Toxic Links
13 min read

Bad Backlinks: How to Spot, Remove, and Avoid Them




Attracting backlinks is essential for ranking your website on Google. As a ranking factor, it’s second only to the quality and relevance of the content you create.

But not all types of links are equally effective. While good links can push your site up the search engine rankings, bad backlinks can have the opposite effect.

Top Reasons to Avoid Bad Backlinks 👇

To be clear, not all bad links will put you at risk of a Google penalty. In most cases, Google’s search algorithm will simply ignore them.

But you should still avoid low-quality links for two reasons:

  1. You’ll waste time and money if you put your resources towards generating links that Google simply ignores.

  2. There’s always a chance that Google will decide to give you a manual penalty and destroy your SEO efforts. And the more bad links you generate, the higher the chances of this occurring.

What Makes a Bad Backlink?

To understand what makes a bad backlink, we first need to know how Google uses links in its algorithm.

Put simply, Google’s algorithm considers links to be a vote of confidence in a page’s content. The more links a page has, the more evidence it has that people think the page is a good one.

But this is only the case when links are generated from high-quality sources.

Therefore, Google has taken steps to reduce the value of links that are easy for website owners to earn. All the types of low-quality backlinks in this article are those that meet this criterion. They’re links that anyone can generate with little effort.

So when deciding whether a link is good or bad, ask yourself whether anyone can get a link from the website with relative ease and low cost.

If the answer is yes, it will almost certainly have little SEO value.

Before We Start: What Is a Good Backlink? 🤔

  • The best backlinks are those that are placed in an editorial context. They are included in the article because they add value to the reader. They may reference a statistic, provide further information about a statement, or simply be interesting to the reader.
  • Sometimes people will link to you organically, but there are also strategies you can use to increase the chances of your website generating this type of high-quality link.

6 Common Types of Bad Backlinks

Below are six types of bad backlinks to look out for and avoid. These aren’t the only bad backlinks out there, but they are probably the most common.

We’ve given each type of link a rating from “mostly harmless” to “must avoid.”

“Mostly harmless” links are those that won’t do any good but also probably won’t hurt your site. Some of the links aren’t good for SEO but can impact your website positively in other ways. For example, forum comments can lead to traffic and brand exposure.

“Must avoid” links are those that you are taking a significant risk by generating. You should do all you can to avoid generating these links.

1) PBN Links

Private Blog Networks (PBNs) are groups of websites that exist only to link to other sites. PBN links are those that come from sites in these networks.

PBN links

PBNs used to be an effective way to build rankings until Google cracked down on them in 2014.

Some people who own networks that Google hasn’t yet discovered are still able to build sites with them. But in the long run there’s a good chance that the search engine will discover the PBN and penalize the site accordingly.

However, the type of PBN links most people come across are those sold by spammy link builders.

This may be through a service that promises a high number of links at low cost, or through an outreach email that offers links on a selection of sites.

PBN seller on Fiverr

These services promise a high number of links on authoritative websites. They can be tempting if you don’t know they are a PBN.

But the sites in such networks are likely to have long lost any authority they may have once had.

They offer no SEO value and are simply a way for their owners to make money by selling spammy links to unsuspecting business owners.

How to Spot PBN Backlinks

PBN links are generally easy to spot.

You just have to remember that building links is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, and be suspicious of anything that goes against this. If the service says it can easily generate links, these links are probably from PBNs.

Tell-tale signs that a website is a part of a PBN includes:

  • Outgoing links to a high number of sites

  • Low organic traffic

  • Re-directs from other domains

  • Fast turnaround for link placement (little effort required)

Sometimes services that sell these links will be open about the fact that they are selling PBN links. It’s good that these people are being honest, but that doesn't mean they will benefit your website.

If you’re worried that your site already has PBN links, there are some signals to look out for.

Use an SEO tool like Ahrefs to see all your backlinks and then search for signs like:

  • Sites with a similar or templated design

  • Sites with a similar backlink profile

  • Low-quality content and images

  • A high number of suspicious outgoing links

PBN Link Rating: Avoid 🚩🚩🚩

PBNs offer up some of the worst links out there. Avoid them at all costs. If you think your site has PBN links, disavow them in Google Search Console.

2) Link Farms

Link farms are websites that exist only to link to other sites. Like PBNs, these websites are used by link sellers to make money selling spammy backlinks to unsuspecting website owners.

These websites are often built on expired domains, which means they have good domain metrics on SEO tools. You may have to look beyond these metrics to identify bad backlinks on link farms.

You can look for signs such as:

  • Poorly written content

  • An over-reliance on stock imagery

  • Simple template designs

  • Lack of about or contact information

  • Articles and categories on multiple different topics

  • Lots of guest posts and guest authors

  • Posts with suspicious keyword match anchor text

anchor text on a link farm example

Basically, if you look at a website and wonder why anyone would come to it for the content, there’s a good chance it’s a link farm.

Link Farm Link Rating: Avoid 🚩🚩🚩

Link farm links are low quality, and are unlikely to positively impact your rankings. Avoid generating these links at all costs, because you’re certain to waste your time and money.

It’s not necessarily an emergency if your website already has a small number of these links, as Google’s algorithm will probably just avoid them.

But if you have a lot, or if you’re worried that the links are impacting your rankings, you can try disavowing them manually (more on that later).

3) Blog Comment Links

Comment links are those left in the comment section of articles on other websites. The link is typically included in the comment body or signature.

When done well, these links are related to the article content. They may even provide some value to the people reading. In this case, they aren’t necessarily spam.

