Webmasters everywhere are bracing for the latest update to Google’s search algorithm which is going to be tougher than ever when it comes to applying SEO penalties.  The worst part is that many site owners are totally innocent of any wrong-doing, but they still get hit by penalties anyway because most of the time the penalties are applied by robots without any human review.


That’s bad because it also means you won’t get any warning and the only clue will be a sudden drop in your inbound traffic.  But there’s no need to lose any sleep over the expected changes, provided you prepare yourself in advance.  In this article, we’ll give you all the information you need to be ready for the storm.


What are backlinks and how can they be toxic?

Backlinks are basically any inbound links to your site, originating from anywhere.  Sometimes you won’t even know that a site is linking to your content.  Ordinarily backlinks would be a good thing, but because they’ve been abused by many webmasters in an attempt to fool the search engines into giving a higher ranking than they deserve, Google is becoming more strict about the origins of your backlinks.


A backlink is toxic if it causes a Google robot or Google employee to believe it is not a “genuine” backlink.  Authentic backlinks occur when somebody likes your site and wants to recommend it (or sometimes also when somebody wants to make a criticsm about something on your site).  Backlinks can also occur when somebody cites some text or information from your site content, or even when a researcher includes a link to your site in a research paper.


Toxic backlinks are a problem because Google will give your site a penalty for those links, even if you never knew the link existed.  Getting the penalty removed can be a difficult task, because Google seems to always assume you are guilty until proven innocent.  Proving your innocence is always a tough challenge.


How Google Robots Decide if a Link is Toxic
Google likes to keep an air of mystery surrounding their algorithm, so getting really concrete details from Google is like pulling teeth from an alligator… you can do it, but not without incurring some pain in the process!


Even so, there are a few known “red flags’ that you’ll want to try and avoid when it comes to backlinks to your site:


  • Backlinks from sites that are completely unrelated to your content
  • Backlinks from known spam sites or domains that have been associated with spam
  • Backlinks from sites with a lot of plagiarized content
  • Backlinks from sites that have a lot of outbound links to a lot of different sites which don’t have any connection between them.


That’s just a taste, but in fact there are over 200 different things Google checks for and some of those are really super-secret.


Not All Penalties are Created Equal

Google has different kinds of penalties that can be applied to you, and the cure for each is different.  The first (and better) type of penalty is a manual penalty.  In this case it occurs where somebody who works for Google takes action against your site because they believe you have violated the rules by trying to force their robots to give your site a better ranking.


The second type of penalty is more stealthy and more annoying.  It is called an “algorithmic penalty” and is applied by a robot, without any human review.  These are the worst kind of penalty because nobody at Google is aware that the penalty exists, and in many cases neither will you until your site suddenly stops being listed or your traffic falls significantly.


The Detoxification Process

Getting rid of all your toxic backlinks is a very complex and time-consuming task, but also an essential one if you want to be certain you’re not being penalized.  The process varies depending on what type of penalty was applied to you.


If you are dealing with a manual penalty, you basically just need to grovel to Google and unless your violation was very serious, they’ll probably reverse the penalty after due consideration.  This does not mean you will be reinstated to your previous rank instantly because your competitors will have had a free ride while your site was in jail, and that will probably have cost you a lot of traffic and potential healthy backlinks your site may have earned.  Starting the process is as simple as submitting a request for reconsideration to Google, and then waiting.


If your site was subjected to an algorithmic penalty, however, you’re not going to resolve the issue simply.  It is going to take a long time and it is going to be very unpleasant.


In the case of an algorithmic penalty, you will need to follow these steps to resolve it:


  1. Discover all the backlinks to your site
    Before you can correct a toxic backlink, you have to know that it exists.  You need to track down every link to your site, and then evaluate their toxicity level.  If the site linking to you does not have content that relates to your content, it may have been flagged as a toxic backlink.  The biggest culprits are forum sites, because individual users could post links to other sites for all kinds of reasons.  A human observer would be able to figure out the relationship between your site and the apparently unrealted content, but a robot is not that smart.
  2. Contact the site owner and request for the link to be removed

This is the most painful part of the detox process, because sending emails to every site that is linking to you is a lot of work, and makes you seem like not a very nice person.  Not everyone you send a request to will comply, and there is nothing you can do to force their hand (it’s only illegal if they link to some part of your site that is not available to the general public, so legally there is nothing you can do).  Of course you should only be removing those backlinks you believe are toxic, not legitimate backlinks that you really need in order to preserve your high rank.

  1. Disavow backlinks that can’t be removed by direct request
    If for any reason your removal request is unsuccessful, your only remaining option will be to “disavow” the link using Google’s Disavow Tool.  This lets you tell Google that it’s not your fault those sites are linking to you.  But you should only use it after you’ve already made repeated manual requests for the link to be removed.
  2. Wait for Google to Respond
    Google could take days or months to respond to the actions you’ve taken to correct your toxic backlinks, and there’s actually nothing you can do to speed the process up.  All that you can do is wait and see what happens.  If nothing happens, you may have missed something, so do some more investigation and repeat the above steps until you’re sure there are no more bad links to your site.


In any case, it is a good idea to work with SEO professionals when trying to diagnose and correct SEO problems, because as you can see there is a lot of work involved, and none of it is any fun.  Once your backlinks are clean, keep them that way in future.