The fear Google spreads makes website owners spend money on specialized (often quite expensive) tools. At the same time, site explorer tools, like the one we offer at Ahrefs, are perfectly enough to spot most unnatural and spam links.
Getting your hands dirty
I’ve recently had a client who had a so called “unnatural links penalty”. It was a large site by an even larger publishing house. I usually do not accept menial labor like cleaning up behind some dirty link builder but this time I wanted to only use Ahrefs to determine the bad links in question.
Oh boy! I’ve found so many potentially harmful links just by using our Site Explorer and Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) that I didn’t even have to look further.
Natural links and hot ice
Of course Google Search Console should always be your first source of information on your “unnatural links”. Get the information right from the horse’s mouth. After all, it was Google that even coined the somewhat paradoxical term “unnatural links”.
Remember that links are part of the web and thus technology. In essence “unnatural links” are like “cold ice”. Links are always unnatural per definition.
Links are not growing naturally in your garden.
Google’s more than 15 years old link based algorithm has been improved or rather complicated over the years. The new bloated version still can’t really cope with links that are solely placed to mislead search engines. Thus Google has shifted the responsibility for fixing their algorithm to the webmasters. That’s why they declared some links to be unnatural.
Repent your sins or burn in hell!
In case you want to get people to find you via Google, you have to play by Google’s rules, otherwise the gatekeeper won’t let anybody through to your site.
Of course you could ignore organic traffic altogether and focus on other sources, like mail, social media or direct traffic for example but most site owners have grown so dependent on Google search that they can’t even imagine taking this step.
So the only thing that you can do is to follow Google’s path of repentance for sinners.
First you have to find out where you have sinned and how. Have you built links “artificially”? In many cases someone else did it on your behalf. Sometimes even your competition might be responsible for your tanking on Google.
Another term that sounds as if coined by the Google PR department: “negative SEO”. It scares website owners into using paid search (Google Adwords). Now that Google officially allows sites to be attacked by links anything is possible and it’s a wild west mentality out there.
Another annoyance created by Google
You have to find all the links that look “dodgy” and remove them or “disavow” them. It’s easy for spammers who know exactly where they have built links. They just need to plug a site out of their linkfarm that has been busted or simply throw away the domain altogether. Sadly legitimate webmasters like you and me aren’t so lucky. Sometimes I wish I spammed Google in the past.
Finding the links that bother big Google is quite a nuisance to say the least.
I won’t explain all kinds of unnatural links here again. There are many resources out there that already do that. No, today I will cover the methodology of spotting unwanted links with Ahrefs Site Explorer. Google Search Console shows most of them but it’s pretty hard to find them in the huge unstructured list that GSC offers. With Ahrefs it’s easy. Let’s start with the simple ones.
One of the first things to look for when trying to find unnatural links or spam links are so called site-wide links. This kind of link is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a link from (almost) every single page on a given domain. There are a few common cases where a site links out to another site on every single page.
Most site-wide are automated as nobody links to a third party manually on each page.
The most natural site-wide links are so called blogrolls on WordPress or Blogger blogs for example. A blogroll is a list of similar blogs or blogs run by friends of a blogger. Blogrolls aren’t as common as they once were (simply because nobody really looks at blogrolls and clicks the links in them).
In Ahrefs Site Explorer you just need to enter the domain name you want to test, click “Referring domains,” and sort the report by the number of backlinks. You’ll see the site-wide links on top. See the partial screenshot below:
The first site links 10M times to one website. That’s a lot of links! Also the third and fourth domains in this list raise huge red flags.
Any site that points thousand or more links at you looks a bit strange. So you might want to check those first. Not all of them have to be unnatural or spam according to Google’s quite nebulous guidelines but some of them might be and that’s the first place I look usually.
Links from abroad
As I live and work in Germany I often have German clients who only serve the local German speaking market (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, parts of Italy). It’s logical that the links should be from German websites as well then. Of course, there can be natural links from abroad. I’m the best example.
I have a site that gets lots of links from the US, UK and the rest of the world simply because I blog in English. I didn’t have an English version of my homepage from day one either. My articles have been translated into dozens of languages with the likes of Chinese, Russian, Thai, Persian among them.
Yet in most cases it’s at least weird when Chinese or Russian sites link to you even though you only serve a local market.
This also applies to American or British sites. Just because many people speak English in the world doesn’t mean that a plumber from Iowa can be “big in China”.
In Ahrefs Site Explorer you can simply click “TLDs” button in “Referring domains” report and you already see a drop-down menu of the country level domains from abroad. See the example in a partial screenshot below:
In my case this wasn’t a big problem. The site had 644 TLDs (Top Level Domains) linking to it. Most of them from Germany, international ones like .com, .net, .org, from Austria, Switzerland and just a few from China and one from Hong Kong. I checked them out nonetheless of course. The links from the Netherlands are a bit suspicious because they don’t speak German over there so I looked all of them up as well.
