How to Identify Spammy Links and What to do About Them

Emma Grant

Head of SEO

Results-driven Emma heads up our SEO team. A champion of best-practice SEO strategies for search engine success that lasts and delivers best value, Emma’s work focuses on boosting clients’ online visibility with the ultimate goal of increasing sales. Emma applies her extensive skill and experience to create strategies that pay off quickly for faster results. She knows precisely what to do to reduce clients’ paid ad spends for greater profits, and how to boost organic leads for better long term return on investment. After close of business, when she’s not organising exciting travel adventures, you may hear Emma strumming classical guitar tunes or working on her jazz riffs.

Google’s original link spam update was introduced with the aim of fighting link spam, backing the search engine’s policy of rewarding high quality content. And in December 2022, it started rolling out another update in the same vain, this time affecting all languages and, for the first time, using machine learning technology SpamBrain for links.

Spammy links

What is link spam?

Google considers the amount of links coming into a website in an attempt to understand what content could be useful to searchers.

But if those links have not been earned honestly and are not properly deserved, then Google is not going to be happy about it. This is because it doesn’t like its web users being misled as to the relevancy or quality of a web page.

Google’s December 2022 link spam update finished rolling out in January 2023. As before, the update sought to no longer count links that Google considers spammy and against its guidelines. This time, however, the search engine used SpamBrain, a machine learning technology that has improved its ability to detect spam.

Google said that SpamBrain doesn’t just have the power to detect spam directly, but that it can now detect both sites buying links, as well as sites used for the purpose of passing outgoing links. Both of which are tactics that breach its best practice guidelines.

Google best practice

A website that has acquired links through means that are in breach of Google’s best practice guidelines is likely to lose any rankings it has achieved following the link spam update. And site owners who are expecting to see results from link building campaigns will be disappointed if their efforts are based around illegitimate practice.

The best practice policy, in short, dictates that website owners should invest in creating exceptional content and building an authoritative and trustworthy website that’s user friendly, making it naturally attractive to other sites to link back to or for users to share.

Many websites that have been around for a while are likely to have collected a few spammy links along the way. As SEO has evolved over the years, so link building practices have been through various phases.

This is why many SEO agencies still find themselves trying to untangle the back-linking chaos left behind by the old black hat practices.

But however your site has acquired spammy links, it’s important to identify them and deal with them, because they are seriously going to affect your ability to rank in the Google search results, which will seriously reduce your online visibility and negatively affect sales.

Even if you have a number of great quality links, if you have a few bad ones, you could find ALL your links devalued.

Spammy links and Google backlinking best practice

Always follow Google’s Best Practice Guidelines to avoid spammy links

How to check spammy backlinks?

Spammy links, also known as low quality backlinks, are the ones that come from poor authority sites. You can identify these using GA4, SEMrush, Ahrefs or similar web analytics programs.

There are a number of things to look out for that could signal that you have low quality backlinks coming into your site. These include:

  • A sharp spike in traffic coming from areas that aren’t being targeted
  • Short average session duration
  • Low engagement rate / high bounce rate
  • Low pages viewed per session
  • High numbers of new users

It is important to take a holistic view when it comes to identifying whether you have spammy links coming into your site. Whilst GA4 for example may show you have a low engagement rate, it could be due to factors such as irrelevant content.

A short average session duration may be because visitors were hitting the contact page with the sole intention of obtaining your phone number. Once they had that, job done.

And that’s why looking at the bigger picture, in other words spotting a combination of factors that could identify low quality, irrelevant backlinks, is the better approach.

Where do spammy links tend to come from?

Spammy links tend to mostly come from the following sources:

Guest posts

A low quality guest post, where a third party writes short, less-than-relevant content for your site and shoehorns an unnatural link into the text is one example of a low quality back-linking strategy.

Any content of this nature that’s on your website should therefore be removed.

