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Backlink Analysis: Spotting the Good, Bad and Toxic

June 29, 2020
Michelle Alese
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Imagine you’re at a contest on stage, standing before a panel of judges. You and all of your fellow participants have performed. It’s now time for the audience to vote on who should take home the trophy. The judges take each audience member’s vote into consideration. They then determine the winner.

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), think of backlinks like an audience and Google like the panel of judges. Each backlink that points to your website is a vote of confidence. Google then takes each vote into consideration before determining who’s the winner.

The trophy? Top rankings on the first page of Google search results.

Keep in mind not all votes are considered equal. Websites with a high amount of expertise, authority and trust (EAT) are weighted more. Thus, the more impactful their backlinks are in bolstering your website. In contrast, too many poor-quality backlinks can wreak havoc on your digital presence. In worst-case scenarios, they can even lead to Google penalties.

That’s where an assessment of your link profile comes into play, also known as a backlink analysis. We’ll walk you through how to conduct an analysis, the top tools you’ll need and how you’ll identify and clean up toxic links.

How to Conduct a Backlink Analysis

To gain a firm understanding of your link profile, you must perform a backlink analysis. These 6 steps will help you launch the process:

  1. Select a website link analysis tool
  2. Download a comma-separated values (CSV) file of all inbound links
  3. Use metrics to determine quality and toxic backlinks
  4. Create a list of toxic links that must be removed

Bonus Steps

  1. Develop quality backlink strategies
  2. Conduct competitor backlink analysis

Select a Backlink Analysis Tool

To begin the audit, you’ll first need to select a trustworthy link analysis tool. One of our favorite picks is Site Explorer by Ahrefs.

Although Site Explorer is a primarily paid tool, you can register for a 7-day, $7 trial first to decide if it’s the right fit for you.

Here at Kantaloupe, we love how easy the platform is to use as well as the features it offers.

Download a CSV File of All Inbound Links

Once you’ve selected your filters, you can convert your list of links into a CSV file. You’ll then export your file and migrate your data over to a spreadsheet to have a clear, visual layout of your inbound link profile.

To take things a step further, we recommend creating a link-tracking spreadsheet that you can update on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis depending on the size of your website.

Our Kantaloupe team loves this approach as it allows us to keep a steady pulse on all of our inbound links. We can celebrate awesome, high-quality backlinks (and yes, we love to celebrate) while simultaneously addressing toxic backlinks that pose potential issues. Fortunately, link-tracking spreadsheets are simple to set up and can benefit a variety of websites — including yours.

Use Metrics to Determine Quality and Toxic Backlinks

All of the information we’ve discussed won’t get you far without the right metrics. To analyze and understand the health of any link profile, you must first decide which metrics will help answer your questions on hand. Questions such as:

  • What kind of websites do we want to link to us? What does our ideal backlink profile look like?
  • What kind of websites actually link to us? Is there a specific type of website that links to us more than others?
  • What kind of website do we not want to link to us? Why?
  • What are the warning signs of a toxic backlink? What are the correct steps to address them?

Bonus Steps

Develop Quality Backlink Strategies

In addition to eliminating potential backlink problems, you also can use the link tracking sheet to identify potential link building opportunities. If you have a target page you’d like to drive more traffic to, you can simply assess its quantity and quality of backlinks. You can then craft a strategy to drive new, relevant links to that page.

The same works for webpages that aren’t performing well. Are they lacking backlinks from quality websites? If so, how can they be improved upon? What type of approach can you take?

Conduct a Competitor Backlink Analysis

By following all the steps we’ve previously mentioned, you can get a firm grasp on how you and your competitors line up. After selecting which competing websites you’d like to analyze, you can use your link analysis tool to get the full, inside scoop.

For instance, you can use Site Explorer to uncover which competitor pages have the highest and lowest quantity of links. To get a true picture of a competitor’s backlink structure, it’s important to note the total number of backlinks versus backlinks from unique referring domains.

Next, you’ll take your investigation a step further by reviewing the type of backlinks they have and what tactics they’re using to get them.

All of these factors can play a significant role in the development of your own link-building strategies.

