How Do You Know If A Link Is Safe? – SEO Theory


How Do You Know If A Link is Safe? The search engines provide clear guidelines about which links are acceptable to them. Begin learning about safe backlinks by reading the Webmaster guidelines.

Hardly a week goes by where I don’t see someone asking in an onilne discussion group, “how do I know if these are toxic links?” or “how to identify PBNs?” That second question came into the Dumb SEO Questions Facebook group just this week, but that’s not the first time someone asked this kind of question.

PBNs — Private Blog Networks — were once the most popular source of paid links, but they’ve been replaced by what I’ll called guest blog marketplaces. Whereas PBNs are usually centrally managed, the guest post marketplaces act as brokerages. They don’t buy or sell the links so much as facilitate the transactions.

Are brokered links “safe”? Not really. Any site that sells links — whether through a brokerage, as part of a private blog network, or directly is violating search engine guidelines.

If you want “safe” links — in the sense that they won’t get your site into trouble — then you need to read the search engine guidelines and obtain links that don’t violate those guidelines. And in case you’re still not sure what that means, then any paid link is NOT “safe”. You may not get caught buying (or selling) links, but neither is a safe practice with respect to what happens in the search engines’ indexes.

How To Audit Links without Their Payment History

People run so many backlink audits these days, you’d think there would be a standard procedure for doing this. Of course, there are no SEO industry standards, so anyone who wants to explain how to conduct a backlink audit can do so and there is no way to show they are right or wrong. It’s the Wild West out there, so be careful which SEO advice you trust (or pay for).

That said, link audits always begin by pulling as much backlink data as you can from as many sources as you can. If you’re auditing backlinks for a new client, ask them to tell you what links they’ve acquired in the past. This is almost a trick question. If a new client has paid for links in the past, you should know about that. Ask them to give you a list of all the links they’ve acquired and to explain how they got those links.

Next, pull backlinks from Bing Toolbox and Google Search Console. Neither search engine promises to show you all the links it knows about. Neither search engine can tell you which links the other engine has indexed. But get as much link data from them both as you can.

If you really want to be thorough, pull a link report from Yandex, too. Again, Yandex can’t tell you which links Bing and Google know about; nor can it tell you which links the other search engines trust.

Finally, to round out your backlink data, pull at least 1 backlink report from your favorite SEO tool provider. The major SEO tools build their own indexes. They don’t know which links the search engines know about or whether those links pass value in the search indexes. But major SEO tools do provided (automated) opinions about the quality of those links.

Automated link opinions are interesting, and may even be helpful, but don’t assume that just because an SEO tool say a link is spam or toxic that the link really is spam or toxic. I’ve looked at many of these so-called spammy, toxic links (as so designated by SEO tools) and found they were neither.

What Is A Toxic Link? I’ve always used the phrase “toxic links” to refer to the links that a search engine says are part of the problem causing a manual action (a penalty). Hence, if you don’t have a penalty (no manual action notice), you don’t have ANY toxic links. But that’s only 1 definition. Some people define “toxic links” to be something else.

Treat any SEO tool’s labeling of links as toxic or spam as nothing more than an opinion. It’s an informed opinion but only in the sense that it’s based on data collected by the SEO tool’s system. That data doesn’t provide any insight into whether the search engines have found, indexed, or treated those links as bad in any way.

Any link that is NOT included in a search index cannot be “toxic” or, but it might be “spammy”.

Once you’ve got a list of Websites that link to your client’s site, start looking to see if those sites advertise their availability for paid guest posting (or any other kind of paid link). If they’re open and blatant about accepting money for links or linking posts then, yes, they’re spammy sites.

*=> Reminder: Spammy links <> toxic links if there is no penalty.

If the sites providing links don’t advertise, there are other things you can look for. For example, a blog that accepts guest posts tends to publish a lot of low-quality content. It’s not very informative, well-informed, or particularly insightful. The vast majority of Web marketers who depend on these kinds of links don’t care about creating truly useful content for the sites that accept their posts.

The uneven quality of the content on blogs that sell a lot of guest posts is usually pretty obvious, too. Some writers are better than others. And some writers are paid more to write better content.

Paid links tend to use targeted or preferred anchor text. An editorially-bestowed link isn’t likely to use anchor text like “best top sites for SEO” or “how to find the best deals in 2021”. If the link anchor matches a query that someone wants to rank for, it’s probably spam.

