Toxic Backlinks: Break Free of These Toxic Relationships

Feb 20, 2024It Depends - An SEO Podcast, SEO

The topic of toxic backlinks has become a contentious issue. Google’s John Mueller recently addressed this topic on Reddit, responding to a user’s concern over a SEMRush warning about lost traffic due to toxic backlinks. His statement that disavowing these links would not lead to traffic recovery has reignited the debate on the efficacy and necessity of the disavow tool. 

Background: Understanding Toxic Backlinks

Toxic backlinks, a term popularized by the SEO industry, refer to links created with the intention of manipulating search engine rankings. These links emerged as a significant concern following Google’s Penguin, Linkspam Updates, and Manual Actions, all aimed at penalizing sites that attempted to game the system through link building. Tools like SEMRush and Moz have developed metrics to identify what they consider harmful links, advising users to disavow them through Google’s Link Disavow Tool.

The Skepticism Around SEO Tools

Most SEO tools are unreliable when it comes to trully identifying concerning – or  “toxic” – backlinks. They often base their analysis on patterns such as anchor text or the domain authority of the linking sites, which does not necessarily correlate with Google’s evaluation of links. Consequently, there is a growing concern that disavowing links based on these tools’ reports could be futile or, worse, detrimental to a site’s ranking.

The Risks of Disavowing Links

Disavowing links is is highly risky. The link disavow option is something that multiple tools give open, easy access to and with little caution. Well meanig marketers, business owners and other non-SEO professionals may use these tools to disavove good links without realizing it and then in turn reducing the trust in their site. There is a place and time for disavoving links; however, this is a very risky choice and should be the last option when looking at traffic recovery or optimization. 

Google’s Stance on Toxic Links

John Mueller’s comments are not new; Google has consistently advised against the blind use of toxic link reports. These reports can lead website owners to make decisions that might not be in their best interest, possibly leading to worse outcomes than if no action had been taken. The advice from Google is clear: only disavow links if there is undeniable evidence of a penalty or manual action due to violating Google’s web spam policies.

Link Toxicity Report in SEMRush - High Link Toxicity

Toxic Backlinks: It Depends – Episode 11

In this episode, Jay and Lindsie discuss toxic backlinks and the risks associated with disavowing links based on reports from SEO tools. They highlight the background of toxic backlinks and how they are identified by tools like SEMrush and Moz. The conversation emphasizes the importance of caution when using these reports and the potential negative impact of disavowing links without proper understanding. They also discuss John Mueller’s statements on disavowing links and provide guidance on when it may be necessary to disavow links. The episode concludes with a reminder to critically evaluate the information provided by SEO tools and make informed decisions based on reliable sources.


  • Toxic backlinks are links that were built to manipulate Google’s ranking systems and are identified by SEO tools as potentially harmful to a website’s SEO.
  • Reports from SEO tools like SEMrush and Moz that identify toxic backlinks should be approached with caution, as the data may not accurately reflect the impact of these links on a website’s rankings.
  • Disavowing links without proper understanding and guidance can lead to negative consequences, including a drop in organic traffic.
  • The disavow tool should only be used in specific cases, such as when a website has received a manual action penalty from Google for violating link spam policies.


Jay (00:01.517)

Hey Lindsay.


Lindsie (00:02.958)

Hey, J, are you ready for episode 11 of It Depends the SEO Podcast?


Jay (00:10.733)

I think so. We’re talking about something that really grinds my gears today. Back links and toxic backlinks to be specific.


Lindsie (00:11.886)

Ha ha.


Lindsie (00:19.374)

toxic backlinks. Yeah, so we’re ready to like yell into our microphone about all the bad things happening in the world of backlinks. So let’s give a little bit of background before we get too angry about things. So Google’s John Mueller recently came out and said that disavowing toxic backlinks will not lead to traffic recovery and are just not a good thing overall. And there’s this kind of Reddit


post back and forth, let’s walk through this first before we talk about what toxic backlinks are, why we’re talking about this, and really what we should be doing. So.


Jay (01:00.843)

Yeah. So let’s do a little dramatic reenactment of this Reddit exchange.


Lindsie (01:03.598)

We’re gonna do a dramatic. Perfect, I am gonna be the IntelligentSalary86, the person who’s concerned. I’m very concerned. So Semrush shows toxic backlinks. So the Semrush pops a sudden warning about our site. 61 .8 % or 8 % of traffic has been lost over the last six months. 876 high toxic backlinks, 750 potentially toxic.


1 .7K okay links. The drop in organic traffic is true and we don’t know why. There is some vulnerability with our WordPress plugins which led to spam links. We updated the plugins months ago. I did find John Mueller saying Google would automatically discount harmful links. Should we be disavowing to get our rankings back? Please help.


