E32: Toxic Links and What to Do About Them

Inbound links are good for SEO, right? But are all links good? Can some be harmful? We discuss "toxic" links and how they could actually be damaging your SEO.

Michael Reynolds Welcome to the podcast, everybody. I'm trying to keep a straight face, because Allison is having a traumatic experience over there. [laughs] Are you okay?

Allison Gibbs Yes, I'm fine. I just had a little mishap with a microphone cord, and it had some tape residue on it, and it just was ugh.

MR [laughs] So the gaff tape holding the microphone cord on the table has some residue on the --

AG Yes.

MR -- cord and you touched that, and it felt gross, right?

AG It just was gross. And, as a parent, anytime I don't know what a substance is, or when you've touched something and you're not quite sure --

MR You just never know.

AG -- you just have that moment -- ugh.

MR You just never know.

AG So I had a moment. Thanks, guys, for letting me have the moment, and I think I will survive this one.

MR All right. Speaking of which, Allison, today we are talking about toxic links --

AG We are.

MR -- and what to do about them.

AG I kind of wish we had the Brittney Spears Toxic song playing in the background.

MR I don't think we're allowed to do that.

AG We aren't for copyright purposes, but just imagine it playing in the background right now, because that would be so -- it matches perfectly.

MR I am currently imagining it playing in the background.

AG [laughs] It matches perfectly.

MR So where do you want to start, Allison? Do you want to set things up, or do you want -- oh, okay. Defer to --

AG What do you -- yeah --

MR Okay. I'll set up the topic today. Toxic links. What we're going to talk about is what toxic links are and why they can damage your search engine rankings on your website and what to do about them.

So back up a little bit here. SEO is still this kind of weird, mysterious, black hole of stuff that people don't always understand. Search engine optimization, as you probably know, is the practice of getting your banking website listed high in Google or Bing -- I'll say Bing, because I know Allison is a fan of The Bing. Getting free Starbucks from Bing still, aren't you?

AG Yep. You know it.

MR [laughs] She has an account where if she uses Bing a certain number of times, she gets free Starbucks, apparently -- I don't know how that works, but anyway.

AG I just basically get points for the usage and then I exchange the points for gift cards --

MR There you go.

AG -- and I choose Starbucks.

MR It's all a mystery to me; I don’t know how it works, but anyway. So search engines -- obviously, if you want your site to be ranked well on search engines, there are things you can do to make that happen. That's search engine optimization. A lot of times, one of the techniques that can be beneficial in search engine optimization is getting high-quality inbound links; so things like editorial links from publications. In this case, it would be looking for links for, maybe, financial sites or financial publications that link to your banking website or articles that you've posted on your website. These can all be really beneficial inbound links. A lot of times we see a lot of organizations that will work with search engine optimization companies or digital agencies that do SEO, and they will do a lot of tactics around getting inbound links. This can be a good thing, right? Inbound links can be a good thing to help your search rankings.

AG They're a very good thing.

MR Yeah, if they're done --

AG Yes.

MR -- if they're good links. [laughs] So what we've seen, though, is there is sometimes a problem with the types of links you can get depending on how you approach it. And so, on more than one occasion, we have worked with prospective clients that have come to us with a problem. And the problem is they have seen their website traffic drop dramatically, sometimes, in many cases, specifically traffic from organic search. And a lot of times -- it can be a number of factors, but, a lot of times, as we do research and dig into the issue behind it, we find that they have what we call "toxic links" pointing to their website, and this is what is causing the dip in search rankings.

So the problem comes in to -- the problem occurs when you have links pointing to your website that are from thinks like link farms or sites that are just set up for the purpose of getting a link as if it is going to help your site, but, in reality, these inbound links can be very toxic to your search engine rankings. So what are some examples of -- Allison, what have you seen -- what are some of these sites, and how would you describe these sites that are set up to be just these link farms?

AG Yeah, so I think it's pretty self-explanatory if you use a little bit of common sense when you take a look at these, quote/unquote, "link farms." Often the domain is a little bit -- maybe seems a little bit sketchy --

MR I think you were making things up like "bizlinks.biz." [laughs]

AG -- yeah, I said "bizlinks.biz." But then I felt bad because there is somebody -- there is a company called BizLink, and they use bizlink.biz for their company. So basically -- you can tell it -- you can usually tell right off the bat. Basically, it's going to be a basic page. Generally speaking, it's not maintained very well, the design isn't updated, the structure isn't updated; so it's probably not responsive. There's probably not an SSL on it. It's very clear that the whole point of the site is strictly just to generate links and generate backlinks for other sites. And so Google has basically said and made the statement that that is not okay; that is not how we should be doing SEO. We should be doing SEO and backlinking from an editorial perspective. We need to make sure that we are, basically, maintaining the integrity of the internet, is how I -- or maintaining the integrity of the search engine.

