), but don’t just go around creating profiles for the sake of it

    • tareqhassan

      Oh man !!! you’re great.…too much long article need an hour to read properly 😛

    • Wow, I am really learning a great deal of information here. I appreciate the knowledge disseminated

    • Thank you so much for the great content. I would like to get excellent backlinks in the niche of writing. Are backlinks from wikipedia bad?

    • Alex Bellet

      Your article is pretty well written and quite interesting even though it mentions obvious “no-gos”. What I would be interested in right now is: can massive websites be really impacted by bad links?

      I’ve recently conducted a bunch of audits on several industries my company is covering and the link profile for many top ranking sites is AWFUL (plenty of foreign language sites, PR networks, terrible directories, etc.), yet they’re still dominating the SERPs… So…

      • could be negative SEO if the niches are competitive

      • Alex Bar

        Same here. I look at first page and can’t reverse engineer what was done there. Links are bad, but DA is high and so is ranking in SERP.

    • Arshil

      Very informational blog. Thanks David for sharing this post. I will keep these points in my mind in my next SEO campaign.

    • awesome article, i got many tips from this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Really liked this one. Well written and informative. Thanks!

    • There are so many myth about link building, recently Rand Fishkin has also mentioned some of them, but yet quality is the only measurement as of now in link building.

    • Things

      What about nofollow inbound links? If they are from a non-authority domain with low trust score (basically a negative link if it was do-follow), do you have to add it in the disavow file? I thought that nofollow links were just ignored by google

      • I would still disavow them. Although, in saying that, it looks like disavowing is going to be less necessary with the latest Penguin update.

    • Tom Reader

      hi there great article
      however, am i right in saying that identifying links you should disavow is basically making an educated guess? I mean there seems to very few links in my sites profile that you would say DEFINITELY disavow and many that you would say mmmm maybe — maybe not. We have c. 500 referring domains and i think i might look at the bottom ranking ones and say maybe-maybe not to about easily 100 of them (20% of links). I’d be very wary of disavowing them on the basis of a vauge unease about them.

      what should we do? (we are not experts in this)

      many thanks

      • Hi Tom, I would say that if you are in doubt it would probably be worth getting an SEO consultant to take a look. That being said, it’s normally pretty obvious when something is pure spam.

    • Hi, firstly thank you for the very useful article. I myself have a very bitter experience from sitewide footer anchor links.
      Do you think having a sitewide, footer, URL link to the main page of my domain would be good? A site with moderate DA is giving this juice to me free of charge and I just don’t want to reject it. How good or how bad is it ın your opinion?

      • Similar to my answer above it probably depends on the rest of your link profile. There are lots of big brands doing pretty well with footer links (see Glen from Viperchill’s case studies

    • Hey David,

      great article as always — it’s a pleasure to read your articles.

      I have to ask you this question re backlinks, because it’s been bugging me for a long time and I’m tired to getting conflicting answers.

      One of my sites is in the web design niche, and we provide a few plugins and other code for free. Many of the plugins / modules have built-in backlinks from sites.

      Now, this is a practice which has been in use since the beginning of time in web design, with themes linking to their original author, and I believe it’s quite a well established practice.

      Obviously, the types of sites linking back are wide and varied. There are all types of links coming back.

      In general, are these links healthy or toxic?

      Would you recommend getting rid of them?


      • It’s a question I get asked a lot actually (and a good one).

        Technically, even though you are giving away the plugin/code for free, you are paying for the link with that code. So it’s (technically speaking) a paid link and should be nofollow.

        But that being said, I see lots of sites ranking with these kind of links.

        It probably comes down to the rest of your link profile. If these links make up a small percentage of overall links, then it’s probably fine. If on the other hand you are relying solely on these links then that could cause problems.

        Either way I would always make them branded links and never try and include any sort of anchor text. Same goes for widget links.

    • Thanks for sharing nice information with us about bad link.

    • sudhir thakur

      Hello Sir,

      Your article was excellent. This for us was great

    • Nice article and very useful tips…thanks a lot for sharing…

    • And this guys in loving manner explains why you can’t have you blog in top of google 😀 without hurting anybody’s feeling.. :p

    • Its in depth analysis on back links, am more thankful for the information.

    • It is a wonderful and best expanded in detail. Thanks for such one.

