Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide

Your website is only as strong as the backlinks you have.

We’re not talking numbers here but quality. 

If you have a bunch of low-quality, spammy or toxic backlinks, your website may live to suffer for it.

Here’s a real-time analogy. 

Think of backlinks as your network of friends. 

You don’t want to be associated with shady friends, do you? 

The same goes for your website.

You only want your website to be associated with websites that share similar values and interests, not some black-hat SEO website that’s only interested in gaming the system.

So, in a way, toxic backlinks are like those shady friends you want to avoid.

What are Toxic Links?

Toxic backlinks refer to any low-quality or spammy links that can potentially hurt your website’s ranking on SERPs.

However, not all SEOs agree with this definition. 

Some would say it’s an unnatural link placed there solely to manipulate a website’s ranking. 

Others would say it’s a link from a low-quality or spammy website.

Whatever the case, there’s nothing or little your site can gain from having them around.

That explains why most SEOs opt to get rid of them. 

You also do not want to give Google the impression that you’re trying to game the system by buying links or participating in shady link schemes.

Toxic backlinks can come from a variety of sources. Here are some examples:

  • Links from hacked websites
  • Spam comments
  • Forum spam
  • Paid links
  • Links from link farms
  • PBNs (private blog networks)

Google itself clarifies that they do not have a notion of “toxic” or “bad” backlinks.

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide


The only thing they consider is if the link has quality.

So, why do SEO experts love using the phrase “toxic” backlinks? 

Well-known SEOs, such as Bruce Clay and Neil Patel, have used this term for years. 

They use it to describe links that can potentially hurt your website’s ranking.

These are unnatural links placed there solely to game Google’s algorithm. 

They go against everything that Google stands for, providing the best user experience possible, hence the name toxic.

Standard Terms You Need to Know

Now that we’ve answered the question, “what are toxic backlinks?” it’s time to move on and answer another question:

  • Toxic Links: Any link that could potentially hurt your website’s ranking on SERPs is considered toxic.
  • Spammy Link: These links are purposefully made to improve your site’s ranking on SERPs. Examples include links from link farms, private blog networks (PBNs), foreign language gibberish pages, sites that publish domain stats, etc.
  • Manipulative Links: Manipulative links are those that Google’s algorithms perceive as unnatural or not editorially given. They’re also known as paid links, link schemes, and more.

Google has a list of things they consider manipulative. 

These include large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links, participating in link schemes, buying links, and excessive link exchanging.

“Bad” Links: A “bad” link is any link that comes from a low-quality or spammy website. These websites are known for their poor user experience, little to no original content, and more.

Link farms, PBNs, and other spammy websites are examples of “bad” links.

Disavow Tool: This is a Google tool that lets you submit a list of backlinks to be ignored. If your website has been affected by toxic backlinks, you can use the disavow tool to let Google know which links they should ignore.

So there you have it.

Can Spammy Links Hurt Your Website’s Ranking on SERPs?

If you have links pointing to your site, the chances are good; some of them are spammy. Almost every site with links pointing to it attracts odd, spammy links that make no sense to the user.

It’s the same as the spam emails you get every day. Some of them make sense; others don’t. The same goes for spammy links on websites.

And yes, spammy links can hurt your website’s ranking if the amount is high enough to be considered manipulative by Google’s algorithms.

When asked about spammy links, John Muller from Google said:

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide 1

In other words, Google is indifferent to spammy links. They don’t penalize you for them, but they also don’t give your website a boost in the rankings because of them. 

The only time when spammy links can negatively impact your website’s ranking is when they’re considered manipulative by Google’s algorithms. And, if that happens, you’ll likely receive a manual action notification from Google.

Google is smart enough to understand that if your site suddenly starts receiving an influx of unusually spammy links anchored with adult keywords, it’s unlikely that you’re trying to game the system. 

It could be that one of your competitors is trying to manipulate your site’s ranking by pointing spammy links to it. 

In that case, Google will just isolate these odd, useless links as spam and ignore them. That way, they won’t affect your site’s ranking.

As long as you use White Hat SEO methods to attract links, your website should be safe from toxic backlinks.

How Did This Come to Be?