MR So do you find -- the question I want to ask is do you see that, usually, if you're getting toxic links to your website, it's a result of a poorly executed SEO tactic, or do you see that you can randomly just get toxic links by just happening randomly, people just kind of link to you?

AG Yeah, so you can get random links. Anybody can link to your site. There's nobody saying --

MR Sure. But do you often see that toxic links occur without your intervention?

AG -- but -- they can occur, yes. But they will not occur at the volume that would necessarily make an entire -- that would take an entire dip on your overall organic search traffic. So one toxic backlink, yes, you should still do something about --

MR Probably not going to take your site out.

AG -- but it's not going to tank your analytics, and you might not even necessarily notice it if you're overall trending in either a fairly normal or upward position, you probably won't even notice it without any type of monitoring.

MR Yeah, usually it's these SEO companies that are pretending to do you a favor, and, in reality, they're just link farming. That's usually where it comes from.

AG Yeah. It is. And, honestly, in a lot of cases, I think the companies originally -- I think they mean well, and I just don't think they're adapting to the known algorithm updates, so --

MR Well, some of them know better. [laughs]

AG -- Some of them do know better.

MR You're being very forgiving.

AG I'm trying to give people the benefit of the doubt here.

MR You're so nice.

AG Which is -- usually, that's you.

MR Yeah, usually I'm nice, right?

AG Normally, I'm like don't give them any credit.

MR [laughs]

AG One that we've seen most recently, I want to say, they started working with a particular company, basically, 2011, 2012, time frame, and that process was still very viable, and it was something that was working -- you can go back and look at the analytics and it was very successful for them at one point in time, but then --

MR For a while.

AG -- yeah, for a while. But then you take a look at the analytics, and there are very clear points where you can go back and tie it to the different algorithm updates that are confirmed through Google, and you can see very drastic changes within the organic search traffic that comes to the site.

MR Well [indiscernible], and you were telling me before we started the show, actually, that you noticed a specific time when the Penguin update occurred, and you had some commentary on what happened at that point.

AG Oh, yeah. So in this particular case, Penguin is one of the -- I'm sure you've heard of Panda; you've heard of Penguin; they kind of have these fun little names for all their updates -- at one point, Penguin became baked into what's called the "core algorithm," or what's referenced as the core algorithm. So sometimes they'll make updates, and it'll be something that's kind of separate but it still works together, and it's kind of hard to explain, but it's kind of a very basic overview of it. So Penguin became baked into the core algorithm around the time frame of September 2016 -- mid- to end-September is probably when you see the biggest drop off -- and so what happened there is instead of necessarily -- and, now, this is Allison's commentary on this; so this is my interpretation -- but so basically instead of overall penalizing the site that has the bad back links -- so let's say it's our domain and we have toxic backlinks on other sites that are leading back to us -- instead of penalizing us and getting us out of the search engine results altogether, they took the stance of, basically, devaluing those backlinks from the other sites or from the low-quality sites. So that, in turn, obviously causes an indirect penalty to the user or to the --

MR Because you'll see a dip in traffic from that.

AG -- because you'll see a very big dip in traffic with that if you are employing any of these tactics. So the biggest, like I said, the biggest dip that you're probably going to see is probably December 2016 and then maybe even a dip towards the beginning of last year, of 2017, when it became very clear that SSL and responsive design on backlinks and whatnot, but that probably lowered the quality of the other -- lowered the value of the other sites anyway, so that -- you could have seen another dip then as well. Because I saw on this particular dashboard that I'm taking a look at right now, it basically -- we saw the same thing in January --

MR So here's the burning question.

AG -- a drop.

MR What do you do about it? If you have toxic backlinks pointing to your site as a result of, maybe, bad SEO advice or bad SEO strategy or something happened, what do you do about it?

AG Yeah, so you'll want to go through and you'll want to do what is called "disavowing the links." And there are a couple of different ways that you can do this. So you can go and -- there's all different pieces of software that you can go to and run reports on your site as far as backlinks go. You can do this straight within Google Search console. It is free. Regardless of if you use every single tool associated with it, I do think that it's a good thing to get set up within your organization, that way you have the data and you can start running the data. So Google Search Console. There's a way that you can go in, and you, basically, go into all of the links that link to your site. You can download a CSV, and you can see all of those links right there. And again, some of this is just applying common sense. In some cases, it'll be very clear as far as which ones are probably going to be toxic, because the domain's going to look, probably, a little wonky. If you click on the links, you might see that the site is probably not a site that you want your bank or credit union to be associated with. It's pretty common sense. Now, if you want to speed up the process, and if you're like me and you like really pretty charts and graphs, then I recommend taking a look at SEMrush's new backlink audit tool. It is in beta at this point in time. SEMrush is a piece of software. They do have a free version, and I haven't tried to see if this in the free version yet, because I've only been going through our paid version. Basically, it crawls your site or it crawls all of the links, the backlinks, to your site and gives you a very quick snapshot as far as how toxic the backlinks are, and it also breaks down into different percentages versus highly toxic, medium level of toxicity, and then low. And then from there, you can then prioritize based on their analysis, you can prioritize the high and the medium and you don't have to filter through hundreds or thousands of backlinks. Some banks and credit unions may have thousands upon thousands of backlinks --

MR It can happen.

