The SEO industry has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, with the focus shifting from building links by any means necessary to an appreciation of the power of quality content.

However links are still the fuel that drives Google’s algorithm, so building and maintaining a strong, clean link profile is central to the SEO’s job description.

At Brighton SEO last week Paul Madden from Manual Link Building detailed the steps that search marketers can take to identify bad links.

As a self-confessed former professional spammer Madden knows a thing or two about bad links, but he now uses his skills for good rather than evil.

The landscape changed dramatically for SEOs in 2012 thanks to Google’s Penguin update, which made it more difficult to boost rankings through blatant and/or slightly dodgy SEO tactics.

A show of hands in the auditorium revealed that a decent proportion of attendees had received an unnatural link warning from Google, so spotting dodgy links is clearly a big challenge for the SEO industry.

Madden suggested the real skill for SEOs is managing the risk that comes as part of any link profile and suggested there are two types of link profiles:

1. Massive brands

For major corporations the risk of being penalised is relatively low, as proved by the recent Interflora case.

“If an average customer searches for flowers in Google and Interflora doesn’t show up they’re not going to think that Interflora has bad SEO, they’re going to think that something is wrong with Google.”

2. Everyone else

Most businesses don’t have the luxury of being protected by their brand reputation, so every link has to be evaluated to ensure it doesn’t expose the company to unnecessary risk.

Furthermore, Madden recommended that businesses only buy in link building services if the supplier can demonstrate that they are aware of the risk and can demonstrate how they guard against it.

Managing the risk

Unfortunately Google has done a good job of hiding the exact criteria it uses for identifying bad links, so much of it is a judgement call on behalf of the SEO or site owner.

It’s therefore necessary to carry out a link audit to determine which links it’s worth removing and which can be kept.

However this raises another potential problem, as removing all your bad links could potentially be as bad as not removing any at all.

Madden’s logic is that Google isn’t aware of all dodgy links and some will be contributing to your search rankings, so if you manage to identify 100 potentially dodgy links it’s likely that Google only thinks that around 20 of those links are bad.

So removing all 100 might be as bad for your rankings as getting penalised in some cases – it’s all about balancing the risk.

What to look for

Madden recommended using Majestic SEO to find a site’s link profile and identify potential risks. He said that sites that have been penalised tend to have high percentages of:

  • Precise anchor text links.
  • Site-wide links.
  • Links from suspect country code top-level domains (ccTLDs).
  • Links that 40x or 50x.

It’s also important to bear in mind that your links may come from sites that have been disavowed by someone else, which increases the risk of your link being seen as dodgy in the eyes of Google.

Madden recommended using Screaming Frog to evaluate the likelihood that your competitors or other site owners may have disavowed a site.

It's also worth checking out LinkRisk, a tool from Paul Madden, which allows sites to analyse the level of risk in their backlink profiles.  

David Moth

Published 16 April, 2013 by David Moth

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

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Comments (6)

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David Quaid

For academic purposes:

Could it be argued that "Brighton SEO" is a bad link (not withstanding that this site is generally 'nofollow')

over 5 years ago

Steve Morgan

Steve Morgan, Freelance SEO Consultant at Morgan Online Marketing

Good article. At the end of the day, a lot of it is common sense. How would a natural site (that didn't need to do SEO) get links? What would those links look like? Think about someone like Wikipedia, who have an insane number of links but (probably) haven't ever 'built' one on purpose.

The good way to determine a good or bad link is this: would you be proud or ashamed to show it to a friend? A relative? Your grandmother? Your boss?!

David - What's the problem with that link, given that the actual name of the conference itself is "Brighton SEO"?

over 5 years ago

Andy Williams

Andy Williams, Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai

I think most of us have been in the industry long enough now to know if we were building a link that may possibly be detrimental to the site we were working with.

Let's face it, anyone who has been keeping to the guidelines since the year dot will have nothing to worry about, even in the current climate.

over 5 years ago


Johan Johansson

Great article. Something to think about when removing or disavowing links is that, even if Google doesn't presently consider an inlink to be dodgy, they may do so in the future. So even if it's passing juice right now, this may change in the next month, or year. Our policy has been to look at objective metrics, in addition to the subjective metrics mentioned above by Steve Morgan.

over 5 years ago



I was emailed by an SEO specialist saying that they would provide a link to me from 2 sites which were both a PR3. At first I was thinking great, however I did a check on the age of the domains and they were both 18 days old.

Would this be classed as a no go as to build that PR would surely take some time right?

Thanks Mike

about 5 years ago

David Moth

David Moth, Managing Editor at Barclaycard

@Mike, though I'm by no means an SEO expert, I don't think it's possible to legitimately build up your PR in just 18 days. Sounds dodgy to me!

about 5 years ago

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