Our Backlink Audit & Cleanup Process: Step by Step
Table of Contents
Backlinks are one of the most powerful SEO tools, but they can also negatively impact your site. Too many spammy, unrelated and/or irrelevant links can drag your site down the rankings – it’s crucial to consistently evaluate your backlink graph.
You must understand how to audit backlinks, what to look for and how to clean up bad links. We’ll go through the process step by step and provide recommendations for how to fix the issues found.
Let’s start with the basics…
What is a Backlink Audit?
A backlink audit is a link quality evaluation – how relevant and authoritative are the external links pointing to your website? The purpose of a backlink audit is to identify all potentially harmful links and disavow them. Then, use the insights found to improve and strengthen your link graph.
Whether you’re actively building links or not, you need to conduct regular audits to ensure a healthy backlink profile. Other sites are most likely linking to your domain, so your link profile is constantly changing.
The first step is analyzing backlinks, but. you must understand how to identify a bad link before you begin. It can be extremely harmful if you mistakenly disavow links that were actually strengthening your authority. Conversely, you don’t want to let bad backlinks slide through either. Here’s how we audit:
How to Audit Backlinks
While you can manually audit backlinks, there is an easier option. We will lay out our step-by-step audit process and what to do with the bad links you find.
- Inventory Backlinks
- Analyze Individual Links
- Evaluate the Overall Backlink Profile
Clean Up: Determine Disavow or Remove
1. Inventory Your Backlinks
To provide the most complete picture of your backlink profile, you’ll need to create an inventory of your links. Be sure it’s an inclusive list of links. You won’t have an accurate picture if you miss a significant portion of links, so be sure your inventory is exhaustive.
To build the most comprehensive backlink list, we recommend using a backlink tool, which we discuss in detail further down. These automated tools will crawl your site to gather an inventory of your backlinks. We discuss the most common backlink audit tools further down.
While creating the list of backlinks, watch for any obvious links to remove, including:
- Spammy backlinks
- Low quality links from thin sites
- Lost links
- Foreign domains in other languages
2. Analyze Individual Links & Make Your List
Once you’ve gathered your links, you’re ready to evaluate the quality of each individually. When deciding whether to keep a link, look at:
- Authority metrics
- Relevance of link
Authority Isn’t The Most Important
Nearly every backlink audit tool provides authority metrics. These will help you gauge the strength of the link and referring domain, but take 3rd party metrics with a grain of salt. They aren’t numbers Google uses to evaluate domains or links, so they shouldn’t play a huge part in your evaluation.
Keep in mind, authority isn’t the only metric. Just because a link has low authority doesn’t mean you should get rid of it. Look at the relevance and quality. Does it have meaningful traffic and/or quality content? Is it relevant to your niche? If yes, keep it.
A highly-relevant link with low authority can provide a big impact. There is a natural relationship between the 2 sites that actually carries more weight than authority alone.
Conversely, if a link has high authority that doesn’t mean it should be kept. The link could be completely irrelevant. Algorithms have smartened up to building links just because of authority, so these can actually signal unnatural link building. That’s why you must look at each link individually to assess.
Relevance is Key
There is no score for the link relevance, as it varies for every site. Relevance must be manually evaluated. You can use a variety of factors to find relevance, including:
- Industry (broad)
- Market & Area
- Target audience
Look at the link and ask yourself how if relates to your industry, area or audience? If you can’t answer that question, consider removing the link relationship.
Create A List
As you work your way through analyzing the links in your inventory, create a list of the links to clean out. Many backlink audit tools will have a feature that allows you to sort or collect your links to remove/disavow as you evaluate them.
Remember to take a holistic approach when analyzing and creating your list. Look at the link from many angles, not just metrics. Link to be sure you add to your clean up list include:
- Spammy Links (gambling sites, link farms, etc.)
- Low Quality Links
- Thin Content Sites
- Irrelevant Links (other languages, off-topic)
- Link Farms
We don’t recommend evaluating one link for an hour. It will eat up your time. Quickly review each link’s metrics, then visit the site. Does it look spammy? Publish low quality content? Look like a link farm or duplicated site?
The more you evaluate links, the quicker the process will become. You’ll be able to spot bad links in no time. Link audits will become a breeze, but backlink audit tools make the process much more streamlined.
Tools to Inventory & Analyze Backlinks
Automated backlink tools will save you so much time. Just plug in the domain name and the tool’s software will begin collecting your backlinks across the internet. While a few links may fall through the cracks, these tools can account for nearly all. Once it’s gathered all your links, you can then easily evaluate them based on the factors above and sort into different groups.
There are countless SEO tools, but we recommend SEMRush, Ahrefs or SEO SpyGlass.
SEMRush Backlink Audit Tool
Evaluating link quality is easy with SEMrush’s Backlink Audit Tool. It provides third party metrics to analyze link toxicity and the overall toxicity of your link profile, as well as authority scores for the domain.
