Toxic Backlink Myths and How to Know Which Links are Really Bad – SEO Theory


I was one of the first people to write about “toxic links” many years ago. I borrowed the phrase from a book on group dynamics. In 2008 I used the phrase “toxic links” in an article about the toxic people in the SEO industry who dominate online discussions by flooding them with comments. These people are easy to identify:

Their contributions are generally no better than anyone else’s but when someone more knowledgeable on a topic comes along these toxic people zone in on the better-informed person and start destroying their credibility with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) remarks, leading questions, and sometimes by contacting people privately and conducting poison pen campaigns.

In my experience (and yours may differ), some of the most toxic people in search engine optimization are responsible for, well, the most toxic links. The SEO community quickly falls in love with toxicity. In 2009 I wrote about toxic memes that resulted in many bloggers earning Google penalties. In a 2013 blog post about link schemes, I compared the backlinks SEOs liked to get to “toxic waste”. That was a rather at metaphor if I may say so myself.

Link toxicity was once a nearly taboo subject in search engine optimization. Even when many people complained openly in 2004, 2005, 2006, and later about being penalized by Google for “unnatural” or “manipulative” link building, they continued to insist that all you need is links. I never disputed the power of links to influence search results, but I always disagreed with the use of link building strategies that were proven to generate penalties.

If you practice churn and burn SEO, link penalties are part of the landscape. You anticipate them and deal with the problem by dumping a burned domain and registering a new one.

But if you’re selling SEO services and building backlinks that are all but guaranteed to get your clients’ sites penalized – that’s just inexcusable. I won’t even dignify it by calling it unethical. It’s just plain stupid.

So Let’s Talk about Link Toxicity

Which leads me to a series of questions people still ask (by searching in Google).

  1. What Is A Backlink in SEO?
  2. How to Backlink for SEO?
  3. How to Do Backlink Research for SEO
  4. What Is Link Analysis in SEO?
  5. What Is Spam Meaning in SEO?
  6. How Do You Recover from Negative SEO?
  7. How Do You Disavow Bad Backlinks?

All of these questions are connected to the topic and concept of toxic links and link toxicity. The usual answers people find are short and obvious, but they omit important information. Let me ‘splain.

1. What Is A Backlink in SEO?

It seems like every SEO blogger now insists on condescendingly and patronizingly explaining the same basic details to their readers in every blog post. When I see a table of contents at the top of a blog post, I know the first 1/3 is going to be some bullshit based on simple questions like “what is a backlink in SEO?”

So let’s cut to the chase: in search engine optimization the only backlinks that matter are the ones the search engines see (crawl and index) and which the search engines allow to pass value (mostly anchor text and PageRank-like value). Lazy or ignorant people talk about “link juice” (which no idea of what that means – it’s an amateurish metaphor for PageRank, leaving out all the other good stuff).

To a search engine optimization specialist who only cares about links, there are no backlinks if they aren’t improving your rankings. That’s a rather short-sighted point of view, but it’s the bullshit that SEO experts have been selling for 15 years. But they weren’t polite enough to tell you it was short-sighted bullshit. They masked it over with gratuitous explanations of hyperlinking and “how search engines work” (usually just rewriting what they found on the Web).

2. How to Backlink for SEO

If the only links that matter for SEO are the links that pass value in search indexes, then how do you get backlinks for SEO?

Well, the answer is simple: buy them. And then live with the consequences.

Or you can just go out and publish a lot of guest posts. And then live with the consequences.

Or you can build a private blog network – I hear resurrecting old domains with large backlink profiles is popular. And then you live with the consequences.

Backlinking for SEO is pretty simple. Just find someone who ignores the search engines’ Webmaster Guidelines (that tell you not to participate in link schemes) and follow their advice.

If you want to backlink for SEO, just read the search engine guideines and do what they tell you not to do.

Does that seem unfair to all the white hat link builders? Well, it’s hard to tell them apart from the deliberate spammers because they either do spam on the side (and say nothing about it – don’t you be looking at me!) or they applaud the spammers with “great post” comments whenever they share a new spammy idea.

It’s easy to backlink for SEO. You just need to accept there may be consequences.

3. Backlink Research for SEO

This is a good one. People want to know how to do backlink research for SEO. So they read blog post after blog post about backlink research. Or maybe they sign up for a few courses.

Basically it goes like this: pay for a subscription to some SEO tool. Use that SEO tool to explore keywords. Find Websites that use those keywords. Look at the backlink profiles for those Websites.

And if that doesn’t satisfy you, then sign up for another tool or course and learn how to do it all over again.

But you need to ask yourself what your purpose of backlink research for SEO should be. You want backlinks? Okay. But do you really want those backlinks?

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If you’re falling in love with some blogger’s latest strategy for finding and obtaining backlinks, before you hand over any money, you should read through their older posts to see if they complain about Google penalties or warn their readers that “[X] strategy no longer works.”