Jay (01:57.257)

and John Mueller posts same day in response, you’re not going to get back your rankings by following some rushes report or disavowing those links.


Lindsie (02:07.758)

and that was literally it. And then Intelligent Salary responded, John, we disavowed without knowing and traffic tanked 60%. We deleted the disavow and have waited two months since recovery. So, was not good for them. Didn’t fix anything, probably made it worse.


Jay (02:29.095)

Yeah. So to be clear, if we’re following all this right over the last six months, this use Reddit user had a website that lost over half of its traffic, 61 .8%. No, no idea why. And some rush said, you know, these toxic backlinks are at least a piece of, of why they disavowed a bunch of links at some rushes suggestion and then further lost 60 % more traffic.


So they’re, they’re down like 80 % total traffic from where they started and we’re just in a terrible spot.


Lindsie (03:02.926)

big losses.


Lindsie (03:07.756)

Mm -hmm. So it’s funny, we’re having a whole conversation about, you know, one line from John here from Google. But why does this matter? What are toxic backlinks? Why are we even talking about this?


Jay (03:26.629)

Yeah. And toxic backlinks is one of those things invented by the SEO tool industry. And then it has further spread into the lexicon of just like everyday use. And it’s been kind of like people just wielded into existence essentially. So it’s a, it’s a term to identify links that were built to manipulate Google’s ranking systems. So essentially it’s a warning that.


Lindsie (03:44.558)

it exists.


Jay (03:55.652)

these links could end up being harmful to your site, to your overall SEO. This came out as a response to Google updates that were targeting link building like Penguin, the link spam updates and manual actions. So the idea being people do things for link building that violates Google’s policies. It gets them better rankings in a lot of cases. Google tries to crack down on that. And we’re trying to identify which of the links


pointing to your site are the ones that are going to get you those penalties or downgrades and rankings or whatever it might be.


Lindsie (04:32.398)

Yeah, the dangerous stuff, that kind of black hat territory that you may hear talked about is like all of those buying backlinks and the bad stuff that can happen. So, but what we’re talking about here is specifically reporting tools like SEMrush saying you have a high amount of toxic backlinks and you should do something with them. So talk to me about…


like why this is happening and why this matters that these tools are telling us to be concerned.


Jay (05:07.074)

Yeah. So a little more background on the, how it works. SEMrush and Moz are the big players here where they, like other backlink tools have a scoring system for how valuable a link might be, um, from, you know, zero to 100 or whatever it might be, but they take the extra step of saying these links are bad and they identify them as.


you know, toxic or negative or whatever it might be. I forget what Maz’s terminology is, sorry. But they’re essentially, you know, again, specifically calling out links that they think are in violation of Google’s policies and they’re going to hurt your site. And they want you to take the step of disavowing those links through Google so that rank is no longer passed. Google stops considering those links for its ranking systems. And,


That’s a, we’ll get into it more, but that’s a really scary step to take and kind of a bold proclamation given that, you know, you don’t have to like pass a test to use these tools to say that, like, you really understand SEO. Anyone can pay $100 a month or whatever it is and sign up and do this. So, yeah, you asked like why this matters. I think there’s a big question of, is this information even real?


Lindsie (06:19.694)

Go and do this.


Lindsie (06:24.142)

Mm -hmm.


Jay (06:34.431)

I mean, it’s, it’s pretty subjectively, uh, it’s pretty subjectively spelled out, especially from the standpoint that Google is really against like manually built links. They don’t want links that you have paid for. They don’t want links that you’ve put on other websites you’ve owned specifically for the purpose of growing page rank and these sorts of things. And these tools don’t know what links fit that criteria. They just know which links fit.


Lindsie (06:47.244)

Mm -hmm.


Jay (07:04.031)

certain patterns of, you know, spammyness or whatever you want to call it. And because of that, there’s no connection between links identified in these tools as spammy and your actual like site rankings. They’re just a collection of links that fit some pattern again. And there’s also no way that Google knows or there’s no way that they know like what


Google is considering for rankings. They’re again, just making assumptions like the rest of us in the SEO world. So it’s just kind of a correlation thing. You know, here’s a bunch of links that might be spammy and you should disavow them because of that. Cause your site might fall off a cliff in terms of traffic. And it’s, I don’t know. It’s kind of, it’s kind of scary, especially in the sense that like, again, anybody can use these.