First, you’re given an overall toxic score – a health rating for the entire backlink profile. A high overall toxic score for your domain means poor quality backlinks are weighing down your link graph. In that case, you should audit your backlinks and begin creating a disavow list inside SEMRush.
Individual toxic scores are also assigned to each backlink to rate the link’s quality. According to SEMRush, any toxic score above 60 is toxic and 45-60 is potentially toxic. But don’t just look at the numbers. – you need to manually review each link. There can be low toxicity links that are spammy or poor quality. Similarly, there can be high toxicity links that are relevant to your brand.
Each link also has an Authority Score (AS) that rates the overall quality of the domain and it’s estimated SEO influence. SEMRush also provides other metrics in the “AS” drop down, including referral traffic from Google Anayltics, domain category, country, referring domains, source backlinks, keywords, and monthly visits.
As you’re reviewing links, you can easily sort them into lists – whitelist, remove and disavow – with the action buttons. Once you have gone through all links, you can start contacting domains on your “Remove” list and export your “Disavow” list and upload to Google Webmaster Tools. This will disassociate your domain with the external site.
Ahrefs Backlink Tools
Backlinks are broken out into 3 categories for easier evaluation and sorting:
- New Backlinks
- Lost Backlinks
- Broken Backlinks
New backlinks should be audited and sorted. Broken backlinks can be added to an outreach list to try to regain the link. If you see lost backlinks that are relevant or high quality, we recommend manual outreach, but that can take time.
For link metrics Ahrefs provides a domain rating (DR) and URL rating (UR) that score the strength of the backlink profile and measure authority. Both are measured on 100 point scale. Like Authority Scores, these metrics shouldn’t drive your entire audit as they are not official metrics used by search engines.
The tool also provides the number of referring domains, linked domains, external links and keywords for each link. You can even see your estimated monthly traffic from each backlink, which can help identify the more lucrative links in terms of traffic.
You can also find data to analyze your overall backlink profile, including the number of backlinks, referring domains, Ahrefs rank, anchor types, referring IPs and how your Ahrefs rank has grown or fallen historically (just to name a few). Their tool also provides historical data on your backlink profile.
This backlink tool has most of the features mentioned above, but there is one major aspect that’s different. With the SEOSpyGlass backlink tool you can collect backlinks from multiple sources – their internal SEO PowerSuite database, Google Analytics and Google Search Console. This in-depth search can provide a more comprehensive link list. Be aware that not all tools will be up-to-date. This can cause lost links to still be counted, which can mess up your stats.
3. Clean Up Backlinks: Determine Disavow or Remove
There are two methods to get rid of links. In order to determine which is best for your links, let’s compare the two options – manual removal and disavow.
Your first option is to reach out to site owners directly to ask for the link removed. This is the recommended first option in Google’s eyes as it avoids abusing Google’s disavow tool.
We recommend creating an email template you can reuse with every link you’re attempting to remove. You can quickly personalize each email with the link to be removed and their domain name. But there are multiple scenarios where this won’t work.
What if you can’t find the contact info for a domain? Or the site owner ignores you? Better yet, what if the owner flat out says no? That’s where disavowing comes in.
Disavow Risky Links
This method can save time removing links in big quantities. That’s why many use this option first. After you’ve sorted and created your list of bad links, upload to Google’s Disavow Tool to remove the link association. Simply select the site, then click to upload your disavow list. The system will overwrite any previous disavow files, so be sure your disavow list is all inclusive.
Keep in mind, you cannot directly upload links from your backlink tool to the disavow tool. You will need to manually export the list then upload it for Google to disassociate the link from your domain. Google does strongly recommend that site owners make a real effort to get rid of links manually before disavowing, so be sure to try that first.
Identify Opportunities While Cleaning
While you’re cleaning up backlinks, be sure to keep your eye out for opportunities and insight. Audits can improve your backlinking strategy and give insight into what’s working and what’s not. Look for:
- Significant content gaps – fill them in with future content.
- Common referring domains among top ranking sites – go after those.
- Referral traffic insight – where do you get the most traffic from? double down on those.
- Types of content attract the most links – create more content like this.
- Countries commonly linking to you – is your brand looking to expand to new markets?
4. Evaluate Your Backlink Profile for Future Link Building
- Number of backlinks
- Number of referring domains
- Ratio of links to referring domains
- DoFollow v. NoFollow links
- Anchor Text Types (& Ratios)
- Link Type
The number of backlinks is the most basic link metric. It’s a quick way to gauge if you’re in line with competitors. Generally, the more backlinks you have, the stronger the backlink profile and authority. However, watch out for inflated backlink numbers from spammy links. Having 100,000 low quality or spammy links won’t help your link graph.
