Search engines are built on a simple principle: Provide the most relevant and high-quality web pages in response to user queries. Search engines assess your website content to determine relevance and quality. They rely on various signals, one of the most important of which is backlinks.
A backlink—an inbound link to your webpage from another source—is like a vote of confidence from another website. An internal link, one from one part of your website to another, is also sometimes called a backlink. These are generally good; backlinks from high-quality sites optimize your site for search engines. But backlinks from spam sites—or a profile of backlinks making it look like you’re trying to game the system—hurt your website’s search engine optimization and credibility.
What is a backlink?
A backlink is a link to your site from another site. Sometimes, internal links are also called backlinks. Backlinks that come from external websites can enhance a site’s domain authority and search engine rankings.
Backlinks matter because they serve as a reference from one webpage to another, endorsing the linked-to site as relevant and worth reading. This can influence a site’s ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs) based on the quantity and quality of links pointing to it from external sources.
When SEO professionals refer to a backlink profile, they’re talking about the complete set of backlinks to any page on a site’s entire domain (i.e., website). Shopify’s backlink profile, for example, includes backlinks to this page, Shopify’s homepage, this About page, and every other live page on its domain. (However, because the links in the previous sentence link to Shopify pages from a Shopify page, they do not count as backlinks.)
Backlinks can originate from any corner of the web, yet search engines commonly disregard sources such as social media platforms, search engine results, and forums when assessing backlink profiles. These types of backlinks are excluded due to the user-generated nature of the content on social media and forums and the algorithmic generation of content in search engine results—i.e., they don’t genuinely reflect an endorsement from the actual website owners.
What makes a bad backlink?
Search engines review backlink profiles to understand a site’s quality. Any backlink that suggests to search engines your site is untrustworthy can be considered a bad backlink.
A bad backlink is like being recommended by someone who has a bad reputation. On the web, these tend to be links from low-quality, spammy, or irrelevant sources, such as link farms, low-authority websites, and sites with unrelated content.
Note your understanding of “untrustworthy” may differ from a search engine’s. Search engines assess quality and trustworthiness separately, and your subjective assessment of a site’s quality or trustworthiness may differ from Google’s. And just because an article is poorly written or has ads you find annoying doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrustworthy.
Types of bad backlinks
Suspicious backlinks typically originate with one of the following types of sites. Consider these possibilities when looking for signs a domain is untrustworthy:
The site is from a content farm
If a site’s content appears to be built explicitly for search engines instead of human users, it may be untrustworthy. Nonsensical sentences, major UX issues like overlapping page elements, or a mix of content about various unrelated subjects characterizes content from content farms.
The site is selling backlinks
If a site’s backlink to your site looks like it’s trying to get a marketer’s or site owner’s attention—often with an SEO focus or outlandish claim—it’s likely not legitimate. For example, the URL might be something like “get-free-backlinks-now.com” or the link text says something like “Rank #1 in Google tomorrow—get a free sample link!”
How to review your backlink profile for untrustworthy domains
There are a few ways to check your backlink profile for untrustworthy domains:
Google Search Console
Google Search Console provides a free, simple report of your most notable backlinks in its “Links” section. This is a great starting point for understanding your backlink profile, but it tends to miss links and doesn’t say how helpful or harmful the links are.
Google Analytics Referral traffic report
The Google Analytics Referral traffic report shows all the backlinks driving traffic to your site to help you understand if your backlinks lead to more visitors. However, it’s limited to links that drive traffic and can miss backlinks people aren’t clicking (which still have SEO benefits). It does not provide any additional backlink analysis, such as the relative authority of the backlinks.
Third-party SEO tools
Third-party SEO tools provide more comprehensive backlink profile reviews. The analysis for these tools are proprietary and Google has stated they don’t use the same methods that these platforms do. The most popular tools today are Moz, Ahrefs, and Semrush. Semrush provides a “toxicity score” for each backlink to determine whether a bad link may harm your profile.
When should you disavow backlinks?
Bad links aren’t as much of an SEO issue now as they were several years ago. Google’s algorithm has reduced how much it penalizes sites with bad backlinks, recognizing receiving them is not always within a website’s control. If you see bad backlinks to your website, don’t panic. In most cases, they don’t hurt your performance as much as good backlinks improve it.
Here are some situations when you might consider disavowing backlinks:
If your site has received a manual action
If Google suspects your site is performing black hat SEO practices, such as building spammy backlinks, it can apply a direct penalty to your site, called a manual action. (Link-specific manual actions are referred to as manual link penalties.) A manual action immediately affects your search rankings and, thereby, traffic. If you’ve registered your site for Google Search Console, you will receive an email if you receive a manual action (you can also find it in the manual action tab of your Google Search Console). If this happens, consider disavowing bad backlinks as part of your remedy.
If you are sure someone has committed black hat or negative SEO on your site
If you’re taking a site over from a previous site owner and discover they committed black hat SEO, such as running a pay-per-link campaign, private blog network (PBN), or comment spam, review the backlinks they created and disavow the bad links. Consider this, too, if you suspect a negative SEO attack (someone else buying bad backlinks to your site to hurt your site’s rankings).
How to disavow backlinks to your website
Disavowing links is a signal you send to search engines. Here’s how to disavow backlinks on the top two: Google (which has a 92% search engine market share worldwide) and Bing (with around 3% market share).
Disavowing backlinks on Google
To disavow backlinks on Google:
1. Create a list of URLs that link to your site to disavow. The file must be a .txt file and contain one URL per line, e.g.:
You can also disavow any page on a domain using a “domain:” modifier, like this:
Third-party tools, like SEMrush, can also generate this file through their backlink audit tools.
2. Go to the Google Search Console’s disavow tool and select your site. (You must have Google Search Console set up to use this).
3. Upload the disavow file. Review the error report in case your file contains errors.
Disavowing backlinks on Bing
To disavow backlinks on Bing:
1. Log into Bing Webmaster Tools.
2. Go to SEO > Backlinks.
3. Click on the “Disavow Links” option.
4. Submit the URLs you want to disavow. You can submit up to 100 at a time.
How to disavow backlinks FAQ
Does Google ignore bad backlinks?
Yes, Google generally ignores individual bad backlinks when assessing a backlink profile. However, if Google sees a pattern of repeated bad backlink creation and interprets it as a black hat SEO tactic, it factors this into the site’s quality, potentially hurting its SERP rankings.
Can backlinks hurt SEO?
Typically, backlinks are good for SEO. But yes, backlinks that make your site seem untrustworthy or unauthoritative can negatively impact your site’s SEO.
Are there any risks involved in disavowing backlinks?
Non-spam backlinks are good for your SEO. They indicate that another site trusted your content enough to link to you, improving your site's overall perceived quality. Disavowing a non-spammy link risks hurting your overall SEO performance by eliminating a valuable trust signal. Only disavow backlinks you’re sure about.
Can you disavow backlinks from any search engine, or is it limited to specific ones?
The world’s two most common search engines, Google and Bing, let you disavow backlinks. However, disavowing backlinks is not available on all search engines. For example, there is no way to disavow links on Yandex.
How long does it take for disavowed backlinks to be removed from search engine rankings?
A disavowed backlink is immediately effective. However, disavowing a backlink doesn’t remove your page or the page that is linked to you from search engine rankings. It only tells the search engine that you no longer wish to be associated with this site.