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How To Do A Backlink Audit And Disavow Toxic Backlinks

I’ve been working for two clients in two regions that perform identical home services. Client A is an established business with about 40 years of experience in its region. Client B is newer with about 20 years of experience. We completed implementing a fully new site after doing discovery for each of the clients that found some troubling organic search strategies from their respective agencies:

  • Reviews – The agencies published hundreds of individual pages with a single review on each that contained little content outside the service and a few sentences in a review. It was obvious that their goal here was to try to capitalize on keywords for the geography and the service provided.
  • Regional Pages – The agencies published dozens of internal pages that repeated the content of the home service provided but specified a different city or county in the title and body. The goal here was the same… to try to capitalize on keywords for the geography and the service provided.

I’m not saying that this is a tactic that could not be used, it was just an obvious and sloppy implementation of content that targeted region and service. I’m not a fan of this strategy at all, we’ve found incredible success at simply defining the service areas in the footer, including the address of the business location(s) in the footer, including the phone number (with local area code), and then publishing robust information in the body of the page about the service.

There’s absolutely no reason why a roofing page, for example, can’t be ranked well for “Roofing Contractor” in all of the regions that the contractor works in. I’d rather work on enhancing and optimizing a single roofing page than have to create and track multiple pages for a client.

Worst of all, both of these clients weren’t actually getting any leads through their site and their rankings hadn’t budged in over a year. As well, their respective agencies owned the site(s) and one agency even owned the domain registration. So… all the money they were investing wasn’t moving them any closer to actually growing their business. They decided to give my firm a shot at deploying a new strategy.

For both clients, we worked on optimizing their local search visibility by building out a newly optimized site, taking drone and before/after photos of their actual work instead of stock photography, initiated review capturing campaigns, differentiated them from their competitors, properly redirected thousands of internal links to the appropriate pages, and have been working on expanding their reach on YouTube, social, directories, and manufacturers’ contractor directories.

When To Do A Backlink Audit

The next thing that happened was telling:

  • Client A – who we had worked on the longest, wasn’t improving their search engine visibility outside of branded keywords. We continued to optimize the pages, linked back from YouTube, updated over 70 directories… and still barely any movement. A key issue was seeing non-branded keywords never moving up… all buried on page 5 or deeper.
  • Client B – within a week of publishing their site they reported they were getting good leads, and their rankings climbed for non-branded keywords.

After researching their competition and optimizing their pages for weeks, we had to dig deeper into why Client A was not moving. Because of the questionable strategies already deployed, we wanted to take a look at the quality of the backlinks on their site. It was time to do a backlink audit!

A backlink audit is identifying all links to their site or internal pages and analyzing the quality of the sites where the backlink exists. Backlink audits require a third-party SEO tool… and I use Semrush. Through these audits, you can identify links that are from high-quality sites as well as bad backlinks (also known as toxic) that you should remove or notify Google of.

What Are Bad Backlinks?

Here’s a great overview video of backlinks and what bad links are, how they’re utilized by blackhat SEO users, as well as why they’re a violation of Google’s terms and should be avoided at all cost.

Backlink Audits and Disavowing Backlinks

Using Semrush‘s backlink audit, we were able to get a clear look at domains and pages that referenced their site:

backlink audit
Semrush Backlink Audit

Please keep in mind that tools like Semrush are amazing but can’t analyze every situation for every client. There’s a huge difference, statistically, between a small local business and an international or multilingual service online. These tools tend to treat both equally which I believe is a severe limitation. In the case of this client:

  • Low Total – While this report says, perfect, I disagree. This domain has a low number of total backlinks so having one really toxic backlink – in my opinion – was a problem.
  • Quality – While only one link was classified as toxic, I found several other links that were suspect within the audit but were marked below the toxic threshold as safe. They were on pages that were unreadable, on domains that didn’t make any sense, and that brought no referring traffic to the site.

What is a Disavow?

Google provides a method to notify them when these bad links are out there, the process is known as a disavow. You can upload a simple text file listing the domains or URLs that you wish to disavow from Google’s index when deciding how your site should rank.

  • Disavow – I’ve read several articles online where SEO professionals use disavow tools to liberally report tons of domains and pages to Google. I’m a little more conservative in my approach… analyzing each link for the quality of the site, referring traffic, overall ranking, etc. I make sure that good backlinks are left alone and that only questionable and toxic links are disavowed. I typically opt on the side of disavowing an entire domain rather than page… the problem is often their entire site… not just one link on the site.

Instead of using Google’s disavow tool, you can also try to contact the referring site owner to remove the link… but on these spammy, toxic sites, I’ve often found that there’s either no response or no contact information at all.

Semrush Disavow Tools

The tools available through Semrush are really well thought-out to maintain your site or your client’s backlink profiles. Some of the features the tool provides:

  • Overview – the reporting you see above.
  • Audit – a comprehensive list of every backlink found for your site, it’s toxicity, the destination page, the anchor text, as well as actions you can take, like whitelisting it or adding the domain or page to a disavow text file.
  • Disavow – the ability to upload your current disavow file for a site or download a new disavow file for upload into Google Search Console.
  • Tracking – with integrations to Google Search Console and Google Analytics, your disavow can now be tracked within your Semrush project to see the impact it had.

Here’s a screenshot of the backlink audit … I had to remove the client information from the domain, target, and anchor text as I don’t want competition seeing who I’m working on.

backlink audit tool

The disavow text file that Semrush builds and maintains for you is perfect, named with the date and included comments in the file:

# exported from backlink tool
# domains

# urls

The next step is to upload the file. If you can’t find Google’s Disavow Tool in search console, here’s a link where you can upload your Disavow text file:

Google Search Console Disavow Links

After waiting 2-3 weeks, we’re now seeing movement on non-branded keywords. The disavow is working and the client is now able to grow their non-branded search visibility. While Semrush has an entire suite of tools to manage your organic search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC), this backlink audit and disavow tool is a must. The ability to continue to manage, save, and download your disavow files for submission makes it incredibly easy to use.

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Never Pay For Backlinks

My guess is that the last firm that was managing the client’s site was doing some paid backlinking to try to improve their overall ranking. This is risky business… it’s a great way to get fired by your customer and destroy their search engine visibility. Always demand that your agency disclose if they’re doing that type of work before.

I actually did a backlink audit for a company that was going public and that had invested heavily in an SEO firm years ago. I was able to easily track the links back to link farms they were building to grow their clients’ visibility. My client immediately dropped the contract and then had me work on disavowing the links. Had competitors, the media, or Google identified those links, this client’s business could have been destroyed… literally.

As I explained to my client… if I could trace the links back to their SEO firm with tools like Semrush. I’m sure the thousands of PhDs building algorithms at Google could as well. They may have increased rank in the short term, but ultimately they were going to get caught violating Google’s Terms of Service and – ultimately – damage their brand irreparably. Not to mention the additional cost of having me do the audit, the backlink forensics, then the disavows to keep them afloat.

The ideal way to get backlinks is to earn them. Build great content across all media, share and promote the great content across all channels, and you’ll earn some incredible backlinks. It’s hard work but there’s no risk involved for the investment you’re making.

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If you’re having a difficult time ranking and need some assistance, we assist several clients with their search engine optimization efforts. Ask about our SEO consulting at our site.

Disclosure: Martech Zone is a power user and proud affiliate for Semrush and I’m using my affiliate links throughout this article.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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