Link directories

Link directories are another example of old, black hat SEO practices. SEO agencies back in the day would submit websites to all manner of link directories in exchange for reciprocal links, regardless of whether they were relevant or held good authority.

Whilst some online directories can be beneficial for local SEO, they do need to be relevant to the website to hold any advantage.

If you have any links coming in from irrelevant, low domain authority directories, then you should take steps to have them removed.

Forum or blog comments

How many comments have you seen posted or submitted to your blog that include a ‘further reading’ link?

This is a prime example of link spam and, if you have any of these types of links coming into your site, either from blogs or forums, you will need to remove them.

How to identify the websites you DON’T want backlinks from BEFORE building your links

When you’re building links, it’s important to identify the websites you DO want linking back to yours, and those you definitely don’t BEFORE you start building your links so that you can avoid link spam from the outset.

There are certain things to look out for that make a website a no-go for your backlink profile. These include:

Poor quality content – badly written, auto-generated or duplicate content; content that has little or no value for readers, or that’s been obviously over-stuffed with keywords.

Lack of trust factors – websites that lack an about page or information about the business, display no proper contact details or don’t list any customer reviews.

Negative user experience – slow loading pages, intrusive pop-ups or ads, broken links and a poor mobile experience could all indicate a spammy website.

Over the top pop-ups and adverts – websites with a frustratingly high number of pop-ups, adverts or clickbait headlines that make it a challenge for users to access the content or navigate to where they want to be.

Iffy domain names – sites with strange or irrelevant domain names, such as those stuffed with keywords, numbers or random characters, could well be spammy.

Unsafe browsing warnings – websites that alert you to security issues, such as a lack of a valid or up to date SSL certificate, definitely need to be approached with caution.

Say no thanks to spammy links

Say NO THANKS to spammy links

And what about the sites you DO want backlinks from?

The type of websites that you DO want to be targeting for backlinks will:

  • Potentially be able to send quality referral traffic your way
  • Have content that aligns in topic with your own site’s content
  • Be a well-known and widely trusted source of information

What to do about spammy links?

First things first, you’ll need to make sure you are not actively attracting spammy links. So, be clear on how your SEO agency is running your back-linking campaign.

The best ones will be producing high quality content which place relevant links on high quality platforms. The content is well-written, useful, relevant and on-tone for the brand. This, and ensuring a great user experience across your website, is the best way to attract natural, good quality links.

A reminder of what Google says:

“Site owners should make sure that they are following the best practices on links, both incoming and outgoing. Focusing on producing high quality content and improving user experience always wins out compared to manipulating links. Promote awareness of your site using appropriately tagged links, and monetise it with properly tagged affiliate links.”

But how to remove spammy links that are already there?

Firstly, be prepared for a bit of a time consuming process. After you’ve identified your poor quality links, you will need to start the process of asking the webmaster of the sites that are linking back to you to remove the link.

If you don’t hear back within two weeks, then you will need to take things to the next stage, which involves using resources such as the Google disavow links tool.

This tool in particular was launched during the Google Penguin update to allow webmasters to let Google know that they didn’t want certain backlinks taken into account when assessing the website. The only thing is that the signal is one that Google may choose to ignore.

Google actually advises only to use the disavow tool when really necessary. Overuse it, and you could find yourself negating the wrong links. The best thing to do, says Google, is to go through the process of asking webmasters to remove the links you don’t want coming in to your site.

Best practice link building campaigns, from an SEO agency trusted London and Surrey wide

If you’d like advice how to find spammy links that could be having a negative effect on your site’s ability to rank in the search engines, and are looking for help in building good quality links and getting rid of poor quality backlinks, talk to Figment.

Our team has been achieving top class SEO results for local businesses for many years.

All our strategies follow Google’s best practice guidelines, including our link building tactics. We also focus on creating quality, shareable content and user-friendly SEO websites.

To discover how we could help YOUR business achieve the online visibility it needs to increase sales, you are welcome to get in touch.

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