We know that backlinks are among the top three ranking factors on Google’s radar. That’s why we SEOs focus on building backlinks week in and week out because we know our sites’ ranking is at stake.
Unfortunately, we end up overlooking backlink audits even though harmful links can pull down our SERP rankings, or worse, attract a penalty from search engines.
More so, we also forget to audit our competitors’ backlinks or run a disavow campaign to purge irrelevant and toxic links.
But if you want to avoid a potential rabbit hole in the future, 2022 should be the year you take action and clean up your backlinks.
But, don’t worry if you have no idea how to do a backlink audit or analyze your competitors’ backlinks — this article will have you covered. And if you only need a refresher or you’re looking for new insights for your link cleanup campaign, grab your pen.
Let’s get to it.
What Is a Backlink Audit?
When we talk of a backlink profile audit, we are referring to the whole process of locating and evaluating all links and referring domains pointing to your website (including nofollow and dofollow links) to filter out the bad links from the good links—then developing an effective backlink strategy to monitor all the links.
While we like to say the more backlinks, the merrier, they all have to be quality backlinks that improve your site’s overall SEO.
After downloading your complete nofollow and dofollow backlinks list on Google Search Console, you can start your SEO backlink audit so you can keep the good links and disavow the toxic ones.
How To Perform a Backlink Audit
If you’ve been in SEO even for a short time, you already know that white-hat link-building is a back-breaking process, and you may wonder whether a link-building audit is as complex.
While a backlink audit may take time if you have hundreds of referring domains, you can perform a complete link audit in three steps.
Let’s discuss these steps.
Step 1: Analyze your backlinks against your competitors
A competitor backlink analysis gives you insights into your competitors’ linking strategy.
A comprehensive competitor backlink analysis helps you identify potential link-building opportunities and serves as a benchmark for your entire link-building audit. By assessing the backlink profile behind your competitor’s superior ranking, you establish the quality and number of domains driving traffic to their site.
A good backlink analysis will yield competitive data you can leverage at length in your link-building strategy.
What you need to complete a competitor backlink analysis:
A list of several competitors linking above you
Your competitive audit should start with establishing other companies in your niche with more quality backlinks and referring domains than your website.
Most likely, you can name your competitors off the top of your head or do a quick Google search for related businesses to get your list of competitors.
Tools to analyze a site’s link profile
SEO competitive analysis tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs are invaluable when doing a backlink analysis.
For instance, Ahrefs has a Competing Domains report showing your top competing domains. At the same time, SEMrush offers a Backlink Analytics tool that shows your top competitors and allows you to peep into their backlink profile and see how many backlinks they have.
Utilizing a backlink tool gives you a leg up because it helps you reverse engineer your top competitors’ linked pages, enabling you to design a robust link-building strategy for your website.
7 Metrics You Should Look at When Completing a Backlink Audit
These are the most important metrics to look at when completing a backlink audit.
Number of Links
Backlinks are the heart of your audit, and they should be the most important metric you consider. While there isn’t a magic number of links you need for your own site set as the gold standard, having tons of backlinks is tremendous and even better if the links come from a root domain with a high authority score.
Google pays more attention to the number of root domains linking to your website than the link quantity. Multiple backlinks coming from one root domain may command a lesser value. After all, they’re easy to get.
Conversely, backlinks from various referring domains bring more link juice, and they’re more challenging to get, making them more valuable in Google’s eyes.
Thus, when auditing inbound links, focus on the number of root domains as much as links.
Linking domains commanding a high domain authority strengthens your site’s backlink profile. Therefore, your audit should unveil the authority score of your referring domains.
Luckily, various backlink tools have an established scale for rating the authority score of linking domains.
For instance, Ahrefs’s domain rating (DR) scale is as follows:
- DR 50+ — authoritative and high-quality domain (most valuable links)
- DR 21-49 — authoritative and good quality domain (valuable links)
- DR 11-20 — relatively good quality domain (should be scrutinized to establish authority)
- DR 0-10 — poor quality domain with no authority (potentially dangerous backlinks)
Simply put, links from authoritative and high-quality domains have more SEO benefits. Hence, your audit should assess the quality of links to your site alongside quantity.
High-quality links from authoritative referring domains not only boost your ranking but your credibility too.
No-follow vs. Do-Follow
No-follow links are links with the attribute rel= “nofollow” in their code. This tells search engines bots not to crawl the no-follow link.
As a result, no-follow links don’t pass any link juice to the linking page on your website.
On the other hand, do-follow links are links without the rel= “nofollow” attribute in their code.
Do follow links allow search engine bots to crawl your website and the referring site, transferring PageRank (link juice) in the process. This directly influences your search engine rankings.
