Key takeways:

  • Link-building is expensive. Even content assets and digital PR demand huge amounts of time and resources.
  • Low quality links are liabilities.
  • Don’t be fooled by site metrics – just because a site has a high DR/DA and 1000+ organic traffic and lots of ranking keyword positions doesn’t mean it will not become a liability.
  • Just because your competitor has a link from X/Y/Z doesn’t mean that you should.

What your link provider isn’t telling you.

There’s a lot of money in link-building services and some providers are honest and transparent with what they’re doing on your behalf.

But many are unscrupulous.

Does a high DR website = good referring domain?
Not necessarily.

Does a site with high DA = good referring domain?
Nope.

Does having organic traffic = good referring domain?
Not always.

Does having a high number of ranking keywords = good referring domain?
Sometimes, but it pays to investigate further what these keywords the site ranks for are.

In this blog post, I’ll show you how to do your own quality assurance to avoid the costly process of overturning a spammy link penalty.

Why is a low-quality link a liability?

A site that is willing to accept money for a guest post or link insert from you is 100% offering the same service to other people.

The main reason why I do not encourage buying links is because you don’t know what the long term effects are.

Even if your intentions are pure and you are giving the website a well-research piece of content, you have no control on the quality of content that is being published on other areas of the website. You also have no say in who else the site is linking to.

Even when you hire an agency or link provider to supply you with ‘white hat’ link building, do you get to have final say on what sites link to you?

  • If yes, you’re dealing with a very accommodating and transparent provider.
  • If no, you’re paying for a service that may end up hurting you.

How do you explain to senior management or to the board that your link building has resulted in revenue loss?

That’s not a conversation you want to have even on the best of days.

Warning signs to look out for.

Backlinks from low-quality sites tend to follow a similar pattern.

These are 12 things you should watch out for when looking for sites to avoid:

  1. You have never heard of the website before.
  2. There are no clear authors behind the content.
  3. The site has no organic traffic.
  4. The site has a high DR/DA but estimated organic traffic is low.
  5. The site covers a very wide range of topics.
  6. The site has a template that looks like many other websites.
  7. The site has substantial organic traffic but visitors come from suspicious-looking countries of origin.
  8. The site lost all organic traffic for a period of time then regained it back.
  9. The site publishes an abnormally amount of new pages or blog posts.
  10. Many of the blog posts are not indexed on Google.
  11. The site has a clear “write for us” page.
  12. The site has changed substantially in look and purpose.

In the next section, I’ll show you how to spot any one of these red herrings.

How to avoid paying for a low quality backlink.

How to spot a bad link using Ahrefs.

For this, you’re going to need a paid subscription with Ahrefs. If you don’t want to pay for a tool, skip to this section.

Step 1: Grab the homepage URL of the site and paste it into Site Explorer.

Step 2: What is its DR?

Domain Rating (DR) is Ahrefs’ way of calculating backlink popularity.

A low DR (10-25) does not necessarily mean that the website is low-quality and a high DR (70+) does not necessarily mean that the website is good.

  • If it is a DR80+ site, do you recognize it?
  • If it is a DR60+ site, do you recognize it?
  • If it is a DR10 to DR20 site, do you recognize it?

If your recognize the website, this a positive sign. If, however, the website is not one you know, this warrants further investigation.

Step 3: Does the site get at least 500 monthly organic visitors?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, is it a small business that you recognize?

Ahrefs tends to be very conservative with its organic traffic estimation. A site with 500 organic traffic may easily have 2x that.

Sites with less than 500 organic traffic and are not a small business that you recognize are no good.

You should not accept a backlink from a site that you do not recognize and has less than 500 monthly organic traffic.

Furthermore, a DR46 site should have a lot more traffic than 1,200 per month.

Step 4: Did the site lose all organic traffic at some stage then regain it?

  • If yes, add this site to your blacklist.
  • If no, this is a positive sign.

Seeing this is a tell-tale sign that you’re looking at a site that has been rebirthed. That is, the domain expired at some stage and someone bought it from an expired domain auction and then slowly rebuilt the content.

If you see this in the Organic search > Organic traffic dashboard, this site is going to be a liability.

Step 5: Does the majority of its organic traffic come from the site’s target audience?

Most websites cater for a particular audience and while it is possible for a site to get traffic from all over the world, most websites have one dominant country of origin.

For example, if a North American website has a majority of search traffic from India or Vietnam or Philippines, this is a warning sign.

However, if the target audience is for people in India, Vietnam or Philippines, it makes sense that these countries are identified as the major sources of organic traffic.

Step 6: Are the ranking keywords relevant to the website?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, this is a huge warning sign and the site should be added to your blacklist.

In my opinion, guest post farms are low quality sites for backlinks. Guest post farms tend to rank for weird keywords that are not directly related to the website.

This is because random keywords are easy to rank for and guest post farms create pages targeting these low competition keywords to buff up their site metrics to uneducated link buyers.

In the example below, the site has page on best canned food brands in the world.

Many low-quality websites will rank for celebrity nude pics or celebrity photos in general because these have a lot of search volume.

Using Organic Search > Organic keywords in Ahrefs, you can quickly see if the site is hacking its site metrics.

Step 7: Are its top pages relevant to the website?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, this is a huge warning sign and the site should be added to your blacklist.