Before the release of Penguin 4.0 in 2016, spammy links could potentially hurt your website’s ranking. 

That explains why articles written before 2016 tell you to be careful of the links pointing to your website because they could hurt your website’s ranking. 

However, Google’s Penguin 4.0 update changed all that. Now, spammy links are mostly ignored by Google.

So, instead of penalizing you for spammy links, Google now devalues them instead. That means they won’t negatively impact your site’s ranking. Nor will they also won’t help it. 

However, you must note that not all spam links are the same. Google’s documentation speaks of self-made attempts to manipulate their algorithms through link building and unnatural links.

In July 2021, Google’s spam link update was meant to lessen the impact of these links, especially those built to manipulate Google’s algorithms. 

Google further discussed specific types of links that they would consider spam and not use in ranking. 

Despite this, many SEOs still use these links to manipulate page ranking. They include:

Affiliate Links: These are links that exist primarily to make money for the linking site. For example, a website promotes a product by linking it with an affiliate link.

These links must be either no-followed or qualified with rel=” sponsored.”

Links in Guest Post Campaigns: Though guest blogging is a great way to improve your website’s visibility and attract quality backlinks, most of the links that come with it are spammy. 

These include:

  • Links in low-quality articles, i.e., those that exist for nothing but link building.
  • Links from automatically generated content like scrapers and bot-generated articles.
  • Links that are not relevant to the topic of the guest post.
  • Links from content with more ads than content.

If you saw a sudden drop in ranking in July 2021, the chances are good that Google detected that you’ve been building backlinks this way and decided to devalue or nullify them in the algorithms.

As their documentation reads, sites taking part in link spam campaigns will see significant changes in their search results as they will be re-assessing those links in their algorithms.

Note that Google doesn’t discuss demoting or penalizing sites with these links. They understand that most people who engage in such activities are not doing so out of malicious intent. 

Instead, Google’s focus is on devaluing the links to prevent them from being used to manipulate their algorithms.

You might have felt the demotion in ranking if most of the links pointing to your website are from such sources. 

If you had many guest posts specifically created to help your page rank better, Google must have passed them as spam and devalued them. That explains why the ranking declined. 

You must also note that disavowing those links won’t improve your ranking or change anything. 

Google’s advice is simple: Don’t build links through spam techniques and disavow them only when you’re sure they hurt your site’s ranking.

Luckily for you, we have better ways to attract quality backlinks, such as guest blogging on reputable sites, participating in forums, and creating great content to attract editorial backlinks.

Must You Disavow Spammy Links

Spammy links are sometimes referred to as “toxic” backlinks.

However, these links will unlikely impact your website’s ability to rank.  

The main purpose of these links is to manipulate Google’s algorithms, and they have been devalued to the point where they are no longer useful for that purpose. 

Google’s algorithms have grown so smart that they easily identify and isolate the links to ignore.

Here’s what John Muller had to say about this:

As you can see, John Muller’s advice is along the lines of “ignore. Don’t get worked up about these links.”

There is no need to work so hard for something that will not give you value.  

During a Google help hangout in March 2021, Muller said:

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide 2

In the same hangout, he also added:

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide 3

But despite Muller’s advice, many SEOs still see the need to go through their link profiles to detoxify them.

I have even seen many of the SEOs I know disavow links based on the recommendations made by an automated link auditing tool and report seeing improvements afterwards.

While I still think there’s little you can do to improve your ranking by disavowing spammy links, recent polls seem to suggest a significant portion of SEOs regularly “disavow” spammy links.

Toxic Links Threats and Disavows: Complete SEO guide 4


At MediaOne, we have been disavowing backlinks for our clients for years. Last year, we still tried it, mostly disavowing links that we considered low-quality, spammy, or irrelevant. 

Personally, I don’t think we saw any improvements in ranking, but it’s hard to say because there are so many other ranking factors at play.

I would recommend disavowing links when a Google penalty has hit you — if you see a drop in traffic and can’t figure out why it might be because you have been penalized. 

In that case, you can use the disavow tool to try and remove the penalty. But even then, there’s no guarantee that it will work.

