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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

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SEO Woe or a Load of Baloney?

Toxic backlinks are links that some SEO tools say could hurt your website’s Google rankings. The implication is that you should disavow them to keep your site safe.

But there’s some disagreement and confusion among SEOs as to whether “toxic” links are actually a thing and what, if anything, you should do about them. 

If you believe Google’s John Mueller, they’re not: 

Yet, according to my poll, the majority (just!) of SEOs think they are: 

So… what’s the deal here? Are toxic backlinks actually a thing? Are they hurting your site? And if so, what should you be doing about them? 

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand the terminology… 

Every website has some spammy backlinks that just don’t make sense. But that doesn’t necessarily make them manipulative or “toxic.”

For example, here are a couple of obviously spammy links to our site: 

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Example of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site ExplorerExample of spammy links, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

We didn’t build or buy either of these, so they’re not “manipulative” by definition. They’re just low-quality links we’ve attracted over time because the internet is rife with spammers. 

If you study Google’s link spam documentation carefully, you’ll see that, in theory, these aren’t the kind of spammy links they have a problem with. They warn only against the ill effects of spam links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages. Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site. 

Here are the examples Google gives of these manipulative links: 

What Google says are manipulative linksWhat Google says are manipulative links

As for “toxic backlinks,” this is just a term made up by certain SEO tools to describe backlinks they think could hurt your rankings based on several so-called “markers.”

Key takeaway

  • Spammy links are low-quality links that every site attracts through no fault of their own. 
  • Manipulative links are links built or bought solely to improve Google rankings. 
  • Toxic links are links that certain SEO tools say could hurt your website’s rankings. 

If you asked this question before September 2016, the answer would have likely been “yes.”

So what changed? 

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Penguin 4.0.

With this algorithm update, Google switched from demoting pages to a system that tries to ignore bad links.

Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site. 

Since then, Google’s stance has been that you can ignore spammy backlinks. 

If you’re seeing individual links that pop up and you say, “oh this looks like a spammer dropped the link” or whatever, I would completely ignore those. […] because these spammy links happen to every website and Google’s system has seen them so many times over the years that we’re very good at just ignoring them. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

But is this true? Is Google really as good at ignoring low-level spam as we’re made to believe? 

Judging by my colleague Chris’s recent poll on LinkedIn, a good chunk of SEOs (38%) don’t think so, as they’re still disavowing them. 

Most SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinksMost SEOs either disavow or do nothing about spammy backlinks

Does that mean they’re right to do so? Not necessarily. It just means they don’t fully trust Google that they won’t do any harm. They’re being careful. 

Personally, the person I trust most to answer this question in 2024 is Dr. Marie Haynes. I don’t think anyone’s done more research into this than her. She’s spent well over a decade working to understand Google’s search algorithms and auditing link profiles on behalf of business owners. 

Now, the interesting part of that statement (and why I actually trust her!) is the obvious conflict of interest. Until fairly recently, she made her living selling link audit and disavow file creation services—and for a pretty hefty sum at that! 

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Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023Pricing from Marie's link audit services page in March 2023
Pricing from Marie’s link audit services page in March 2023

Clearly, it would be good news for Marie if Google were still terrible at ignoring spammy backlinks because she could sell more link audits! 

Yet, these days, she no longer appears to offer such services. In fact, she’s actually been warning folks against the need to disavow low-quality, spammy backlinks for a few years. 

Here’s a quote from a 2022 blog post of hers:

While there is no harm in disavowing low quality spammy links, it likely does not help improve rankings. We believe that Google’s algorithms are already ignoring these links. […]. When we do see improvements these days after disavowing, it is always in sites where we have disavowed links that were purposely made for SEO and very little else. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

It’s clear that Marie is being cautious with her words here. But overall, her opinion after digging into this for many years seems to be that, yes, Google is now pretty good at ignoring most low-quality spammy links. 

Does that mean they’re perfect? No. But it does mean that worrying about obvious low-quality link spam is probably a waste of time for most people.

If you’re buying or building the types of links that Google class as “link spam” then, yes, they can absolutely hurt your rankings.

But before you panic about that link exchange you did with your best friend’s wife’s brother, Google is likely looking for patterns of manipulation here. In other words, manipulative link profiles rather than manipulative individual links: 

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Danny Richman, founder of Richman SEO Training, agrees: 

Here’s a bit more context from Danny: 

As for Marie Haynes, she echoes a similar sentiment in this post. She states that manual actions aside, she would only recommend a client disavow links if they have “a very large number of links that [they] feel the webspam team would consider to be ‘manipulative.’ ”

In these cases, Google often slaps the worst offenders with an unnatural links manual action. If you get one of those, that’s Google telling you, “Hey… you’re being demoted in search because we think you’ve been trying to game the system with manipulative links.” 

