The Scary Truth About Unnatural Backlinks (and How to Fix Them)

Two of the most important factors that determine your website’s organic search ranking are:

  • Your website content
  • Links from other websites to that content.

Writing great SEO-optimized content is hard. Getting high-quality backlinks to that content is harder.

When those links happen naturally, your website’s backlink authority goes up – and so does your ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs). Natural backlinks are good. Unnatural backlinks, meanwhile, are spooky and can result in Google thinking you are a link spammer.

As long as there have been search engines, people have tried to trick their way to the top of the results. Bad links purchased or built by spammers can easily target your website without warning.

Over the past decade, search engines like Google have cracked down on web spam, a significant segment being link spam. While this has filtered billions of bad links from the SERP, it has also snagged upstanding webmasters trying to build legitimate backlinks, who may inadvertently violate Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines.

Linking patterns that appear to be an attempt to manipulate search rankings can trigger algorithmic downgrades of your website. If a human reviewer at Google determines your website violates Webmaster Quality Guidelines, you could get a manual action.

The result of a manual action can be scary: Your website may lose keywords for which it had previously ranked. It could even disappear from the SERP altogether.

Here is what you need to know to prevent this from happening to you.

Examples of Scary Link-Building

Link Schemes

With the Penguin update in 2012, Google began cracking down on shady linking practices that delivered low-quality results in searches. One of the things the update targeted was link schemes, which are designed to fool search engines into thinking a webpage is more popular and important than it really is.

Examples include:

  • Any buying or selling of links, including posts that contain links, or exchanging goods or services for links, or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link. This is in direct violation of Google’s guidelines.
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)
  • Unmoderated blog comments with a link or optimized text included. It used to be common for practitioners to post comments on a random blog and include a URL to improve that page’s rank. No more.

These types of ventures, once common in SEO, now could result in a penalty.

Low-quality bookmarking sites

Before listing yourself on a bookmarking or directory site, take a look around to see if it offers value to users. Sketchy directory sites filled with links and ad carousels should be avoided.

Meanwhile Google My Business, LinkedIn, your local chamber of commerce, Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Pinterest and Twitter are great examples of bookmarking sites where you can share content that drives traffic back to your website – naturally. Check your region for other sites where your customers – and prospects – congregate.

Side note: Remember that when sharing content, go for quality over quantity. Make something worthy to share. Your customers (and prospects) will love you for it.


This is a form of link scheme that can occur with legitimate link authority practices gone wrong. For example, a sponsored blog post or a syndicated news release is a great way to connect with journalists and investors. But when a news release is stuffed full of industry keywords as linked text, all going to the same page, that can raise red flags.

Use news releases for your media strategy to target users, not as an SEO strategy to target search engines.

Let us Help Build your Backlink Strategy

How to Protect Yourself from Malicious Backlinks

Anyone can link to your website without your knowledge or your permission. Some of these sinister culprits attempt to hijack your good domain authority by using link networks like mirror pages, which are several identical pages on different domains that link to your page.

In 2019, Google flagged 25 billion pages per day for spam, and its algorithm filtered 90% of link spam. During that time, Google issued 4.3 million manual actions.

There are many factors that signal potentially manipulative links. These include:

  • Directories that include a large number of external links (including yours)
  • Pages that have been de-indexed for violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
  • Pages reported to be infected with malware.

Google also counts on the community to report pages that are up to no good.

All unnatural backlinks, regardless of intention, are considered webspam and subject to penalty. These range from algorithmic demotion to neutralize specific elements on a page, to manual actions to completely remove a domain from search results.

Note that history has shown that Google is more likely to remove an entire domain.

SEMrush google penalty example 2

Screenshots of a website hit by a link penalty in February 2020. From 1,5k visits per month and rankings for over 500 keywords to almost 0 within days. Images courtesy of SEMrush

How to Find (and Fix) Scary Backlinks

Use the right tools

Tools like Search Console find and tally backlinks. However, they do not evaluate them for toxicity and are limited to 1,000. Instead, follow these steps:

  • Get started with a tool like SEMrush, Moz, Ahrefs, Majestic, etc. Contact TruStar Marketing for advice on choosing the right tools for you.
  • Perform a backlink audit. For example, SEMrush uses “markers” to identify links as toxic or potentially toxic. The more of these markers that appear in a link, the higher its toxic score.
  • Export the backlinks report onto a spreadsheet and sort through them. Rank the toxic scores from highest to lowest and look for patterns. For example, one of our clients with a high toxic score had hundreds of backlinks from mirror pages of “The Globe – The world’s most visited web pages.” Those URLs were clearly link spammers.
list of flagged backlinks
 A list of flagged toxic backlinks.

This is a time-consuming process, and necessary no matter how big or small your site is. Harmful sites are more than willing to soil your good reputation for their own advantage. The effects could be devastating.

Whatever tool you use, you typically have three choices for dealing with the potentially toxic backlink:

  • Add to your disavow list.
  • Review further
  • Leave as is and whitelist

If you decide to disavow the link, you will add it to a list of sites to upload to Google’s Disavow Tool.

disavow message
Google’s disavow tool. Use with caution.

Google values websites that demonstrate Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness.

Your site is seen as authoritative and trustworthy when other sites link back to it.

The way to get those links is to show expertise without showing any spam.

For expert evaluation of your website’s backlink profile, visit our contact page or call 615-371-6112