How About Manipulative Links? Must You Disavow Them

Manipulative links are those that are built with the sole purpose of manipulating Google’s algorithms. 

Here’s the difference: spammy links find you and manipulative links you find and build.

There are two situations where we’d recommend you go through a link audit tool and file a disavow:

  • The site has a manual action for unnatural links in Google Search Console (GSC)
  • The site has a massive number of links that the webspam team considers manipulative

Google’s documentation is clear on this:

According to Google, you’re only justified to disavow links under two conditions:

  • Many unnatural, spammy, or low-quality links are pointing at your site. 
  • And only when these links have triggered a manual action in GSC or are likely to trigger one.

Spammy links alone are not enough to cause a manual action. 

Come to think of it. Manual actions are only served for websites trying to manipulate their way to the top. 

If Google suspects that you’re no innocent victim of link spam but rather the one behind it, manual action is likely to come your way.

When your site gets a manual review, the webspam team knows that it’s not because you made thousands of links anchored with adult phrases. They also know that you didn’t create a foreign website and pointed links to your website. 

When a manual action comes, it means that Google believes you were somehow involved in spammy activities and, as a result, wants to ensure that you stop this behaviour.

And if you ignore the request from Google, they will use whatever measures necessary to get rid of your site.

Manipulative Links Aren’t the Same As Spammy Ones

SEOs are guilty of using “manipulative links” to describe links they believe are low quality or spammy. 

But manipulative links aren’t the same as spammy ones.

Manipulative links are specifically built to influence Google’s algorithms. On the other hand, spammy backlinks refer to any low-quality links you may have built accidentally.

It’s easy to get sucked into building manipulative links because they work to a certain degree. 

Many black hat SEOs still use these tactics today, despite Google’s warning that it could cause a manual action on your site.

Some typical examples include: 

  • Link exchanges
  • Link wheels
  • Buying links 
  • Scraping for link opportunities 
  • Creating public blog networks 
  • Buying thousands of forum posts to add links to your site (with so-called “do follow” links).

The irony is that most self-proclaimed SEOs still think this is what link building is all about. 

Google’s own SEO starter guide recommends promoting our content and earning links naturally: 

However, they caution sites against overdoing it. Taking these recommendations to the extreme could potentially harm your site’s reputation.

That’s what they have to say in their documentation:

There’s a massive difference between inviting other people to link to your page or content and creating your own links on an enormous scale to manipulate Google’s algorithms. Building links to manipulate PageRank violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. 

You’re unlikely headed for manual action if you’ve occasionally dabbled in guest blogging or publishing articles with links to your site. But if you’ve been participating in these activities on a large scale, you might want to reconsider your strategy.

Link Building is About Creating Value

The bottom line is that link building should be about creating value. 

When you focus on providing valuable content, the links will come naturally.

Of course, this takes time and effort. But it’s the only way to build links that will stand the test of time. 

Here are some link building tactics that focus on creating value:

  1. Creating infographics 
  2. Writing comprehensive guides 
  3. Curating data-driven content 
  4. Creating tools and resources 
  5. Interviewing industry experts 
  6. Writing original research 
  7. Creating helpful videos 

The key is to create content that is truly valuable and interesting. If you can do that, people will want to link to it.

Is Negative SEO Still a Thing in 2022?

A negative SEO attack occurs when one of your competitors tries to hurt your website by pointing harmful links to it.

This strategy was once used by black hat SEOs who wanted to take down their competitors’ websites. 

But Google has made efforts to clamp down on this practice over the years. They have various processes that help them identify potentially harmful links, and instead of penalizing sites for them, they devalue the links instead. 

That’s why many SEOs believe that negative SEO is no longer a threat in 2022.

Does Link Disavow Do Anything These Days?

Disavowing toxic or spammy links is unlikely to impact your SEO performance in any significant way. 

But what about manipulative links explicitly created for the sole purpose of influencing search engine algorithms? 

In our opinion, it’s still worth disavowing these links (manipulative ones, not spammy).

In 2019, John Muller was asked whether disavowing links could help sites rank algorithmically, and here is what he had to say: 

In 2021, someone asked him about the Penguin algorithm and if Google ignored unnatural links. Here’s what he had to say:

In our experience, it’s uncommon to see this type of case, where there’s so much manipulation that Google can’t tell which links to ignore and which one to consider. 