It’s okay to look for ways to get backlinks (hopefully compliant with search engine guidelines). But you should be more intuitive about researching the tips’ authors. If they really know what they are doing, they won’t have a history of saying “do this” followed up by “stop doing this, Google doesn’t like it!”

Real backlink research for SEO digs into who is giving the advice and what their track record is.

4. What Is Link Analysis in SEO

This topic follows on the last one. If you’re analyzing links for search engine optimization, what do you expect to find? You have no way of knowing which links pass value in the search indexes. And you don’t know which links are hurting or helping.

If your link analysis only focuses on anchor text and a hope for PageRank-like value, you’re cutting your own legs out from under yourself.

1 good link from Twitter or Facebook can send you hundreds or thousands of visitors – but they won’t influence Google’s search results. The same is true for advertising links, whether they are displayed in Google’s SERPs or on someone else’s Website.

Are you analyzing links that send traffic or links that someone has framed with dreamy SEO superstition?

Search engine optimization must look at more than just what might affect rankings. Off-page SEO includes everything that happens off-page, not just links. Link analysis is about a lot more than where you can get the next cheap ride to a manual action notice.

5. What Is Spam Meaning in SEO

There’s an old SEO joke that says SPAM means “Sites Positioned Above Mine”. Actually, a lot of spammy sites do outrank your sites. Wikipedia is one of the worst-written, poorest quality sites on the Web. And it outranks you. With a subdomain!

To a search engine, spam only means content they don’t want to index, links they don’t want to use. It doesn’t mean “duplicate content”. It doesn’t mean “links from sites I’ve never seen before”. It doesn’t mean “sites positioned above mine.”

The search engines tell you what they don’t want you to do. You can ignore the search engines (there are other ways to get traffic). You can ignore their guidelines (and accept the risks). Or you can comply with their requests and see what happens.

That’s the only way anyone should look at spam in SEO.

6. Recover from Negative SEO

I omitted a question (“what is negative SEO”) – and its sister question (“does negative SEO work”).

Negative SEO is any practice intended to push another site down in rankings. It’s not all about links. In fact, pointing “toxic links” at other people’s Websites is mostly a waste of time.

Here are a few types of negative SEO most people don’t discuss:

  • Reputation assassination (creating hostile sites to outrank someone)
  • Query-crashing (leveraging a high value site to displace someone you weren’t competing with before)
  • Shadow linking (pointing good, safe links at less relevant pages to “flip” them in the search results)
  • Attacking the Website (hacking it, using a DDoS to take it offline, etc.)
  • Cloaking attack (create a cloaking site that is deliberately caught so the other site is penalized)
  • 302 attack (using temporary redirects to steal listings in the SERPs)

The whole point of negative SEO is to knock someone else’s site down or completely out of the index. Most people who talk about negative SEO (and recovering from negative SEO) are focused on backlinks.

And, frankly my dears, Google mostly doesn’t give a damn about the backlinks that are bothering you. If someone wants to hurt your SEO, they have far less expensive and faster ways of doing that.

7. Disavow Bad Backlinks

By the time people are looking for ways to disavow bad backlinks, they have bought into a lot of bullshit “hook, line, and sinker”.

Who should disavow bad backlinks? Anyone who built or paid for links that violate search engine guidelines.

Which “bad” backlinks should be disavowed? Any links that were built or bought for the purpose of improving rankings in Google.

Curiously, when I explain this to people who are trying to disavow links, those aren’t the links they want to get rid of. They’re afraid of autogenerated links from aggregator sites that collect RSS feeds.

Why?

Because some SEO blogger identified those as “toxic links” – which they are not. Search engine representatives have told the world time and again that if you didn’t create those links, weren’t in any way responsible for them, and have no way of taking them offline, you don’t need to disavow them. They won’t hurt you.

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They probably don’t help but they might be sending some random, occasional visitors. Yes, people do browse those sites and click on the links. Disavowing them at best only wastes your time. At worst it deprives your site of some legitimate editorially-placed links. After all, someone thought your site was worth linking to from their aggregator.

Conclusion

So what is a “toxic” backlink again?

Well, given that the SEO community refuses to adopt true standards, there is no standard definition for “toxic links”. But my definition is pretty simple.

Toxic – Adjective. The quality of having, being, or conferring negative value in a search index. e.g., a Toxic link may lead a search engine to downgrade (q.v.) or penalize a Website; a Toxic Website has been downgraded or penalized sufficiently that any association with it through in- or outbound links may lead to other sites’ being treated similarly by search engines; a Toxic SERP is a highly adversarial or hostile search results page filled with listings providing negative or derogatory content about the topic or subject of the search.

If the link isn’t hurting your site, don’t disavow it.

If you’re not sure the link is hurting your site, don’t disavow it.

If you created the link or paid for the link, you might get away with it – but those are the only toxic links you need to worry about.

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