How does Google decide how to sort and serve websites in search results? Search engine optimization has over 200 factors that signal to Google the quality of a website and its content – and one of the top-ranking factors that Google uses to index its websites is backlinks. A backlink audit will help you understand the quality and quantity of your SEO backlinks.

What Are Backlinks?

A backlink is a link from another website to your domain. Backlinks link visitors back to your site. But you know what they say – you are the company you keep. This old adage can also be applied to how Google sees and ranks your website!

Search engine crawlers are constantly scouring the web. These bits of code parse through millions of websites every day – discovering new links along the way.

If a website includes a link to your domain, you’ve just earned yourself a shiny new backlink! This is essentially an invitation for search crawlers to enter your domain – but user beware: with SEO, it’s never quantity over quality.

Your backlink profile clues Google in to what your site is all about.

What is a Quality Backlink?

A quality backlink refers to a “dofollow” backlink within the body text on a high-quality website that is relevant to your topic and points back to your site using relevant anchor text. Whew– that’s a mouthful. Why is Google so strict about what is considered “quality”?

Years ago, when digital marketers first caught onto backlinks as a strong ranking signal, people began buying links to their domain in order to fool the search engine into seeing them as higher status. A link from a Chinese coupon site pointing to a law firm in Minneapolis? Sure! A link from an empty website that only includes comment spam, ads, and Lorem Ipsum text pointing to a travel agent? Toss a link in there. The more, the merrier – right?

Wrong. Once Google caught onto these “black hat” SEO techniques, the search engine titan became more selective with link building strategies – and penalized the unfair players.

Now, if hundreds or thousands of spam or irrelevant websites direct search crawlers to your domain, Google will index your site as a low-quality domain. Good luck climbing the ranks with a poor backlink profile!

Graphic of humans working with digital tools and checklists to conduct a technical SEO backlink audit.

What is a Backlink Audit?

A backlink audit refers to the evaluation of all links pointing to your site. It’s the process of finding both good and bad links, then developing a strategy for each one. Backlink audits can help you build your domain authority, spy on your competition, enhance your SEO, and more!

So, how can you sniff out the good and the bad? A backlink audit will help you discover the hundreds or thousands of other websites that include links to your content and determines the toxicity level of the links. Depending on the tools you use, you might even get to steal your competitor’s backlinks!

Did you know that your site might have toxic backlinks – without you even knowing?

Using Google Search Console to Get Started

The first step in understanding how to improve is in gathering data. Use Google Search Console to start your backlink audit. Select your domain property and in the left menu panel, select “Links”. In this dashboard, you’ll see a list of top linked pages, top linking sites and top linking text.

From here, you have two options before moving forward with your backlink audit.

Option 1: Manually evaluate each link.

This would require a visit to every single link and weighing out its value and authority using your own judgment. If your site is more than a few months old, this can prove to be a time-consuming task. Websites older than a year usually have a few hundred, or even a few thousand backlinks.

Option 2: Use a backlink analysis tool.

While these tools often require payment to use, this option will save you time and effort. You’ll want to make sure you choose a tool that includes a list of your backlinks, along with each link’s domain authority (DA), page authority (PA), and a list of the unhealthy, toxic, and dead backlinks.

How to Evaluate Backlink Quality

  • Anchor text relevance. Google uses the hyperlinked text as a way to understand the destination URL. Your anchor text cloud should have a mix of keyword-rich anchors, your brand name, and even generic phrases like “click here” or “visit the page”.
  • Linking page content relevance and quality. Does the on-page content of the linking site help users understand a service or product you’re offering? Do you understand why the site owner linked back to your page? If you’re left scratching your head – Google will be too.
  • Linking domain quality and relevance. Similar to page relevance and authority, check to make sure the actual URL is relevant to your content, is a reputable brand or website, and that there aren’t a ton of ads all over the website.
  • IP address. If a lot of your links come from the same IP address, it might clue Google into potential foul play.

1 link on 10 sites is better than 10 links on 1 site.

How to Do a Backlink Audit

If you choose to manually conduct your backlink audit, be prepared to spend hours upon hours visiting each link to weigh out the value of each link. We prefer using digital tools to help refine the process. Websites like Semrush, Majestic and SpyFu let you evaluate and organize your own backlink profile – while getting a glimpse at your competitor’s! We’ll walk through Semrush’s Backlink Audit tool.

Step 1: Build Your Competitive Baseline

You’ll want to get a firm grasp on your current standing – and your competition. Once you sign up for Semrush, you’ll be able to make use of their competitive analysis tool. Check out the Backlink Analytics tab and insert 1-4 of your competitors’ domains. Here you can analyze whether or not your link building strategies are up to par, or if you’re being left in the lurch.

What to Keep Tabs On

  • Be sure to look at the total number of Backlinks, Referring Domains and Referring IPs to see how big your backlink network actually is compared to the competition.
  • Referring Domains will help you decide whether you are reaching out to enough domains.
  • Review your Backlink Types to see which of your competitors’ content is most often linked to.
  • Link Attributes will help you spot weaknesses in your competitors’ profiles.

