Backlink audit tools frequently frighten website owners with scary, cryptic and often unnecessary messages about Toxic backlinks. Here’s why you should probably ignore them.

I love SEMrush for many reasons and use the site all the time. However, if you have a “prject” site saved in the dashboard, their backlink audit tool sends out terrifying emails all the time. Here’s what they look like:

Backlink Audit evaluated your risk as – HIGH. We encourage you to review and get rid of all dangerous and suspicious backlinks ASAP. This will keep your SEO efforts safe from Google Penalty and save you a lot of time and money in the future.

As soon as webmasters see that they wonder what they need to do. Do they need to get rid of links? Where are they coming from? Are they hurting my rankings? Do I need to disavow these toxic links?

Where did we get this scary term, TOXIC links?

Toxic, by definition, means POISON.

Of course, nobody wants their website poisoned, infected, killed or destroyed.

So here’s what happened.

Google Penguin:
On April 24, 2012, Google rolled out the Google Penguin update. This update was meant to identify sites manipulating search results and penalize them. These days, Penguin is part of Google’s core algorithm. To get a site whacked by Penguin you had to REALLY misbehave. Common sites people abused were directory submission sites, article submission sites and random blogs which accepted guest posts and/or low quality content.

The disavow tool:
On October 16, 2012, Google released the disavow tool. Webmasters whacked with penalties began disavowing manipulative links to their site. If you can’t get the links removed yourself, you can submit a disavow file and Google will usually stop counting these links as backlinks to your site.

“Toxic links” are born!
In late 2012, backlink audit tools were born to help webmasters quickly analyze which links could be negatively impacting their site’s rankings. People began calling these links “toxic”.

Are links still toxic in 2019?

Nearly every time automated tools discover “toxic links”, the links are just junk.

  • Junk links are ignored by Google.
  • Google has ignored junk links for many years.
  • Junk links are not toxic.

Junk links are a normal part of the web.
Junk links are from pages scraping a little content, RSS feeds, websites which are “borrowing” an image from your website, a site that is stealing Pinterest content, YouTube scrapers, etc. The more of an Internet presence you have, the more junk links you will have. The vast majority of website owners have absolutely no clue what a junk link is, nor should they, and any modern search engine should, and does, ignore junk links.

Here are some of the tools which come up with “toxic links”:

  • Link Detox
  • SEMrush
  • Link Research Tools
  • Serpstat
  • Majestic
  • Monitor Backlinks
  • AHrefs
  • Moz

Of course, in some cases, these tools DO find actual bad links.

Adjusting Toxic Markers:

Out of the box, SEMrush’s default “toxic markers” may be too harsh for your liking. You can and should adjust these. However, if you haven’t been purchasing links from REALLY bad places around the web or under a negative SEO attack, these are often safe (for most people) to ignore.

The Toxic Markers section is full of cool filters and allows you to filter toxic link notifications.You can read more about it here.

Here’s a screenshot of the filters in place:

Should I Disavow “Toxic Links”?

So what do you do if you have less than wonderful links. Do you disavow them? Will disavowing them improve rankings? Will proactively disavowing junk links preserve currently good rankings?

It depends.

There are a variety of factors going into the decision of whether to disavow links or not.

Google ignores junk links. As stated above, this is common knowledge. Google ignores the web’s junk. They should ignore the web’s junk. They’re on record, repeatedly, stating that they ignore the web’s junk.

And, Google clearly states when to disavow:

In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most sites will not need to use this tool.

You should disavow backlinks only if:

1. You believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site,ย and

2. The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site.

That said….. Some of us in the industry will disavow links depending on the circumstances. If, after evaluating a site’s links, we think a disavow would improve rankings or preserve existing rankings, then, and only then will we disavow.

Of course, if a site has lost rankings and we think it indeed does have toxic links, we will disavow.

And of course, if a site has a manual action you’ll need to disavow.

Beware fake disavow success stories.

I’ve seen a lot of screenshots lately of people who have disavowed links and then suddenly had an increase in rankings. These are either fakes or the people are simply wrong. That’s because disavow files take time to get processed. And after they’re processed, inbound links aren’t ignored until Google recrawls the source pages. If the link source is a low quality site, it can easily take 3-6 months for that page to be recrawled.

Links are a quality factor.

That said, I have indeed disavowed links to a site in the past and had a positive impact approximately 4 months later. I have absolutely no way of knowing if the disavow helped, but, in that case, it certainly didn’t hurt.

I’m a firm believer that Google looks at site health as a whole. Links are often a piece of the puzzle.

If your links come from other sites which are known to accept articles for $50 or have outbound links to questionable sites you may want to consider them for disavowal. While many link acquisition tactics carry risk, many SEO agencies (even famous ones) still actively build fairly dangerous links.


It depends.

Ignore junk links.

There are only a handful of people out there good at disavowing potentially dangerous links and we all usually disagree on what should be disavowed.

Google Search Console and a manual review by someone who has been analyzing links for many years is far superior to any automated tool.

If you’re not sure, please feel free to email me. I can usually give you an unbiased opinion if I can take a glance at the referring domains. There’s a very good chance I’ll refer you to someone trustworthy as well as I’m at near max capacity and generally do not accept one-off projects. But I have analyzed links on everything from small business sites to sites with millions of links.


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