Lindsie (07:35.694)



Jay (08:01.151)

And the data is, is really suspect in a lot of cases, like right before we started recording, I did this for a site of mine, a blog that’s been around for a while. And I have done zero link building ever, not even like built social media profiles. Uh, but people link to it because it’s a website that exists and has stuff that people decided to link to. And it said, I have a high toxicity score.


because 8 .7 % of backlinks are toxic and 10 % are potentially toxic. So 81 % of my backlinks are good, but that’s apparently not enough. Yeah.


Lindsie (08:42.51)

Well, and those words are so scary. Yeah, and I think that the terminology used here is just so sensationalized where it’s like, I mean, you say toxic. It’s like, this could kill me, right? Like you don’t drink something that is labeled toxic. You don’t want your site, your business associated with something toxic. But like, like you were just saying, I mean, most of a large majority of any of the links that exist to your site are good. So now,


we’re just saying like all is bad or we should go through and clean up anything that could maybe be toxic according to these tools.


Jay (09:23.391)

Yeah, well, and I’ll see if we can put a link to a screenshot in the show notes. I’m sure that’s possible, but even the, the graphic that they show for this. So the word high is in dark red letters and extra large font compared to everything else. And then there’s this chart where it has like three sections to it in a bar, red, orange, and green.


And the red is your toxic links. And again, I said 8 .7 % of the links are toxic according to this, but the bar is in three equal parts. So it looks like a third of my links are toxic, just based on the graphic, which is terrifying. And then they do a little cute thing where there’s a line to show that the green bar would go a lot bigger, but we cut it off to make things fit and, you know, emphasize all of the negative. So like, this is a thing you can, you can run like a version of this for free.


And get scared into signing up and then going through this process. Um, but again, so I said, I’ve never built any links for this site. It’s not a site that does anything commercial. There’s nobody doing negative SEO against it, all that sort of stuff. The links that they claim are toxic. Uh, one of them that gets repeated a few times is there was like a new product announcement that I wrote a blog post about and.


apparently ranked high in image results. So when other websites were like doing their version of this product announcement, they just like copied the source to that image on my site and linked to it. And they’re saying that because it’s like low quality domains that are linking to me, you know, via this image that they just stole from Google image search, uh, that that’s a reason that this is toxic. And because the.


Lindsie (11:13.582)



Jay (11:18.239)

file name of the image was the name of the product. They’re saying that it has spammy anchor text. Come on. Like, like I get that they’re running some automated reports, but again, in the hands of someone that doesn’t really know SEO, they’re going to do a disavow and probably end up like our friend IntelligentSalary86 with a big traffic loss.


Lindsie (11:43.342)

Yeah, and I think to re -emphasize, so, I mean, there is concern that this information is so accessible, but I think the concern is less that the information is there, or even how it’s being portrayed, even though it’s very confusing and probably misrepresenting a lot of the information that it’s showing in these results. But the big concern here is that disavow tool. Let’s talk a little bit more about what that means and what…


that allows you to do whereas the concern with that disavow specifically.


Jay (12:20.255)

Yeah. So the disavow tool has been around for a while, like a decade maybe, but I remember when it came out, all the SEOs I know were terrified of it. And it’s because Google made a bunch of statements like, don’t use this tool unless you really know what you’re doing. You know, it can cause more harm than good and it should only be used, you know, with the guidance of a professional.


you know, when you know that there is a link spam problem that needs to be corrected. So again, we mentioned this a bit, but it’s a tool where you can take links to your site, put them in this tool. Uh, and Google will, they claim they will stop passing rank through these rank through these links or stop considering them for ranking systems. However, whatever wording is more accurate and how Google would describe it. So.


If you have toxic links, you could put a list of those toxic links in the disavow tool and those links will still exist, but Google won’t have them hurt your site anymore. You know, and this is, yeah, this is all built on the assumption that these links actually are toxic and that they actually are hurting you. So again, it’s something.


Lindsie (13:32.238)

kind of ignore them.


Lindsie (13:41.07)

Right? Well, and I’ll say too, just to add on to that piece, like you read through the guidelines of these tools like SEMrush and after many, many words and lots of sections, it does say in bold, take extreme caution before disavowing links. Like much after you would probably stop reading, there is a extreme caution. Do not do this unless you know what you’re doing.


Jay (14:11.839)

Yeah, yeah. It’s like at the end of a 10 ,000 word article about their toxic backlink tool or their link audit. But yeah, if you find yourself on the page I was on where, you know, it’s like the, the landing page for backlink audits, you put your site in and it looks like a third of your links are toxic. You know, you go to those links and you can, um, just check a little box next to each link.


Lindsie (14:33.582)

Mm -hmm.