Top Backlink Analysis Tools

Now that you’ve got the steps down, consider some of our top recommended tools:

Site Explorer by Ahrefs

An organic search traffic and backlink analyzer tool

Site Explorer is a competitor research tool that combines 3 vital SEO insights:

  1. A backlink checker that analyzes your backlink profile in addition to the link profiles of your competitors
  2. Organic search traffic that uncovers your competition’s top keywords and top-performing pages
  3. Insights on your competition’s paid advertising approaches and funnel pages

The Site Explorer is an impressively fast backlink crawler that makes analyzing backlinks a breeze.

SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool

An auditing tool that retrieves and disavows toxic backlinks

The SEMrush Backlink Audit tool offers the option to uncover all of your backlinks. This tool also has the capability to highlight potentially toxic links. You have the option to select which toxic links you’d like to input into the Google Disavow tool. The main features are:

  1. Analyzes all website backlinks
  2. Provides backlinks with a toxicity score based on 45 toxic markers
  3. Generates each website owner’s email address for the links you’d like to remove
  4. Sends removal email requests quickly and efficiently
  5. If the links can’t be removed, the backlink audit interface can be used to import them into the Google Disavow tool
  6. Promptly launches disavow requests

The SEMrush Backlink Audit tool allows you to complete multiple tasks in one platform, making it an ideal option for analyzing backlinks.

Moz Link Explorer

An all-in-one link building tool for link prospecting, link building research and content ideation

A great alternative to the previous tools, the Moz Link Explorer will support you in increasing your backlinks while maintaining a healthy link profile. Its main functions are:

  1. Launches a link profile analysis to retrieve insights on your most valuable pages, your link profile, the domains that link to you, the anchor text they use and your website’s authority
  2. Reviews competitor backlink data to compare how your backlinks match up
  3. Provides link-tracking lists to monitor your link prospects and email outreach efforts, as well as how and when prospects link to your target pages

There’s plenty of more tools where that came from. To learn more, check out our complete list of link research tools.

One way to determine the quality of a backlink is to take a strong look at the website’s EAT factor.

What Are Quality Backlinks?

Imagine this: You’re about to craft a link-building strategy with the goal to achieve maximum results. You’ve done your initial research and you’re close to launching your campaign.

However, the following question is still unanswered: When it comes to the quantity backlinks versus the quality of backlinks, which one wins?

Now think back to the previous contest example: Would I rather receive a large amount of subpar votes or a moderate amount of exceptional votes?

Here at Kantaloupe, we live and breathe by the second option, and from our observations, so does Google.

But what exactly classifies as a quality backlink and why? We’ve highlighted some key examples below.

Links from High-DA Websites

When determining if a backlink is a high-quality link, it’s important to refer to the domain authority (DA) of the website. To sum it up, the DA of a website is an indicator of the website’s ability to rank on search engine results pages (SERPs). DA’s are impacted by the website’s relevance in relation to their niche, as well as the quality of the backlinks.

DA scores range from 1-100 and if a website’s DA is higher, it’ll have greater opportunities to rank. Although DA's a common metric, it’s important to not solely judge a website or backlink from their DA score. Rather, it’s best to utilize the DA score as one of several traits to monitor during a backlink analysis.

Links From Websites With High EAT

Another way to determine the quality of a backlink is to take a strong look at the website’s EAT factor. If you’ve kept up-to-date with Google’s core algorithm updates, you’ve seen the emphasis they’ve placed on credible websites with quality content. In contrast, we’ve heard time and time again that Google’s become significantly smarter when recognizing and penalizing distrustful, poor-quality websites.

Let’s breakdown EAT further:

E for Expertise

The concept of expertise in SEO is as simple as it sounds: The credibility a website has as an expert in their niche. Take a website in the healthcare industry for instance. Does an author with extensive experience in the medical field possess more expertise than a staff writer who hasn’t stepped foot in the space? We sure hope so.

Therefore, backlinks from a website with higher expertise is far more likely to be deemed a quality link.

A for Authority

Authoritativeness in SEO is synonymous with reputation. Is the website that’s linking to you viewed as an influencer, authority or prominent voice in their industry?