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But this doesn’t have to happen for manipulative links to be a problem. It’s possible for Google to algorithmically demote a site if they detect a large volume of spammy and manipulative links, at least according to John Mueller.

If we see a very strong pattern [of spammy links] there, then it can happen that our algorithms say well, we really have kind of lost trust with this website and at the moment based on the bigger picture on the web, we kind of need to be more on almost a conservative side when it comes to to understanding this website’s content and ranking it in the search results. And then you can see kind of a drop in the visibility there. 

John MuellerJohn Mueller

Either way, the point remains: it’s patterns of manipulation that are likely to hurt rankings. There’s very little chance that you need to worry about the odd potentially dodgy link here and there. 

While it might be tempting to use an SEO tool that finds “toxic backlinks” for you, I’d seriously urge you to reconsider. Trusting these can do more harm than good. Way more. 

Just look at this unfortunate Redditor’s reply to John Mueller: 

Someone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO toolSomeone on Reddit's traffic tanked 60% after disavowing "toxic" backlinks in one SEO tool
A 60% drop in traffic! That’s no joke! 

Even if this is an extreme case, worrying about these links likely only wastes time because, according to Marie Haynes, they’re rarely truly toxic: 

I find that the truly toxic links…the ones that could have the potential to harm your site algorithmically (although you’d have to really overdo it, as I’ll describe below), are rarely returned by an SEO tool. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

Sam McRoberts, CEO of VUVU Marketing, seems to agree: 

So… how do you find truly toxic backlinks that are likely to be hurting your site? 

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The truth? You might not even need to look for them. If you haven’t built or bought links that Google considers link spam at any reasonable scale, chances are you’re good. 

If you’re not confident about that, do a manual backlink audit with a tool like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

The Anchors report is a good starting point if you’ve never done this. It shows you the words and phrases people use when linking to you. If they look unnatural or over-optimized (lots of exact matches of keywords you’re trying to rank for), that could be a sign you have paid or other links intended to manipulate rankings. 

Example of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinksExample of keyword-rich anchors, which are often a sign of paid backlinks

If things look fishy there, use the Backlinks report to dig deeper and check the context of those links. It’s usually quite easy to spot paid and unnatural ones. 

The Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlinkThe Backlinks report in Ahrefs' Site Explorer showing the context of the backlink

Just remember that you’re looking for patterns of unnatural links, not just one or two. 

WARNING

If you’re not 100% sure what you’re looking for when doing a backlink audit, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. You need to be confident that the links are truly “toxic.”

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If you have a manual action for unnatural links or a bunch of what you believe to be truly toxic backlinks, yes. Google’s advice is to disavow them (assuming you can’t get the links removed). 

You should disavow backlinks only if: 

You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, 

AND

The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site. 

Marie Haynes advises the same: 

There are two situations where we will recommend to our clients a thorough link audit followed by filing a disavow: 

  1. The site has a manual action for unnatural links in GSC. 
  2. The site has a very large number of links that we feel the webspam team would consider to be “manipulative”.
Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

If you just have a bunch of spammy backlinks that most sites naturally attract or the odd paid backlink, probably not. Google probably ignores most, if not all, of these links, so disavowing them is likely a waste of time. 

While there is no harm in disavowing these links other than the time spent analyzing them, there is likely no benefit either. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

But what about negative SEO?

Being the victim of a negative SEO attack is indeed the possible exception here. This is when a competitor sends a load of spammy or toxic backlinks your way to try to get your site penalized. 

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Google remains adamant that it basically never works, but it really comes down to what you believe. 

[I’ve] looked at hundreds of supposed cases of negative SEO, but none have actually been the real reason a website was hurt. […] While it’s easier to blame negative SEO, typically the culprit of a traffic drop is something else you don’t know about–perhaps an algorithm update or an issue with their website. 

Gary IllyesGary Illyes

If you see a traffic drop after an influx of backlinks in Site Explorer, I’d say that it’s at least worth a bit more investigation. 

Site with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinksSite with traffic drop coinciding with an influx of backlinks
This site experienced a traffic drop coinciding with an influx of referring domains. Maybe there’s benefit to disavowing here… and maybe it’s something else!

As Gary said above, something else could be to blame—but you never know. There’s always a chance that Google’s algorithms rule it was you who built or bought those backlinks to try to manipulate rankings and penalize you for it. 

