27 Actionable Checks

Identify Bad Links

Build Good Links

Maintain Natural Patterns

Feel More Empowered

Safely Disavow Webspam



Checklist

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OK | NOT Check Findings

Are there bad link patterns?

Search for the site in Ahrefs Site Explorer, with "include subdomains" selected.

We'll use this data for the next many checks.

Start compiling a spreadsheet of all bad links, which we'll disavow at the end.

Ahrefs is recommended because they have the largest pool of backlink data. Majestic or Moz also work, but provide less data. All other tools use one of these sources; usually Majestic or Moz.

Are there sudden gains in referring domains? Are there sudden gains in referring domains?

On the timeline of referring domains in the Overview section, are there apparently instant spikes greater than 5% upwards?

If so, review links acquired in that date range under Linking Domains > New.

For each, ask: is there a reason for these links that can be related to real marketing?

If not, add to your list of bad links. Log an issue for each until a disavow is approved (we'll cover that at the end).

This is so effective at revealing spammy link schemes, Google has suggested that it works for them too.

Are there rapid drops in linking domains? Are there rapid drops in linking domains?

On the same graph as above, are there any apparently drops of greater than 5% of linking domains?

This is never a natural pattern for natural, editorially-acquired links. More detail.

IF RAPID LOSS:  Review Lost Links IF RAPID LOSS: Review Lost Links

If we identified a rapid loss of backlinks the next step is to dump a CSV of all lost links from the report: Linking Domains > Lost in Ahrefs.

Before marking this resolved, do three things:

  1. Verify that this sort of thing has ceased entirely (stop spamming).
  2. Look for patterns in these links that could help to identify more.
  3. Export a CSV of these problem links for disavow, as well as any others.

Why also disavow links that are already lost? Because Ahrefs and Google run completely different crawlers and databases. They'll be similar but never identical.

Long-Term Link Trend Long-Term Link Trend

Does the # of linking domains increase or decrease over a long time horizon?

Losing backlinks over time should be an obvious bad signal: be it a direct or indirect ranking factor. Mark any such trend as an issue and don't mark it resolved until we've reversed the flow of new linking domains.

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Does anchor text for a word or phrase exceed 10%?

This can be viewed lower on the Ahrefs Site Explorer dashboard. If so, it's extremely likely that the site is already being penalized in relation to the Penguin algorithm. More on this problem.

Very Low Authority Very Low Authority

Does the domain have low authority?

For this step, you may actually want to check Moz Open Site Explorer instead of Ahrefs (free for checking just one domain). Remember: Moz tracks less links, but their link metrics have been historically more sophisticated.

The level of authority needed to be competitive will vary based on ranking goals, but in general, a Domain Authority less than 50 will be a problem for almost any site.

Top Referring TLDs Top Referring TLDs

Are more than 25% of the referring sites on a TLD that isn't associated with our primary target country?

You can check this in the "Top Referring TLDs" report in Ahrefs (on the lower half of the Site Explorer dashboard). You want to see >50% of your backlinks from either a generic TLD, like .com or .org, or a ccTLD in the same country (like .ca for Canada).

Too many links from a different country than you are targeting may establish your site as only being relevant to that audience. Worse, in extreme instances, it may serve as a webspam signal.

Problem Links

Navigate to Backlinks on the left menu in Ahrefs, and filter by One Link Per Domain (top of page).

This will show us all linking domains to the site, as well as where on the site the links appeared. It also removes the clutter that we'd otherwise deal with from frequent/sitewide links on domains where we've already achieved links.

We'll use this information to perform the next many checks.

UGC Link Wheeling UGC Link Wheeling

Do any links have anchor text that is just completely unrelated/nonsensical?

Most commonly, this occurs when a portion of our site is being spammed/exploited, such as through a comments, user profiles, or a URL shortener feature. Black hat SEOs will then use this to build a larger link wheel whereby the spam more black hat links from other sites at those particular pages.

This is a very bad signal - these links should more often be disavowed, and any site features that were exploited to place the offending links should usually be removed.