Jay (14:41.759)

And there’s a button to make a disavow list. Like they make it easy as possible for you to do it. And just based on the fact that like, they, they just have this simple stop, simple process of like, add them to the disavow tab, export a file and upload to Google’s disavow tool. No warnings. Just go ahead and do it. It’ll be fine.


Lindsie (15:03.022)

Yeah, just do it. So in terms of the, okay, so the risk here is the actual disavowing of links. And why is that a risk? Why would we not want to disavow links that are potentially not toxic or potentially not harming your site? Why did that site, as we referenced at the beginning, lose 60 % of their traffic through this disavow?


process? What are we doing? What are we signaling to Google when we do that?


Jay (15:36.127)

I mean, being nuanced guy for a moment, but I mean, I think there is a risk in just like wasting time and money on exploring the links that are in these tools. But yeah, the, again, the assumption is that these links were hurting you when, you know, you build this disavow list and all of a sudden you have a bunch of links no longer passing rank and oh, it turns out those links were probably helping you. And now they’re.


not there anymore. So it’s something where, you know, used in the wrong hands, you take something that was helping you from an SEO standpoint, tell Google to just ignore it going forward. And now you see a drop off in traffic. You know, there there’s like maybe borderline conspiracy theories out there that you put stuff in there and it and Google will like audit your site a little bit different or start looking at things a little bit differently. And that could hurt you too. I don’t.


I mean, if anything, just at face value, again, if I took the links that have come up in my most recent audit and every time I’ve done this, based on my knowledge of how those links came to be, you know, if I got rid of them, I would expect my organic traffic to drop because every time I look at a toxic backlink report, I see links that were built naturally.


by just some other website owner needing a reference to a thing and then linking to where they found that reference. Not somebody doing a link exchange, not someone paying for a link, not a private blog network, none of this stuff. It’s just a link appeared and it happened to be on a low quality site or they happen to use good anchor text or whatever. So yeah, if those links went away, I would expect rankings to drop. And that’s what’s happening here.


Lindsie (17:09.518)

Which is great.


Lindsie (17:31.31)

That’s at the base level. So is this new information that John is sharing here? Is this changing anybody’s mind in the world of SEO?


Jay (17:43.881)

I, it’s not new information for sure. And you can find, you know, John over the years making statements about don’t use the disavow tool. Don’t, I mean, he specifically calls out SEMrush’s toxic backlink reports a number of times over the years as being like a source of frustration and something that can lead to negative results for website owners and SEOs. And back when the disavow tool came out,


You know, Google urged a ton of caution and restraint in using it. Um, and you know, some Russian Maz have kind of tried to make it a thing to just like use on a whim.


Lindsie (18:27.31)

Yeah, not great. Let’s just not do that. So do we, should we never disavow links? Is that what we’re saying here? Or are there circumstances, again, with I think professional guidance, that you would want to in fact disavow links?


Jay (18:50.535)

So caveat over the last several years, I have avoided dealing with manual action removal and link spam penalty cleanup and that sort of thing, because it just is a miserable process. But every time I’ve done it in the past and everything I’ve seen from other folks in the SEO community more recently seems to be nothing has really changed over the years in this process in that if your site is


violating Google’s link spam policies to the point where you get penalized for it, and especially the point where you get a manual action penalty for it, Google wants those links to not exist anymore. That is going to be the number one criteria in getting that manual action removed is not just that you tell Google to ignore those links, it’s just that those links flat out are gone, which means you have to…


Work with owners of websites and link networks and whatever it is to like make those links disappear somehow. And only after you have gone through an exhaustive process, if there’s stuff that is left over that you are confident is a factor in your penalty, you disavow what, what you can’t get removed. And that will take care of things. I have personal experience with attempting to bypass that.


that link removal process and go straight to a disavow. And the folks at Google say, nope, manual action is still there. Go back and try again. So there, yeah, if there’s like an algorithmic penalty, like, you know, when they do link spam updates and things like that, I think disavow can be part of the recovery process and maybe a prominent part of the recovery process. Manual action,


Lindsie (20:29.422)

Not good enough.




Jay (20:49.249)

again it’s kind of like last resort and you need to show your work before going to it but if you don’t have some sudden moment of drop where you know Google has like done an update or applied a manual action or something has happened where it has identified your links as being an issue and appropriately lowered your rankings then


You probably have some other issue. And from the sound of things with this original Reddit story is one of these deals where like over the course of six months traffic trended downward and backlinks, you know, like backlinks negatively impacting the site. It’s almost never represented like that. It’s, it’s always like a moment in time, something gets noticed and flagged and you drop. So.