However, we have cases where we felt like we’ve seen improvement after disavowing some links. In most cases, these links are from profiles with a mixture of natural, editorial links and a large number of self-made links created specifically for SEO purposes. 

So, even though disavowing links may not directly impact your site ranking algorithmically, it still serves as an insurance policy. 

Are Automated Tools Any Helpful for Disavowal Work?

No, not really. 

In our opinion, automated tools are not very accurate when identifying toxic or spammy links. 

However, they cannot sniff out manipulative links created manually by a human user.

For someone reason, we just have to believe Google when they say we should ignore spammy links. 

The problem sets in when we introduce manipulative links.

As powerful as Google algorithms maybe, they’re not equipped enough to identify and isolate manipulative links pointing to a site. It’s also unlikely that a third-party link auditing tool can help out with that.

These tools can prove helpful only when you use them to find links that point to your website and organize a spreadsheet for reviewing them.

There isn’t much an automated tool can help you out with. 

We recommend you learn to manually review these links rather than relying on an automated tool. 

How to Determine if You Really Need a Google’s Disavowal Tool

There’s so much confusion about when and whether to use the disavowal tool.

The primary purpose of the disavow tool is to give website owners the ability to tell Google which links they want them to ignore. 

Spammy, low-quality links won’t get you a manual action from Google, but manipulative links might. 

So, if you think you have been the victim of a negative SEO attack or have received a manual action for unnatural linking, you should disavow the links in question. 

Otherwise, there’s no need to use the disavow tool.

A large number of links generated to manipulate PageRank, especially if Google has trouble isolating the offending links, could result in a manual action. 

In this case, you should disavow the links to your website that you believe are being used for manipulative purposes.

The process of finding and disavowing these links is not an easy one. It requires time and effort to locate all the “bad” links and then submit them to Google via the disavow file. 

If you’re not sure whether you need to use the disavow tool, we recommend reaching out to a reputable SEO agency for help. 

How to Use Google’s Disavowal Tool

First and foremost, if you think you might need to use the disavow tool, take a step back and analyze your links. 

Start by looking at your backlink profile using a link analysis tool like Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Majestic, or Ahrefs.

Once you have a list of all the links pointing to your website, you can manually review them to determine which ones are toxic and should be disavowed. 

The process of manually reviewing links is tedious and time-consuming, but it’s the most accurate way to determine which links to disavow.

Once you have a list of all the links you want to disavow, you can create a disavow file and submit it to Google. 

A disavow file is a simple text file that lists all the links you want Google to ignore. 

You can create a disavow file using a text editor like Notepad or TextEdit. 

Once you have created your disavow file, you can submit it to Google via the disavow tool.

Here’s an article you want to read if you need help creating your disavow file:

How to Determine Whether You Need to Use Google’s Disavow Tool

Here’s our advice to help you decide whether you need to use Google’s disavow tool:

  • For Sites that Have a Manual Action

We recommend doing a thorough non-automated link audit, removing self-made links where necessary, and a comprehensive disavow if any links are manipulative or from low-quality websites.

Know that manual actions can’t be undone with the disavow tool only. You also have to send a reconsideration request, and not just one, but as many as it takes, to get the manual action removed.

You also have to note that Google takes more than two months, on average, to review reconsideration requests.

  • For Sites with No Manual Action But Have Done Wide-Scale Manipulative Link Building

We suggest you do a thorough automated link audit for your site if you suspect its link profile is manipulative enough to put them at risk for manual action. If you identify manipulative links, we suggest you disavow those links.

Suppose most of the links in your profile were created to manipulate PageRank but don’t really represent recommendations from other websites. In that case, it might be a good idea to disavow the links.

At times, we file partial disavows for clients. If we find that one of your clients is reluctant to disavow all the links we recommend, we’ll file a partial disavow for them. 

A partial disavow is a disavow file that only contains the most obviously manipulative links. This way, your client can see that the disavow file has some positive effect and is more likely to be willing to do a full disavow in the future.