In keeping with the number one SEO rule — be as natural as possible — you need a mix of no-follow and do-follow links in your backlink profile.
It pays to have no-follow links in your profile even though they don’t influence search engine rankings as much.
If your audit shows you have more do-follow links than no-follow links or vice versa, you need to take action to balance out the links to your site. You want to achieve a healthy balance of both links, so you’re at par with your competitors’ link profiles.
You probably don’t give much thought to your link velocity — how often you build links for your site. But you should, especially if you have recently launched your website.
However, even old websites should watch their link velocity. This is because a sudden spike in your link velocity will look unnatural.
For instance, if your website’s domain is relatively new and you attract thousands of backlinks in your first month without publishing content on your site and not from viral or seasonal keywords, you may be suspected of black hat link building.
Google says link velocity should be natural and grow alongside content. A natural scaling backlink profile boosts your site authenticity and authority.
Data from your backlink audit will enable you to gauge your link velocity.
Comparing your data against your competitors will show you if you’re on the right track and give you a solid idea of the ideal link velocity you should emulate or match.
Types of Links (text, image, etc.)
The type of links your website attracts is another crucial metric Google uses to review your backlink profile.
Your website gets different links, including:
- Text links,
- Image links (ALT text),
- Rel links,
All link types have SEO value, but some may have more value depending on your niche. For instance, image links would be more beneficial to an apparel retailer than a law firm.
A backlink audit helps you strike a good balance for all link types so that you can get maximum SEO benefits from each link.
If you’re uncertain about the link types most effective in your niche, evaluate your competitors’ backlink profiles to gather insights.
Anchor Text Diversification
If you’ve been in the game long enough, you might remember the old days when keyword-rich anchor texts were the magic formula for SERP rankings. SEOs would go into overdrive and stuff several keywords in a single link in those days.
Today, we no longer force keywords into anchor texts.
Instead, we have diversified and embraced a blend of natural anchor text such as:
- Branded anchor text,
- Naked anchor text,
- Generic anchor text,
- Related anchor text,
- Exact match link text,
- Long-tail anchor text,
- And keyword variations.
You want to use a mixture of natural anchor text to craft a healthy-looking link profile with a well-balanced anchor text distribution.
Toxic or unnatural links are the number one cause of negative SEO.
These are spammy backlinks from scraper sites, outdated and irrelevant links from previous SEO campaigns, or bad links from negative SEO.
As we’ll see in step 2 below, a link detox campaign will help you comb out all toxic links pointing to your website as well as compare the number of harmful links you have to your competitors.
Step 2: Perform a link detox (or cleanup) campaign
Having toxic links on your website is like using adulterated fuel in your car.
Just like you must get rid of the contaminated fuel before it harms your engine, you must also remove toxic links from your website so that they don’t lower your SERP ranking or earn you a Penguin penalty.
For us SEOs, toxic backlink audits are part of our link-building efforts.
You don’t want to spend months or years building a high-quality backlink profile, only for link spam to negate all your efforts.
All too frequently, you’ll find yourself cleaning up outdated or spammy links that you or your clients have paid other agencies to build during their link-building campaign.
And given that you’ll also have to clean up other toxic links from negative SEO and scraper sites, you have your work cut out for you.
There are many tools you can use to help with the process.
Let’s briefly explore two of the most effective tools available to you.
Link research tools
Link research tools empower you to perform a data-driven link detox that helps you spot bad links immediately, clean up your backlink profile more effortlessly, and create your disavow file automatically.
SEMrush is our favorite.
SEMrush is a fantastic tool you can use for your link detox or cleanup campaign.
The beauty of SEMrush is that it not only performs a deep detox of your backlink profile but also recrawls your profile regularly to sustain your site’s health and detect any new toxic links.
So far, we have established that a link cleanup campaign is indispensable and identified a top tool to help you in your link detox.
Now, let’s discuss the best way to remove toxic links and review elite tips for spotting unnatural links.
Best Practices for Link Removal
After establishing the unnatural links you want to get rid of or low-quality links pointing to your website, you should first reach out to the website or websites sending you bad backlinks and ask the site owners to remove the potentially dangerous links.
Typically, you should have the links removed, but if you cannot get ahold of the site owner, you can turn to the Google disavow tool to help remove spammy links.
We’ll explore the Google disavow tool in detail and outline the process of creating a disavow file in step 3 below.
However, you should know this before opting for the disavow option:
- Google can identify spammy and artificial sites at page-level and devalue them without affecting your ranking. In such cases, disavowing is not needed.
- It’s normal for your website to attract several low-quality links over time. You can skip the disavow procedure if the links don’t affect your ranking or yield negative SEO.