Great examples of this are .gov and .edu domains. Imagine that the University of Phoenix publishes an article about the pros and cons of online learning. As a popular college that primarily specializes in online learning, they’re highly inclined to be viewed as an authority in the online learning sector. As an added bonus, .gov and .edu domains tend to have notably high DA’s.

T for Trust

The element of trust in SEO is exactly as it sounds: Users want to be confident that they can fully trust the information they’re reading. An easy way to tell if a website’s trustworthy is by taking a look at their author biographies. Do their bios display information about who they are, what they do and their past years of experience?

The same concept goes for reviews. Does a website showcase user reviews or testimonials for prospective customers to see? If the answer’s “yes” then they’re more inclined to be viewed as trustworthy.

All in all, these traits are key aspects to consider when checking a backlink for EAT. Also, keep in mind that EAT is especially imperative for websites that feature pricey products or services or provide information on complex topics such as finance or health.

Links From Contextually Relevant Articles

Whenever you receive an editorial-style backlink, checking for contextual relevance is a key step in determining a quality link. Some examples of contextual relevance include but aren’t limited to:

  • An article that cites and links to your website naturally in their content. Your link is related to their topic and brings genuine value to their readers.
  • An article that references a set of statistics from your website. Your link is featured on their resource list.
  • An article, podcast or video that you were featured in. You're given credit for your direct contributions and your link is located in their content.

Links From Reviews

Backlinks from third-party review websites such as G2, Capterra and Fit Small Business are excellent backlinks to have. According to a study from the Spiegel Research Center, the purchase likelihood for a product with 5 reviews is 250% greater than the purchase likelihood of a product with no reviews.

In a day and age when more users read reviews than ever before, backlinks from reputable review websites are highly desirable. Receiving positive reviews also is a helpful way to bolster EAT.

What Are Toxic Backlinks?

Unfortunately, not all backlinks are quality links. Many times, a backlink analysis can expose the not-so-great elements of your backlink structure. The threat levels that stem from poor-quality websites can vary drastically from simple, amateur websites, to potentially harmful websites that follow hazardous SEO practices.

Either way, it’s crucial to be able to recognize what toxic backlinks are as well as how to address them before the threats worsen.

But first off, what exactly qualifies as a toxic backlink, and what are the risks? We’ll walk you through some of the most prevalent examples.

Backlinks From Spammy Websites

We’ve all seen them before: Websites or web pages that you land on and immediately feel unease. Maybe the content’s filled with keyword stuffing to the point where the sentences are hardly legible. Or perhaps the content’s not legible at all and filled with gibberish.

In addition to keyword stuffing and incomprehensible sentences, a few other telltale signs of a spammy website are:

  • Ads, ads and more ads. The second you land on the website, you’re instantly funneled into an endless stream of pop-up ads that seem nearly impossible to escape.
  • Hard-to-read or gibberish-sounding domains. If you truly can’t understand or identify a domain name, you may be faced with a spammy website. By rule of thumb, you should always be able to conclude what a website is and does directly from the domain name.
  • Low-DA forums or directories that aren’t associated with an official website. Sometimes these types of pages can also appear in the form of calculators.
  • Domains that can’t be accessed because of security warnings.
  • Backlinks from spammy blog comments.

Although Google generally recognizes the commonality of spammy passive backlinks, these links still pose risks. For instance, failure to monitor and address spammy backlinks can lead to spammy backlink buildup — namely, a backlink profile that largely consists of toxic links. Indeed, heaps of extremely low DA backlinks will muddy your link profile.

Plagiarized Content

With an array of plagiarism identification tools at hand, it’s a wonder so many websites still attempt the age-old trick. If a website’s stealing original content from another source and stating it as their own, there can be several consequences ahead.

For starters, if the original source discovers their content’s being plagiarized, the violators may be subjected to legal action. In addition, if Google recognizes the plagiarized content, the consequences can be serious against the violator’s website.

Potential outcomes include:

  • Loss of page rankings
  • Declines in keyword rankings
  • Overall poor SEO and website performance
  • Total removal from search engine results pages
  • Google penalties

Websites with plagiarism accusations certainly aren’t websites you want linking to you. Although you’re not the one who is plagiarizing, websites that follow unethical and potentially illegal practices can lower and damage the overall quality of your link profile.