*=> Some sites try to be less obvious by using their preferred anchor text as their page titles. So they only seek out anchors that match their page titles. But if other outbound links on a blog look spammy, then there’s a good chance that title-matching anchors are spammy, too.

Site Design May Tip You Off about Link Quality

If you’re only asking for links, or hoping to earn them, then the sites that look like they were put together in a “blog factory” (that is, the owner paid someone for a turnkey site) have a cheap, funky look about them. They don’t look completely natural even if you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Natural Website design isn’t always complex, but it usually reveals personal touches. It might be in the images the site uses, it might be in the decorative graphics, or it might be in the incidental wording the author places around the blog.

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A professional Web marketer’s personal blog might be lean and mean, but even there you’ll usually find indications that a real person is devoting time and energy to the site (or did in the past). Look for signs of meticulous care. People who pay close attention to their sites tend to fix a lot of little problems, or add flourishes you don’t find on canned Websites.

Maybe the margins and footer are loaded with extra information and navigational links. I don’t mean tag clouds and lists of categories or default archives. I mean links the blog owner chose to highlight, hoping to attract visitors’ attention.

If you’re thinking of asking a site for a link — such as in a link reclamation strategy, where you’ve found old broken links — the site’s design may be the first clue that you don’t want a link from the site, even if it’s free. Someone who sold a lot of links in the past could have sold the site when it became useless, and the new owner may not (yet) realize all those old links are hurting its search performance.

Link Spam Is Often Dishonest

An honest link makes a simple promises: here is something I want to share. If the link isn’t relevant to the content in which it’s embedded, it’s probably spam. In fact, search engines have defined “irrelevant links” in terms of disagreement between the context of the link and its destination.

You may be thinking, “relevant links are found on similar sites” (i.e., bicycle sites only link to bicycle sites, etc.), but to a search algorithm the truth is more nuanced. A natural link from a news story or encyclopedic article could be supporting an obscure talking point in an article that really has nothing to do with the destination’s main topic.

*=> Natural links are rarely as blatantly relevant as “CBD oil” links embedded in articles about CBD oil. Sometimes they are. More often, natural links are usually provided as citations to sources, references to examples of points just made, or “aside-style” (by the way) mentions.

In a question and answer context (such as a forum or social media discussion), the link may be the only content — and the context is provided in a previous comment or social share.

Autogenerated Links Are Usually Not Toxic or Spammy

The links most people are most likely to disavow are natural links no one paid for. There is no greater irony than that in the link building/disavowing strategies used by many Web marketers. They seek out paid links and disavow free links.

If you wonder why the search engines struggle to ferret out the truly good links, that’s often the reason why. Marketers keep killing the good links because they don’t know where they came from or why they exist. I imagine many people thinking to themselves, Why would anyone want to link to a site without being compensated?

In fact, someone once asked me that very question in a forum discussion where we disagreed about how to identify natural links. I don’t know what he’s doing these days …

Yes, there are millions of bajillions of weird-looking autogenerated links that you have no idea of why they exist. Some sites scrape a lot of content and scoop up tons of links with the content. Some sites deliberately source the content fragments or RSS feed excerpts they use for their own content.

I’ve never disavowed these kinds of links. I’ve never had a reason to.

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I’m not saying all autogenerated links are good. It’s doubtful they accomplish anything good for you, but they’re not automatically bad for you.

Use the disavow tools sparingly. There is seldom a need to disavow odd-looking links. But if you are willing to take the risk of losing PageRank-like value, then disavow links that bother you so you can sleep well at night. Don’t curse yourself with constant doubt and second-guessing.

Just remember that NOT disavowing the links you paid for isn’t the safest strategy you can follow.


The best question you can ask about any link is “why does this link exist?”

If the reason is self-serving then it’s most likely spam (site-internal links excluded). If the link looks like it was designed to assist with rankings in any way, then assume it’s spam. If the link is placed on a site that appears to be selling links, then assume that the link itself will be treated as spam by the search algorithms.

If you buy links because “that’s what everyone else is doing,” then assume you yourself are a spammer, willfully and intentionally violating search engine guidelines, and know that your links are not in any way, shape, or form “safe” — if by “safe” you mean “they won’t be ignored by or result in a search engine penalty.”

Remember — I said spammy links are dishonest. If you are at least honest about the link spam you create, you’re in a better position to figure out why the site lost rankings and traffic the next time Google releases an update.

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