In the above example, you will see that there are at least 3 ranking pages that don’t seem to quite make sense. One targets skincell pro, another targets best natural beauty remedies for eyelid wrinkles, while another targets canned vegetable brand.

How to spot a bad link using Semrush.

For this, you’re going to need a paid subscription with Semrush. If you don’t want to pay for a tool, skip to this section.

Step 1: Copy and paste the homepage URL of the site into Semrush > SEO Dashboard > Domain Overview.

Step 2: Has organic traffic been on a declining trend?

  • If yes, the site may be losing keyword rankings and this is an early warning sign that this is a low-quality website.
  • If no, this is a strong positive sign.

In Domain Overview > Traffic Trend, toggle between 1M, 6M, 1Y, 2Y and All time to get a clearer picture of what the site’s organic traffic trend is like.

In the above example, you can see that organic traffic has been declining since December 2020. If you had only looked at 1M, you would not have realized how bad things are for this site.

Step 3: Are its ranking keyword relevant to the website?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, this is a huge warning sign and the site should be added to your blacklist.

In my opinion, guest post farms are low-quality sites for backlinks. Guest post farms tend to rank for weird keywords that are not directly related to the website.

This is because random keywords are easy to rank for and guest post farms create pages targeting these low competition keywords to buff up their site metrics to uneducated link buyers.

Go to Domain Analytics > Organic Research > Positions tab then select the “top 3” toggle in the Positions filed.

This will show keywords that the website ranks for in the positions 1-3.

Are these keywords relevant to the site?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, this is a huge warning sign and the site should be added to your blacklist.

Step 4: Are its top pages relevant to the website?

To see the top pages with traffic, go to Domain Analytics > Organic Research > Pages.

In the above example, we can see that one of the top 3 traffic URLs is about skincell pro, followed by an article about Ferrari F80. Both of these seem a bit random.

This is my favorite process because anyone with internet access can do this.

Step 1: Have you heard of the website before?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, further investigation is needed (e.g., would you trust the information that is published?).

Step 2: Can you identify if the authors behind the content are real people?

  • If yes, this is a positive sign.
  • If no, is there a valid reason why they’ve hidden their identifies?

Blogs run by real people will tell you who they are. You will often find their connected social media profiles.

Sites run by link sellers do not provide this information.

If you cannot easily identify the writers, editors, contributors or the site owner, the website is probably an affiliate marketing website or a site that makes money from selling guest posts.

Step 3: Does the site cover a very wide range of topics?

For example, does the primary navigation have categories linking to lifestyle, health, finance, education, marketing, and business?

  • If yes, this suggests that the site is a link farm and should be avoided.
  • If no, this is a positive sign.

In the following example, it is odd that the website covers business topics, fashion topics, Hollywood topics, and as another section for articles. From just a quick eye-ball test, backlinks from this site are low quality in nature.

In addition to looking at a site’s menu navigation, you can also compare the topics that they publish to their homepage title and meta description.

In the above example, the wide range of topics are a warning sign.

Step 4: Does the site theme look like many other blogs?

  • If yes, this suggests that the site is a link farm and should be avoided.
  • If no, this is a positive sign.

Step 5: Does the website publish an abnormally amount of content?

For example, many guest post farms publish 2+ blog posts per day per category. If the site is representing an individual blogger, this is a warning sign as even the most dedicated full-time bloggers struggle to author more than 2 great pieces of content per day.

  • If yes, is it a media publisher that you recognize?
  • If no, this is a positive sign.

Step 6: When you do a {site:domain} search in Google, do recent blog posts show up in the results?

  • If yes, are the published topics relevant to the primary category of the website?
  • If no, avoid this website.

Step 7: Does the site have a clearly visible “write for us” section?

  • If yes, add this site to your blacklist.
  • If no, who writes the content for the site? Is this information easy to find? Are there clear author profiles or is the content published under an admin profile?

Step 8: Does this site look substantially different in Wayback Machine?

  • If yes, add this website to your blacklist.
  • If no, this is a positive sign.

Wayback Machine is a free tool that you can use to look at the history of any website.

Take the homepage URL of any site and paste it into Wayback Machine.

Give it a few seconds as it retrieves from its archive.

Dates with colored circles means there is an archive of the page. Click on it to see what the website looked like in the past.

Has the site substantially changed?

  • If yes, blacklist it.
  • If no, the website is probably not a rebirthed expired domain.

Let me show you a demonstration:

Using this method, you can clearly see that the history of this domain is not good at all (see as it was used as a casino site back in 2005), then expired for 6+ years, before being rebuilt as a guest post selling website.

Final words.

Low-quality links can hurt you. They can cause your site to disappear from Google Search. This will cost your business lots of money and it is a scramble and nerve-racking process to recovery from a spam penalty.

Therefore, if your SEO is ready for link-building, invest in the right approach that will not become a business liability.

High quality backlinks are assets.

Good and effective link-building is rarely cheap because a lot of labor intensive time and expertise goes into content ideation, email pitches, data research and content visualization that earn good links.

>> Find out what a good link looks like.

Want to learn how to apply SEO like this?

For years I have recommended clients to invest in customer education to showcase their expertise. So watch me practice what I preach by showing you the exact process I deploy for my clients.

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