Step 2: Evaluating Your Backlinks with Semrush

Once you’re ready for the deep dive into your own backlink network, you’ll need to set up a project in Semrush. Visit the Backlink Audit tool, set up a Project, then configure the tool by entering your desired keywords, categories, and any competitors.

What to Keep Tabs On

  • The Overview tab will display items like the Overall Toxicity Score of your site. If your site ranks a high overall toxic score, then you’ve got a lot of low-quality links pointing to your site!
  • Check up on the total number of Analyzed Backlinks. If you’re not actively posting content or building links and you have a high number of backlinks, this could be an indicator of a spam attack. Also, if your backlink profile is far too low, your site could be seen as toxic!
  • Review the number of Referring Domains. Too many links that come from one domain can raise a red flag that there’s sleight-of-hand at play.
  • Evaluate the Anchor Types. As stated earlier, you’ll want a healthy mixture of keyword-rich anchors, branded anchor text and organic. Semrush has two categories, “Money” and “Compound” that Google flags as potentially toxic. Be sure to keep an eye on whether or not you have too many – or any – of these Anchor Types.
  • Sudden spikes of gained or lost backlinks can indicate bought backlinks or a bot attack.

Step 3: Categorizing the Clutter

Now that you’ve got a better grasp on your own site status, it’s time to clean up your backlinks. Go to the Audit tab in the Backlink Audit tool to whitelist all links with a Toxic Score below 45. The most toxic links are displaying in the list first. You can also sort toxic backlinks by the source of the problem: URL, Page Title, or Anchor Text. This can quickly help you pinpoint a problem page or a problem keyword.

You should contact the website owner and ask them to delete the link (Removal function in Semrush). Or you can send it directly to the Google Disavow tool (Disavow function in Semrush). For websites that aren’t clearly spammers or scammers, it’s best to ask the website owner to remove any unhealthy links to your site before sending to Disavow.

Why not just cut through the headache and go straight to Disavow? Google does not take disavowing links lightly. You will have to justify your decision to disavow to Google.

Step 4: Cleaning House

Removals

Swap over to the Remove tab. Here you’ll see the toxic links you just identified! Connect your email account and get ready to turn on the charm. Semrush will load up a template email that requests link removal, but to make sure site owners don’t think you’re a bot, customize the note to make it sound more human.

If Semrush doesn’t automatically detect the site owner’s email address, you may need to do some hunting online. Once you send that sweet little note, you’ll be able to track the responses either through your email account or in the Semrush dashboard! If you make the Removal request multiple times and only hear crickets, you can use this email documentation as proof of your efforts if you do need to break out the “Mac Daddy” Disavow tool.

Disavows

When should you resort to the Disavow method?

  • If you scour the web in an attempt to find a site owner’s email and cannot.
  • If a website is clearly a spam or bot site.
  • If you request link removal multiple times and do not get a response.

Swap over to the Disavow tab in Semrush and export its contents to a .txt file. From here, you simply upload this file to the Google Disavow Tool. When you upload this list of toxic links, Google will no longer take them into account when measuring the SEO value of your site.

Google places significant value on backlinks, so removing toxic ones is just as valuable – if not more so – than adding new ones.

Remember that you can only have one Disavow file per website. That said, if you conduct your super awesome in-depth backlink audit, then revisit for a second scrub only to find you have hundreds of new backlinks to remove, you’ll need to reformat your .txt file and re-upload the amended list.

With that same logic, if you later decide that a certain URL was actually doing your SEO a favor, you can remove the previously disavowed link from the list and re-upload.

Step 5: Link Building

Okay, so you’ve made it this far. Congrats for sticking around and cleaning up the mess! Now it’s time to build new backlinks that will help your site!

Here’s where spying on your competition really comes in handy! Since you’ve already identified links that your competitors have that you don’t, you can use this info to contact that same site owner. Export the Referring Domains from Backlinks Analytics. Add the desired domains that link to your competition to your own outreach list!

Use the Link Building tool to quickly reach out to site owners to fix lost or broken links.

You should also connect your Google Analytics and Google Search Console to your Backlink Audit. This gives Semrush a full scope of your traffic. Swap over to the Target Pages tab to discover which pages you can optimize for more backlinks.

Keep an eye on the Lost and Found report in the Backlink Audit. Revisiting this tool often will help you keep a pulse on any changes in your backlink network.

Backlink Audit Wrap-Up

If you’ve made it this far, you should have a well-rounded idea of your site’s health – and maybe even why Google isn’t prioritizing your awesome content! In cleaning up your backlink profile and practicing high-quality link building practices, you’ll be well on your way to moving up the ranks in SERPs!

But, hey, we get it – you’ve got a business to run! If you don’t have time to keep an eye on a vast and changing backlink network, you may need to recruit the help of a SEO specialists. The SEO team at Next Horizon can watch your back, while you focus on moving forward.

Start a Backlink Audit with Next Horizon

Next Horizon provides holistic technology solutions for businesses looking to improve sales, increase agility and optimize productivity. From digital marketing to building bespoke business applications, Next Horizon uses its 40+ years of experience and award-winning talent to provide technical business solutions for its clients.

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