If you just found a bunch of so-called “toxic backlinks” in an SEO tool, probably not. Again, most of these are probably just link spam Google already ignores. 

Here’s yet another quote from Marie Haynes backing this up: 

While there is probably no harm in disavowing [links reported as toxic in SEO tools], you are not likely to see any improvement as a result. Disavowing is meant for sites trying to remove a manual action and for those who have been actively building links for the purpose of improving rankings. 

Marie HaynesMarie Haynes

There’s also the risk that you could end up disavowing links that are actually helping you… 

Patrick showed further evidence that this can absolutely happen when he experimented with disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog. Traffic dipped, then went back up after he removed the disavow. 

The impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blogThe impact of disavowing links to the Ahrefs blog

Final thoughts

“Toxic backlinks” is a term made up by certain SEO tools to scare you. That’s not to say bad links can’t hurt your site. They absolutely can. But fortunately for most site owners, it’s rarely a problem worth worrying all that much about. 

Got questions? Disagree? Ping me on Twitter X.

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Google Limits News Links In California Over Proposed ‘Link Tax’ Law

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A brown cardboard price tag with a twine string and a black dollar sign symbol, influenced by the Link Tax Law, set against a dark gray background.

Google announced that it plans to reduce access to California news websites for a portion of users in the state.

The decision comes as Google prepares for the potential passage of the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), a bill requiring online platforms like Google to pay news publishers for linking to their content.

What Is The California Journalism Preservation Act?

The CJPA, introduced in the California State Legislature, aims to support local journalism by creating what Google refers to as a “link tax.”

If passed, the Act would force companies like Google to pay media outlets when sending readers to news articles.

However, Google believes this approach needs to be revised and could harm rather than help the news industry.

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Jaffer Zaidi, Google’s VP of Global News Partnerships, stated in a blog post:

“It would favor media conglomerates and hedge funds—who’ve been lobbying for this bill—and could use funds from CJPA to continue to buy up local California newspapers, strip them of journalists, and create more ghost papers that operate with a skeleton crew to produce only low-cost, and often low-quality, content.”

Google’s Response

To assess the potential impact of the CJPA on its services, Google is running a test with a percentage of California users.

During this test, Google will remove links to California news websites that the proposed legislation could cover.

Zaidi states:

“To prepare for possible CJPA implications, we are beginning a short-term test for a small percentage of California users. The testing process involves removing links to California news websites, potentially covered by CJPA, to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience.”

Google Claims Only 2% of Search Queries Are News-Related

Zaidi highlighted peoples’ changing news consumption habits and its effect on Google search queries (emphasis mine):

“It’s well known that people are getting news from sources like short-form videos, topical newsletters, social media, and curated podcasts, and many are avoiding the news entirely. In line with those trends, just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related.”

Despite the low percentage of news queries, Google wants to continue helping news publishers gain visibility on its platforms.

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However, the “CJPA as currently constructed would end these investments,” Zaidi says.

A Call For A Different Approach

In its current form, Google maintains that the CJPA undermines news in California and could leave all parties worse off.

The company urges lawmakers to consider alternative approaches supporting the news industry without harming smaller local outlets.

Google argues that, over the past two decades, it’s done plenty to help news publishers innovate:

“We’ve rolled out Google News Showcase, which operates in 26 countries, including the U.S., and has more than 2,500 participating publications. Through the Google News Initiative we’ve partnered with more than 7,000 news publishers around the world, including 200 news organizations and 6,000 journalists in California alone.”

Zaidi suggested that a healthy news industry in California requires support from the state government and a broad base of private companies.

As the legislative process continues, Google is willing to cooperate with California publishers and lawmakers to explore alternative paths that would allow it to continue linking to news.

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Featured Image:Ismael Juan/Shutterstock

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The Best of Ahrefs’ Digest: March 2024

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The Best of Ahrefs’ Digest: March 2024

Every week, we share hot SEO news, interesting reads, and new posts in our newsletter, Ahrefs’ Digest.

If you’re not one of our 280,000 subscribers, you’ve missed out on some great reads!

Here’s a quick summary of my personal favorites from the last month:

Best of March 2024

How 16 Companies are Dominating the World’s Google Search Results

Author: Glen Allsopp

tl;dr

Glen’s research reveals that just 16 companies representing 588 brands get 3.5 billion (yes, billion!) monthly clicks from Google.

My takeaway

Glen pointed out some really actionable ideas in this report, such as the fact that many of the brands dominating search are adding mini-author bios.

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Example of mini-author bios on The VergeExample of mini-author bios on The Verge

This idea makes so much sense in terms of both UX and E-E-A-T. I’ve already pitched it to the team and we’re going to implement it on our blog.