Websites With Obvious Paid Links

We’ve all heard the term before” “guilty by association.”  The same term can be used in SEO when it comes to bad inbound links if the correct precautions aren’t taken. Although it’s been no secret that Google has frowned upon paid links for years, it still hasn’t deferred website admins from following this dishonest tactic.

You might wonder: We get it, we all know that paid links go against best SEO practices. However, if I’m not paying for it or charging for it, why should I worry?

This is where the “guilty by association” factor comes into play.

First, let’s dive into the top traits you should look for to determine if a website charges for links:

  • Outbound links to random location-specific service pages
  • Outbound links to landing pages that require a sign-up, inquiry or payment
  • Outbound links to product pages with little-to-no content
  • Multiple outbound links to the same website in one article
  • Excessive branded, unnatural or random location-specific anchor texts

Here's what to watch out for: If a set of outbound links or anchor text doesn’t flow naturally in the content, improve the reader’s journey or make sense contextually with the topic, there’s a high-likelihood the website is charging for links. This will be especially obvious if you notice these traits on multiple pieces of content.

Say the website linked to you passively. Even though you didn’t pay to obtain the backlink, Google may not see it that way. The search titan may even draw the assumption that you’ve purchased your backlink, which circles us back to the “guilty by association” factor.

In mild cases, you may start to notice a slight decline in rankings. In more severe cases, if Google recognizes multiple potentially paid backlinks to your website, it can inflict a manual penalty.

With risks like these, it’s vital to perform a routine backlink analysis.

Low-DA Websites

This one’s simple. If a website falls below your minimum DA requirements, you most likely will consider them a low-DA website.

Although DA’s aren’t always cut and dry, a lower DA generally indicates a website’s lower ability to rank. Luckily, Google’s fairly understanding that some low-DA backlinks are inevitable. However, if you’re on the fence about whether a backlink may be harmful, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long has the website been around for? Is it an old or new domain?
  • What type of industry does the website serve? For instance, websites in the real estate industry tend to have slightly lower DAs.
  • Does the website publish high-quality, original content?
  • Does it charge for links? Do they showcase obvious paid links in their content?
  • Does it display information about the company? How about user reviews or testimonials?
  • Aside from the DA rating, does the website appear otherwise credible?

Although it’s important to be wary of the number of your low-DA backlinks, it also is crucial to first ask yourself these questions before determining whether a link poses harm.

Websites With Little to No EAT

With each Google algorithm update, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that content is king. However, there’s more to it than just the quality of the content itself. Another vital factor that Google considers is a website’s level of EAT.

While EAT can be used to pinpoint websites worth raving about, it can be used to recognize which ones to be wary of. The key warning signs to look out for include but aren’t limited to:

  • Websites with no author backgrounds, bios or general team information
  • Websites with little-to-no company information or about pages
  • Websites with no user reviews, ratings, testimonials or engagement
  • Articles with thin, brief or uninformative content
  • Companies that lack a social media presence
  • Websites that don’t come across as a subject matter expert in their industry

Websites that lack EAT often lack great SEO. In addition, they may even be viewed as suspicious by Google. Keep a consistent eye out for low EAT backlinks and record any that catch your attention as potentially worrisome.

When conducting a backlink analysis, there are a number of unethical SEO tactics that you’ll need to keep an eye out for.

Websites that Follow Dubious SEO Practices

When conducting a backlink analysis, there are a number of unethical SEO tactics that you’ll need to keep an eye out for. We’ve summarized 5 additional red flags below:

  • Articles with keyword stuffing
  • Clickbait titles with irrelevant content
  • Doorway pages
  • Internet protocol (IP) cloaking
  • Link farming

Excessive toxic backlinks can negatively impact your SEO by damaging your backlink profile and decreasing your rankings. Worst case scenario: You’ll even risk receiving a Google penalty, which in varying circumstances can be extremely difficult to lift.

The time it takes to conduct a routine analysis far outweighs the time it’ll take to repair damages to your online presence.