    • someone blast my high rank kw post with tons of .xyz links, i mean like 1000+ xyz and it drop from #2 (maintain for years already) to #8 so i guess google didn’t actually ignore this. the competitor who hired this culprit wins 🙁

    • John Gasior

      Great post Tim! I don’t know if you remember me, but we had a very constructive discussion on Skype a while back. I would like to add that link building for rank purposes is just one piece of the puzzle. You can have brilliant links but if your bounce rate is high, it will signal Google that the page is not relevant for that search phrase. If you have low on page time, again that shows Google that the content is not engaging or relevant enough. So do take into account that link building is not the only ranking factor. I’m a long time Ahrefs user and can say that it’s by far the most constructive tool in seo which I use on a daily basis. Keep up the great work guys.

      • Hi John, our opinion on that is that you need links to get you a seat at the table (i.e. onto page 1). Thereafter click-through rates, bounce rates, dwell time etc kick in. So yes, everything you mentioned is super important, but all that great content and user experience will never get seen (at least organically) without links.

    • rager

      Would this be considered to be “comment spam”?

      If I use an image on a blog from a free image site such as pixabay. Then when the blog is posted I return to leave a comment under the image thanking them for making the image free and then linking to where I have used the image?

      • As long as you aren’t scaling it up hugely it should be absolutely fine.

    • I was reading your article without blinking my eyes WOW! . I want to go slow and steady on SEO.

    • thank you for sharing. I have just seen this article recently via ahref facebook page, and I have got insight into link building by your detail explanation. As far as I have seen, EMD still play a strong factor in SEO, which is even more than 3 tier link building (on less competitive niche). Any one has seen the same?

      • Any slight positive influence (which I don’t think there is) is outweighed by the difficulty you’ll get with securing strong links to a spammy looking domain name. Always try to create a brand.

    • Great stuff as always, David. A few questions for you that I didn’t see addressed in the article:

      1. Can an abundance of editorial links from sites with a low DR hurt your site? For example, if a blogger with a minimal following and no domain authority links to your site, is that good (because it’s from a real person) or bad (because the site has a low DR)?

      2. Conversely, should we disavow links from spammy sites with a decent DR even if there’s been no manual penalty? Are such links always harmful? My gut feeling is “yes,” but the DR makes me think otherwise and we have no manual penalty from Google. In other words, would we see a bump in rankings if we disavowed these links that are obviously spammy but have a decent DR?

      Thanks again—love the clear explanations and walk-throughs.

      • speedster12

        good question.. Anyone?

    • Your article is very well. I have just seen this article recently via ahref facebook page, and I have got insight into link building by your detail explanation.Thanks you so much!

    • I once had my site hacked and got unwanted bad links which almost killed my site but I used webmaster to disavow these spammy backlinks.

    • Kevin Creekwater

      quick post to say thank you for this article!

    • theutsavchopra

      Ahrefs is the all in one tool, I really love ahrefs. All things we can do in one tool. And yeah the article is really wonderful you have covered what I am looking for…

    • This is such a great tip sharing. I found my site traffic go down immediately. Maybe I got penalty because of some bad links from my link building strategy or maybe the spam link. My question is how to look or recolonize the spam comment/link? I am going to check on ahrefs site explorer for detail on my site performance.

    • Someone was building bad links for three months on low quality free websites to derank me and yes, it affected me. There were around 1000 bad links and around 100+ domains that were backlinking to my blog and those were made manually because the keywords and the images in which my link was put were carefully chosen. I disavowed them in google and posted it in a forum in which I am active very much. Suddenly from the next day, all those websites were taken down.

    • Does negative really works and how long the disavow process takes to delist all those bad links?

    • Uffe Aalborg Nielsen

      Hi David

      Fantastic article

      I am experiencing a spam attack to one of my sites, and there is multiple links that show up in Ahrefs but not in Google Search Consol. Is it a problem to disalow links that Google have not found yet?

      Thank you for your time.

    • Christw

      Thank you for this article, I enjoyed to read. But I have a question regarding the impact of links that are considered as bad and coming from external domains. Does Google really apply penalties for this? I’m asking because I don’t get the advantage of doing so.
      It would probably scare some people from trying tactics that might be bad for the rank and therefore keep some people from finding out how the system could be tricked. However if I really want to test that, I would buy another domain for little money and try it out with that one.

      On the other side, applying penalties for bad links from external allows other people (competitors, haters, bored people) to have bad influence on my ranking, am I right?

    • Wow thanks for sharing your informative contents.It’s really good to read such an articles so far.