How Google is Killing Independent Sites Like Ours

Authors: Gisele Navarro, Danny Ashton

tl;dr

Big publications have gotten into the affiliate game, publishing “best of” lists about everything under the sun. And despite often not testing products thoroughly, they’re dominating Google rankings. The result, Gisele and Danny argue, is that genuine review sites suffer and Google is fast losing content diversity.

My takeaway

I have a lot of sympathy for independent sites. Some of them are trying their best, but unfortunately, they’re lumped in with thousands of others who are more than happy to spam.

Estimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele's site fell off a cliff after Google's March updatesEstimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele's site fell off a cliff after Google's March updates
Estimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele’s site fell off a cliff after Google’s March updates 🙁 

I know it’s hard to hear, but the truth is Google benefits more from having big sites in the SERPs than from having diversity. That’s because results from big brands are likely what users actually want. By and large, people would rather shop at Walmart or ALDI than at a local store or farmer’s market.

That said, I agree with most people that Forbes (with its dubious contributor model contributing to scams and poor journalism) should not be rewarded so handsomely.

The Discussion Forums Dominating 10,000 Product Review Search Results

Author: Glen Allsopp

Tl;dr

Glen analyzed 10,000 “product review” keywords and found that:

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My takeaway

After Google’s heavy promotion of Reddit from last year’s Core Update, to no one’s surprise, unscrupulous SEOs and marketers have already started spamming Reddit. And as you may know, Reddit’s moderation is done by volunteers, and obviously, they can’t keep up.

I’m not sure how this second-order effect completely escaped the smart minds at Google, but from the outside, it feels like Google has capitulated to some extent.

John Mueller seemingly having too much faith in Reddit...John Mueller seemingly having too much faith in Reddit...

I’m not one to make predictions and I have no idea what will happen next, but I agree with Glen: Google’s results are the worst I’ve seen them. We can only hope Google sorts itself out.

Who Sends Traffic on the Web and How Much? New Research from Datos & SparkToro

Author: Rand Fishkin

tl;dr

63.41% of all U.S. web traffic referrals from the top 170 sites are initiated on Google.com.

Data from SparktoroData from Sparktoro

My takeaway

Despite all of our complaints, Google is still the main platform to acquire traffic from. That’s why we all want Google to sort itself out and do well.

But it would also be a mistake to look at this post and think Google is the only channel you should drive traffic from. As Rand’s later blog post clarifies, “be careful not to ascribe attribution or credit to Google when other investments drove the real value.”

I think many affiliate marketers learned this lesson well from the past few Core Updates: Relying on one single channel to drive all of your traffic is not a good idea. You should be using other platforms to build brand awareness, interest, and demand.

Want more?

Each week, our team handpicks the best SEO and marketing content from around the web for our newsletter. Sign up to get them directly in your inbox.

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Google Unplugs “Notes on Search” Experiment

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Google unplugs Notes On Search Experiment

Google is shutting down it’s Google Notes Search Labs experiment that allowed users to see and leave notes on Google’s search results and many in the search community aren’t too surprised.

Google Search Notes

Availability of the feature was limited to Android and Apple devices and there was never a clearly defined practical purpose or usefulness of the Notes experiment. Search marketers reaction throughout has consistently been that would become a spam-magnet.

The Search Labs page for the experiment touts it as mode of self-expression, to help other users and as a way for users to collect their own notes within their Google profiles.

The official Notes page in Search Labs has a simple notice:

Notes on Search Ends May 2024

That’s it.

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Screenshot Of Notice

Reaction From Search Community

Kevin Indig tweeted his thoughts that anything Google makes with a user generated content aspect was doomed to attract spam.

He tweeted:

“I’m gonna assume Google retires notes because of spam.

It’s crazy how spammy the web has become. Google can’t launch anything UGC without being bombarded.”

Cindy Krum (@Suzzicks) tweeted that it was author Purna Virji (LinkedIn profile) who predicted that it would be shut down once Google received enough data.

She shared:

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“It was actually @purnavirji who predicted it when we were at @BarbadosSeo – while I was talking. Everyone agreed that it would be spammed, but she said it would just be a test to collect a certain type of information until they got what they needed, and then it would be retired.”

Purna herself responded with a tweet:

“My personal (non-employer) opinion is that everyone wants all the UGC to train the AI models. Eg Reddit deal also could potentially help with that.”

Google’s Notes for Search seemed destined to never take off, it was met with skepticism and a shrug when it came out and nobody’s really mourning that it’s on the way out, either.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Jamesbin



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