Top Link Building Strategies to Avoid in 2020

Now that we’ve discussed the different types of toxic backlinks to avoid, it’s fitting to touch upon the link building strategies to steer clear of in 2020. The following strategies we’ll discuss are viewed poorly by Google and should be refrained from.

Excessive Guest Posting

Guest posting is a link building tactic that pertains to writing content for a third-party website. The piece of content often includes an external link to one’s own website. Although this strategy can be beneficial, it must be done minimally and tastefully with the main objective to provide value to the website’s readers.

Think of it like this: Although SEO’s a benefit of guest posting, it shouldn’t be the main reason to write a guest post. Unfortunately, many websites that write guest posts strictly for backlinks make an assortment of mistakes. This includes writing for low-quality websites and guest post mills, creating mediocre content and using unnatural anchor texts. All of which can potentially result in a Google penalty.

Low-Quality Forum Posting and Blog Commenting

It used to be simple:

  • Stake out a blog that you enjoy reading.
  • Find a forum where you can provide valuable answers to users.

What started out as a genuine approach to provide valuable feedback is now often overused to manipulate search engines and create unnatural links.

With this dubious tactic on the rise, many online forums and blogs flag low-quality comments. There are many platforms that’ll remove the comments altogether if they contain outbound links.


Private blog networks (PBNs) are networks of websites used to build backlinks to one specific website and manipulate search-engine rankings. Most commonly, PBNs are created from purchased domain names. Although the domain names have expired, they still possess a high-domain authority that was priorly established.

PBNs are well-known in the SEO industry and not for good reasons. They’re often a Google penalty that’s waiting to happen. That’s why we highly recommend exploring healthier types of link-building opportunities.

Excessive Reciprocal Linking

It’s happened to the best of us. You’re featured on a third-party website and they ask for a link in return on your own website. You gladly oblige. The next time around you feature a contact on your website and they share your link on theirs. Seems harmless, right?

However, excessive reciprocal linking can pose a variety of risks. For starters, the overuse of this tactic can generate traceable linking patterns. Even worse, your backlink profile may begin to look unnatural and manipulated. Therefore, we advise reciprocal linking to be a “less is more” approach to link building.

Low-Quality Directories

Depending on the niche of your business, submitting your website to a business directory can be highly beneficial. This link building method is particularly helpful for local-based companies that strive to attract local customers.

With that in mind, it’s important to carefully consider each directory before you submit your website. Is the directory well-known? Is it connected to its own official domain? What other types of companies are listed? Are you happy with the DA rating?

By addressing these questions first, you’ll avoid submitting your website to low-DA, low-quality or spammy directories that can negatively impact your SEO.

Excessive Exact-Match Anchor Text

Exact match anchor text utilizes the same exact target keywords that are in the hyperlinked article. For example, an anchor text hyperlink to this article may be “backlink analysis.”

If used in moderation, exact-match anchor text doesn’t have to be harmful. Rather, it can even be helpful. However, excessive use of this anchor text style can appear extremely unnatural. In response, a Google spam filter may be activated.

The best way to avoid tripping a spam filter is to diversify your anchor texts, using a natural variation of styles instead.

Paid Links

Since we previously discussed the dangers of paid links in detail, we’ll lightly recap this one. Paid links happen when a third-party website charges you a fee to post your link on their domain. You gladly make the payment, only to realize the website publishes hundreds to thousands of other paid links as well. Many of which are extremely low quality.

Paid links strongly go against Google’s guidelines. Plus, here’s another kicker: They can easily be spotted during a backlink analysis. If you can easily distinguish them, so can Google. If you’re reading this and have a ton of paid links pointing to your website, we strongly urge you to tidy up your backlinks sooner rather than later.

How to Clean Up a Toxic Backlink Profile

The next and final steps in your analysis are to identify which backlinks to keep, as well as which ones to remove.

When it comes to cleaning up your backlinks, there are 2 different routes that you can take: removals or disavows. Although they may sound similar, they both involve different assessments, decisions and steps.