But often, comment links are completely random and offer no value whatsoever.

This type of link exists because it’s free to leave blog comments on other websites. You can also buy software that can automate comments on thousands of blogs, which makes them easy to generate.

Blog comment software image

But commenting is a link building tactic that is as old as SEO itself. And it hasn’t been effective for a long time.

Comment links are typically nofollow, which means Google’s algorithm will ignore them when crawling websites. Even if you find a website that offers dofollow comment links, it’s likely that Google has discovered it and knows to ignore these links.

The good news is that services selling comment links will typically advertise the fact that that’s what they do. They will be very low cost and promise a high volume of links in a short period.

This makes them easy to avoid.

Comment Links Rating: Mostly Harmless 🚩

You definitely want to avoid using any form of mass blog commenting service or software to generate links to your site. You’ll waste both your time and money.

But comment links are almost always nofollow and Google’s algorithm is pretty good at ignoring them.

This means if your backlink profile has a large number of blog comment links, it’s usually okay to leave them.

4) Forum Links

Forum links are those from discussion forums and community sites like Reddit, IndieHackers, or StackExchange.

These come in two categories:

  1. The good kind of forum link is when people organically share your content because they find it useful or interesting. This type of content can generate a lot of positive interaction. See the screenshot below for an example.

    reddit forum comment

  2. The bad kind of forum link is when you post links to your site on multiple forums without considering whether doing so benefits the people who will see it. This type of content will usually be ignored.

To be clear, neither type of forum link offers any SEO benefit. These links are typically nofollow and Google’s algorithm is good at spotting them.

But while the first kind of link can have positive effects on factors like brand building and traffic, the second won’t do any good and is more likely to annoy the people who are part of these communities.

Services that sell forum links will often be upfront about what they are doing, making them easy to avoid.

Forum Links Rating: Mostly Harmless 🚩

These links don’t offer any SEO value but they are mostly harmless. Unless you or a previous site owner has been really abusing forum links, you can leave them in place.

5) Press Release Links

Press release links are those placed in press releases. These links aren’t always bad; there’s nothing wrong with adding a link to a press release, and it can be a good way to provide more information about your service.

press release backlinks

It can even have some indirect SEO value. If other publications pick up your story, they may add the link in the press release to their story.

But press release links are a bad idea if your strategy is to upload the press release to a free distribution website for the sole purpose of generating a backlink from the website.

This has little SEO value, as these sites typically only offer nofollow links.

In this case, the press release is more about trying to manipulate your search rankings than sharing company news.

Press Release Links Rating: Mostly Harmless 🚩

Press releases can be a useful tool for sharing company news. However, we do think that for the majority of small businesses, there are far better ways of generating press coverage.

But they aren’t a good source of backlinks. Search engines will either ignore these links or penalize the sites that abuse them.

6) Spammy Directory Links

Directory links are those that come from business listing websites. Yelp and Foursquare are two popular examples of directories you’re probably aware of. There are also plenty of industry or location-specific directories you can list your website on.

This type of link has much in common with forum and press release links: they can add some non-SEO value to your website when done right, but they can also result in penalties if you abuse them.

Here’s an example of directory links done well:

Adding your business website to TripAdvisor will increase your exposure on the platform. You may generate customers when people find your listing on the site.

TripAdvisor directory example

These links may even have a very small amount of SEO value, as they help search engines understand your business.

But there are plenty of ways to abuse this system.

There are many directories with little traffic that exist only as a way to sell listings to business owners. Listing your website on these sites will offer no SEO or indirect value and can result in penalties.

Directory Links Rating: Use Sparingly 🚩

You should use directory links when it makes sense for your business.

Adding your business to high-quality industry listing websites can increase business exposure and may even help Google learn about your business.

But using directories as a form of link-building by adding your site to multiple unrelated, low-quality directories is a bad link-building strategy.

In fact, Google explicitly advises against building links on low quality directories in its Search Central Guidelines.

How to Remove Bad Backlinks ❌

Most of the time, search engines will ignore any bad backlinks on your website. But in rare cases, bad links can result in a manual penalty.

Google also suggests that "if you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site" you should disavow these backlinks.

If you have received a manual penalty or you think you are at risk of one, you can tell Google to ignore these links by disavowing them.

  • To do this, you just need to create a .txt file with a list of the domains or subdomains that you want to disavow.
  • You then upload it to the Google Search Console disavow links tool. You can find detailed instructions on Google’s Webmaster support pages.

Here’s How to Avoid Bad Backlinks

You’ve seen in this article that the majority of bad backlinks are those that are easy for anyone to generate. And some of these bad backlinks are only actually a problem when used excessively.

This means avoiding bad backlinks when building them yourself is as simple as following these steps:

  • Asking whether anyone can generate backlinks on this site. If anyone can create the link, it's likely not worth having.

  • Assessing whether the backlink may be from a PBN or link farm.

  • Asking whether the link has a use beyond trying to manipulate the search results.

The other problem occurs if you use a third-party service or freelancer to generate links for you. In this case, you're putting your trust in them to create high quality (or low quality) links on your behalf. This is why you need to understand how to identify a bad backlink and challenge them if necessary.

To find a good link building service, we advise avoiding suspiciously cheap businesses, those that offer guaranteed links on specific websites, and those that lack precise testimonials or case studies.

You can find out more about how to outsource link building in this article.

Or Let Us Build High-Quality Links for You 🚀

At LinkBuilder, we have a proven track record of building high-quality links for ambitious brands. You can find out more about our results on our case studies page, or get in touch to see how we can help.