  • For Sites with No Manual Action, But Do Spot a Few Manipulative Links

Our decision to disavow links depends on the scale of the problem and the client’s willingness to disavow them. 

If it’s a small number of links and the client is willing to disavow, we’ll usually just go ahead and file a partial or complete disavow. 

If the client is on the fence about disavowing, we’ll try to get them to see the value of doing a partial disavow.

We’ve had a few businesses ask us to disavow links just for peace of mind. If that’s what the client wants, then we’ll do it.

  • Sites with Little Manipulation, But Lots of Spammy Links

That includes sites with anchors in a foreign language, sites that have been hacked, and other low-quality websites.

We recommend doing a thorough link audit and disavowing any links that are manipulative or from low-quality websites for these types of sites. 

If your link before the onslaught of unnatural links was good, and you cleaned up the toxic links, then there’s a chance Google will give your site another look and potentially reinstate it to its former position.

  • If You Haven’t Gotten a Manual Action But Want to Disavow Anyway

If you’re certain that some of the links pointing to your website are manipulative and you want to disavow them, you can do so.

Remember that you have to be absolutely sure that the links are manipulative before you disavow them. If you’re unsure, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not disavow them.

How to Avoid Toxic Backlinks

After taking care of any existing toxic links, you’ll want to take steps to make sure that your site doesn’t pick up any new poisonous backlinks. 

There are a few things you can do to help with that:

  • Avoid Paying for Backlinks

All those services that offer to boost your rankings by getting you links from high-PR websites are doing more harm than good. If you’re tempted to use one of those services, remember that it’s not worth the risk.

The same goes for sponsored links and link directories. Unless you’re sure that the website is high quality, it’s best to avoid them.

  • -Monitor Your Backlinks

You can’t just set and forget your backlinks. You need to regularly monitor them to ensure they’re still high quality and not harming your site.

There are a few different ways you can do that:

  • Google Search Console

If you have Google Search Console set up for your website, then you can use it to monitor your backlinks. Just go to the Search Traffic > Links to Your Site section.

  • Majestic

Majestic is a paid link analysis tool that gives you detailed information about your backlinks. 

  • ahrefs

ahrefs is another paid link analysis tool that’s similar to Majestic.

  • Steer Clear of Exact Match Anchor Text Links

If you’re building links to your website, you need to be careful about the anchor text you use. 

Anchor text is the actual text used to link to your website. For example, if I were to link to Neil Patel’s blog, I might use the anchor text “Neil Patel’s blog.”

In the past, people would use exact match anchor text to try and game the system. They would build links with the exact keyword they wanted to rank for as the anchor text. 

So, if they wanted to rank for “blue widgets,” they would build links with the anchor text “blue widgets.” 

Google has since cracked down on that practice, and it now penalizes websites that engage in it. So, if you’re building links, make sure to use a variety of different anchor text instead of just using exact match anchor text all the time.

  • Avoid Adding Backlinks to Comments or Forums

Leaving comments on other blogs and forums is a great way to build relationships and get exposure for your website. 

It’s not, however, a great way to build links. That’s because most comments and forum posts have the nofollow attribute added to them. 

The nofollow attribute tells Google not to follow the link, which means it won’t pass any PageRank juice or help with your rankings. 

Plus, Google is smart enough to know what you’re up to, so don’t bother trying to game the system by adding links to your website in comments or forums. It’s just not worth it.

The Wrap Up

If you think your website might be at risk for a manual action, or if you’ve already received one, we recommend doing a thorough link audit and disavowing any link you suspect is manipulative. 

Remember, manual actions can’t be undone with the disavow tool only. You also have to send a reconsideration request, and not just one, but as many as it takes, to get the manual action removed.

About the Author

Tom Koh

Tom is the CEO and Principal Consultant of MediaOne, a leading digital marketing agency. He has consulted for MNCs like Canon, Maybank, Capitaland, SingTel, ST Engineering, WWF, Cambridge University, as well as Government organisations like Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Law, National Galleries, NTUC, e2i, SingHealth. His articles are published and referenced in CNA, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Financial Times, Yahoo! Finance, Hubspot, Zendesk, CIO Advisor.


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