Another metric to look at is the number of referring domains. This is notable, because the ratio of links to referring domains can provide a more accurate understanding of backlink health. A small number of referring domains, but a high number of backlinks could signal to search engines that too many backlinks are coming from one source. You don’t want to tip the scales.
SEMRush will group referring domains by authority score, which can give you insight into the overall authority of your link profile. It’s an easy way to visualize the distribution of links by authority. You can then go after the authority ranges you’re missing.
While sheer volume matters, quality and relevance play the most important role in determining link quality. This is also true for the overall health of your link profile.
You will want to quickly note the ratio of NoFollow and DoFollow links. In order to have a natural link profile you must have a healthy balance of both types. Contrary to popular belief you don’t only want DoFollow links. What constitutes healthy depends on your industry and market, like we mentioned above, so be sure to do competitive research.
Lastly, anchor text types show the distribution of anchors used in your backlink profile. There is no hard rule about “correct” anchor text ratios – each industry and market will have a unique anchor makeup. However, there are a few general recommendations with types of anchor text.
- Branded anchors should be the biggest share of anchor text type.
- Always ensure your anchor text ratios are in line with competitors. Run top-ranking domains through a backlink tool to find what types of anchors your industry is using.
- Avoid too many compound anchors or money anchors as it can signal spam.
You’ll naturally build more branded anchors and naked URLs, so don’t be alarmed if your anchor types are skewed in that direction. Just look at our top anchors below. Our data follows that trend…
Compare Competitor Backlink Profiles
Like we’ve mentioned, no two niches are the same. Some niches naturally produce a significant amount of links while others don’t easily build links. Compare the SEO niche and a plumber. The SEO community is constantly building links, while the other is probably on a much smaller scale. The backlink profile of a plumber and an SEO company would look nothing alike.
That’s why you must evaluate trends amongst top competitors. Once you understand what top ranking competitors have in common about their backlink profile and what’s working, you can implement on your domain.
Compare The Highest Ranking Sites
Don’t just choose who you think are your biggest competitors. They may or may not be ranking highly. Instead, create a short list of your target keywords and services. Potential keywords to use could include your product or service + city name.
Search the high-value keywords you want to rank first for. Then, plug in the top 3 to 4 domains to a backlink analytics tool and evaluate each:
- Compare how many backlinks and referring domains competitors have. You want to be in line with top-ranking competitors.
- What types of backlinks are they building? Build similar types.
- What content attracts the most links for competitors? Start creating this type of content and performing manual link outreach.
- What are anchor text ratios? Are yours in line with the average?
- How high are authority scores of top ranking sites? Your authority scores need to be on par with the average scores of top sites.
- Evaluate link attributes to understand the distribution of DoFollow v. NoFollow links. Don’t stray too far from the average.
- What are their ratios of backlinks to referring domains?
- What are their most common types of anchors used?
Your goal in researching and analyzing is to achieve similar metrics to the top ranking results. While you shouldn’t match metrics, try to identify a range that high-ranking competitors fall between.
How Many Links Should You Have?
It’s the million dollar question. The number of recommended backlinks depends on many factors. Our best advice is to analyze the backlink profile and anchor text ratios of the top ranking sites. Then, focus on competitor parity.
If you’re in an industry where it is difficult to build links or trends show lower link counts, you don’t want to overbuild. It can signal unnatural link velocity.
However, if your industry is one where backlinks are easily built or common, you must keep pace with the top competitors. Link building should be at the top of your to-do list. Look at the highest ranking sites and determine which category you fall into.
Keep It Clean & Audit Links Every 6 Months
Now that you’ve gone through the full backlink audit process, you have a clean link graph! But you can’t get lazy. You must continue to monitor your link graph to ensure it stays clean.
Once you audit your backlinks, make it a routine practice every 6 or 12 months. This maintains the quality of your website and it’s backlink profile, while also protecting your link graph so you can continue to climb the rankings.
If you aren’t building links frequently, you can audit less than every 6 months. However, if you are aggressively building links, we recommend auditing your site more frequently. You can also set backlink audit tools for regular assessments of your links to save you time.
Always Be Building Links
Don’t stop building once you’ve evaluated and cleaned up backlinks. You must consistently work to build up your link profile to not only improve in rankings but maintain the gains you’ve made.
For resources on building the best backlinks possible, check out other link building resources from Web 20 Ranker.
- Keyword Analysis for Better Link Building
- Building Local Events Links for Local SEO
- Backlink Strategy to Rank Higher in 3 Pack and Organic Rankings
- Link Strategies for GMB Site
Don’t feel like doing the work? Not enough time to build quality links?
Web 2.0 Ranker will build links for you!
You won’t have to worry about link quality, authority, or relevance with us. We only build links we would use on our own site, so you can be sure they’re the quality needed for maximum impact.
We look forward to helping you build the best backlink profile possible!