Backlink Removals

It’s true: The link cleanup process itself can be the most overwhelming process of all. You probably will feel uncertain about whether to remove a certain backlink. In the end, you may wind up second-guessing yourself, in fear of backlink profile overcleaning. That’s why we’re breaking both the removal and disavow processes each into 2 solid actions:

1. Assess and Determine Which Links to Remove

The first step in the process is to make a final selection of which links you absolutely wish to remove. For link removals, your goal will be to email the websites directly. In the emails, you’ll want to locate a contact who works specifically with content and SEO on their website. Potential positions to look for are marketing managers, writers and specific SEO-driven roles.

An email communication process is strongly preferred, prior to disavowing links. Please keep in mind however that link removals won’t work for every toxic link. This process specifically works for legitimate websites with accurate contact information.

2. Complete the Link Removal Process

When writing emails, your email etiquette and tone will be crucial in achieving a successful link removal.

A helpful way to go about this is to jumpstart the email with gratitude rather than diving straight into the request. Be sure to first express appreciation and thank the website operator for linking to you. Always ensure your emails are properly customized to each contact.

You’ll inform them that you’re completing a link profile clean-up, which includes the removal of their link. During this section, it’s important to reiterate that the decision was made for overall best SEO practices and isn’t specific to just their website. Whichever wording you choose, you’ll need to emphasize that it isn’t because you don’t like their website or appreciate their link.

Another tip is to keep the email simple, short and straightforward. With an email that’s brief, friendly and digestible, you’ll be more inclined to receive a friendly response back. Oftentimes, if addressed professionally and respectfully, contacts will be happy to complete the link removal. If they agree to it, write yourself a reminder or schedule a date to send a follow-up email to confirm the process was completed.

Keep in mind that throughout link cleanups, it’s important to make every single effort you can to clean up your toxic links before disavowing them.

Backlink Disavows

As easy as it seems, not all link removals are a slam dunk.

Additionally, not all types of backlinks will qualify to be removed by the previous steps. Therefore, the next 2 steps can be used to successfully oversee and complete the link disavow process:

1. Assess and Determine Which Links to Disavow

The first step is to assess and determine which final links to disavow. To break it down, links that qualify to be disavowed fall into one of the following 5 categories:

  • Links from websites that didn’t respond to your removal request emails
  • Links from spammy websites, forums and directories
  • Links from websites that can’t be accessed because of site errors
  • Links from websites without contact information
  • Extremely toxic backlinks that have caused or will cause a manual penalty

Once you’ve finalized which toxic links you must disavow, you can then continue to the disavow step itself.

2. Complete the link disavow process

Once you’ve exhausted all of your options and determined which links you must disavow, navigate over to Google Search Console’s Disavow Links tool. Next up you’ll:

  • Create text files and assemble your lists of backlinks. You’ll list one link to disavow per line.
  • Determine if you’ll be disavowing the backlinks at a page-level or domain-level. Page-level disavows should be considered if you simply want your link removed from a specific page on the website. If you’d prefer to block the entire website from linking to you, your best option will be a domain-level disavow.
  • Mark domain level disavows with a “domain” prefix. An example used on Google Search Console’s guidelines is
  • Confirm that your text files are encoded in 7-bit ASCII or UTF-8.
  • Ensure that the files end in .txt.
  • Visit the Disavow links page to select your website and upload your text files.
  • Navigate to “Disavow Links” followed by “Choose File.”
  • Select the files you created to launch the disavow process.

Once you’ve completed all of the steps, the actual link disavow process may take up to a few minutes for total completion.

Start Pruning

As we’ve learned in this post, backlinks come in all different shapes and sizes. As important as link building is, it’s equally as important to ensure you’re receiving the right types of votes back to your website. Therefore, quality over quantity is crucial in regards to link building.

However, backlink profiles are rarely error-free. The dilemma is how can you identify and solve your areas of concern.

Conducting a routine backlink analysis is essential for steering clear of toxic backlinks and potential Google penalties. Once you put in the work and have this process down pat, you’ll be well on the way to a healthier website.


Michelle Alese

Michelle is an SEO maven whose greatest skill is performing off-page, on-page competitor analysis. She spends her days conducting online research and overseeing SEO projects that drive organic search traffic to digital content. When she's not boosting awareness of client websites, Michelle enjoys fiction writing, photography and spending time with her rescue beagle, Tommy.

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