You know, this, this poor user that just compounded their woes by disavowing, they, they probably had some other issue like increased competition or, you know, they mentioned some issues with WordPress plugins. There could have been other site experience issues. Who knows? But links were probably not their issue. And for cases like this where either you don’t know, or it doesn’t look


Lindsie (22:03.662)

Mm -hmm.


Jay (22:16.161)

like a traditional link issue, disavow is not your solution.


Lindsie (22:20.75)

Just don’t do it. So I guess the high level here, these reports exist. Be highly cautious when looking at them in these tools. If there is a concern, getting a second opinion probably from somebody that is used to looking at these and can dig a little bit further into what your core issue is likely, then that is probably the best.


course of action rather than just going in and disavowing links. That should be ultimately your last solution for really any problem. Just don’t do it is kind of what I’m hearing here is like unless you are in the worst of places and there have everything else has been exhausted, right? Then maybe we go to this type of solution. But in very few cases, is this a


good idea. If anything, this is a highly, highly risky idea and one that won’t give you any benefit in the long term.


Jay (23:28.96)

Yeah. I mean, if you, if you’re considering using the disavow tool and you seriously have a reason to use it, you know why. Like, you know, you were building a bunch of links and buying a bunch of links and it was great for a while. And then, you know, it stopped working out and now you’ve got to just like get back on track. But if, if you don’t have that history, if it’s not like,


Lindsie (23:39.372)

Mm -hmm.


Jay (23:57.44)

Yeah, I know what I was doing and Google’s mad at me now or I got caught or however you want to frame it. If it’s like, I think this will be the solution to my problem, but I’m not sure how that problem happened. Just run, run away. Disavow is not for you.


Lindsie (24:12.398)

Mm -hmm. Just don’t. Just don’t. It is not good. Don’t use it. Especially, yeah, like you said, if you don’t know exactly the reason you’re using it, just don’t. Just don’t. It’s not the answer. All right. Any final thoughts about our poor Reddit user and or the disavow and toxic backlinks in our favorite tools?


Jay (24:42.08)

Oh, I mean, yeah, just, just remember these SEO software tools. Like they have plenty of benefits, but they’re also businesses trying to make money. And this is a sales tactic. Like you have toxic links that are going to ruin your site. That’s a great way to get people to sign up because they want to fix that problem. But it, you know, that’s a whole different story than Google telling you that they’re.


that Google has a problem with your links. So just remember that like, this is not like a medical diagnosis. This is not something that they have firsthand knowledge of. This is a report they put together and they’re trying to make money off of it. So take it at face value, please.


Lindsie (25:31.95)

Yeah. And I will say too, this is not saying that there aren’t any value to these tools as a whole. We use SEMrush. It is something we use kind of every day for research and information. But it’s all about how you use that data and what decisions you make based on the information these tools give you. In our show notes, we do have a number of resources for the information.


that we discussed in reference today. So definitely take a look there and see kind of where we’re getting our information outside of just our personal experience. And I think we’ll call it a day on toxic backlinks and we’ll chat again for episode 12, Jay.


Jay (26:19.322)

Sounds great. Have a good one, Lindsey. Bye.


Lindsie (26:20.686)

Alright, bye.

SEO Content Optimization: 3 Easy Steps to Get You Organic Visibility!

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves a wide variety of tactics for web owners and marketers to elevate their organic presence. One of the most common and most important SEO tactics is SEO Content Optimization. Most folks know that their content needs to be ideal...

Google SGE is Here – Sort Of

Listen to the experts discuss.

Google’s March 2024 Update

Listen to the experts discuss.

Traffic and Conversions: The Path to the Greatest ROI

Table of Contents Importance of Combining SEO & CRO Strategies Alignment of Search Algorithms with UX CRO Tools to Use to Boost Conversion & SEO Creating Quality Content that Serves Both SEO and CRO User Intent and Its Role in SEO/CRO Alignment On-page...

5 SEO Quick Wins You Can Do In 2024

SEO is complex. Understand the basics and empower yourself to improve your own site today.

Google Search’s Spam Problem

Listen to the experts discuss.

Going International: SEO Strategies for a Global Audience

Table of Contents What is Multilingual SEO? Defining Your Multilingual Strategy Content & Language Dexterity Technical SEO Considerations Businesses grow and expand and in many cases that means international expansion. Selling, shipping and understanding international...

SEO Integration: How SEO Impacts Other Marketing Channels

Digital marketing is more important than ever now that everyone is staying at home. Learn how SEO can be incorporated into other marketing channels and boost your business!

Google’s Third-Party Cookie Phase-Out

Listen to the experts discuss.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want to learn even more cool stuff? Lindsie Nelson can help!

Reach out today! We’re happy to help talk more about whatever search marketing issue is keeping you up at night.