SPAM links (comments, forums, guest books)
Now that Google allows third party sites to hurt you just by linking to you Google sabotage has become more common. It has been practiced for years in the underground and was referred to as Google Bowling but in recent years we have a wave of so called “negative SEO”. This term is of course nonsense, just like “unnatural links” but a welcome phrase to scare people from using SEO.
There are numerous ways to sabotage sites in Google, pointing SPAM links at your competition is a common one.
This became possible due to the change in Google’s policy to penalize sites for links from third party sites. Someone simply pays a spammer to create thousands of links to your site by spamming blogs, forums, guest books and other types of sites that allow link insertion.
Most of these sites try to protect themselves by using the so called nofollow attribute as advised by Google. The nofollow attribute won’t prevent SPAM but it can show us where to look for SPAM links.
To see the list of nofollow links pointing to your website, Just go to “Backlinks” reprt in Ahrefs Site Explorer and apply “Nofollow” filter to find potential culprits.
The attribute ‘nofollow’ usually means “I don’t trust this site, or I don’t know this site so I can’t vouch for it”.
Too many “nofollow” links make you look not trustworthy in general.
In case these links are part of boilerplate comments like “thank you great post” you are in real trouble. Of course, spammers do not target nofollow sites only so that you get a lot of links from both nofollow sites and sites that “trust” you.
Google tells us that nofollow prevents it from crawling the links but many experts in the SEO industry believe that Google still considers them to be red flag. Thus too many nofollow links can pose a problem even without being automated SPAM. In case most of your links stem from your commenting practice on blogs you might have a problem that way.
Text link ads (paid links)
The actual links Google is really on the lookout for are so called “paid links”. This is of course another Google PR term. Such links have been called text link ads before Google declared them to be “unnatural” in 2007.
Many bloggers made some decent money from text link ads which competed with Google Adsense back then. Then Google decided that the only text links ads acceptable are Google Adsense ads and every other ad needs to use the nofollow attribute to prevent “Google juice” to flow.
Many companies that have openly offered text link ads went out of business.
Millions of publishers, bloggers, and website owners have been penalized for accepting or selling text link ads. Yet Google is still unable to distinguish between editorial links that haven’t been paid for and ads. Thus they ask everybody to snitch on others or declare yourself guilty by using the so called disavow tool.
Many sites depend so much on Google traffic that they are willing to incriminate themselves once they get an “unnatural links” warning. They confess to have paid for links and hope to get back up in Google.
Of course anybody can buy links for you as part of Google sabotage.
So you have to check them in any case once you want to get rid of the unnatural links penalty the Google way. Sadly it’s not as easy as with the other “unnatural links”. That’s why Google can’t easily detect them either.
In some case you might even have paid for ads even without knowing that they are not within Google guidelines.
Text link ads meant to “manipulate PageRank” usually don’t use the nofollow attribute to make sure Google counts them.
As noted above, Google sabotage using SPAM links that have been paid for by your competition can be mostly “nofollow” though. Here we focus on ads you might have bought yourself without realizing that Google owns the Internet and can forbid you to use competing services.
To locate the most obvious links from high PR websites that might have been paid for, you can sort the “Backlinks” or “Referring Domains” report by Domain Rating (DR).
Another common clue to find out whether links are paid for is the links’ anchor text. Anchor text is the text used to link to a site. You would usually use the site’s name to link to it. So “Amazon” would be the anchor text to link to Amazon.com. In contrast “buy cheap books” would be an anchor text that looks manipulative and could be paid for.
Ahrefs can show you all the anchor texts used to link to your website. Just open “Anchors” report in our Site Explorer.
In case there are suspicious keywords on that list, make sure to check the sites that have used them.
Links from same IP (range)
Every item on the Web has a so called IP so that you can identify and find it. Websites have IPs too. Usually these IPs are the same or very similar in case several websites are owned by the same person or company.
Sophisticated link networks or link farms use different IPs but there are still a lot of rather obvious link farms created by amateurs either because they don’t know what they are doing or because they know it but aren’t good at it.
Having several, dozens or even hundreds of links from the same IP or even the same IP range can be thus problematic. You usually can’t see the IP of a given website so some people assume Google can’t see them either. But google can. Ahrefs can spot links from the same IP or IP range as well.
To see the list of referring IPs grouped into Networks, open “Referring IPs” report in Ahrefs Site Explorer.
In the case of my client, there were some very obvious link networks, just because the company is huge and has lots of properties. Interlinking their own sites has been working well for most brands but it doesn’t mean that these links are considered natural by Google.
Like site-wide links, they are probably automated in most cases and selfish in nature. Just because you link to yourself all the time doesn’t mean you are popular on the Web.
OK, so you have a list of links that might be considered “unnatural” by Google. If these are links you have control over, you can simply remove them.
For the links you can’t access, you should consider adding them to a Disavow list in Google Search Console.
However, you may find different opinions about using Google’s Disavow tool. Some of them even say that you confess your black-hat link-building activities to Google.
But if you choose to follow Googe’s recommendations, here’s a guide for you.
Ahrefs, in its turn, will help you easily add websites on a disavow list and export it.
Further, you can simply import this file into Disavow Tool in GSC.
* Creative Commons image by darkday