But if Google has issued a manual action against your site for unnatural links, or your SERP rankings plunge out-of-the-blue, or you’re getting backlinks from scraper sites and other suspect sites, disavowing is the way to go.
Tips for Spotting Bad Links
Although tools like SEMrush and link research tools will help you fish out bad backlinks expertly, you should be able to spot a spammy backlink with your naked eye — it’s second nature for SEOs.
But to help you get started. Here are some examples of toxic backlinks that you should keep an eye on:
Links from bad link neighborhoods
Simply put, bad link neighborhoods are home to substandard websites that search engines have isolated for violating the quality guidelines, using underhand link building techniques to rank, or containing content and language unfit for search engines.
Here’s how to determine if a link is from a bad link neighborhood:
- They have too many external links pointing to irrelevant content.
- They contain spam.
- They have more ads than content.
- They use keyword over-optimization
Watch out for specific industries
Certain industries are synonymous with bad links.
SEOs summarize these industries as the 6 P’s, representing:
- Payday loans
- Paid Affiliates
- Private blog networks
You don’t want any backlinks from these industries pointing to your site as they bring no SEO value since Google devalues them.
Low quality and irrelevant sites
Websites with poorly written content or outdated content will have bad links that you should avoid.
Also, some links will be irrelevant to your website or sometimes use manipulative linking techniques. Those links should be removed as well.
Anything that appears spammy
Sometimes you’ll have websites outside your niche or audience segment linking to your site.
Even if some of these websites may command a decent domain score, the fact that they add no value to your website or audience qualifies them as link spam.
Next, let’s talk about how to submit a disavow file.
Step 3: Submit a Disavow File
As we highlighted earlier, the disavow feature allows you to remove bad links when you fail to manually remove the links yourself or have them removed by the referring website.
However, keep in mind that the disavow feature should be your last option and only when all other ways have failed.
We recommend using the disavow feature when bad links have triggered a manual action against your website or you perceive they’re likely to cause a manual action in the future.
In that case, follow these steps to complete the process meticulously.
Step 1: Make a list of all links you want to disavow
Refer to the backlink list you downloaded from Google’s Search Console or the link list provided by your SEO tool (Ahref, SEMrush, etc.).
Identify all the toxic links you want to disavow and gather them in a text file. (This is the text file you’ll upload to the Search Console in step 2 below.)
When creating your list, remember the following:
- Each line should only contain one URL or domain and not a whole subpath like seo.com/en/.
- When disavowing a domain or a subdomain, insert the prefix (domain:) before it. For instance — domain:seo.com.
- The text file must be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII(Microsoft Word should suffice).
- The text file should end in .txt.
- The URL length should not exceed 2,048 characters.
- The maximum file size is 2MB.
Step 2: Upload your disavow list
After creating your list following the above guidelines, it’s time to upload your disavow file to the Google Search Console.
Here are step-by-step directions on how to upload a disavow file.
- Start by clicking the disavow links tool page.
- Select the property you want to disavow links from.
- Upload the disavow file from your computer, following the guidelines outlined.
- If your disavow file has an error, a list of errors will be displayed promptly to allow you to fix the errors and upload the file again.
To have an error-free disavow file, avoid uploading the file straight into the Search Console using a link tool because some link tools are not always 100% accurate.
Instead, it is best to review all your links manually before uploading your list.
After uploading your list successfully, give Google a couple of weeks to implement the changes in their index.
When the changes are successfully executed, you’ll have a healthy and well-optimized backlink profile that’ll help you start the new year on a high note.
Backlink Audits & Toxic Link Cleanup: That’s a Wrap
As SEOs, we work too hard building high-quality backlinks to allow a few toxic links to water down our efforts. That’s why backlink audits should be a routine practice for SEOs.
Ideally, suppose you can complete a backlink audit and a link detox campaign every six months. In that case, you can eliminate all bad links and maintain a healthy backlink profile and link-building strategy.
Better yet, frequent backlink audits offer you an opportunity to build high-quality backlinks over time.
How to Do a Backlink Audit: We Can Help!
While we have summarized backlink audits in three steps and made it look easy, the truth is audits can be tiresome and quite data-centric, especially if you’re auditing a large eCommerce site with backlinks in the hundreds and thousands.
It can seem like an impossible task to complete a backlink audit in cases like this.
We understand — we’ve been there too.
But we’re here to help!
You can seek our SEO services to help you ace your backlink audit and link cleanup campaign.
And because we know first-hand the pain of completing a thorough backlink audit, we are the perfect Lancaster SEO company to partner with.
Give us a call today, and we’ll be happy to jump on board and help you and your company complete your backlink audits and link detox campaigns successfully. Let’s chat!