Purchased Links Purchased Links

Do any links appear to both #1 purchased and #2 without the "nofollow" directive?

The most obvious indicator of such will be links that are literally positioned besides text that says "advertisers" or "sponsors".

That will be followed by links in a sidebar/footer that are there for no apparent reason.

WordPress Theme Links WordPress Theme Links

Are there any backlinks from sponsored WordPress themes?

You can recognize these as links in the footer of every page of a site, usually without any context outside of a "Designed by:" or "Theme sponsored by:" designation.

Private Network Links Private Network Links

Do any links appear to come a content farm?

You can spot a content farm by masses of low-quality posts, each littered with oddly-positioned anchor text backlinks to irrelevant home pages, on varying topics that are of no clear value to humans.

Generic Directories Generic Directories

Are there backlinks from generic web directories that approve all submissions?

The problem here is that these sites typically have little-to-no editorial discretion. That means you're sharing real estate besides all varieties black hat spam, porn, gambling, and so forth. This inevitably equates to what Google defines as a "bad neighborhood".

You can usually spot these as having a homepage of website categories, that beings "Arts & Humanities" and ends in "Zoology". Exception is made when there is:

1. Requirement of a certain niche (like the AllTop blog directory or address-verifying business directories)
2. Other editorial discretion - like DMOZ or the Yahoo! directory - which are somewhat diffcult to get into in spite of being generic

Free for all Links Free for all Links

Are there backlinks from free-for-all link sites?
These are very similar to generic directories, but will appear a bit differently. You can usually spot them by having names like "a1bestfreelinks.com" and other such sites.

What are their most linked to pages? What are their most linked to pages?

OSE: Top Pages tabMajestic: Pages tab
GWT: Traffic > Links to Your Site > Your most linked content

Does that coordinate with top  organic pages? Does that coordinate with top organic pages?

GA: Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic > Landing Page

Are there PBNs or microsite networks in play? Are there PBNs or microsite networks in play?

Do any links jump out to you as having a common origin, like somebody just created a private network of blogs (PBN) or miniature websites (microsites) that the all own? Or, maybe they paid somebody that runs one of these schemes. Here are some clues:

1. Do many such links have the same visual theme, URLs, or structure?
2. Do you see any strange patterns of anchor text?
3. Is the content simply terrible, as if not actually intended for humans (possibly machine-generated or "spun")?
4. Are there other links on these pages/sites that don't seem to fit the theme (possibly available for purchase by anybody)?

You'll have to use your own judgment and these schemes come in many forms. After you've spotted a few, though, they're usually not difficult to decipher.

Link Acquisition Practices

The next many checks pertain to tactical best practices to optimize the natural earning of backlinks.

These checks are critical for assuring that links are being earned at the maximum possible rate.

Social signals Social signals

Has the brand completed a recent tactical social media audit?
Social media provides a wide variety of benefits that directly lead to more backlinks. Fully optimizing a social media strategy is outside the scope of this particular audit, but it should be given serious thought in any well-rounded strategy. The benefits include:

1. Direct links from the social media sites
2. Relationships with influencers, who can link to your content
3. Relationships with brand advocates, who can link to your content
4. Greater syndication, timed scientifically for various audience segments
5. Mentions may provide more value than just standard links due to Google/Bing's ongoing experimentation with "social signals".

Linkable assets Linkable assets

Does the brand have adequate linkable assets?

Determine this by browsing their content for pieces that look to just be genuinely useful rather than being sales-centric. Hundreds of smaller assets (ie. ~500 word blog posts), or dozens of extremely dense pieces (5,000+ word skyscraper epics), are what we're looking for.

Skyscraper assets Skyscraper assets

Does the brand have any in-demand content pieces that just blow the competition out of the water?

Samples include Northcutt's Google Ranking Factors Fact Check and 27 SEO Myths posts. Such content can be used to attract links from really every source that ever linked to similar competing assets.

There are 5 more steps in this audit.


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