AG -- to the site. A very good thing, yes. But this will help speed it up for you. And also, I'm operating under the assumption that most people are probably going to want to report this in some capacity. In my opinion, I think that the value that you get from having this report just be pretty easy for you to take a look at -- you can take a quick screenshot of it, pop it in your overall marketing report, and there you have it. You don't have to do any type of over-analysis with it or take any extra time. In my opinion, I think that the money spent on the software is definitely going to pay for itself in the amount of time that you save.

MR Yeah. I love this because this is -- I love -- you know, my mind is very practical, and I love action; so this is a very nice, actionable thing that you can fix.

AG And you can check that box. It's so easy to do it. And that's the thing -- yeah. I like to check boxes off. It's so easy.

MR It's probably included in our website audit kit. If not, we need to make sure we --

AG You know what? I don’t think it is, because this is a newer tool. This tool was just released within the last -- or at least, I had access to it within the last --

MR Well, let's update our kit to include --

AG -- So yeah. You're right.

MR -- this tactic.

AG Yes. We should update that for sure.

MR Yeah. Yeah, interesting. So you can do it through Search Console for free, but a little bit convoluted. Yeah, I like SEMrush as well. SEMrush is a great tool for, not only that but, other things. I've seen the little report where you can turn things green. It looks so satisfying.

AG It is so satisfying, and I will say that the last -- I've been working on it this week with a client, and we went through and made some pretty major changes at the start of the week, and so we saw that happy little graph move to the green, and it was excellent. And then at some point later in the link -- later in the week, another link has popped up that is potentially toxic that I don't think -- I know none of us probably were -- I don't think we were getting that. So it was found in some capacity, but we were able to go in quickly and disavow that so that way there was no penalty whatsoever. Now I will say that disavowing in Search Console, finding it can be difficult and --

MR It's a manual process, really.

AG -- it is a manual process. Basically, you will go into your Search Console portal and you'll, obviously, access the domain you're wanting to look at. If you are running multiple domains and microsites, you'll want to pick the appropriate domain. Then you'll go to Search Traffic and click Links to your site, and then you'll see a dashboard there and there's a category called Who links the most, click More, and then you can download, basically you can download some sample links there and take a look at it. So when I say that you can export a CSV, that's what we're referencing.

MR Yeah.

AG Then you take that CSV, and then you upload it to another piece of Search Console that is kind of difficult to find, basically, where you go to disavow the links. If you are having a difficult time finding how to do that, please feel free to reach out to us. Also, the - I just did a quick search for the disavow link -- how to disavow links in the help area in Google and found the link pretty quickly. I know that they are making improvements to Search Console finally, Google. Search Console kind of sat there for a hot minute and nobody paid attention to it, but now they are, thankfully. Thanks, Google. Probably because, I'm assuming, everybody's paying for software out there, and they probably -- I know Google likes to provide things for free, which is great. I love that. So I'm assuming with those improvements that some of those little hiccups will happen, but that little help bar is actually really helpful. So thanks, Google.

MR So, to recap, if you have -- with the caveat that there are some very good agencies out there that do great work, if you have ever worked with an agency that has provided search engine optimization for you, it would not hurt to do some research and verify that you have not inadvertently created any toxic links pointing to your website. And if so, go through the process of analyzing and disavowing the ones that appear to be damaging or toxic, especially if you're noticing a dip to your traffic for organic search. That's kind of the trigger we see most of the time is someone says Hey, why is my traffic dipping suddenly? I can't figure out why. Well, this is often times why.

AG And it's more than just a dip. It is a significant --

MR It's a drop.

AG -- drop. Yeah. So it is very normal and, I think, expected to see your analytics jump up and down from month to month, and we want to just make sure the overall trend is moving in a positive direction. But if you see a slight drop, obviously keep an eye on it, but it's not the end of the world. If you see a drastic change in your organic traffic, then this is something to look out for.

MR Yeah. All right. Good stuff. So thank you for all the insight, Allison, I appreciate it. So just to recap, if you have any further questions about this or you need help with any of this, just feel free to email us: podcast@capitalpointmarketing.com. Thanks, Allison, for the insight. Appreciate it.

AG Yeah. Thank you.

MR Thanks, everyone. We will see you next time.