Stop Paying for Terrible Links [& How to Check for Low Quality Links]

This is an older, albeit interesting blog post. If you’re interested in a better, more up to date method to audit and remove links, take a look at this post. If you have a problem with your link profile and search engine rankings, get in touch with us or take a look at our services to see how we can help.

I’m tired of this conversation:

“We’ve been working with an SEO agency for about 6 months now. We ranked quite well for a few weeks, and then the rankings dropped. We don’t know what they do, exactly, but they send us 4 directory links and 2 article submssions a month. Oh, and they do a PR release for us, once a month”

It’s a starting point in a sales discussion I experience all too often. It’s often a precursor to the part of the conversation where we discover the business is being bled dry by a more-than-substandard SEO product that is completely ineffective and alarmingly expensive. No rankings, gone. No traffic. And, still paying! In some cases being told to pay more!

Crapola. Of the weapons grade kind.

Wil got frustrated with Google, specifically how they make liars out of the good guys. We’ve all done our tests, and, in the past, experienced SEO’s would tell you exactly what types of linkbuilding and SEO practices would (and still might) work. That’s fine – if you’re looking to generate a fast buck on a throwaway domain then I have no issues with that – it can be lucrative, fun and a challenging learning curve. Eventually Google will catch you, and you’ll move on. Noone loses.

If you’re that SEO agency, I don’t know how you can feel good about what you do. If you’re an ordinary, everyday on-line business, and that discussion feels weirdly familiar, fire that SEO company.

Stuff like this does not wash:

Neither does this:

Wait, what?!

It seems that Google are beginning a new wave of attacks on spammy linkbuilding practices, and I’m personally pleased to see it. There, I said it.

Detecting bad link-building practices – it’s extremely easy

Tom Anthony wrote a long post on detecting bad link activity with SEOmoz’s metrics. That’s a reasonable methodology to profile back links according to SEOmoz metrics, but if you really need to weed out the bad stuff, I recommend getting back to the old school and adding Domain PageRank to the mix. Niel’s SEO Tools have a =GooglePageRank function, which works really nicely for back link weeding:

Which can lead to this with a simple pivot table:

Please, think about where your links are coming from

Anyway – rant over, I suppose. Bad link building makes our whole industry look bad. Don’t help perpetuate it by casually brushing your due diligence aside.

You’ll end up paying to reverse the damage being caused in the long run.

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69 thoughts on “Stop Paying for Terrible Links [& How to Check for Low Quality Links]

  1. Good to hear you speak out on the subject Richard, it’s this kind of crap that 90% of the “seo” agencies deploy, mostly outsourced for mass comment spam / mass buy stupid domain names and set up spammy blogs on.

    It’s refreshing to see Google combatting this kind of link acquiring far more effectively now and we’re seeing this start to hurt a lot of sites thankfully now. No sooner as the algorithm has been beefed up though, it’s not long before some idiot will create a piece of software to automate this kind of garbage manipulating SE’s into thinking the process is natural and genuine.

    It’s a similar start to any sales call with our clients too that you mention. If you’re paying 2k plus per month and only receiving a report with 4 directory submission and 2 published articles, it’s time to have a real think about where you investment is going…

  2. Kevin Wiles says:

    Can Page Rank really be a good tool though? Unless you know the domain is crap then it might be a good site your about to take out of your link profile which could in say 9 months time be a PR of 4?

  3. Brendan says:

    I write this as I am in the middle of analysing a set of competitor’s backlinks and could not agree more with what you’ve written. The problem is that building hundreds and hundreds of these crappy links still seems to work in some niches. Some of the SERPs for our keywords are dominated by sites with these links. It gets kind of tiresome explaining to bosses why we’re being outranked by sites employing these tactics.

    As SEOs we can’t blame business owners who are probably unaware of the tactics being employed but we can and should blame the SEOs who do this crap.

  4. @Kevin: Many of these spammy blogs are part of a huge network all interlinking with one another and have thus artificially generated a domain PageRank – those that Richard identifies in his report, have just probably been caught at the earlier stages of the cycle (come the next PageRank update, these will probably be updated with a 1 or 2).

    I personally don’t feel the visible PR metric for domains can prove a particularly accurate method of weeding out all the bad data within backlink profiles, however 85% of it that it does flag, will probably be blackhat / bad activity on the domain so it’s a start. This of course, only one (and probably the first) of many measures required to filter out the junk from the good in previous offsite activity for domains.

  5. Hey Kevin, it’s not perfect – but it’s often a strong signal that something’s awry. Consider it a red flag metric that indicates the need for investigation…

  6. @Brendan: We’re starting to see more and more of these sites that had adopted such tactics starting to slip further down now – it can obviously take some time for reindexes, recaches and new algorithm changes to really kick in across the entire backlink profile of a domain but eventually, I have ‘faith’ *cough* *cough* in Google in ranking accurately based on the legitimacy of marketing work that has carried out on said domain.

    Hopefully it won’t be too long before your clients are thanking you for not turning to the dark side when they will see their domain(s) starting to appear above their competitors…

  7. Brendan says:

    @Geoff: Cheers Geoff. I think this post just hit me at the wrong (or possibly right) time. There’s only so many pages with about 3 million outbound links you can take looking at!

  8. Steve says:

    Well said, Richard.

    Those examples you’ve shown are bonkers. I’ve been tempted to start a Tumblr dedicated to ridiculous, nonsensical spun articles, including one I saw in the whiplash industry the other day that substituted the word “big” for “fantastic,” so it was asking people to get in touch if they’d had a “fantastic car accident.” It’s pointless, horrible drivel, and like you, I’ll be super happy once Google penalises it.

  9. Benji says:

    And this is the kind of confirmation that solidifies Googles’ Web Spam team in de-indexing Link networks. Ever since BuildMyRank got de-indexed last March 19, 2012, it would seem that many websites will be hit in the coming days. This also means that many SME’s owning these websites will need to scramble in getting HQ and relevant links.

    If this is how the future of link building will turn out, then the present SEO’s that practice HQ link building will really shoot up the SERP.

    Great post BTW Richard.

  10. Hah! There are worse. Drop me a line if you ever get round to that tumblr – it is possible to turn terrible into great:

    Which is now:


  11. Corey says:


    Nice article man. I don’t have any special relationship or motive to promote this product, but does this pretty nicely in terms of segmenting links by PR, super fast (and they aggregate moz + majestic + gwt links). Just an alternative solution here.

    I’m interested in seeing if we (as an SEO industry), go 2 levels deep, so running two metrics in parallel and building logic around getting beyond the pagerank model for an even more in-depth view. The problem that I’ll get from colleagues in tough verticals is that they have ancient bad link profiles that they are trying to prioritize to remove.

    That being said, I think your article solves the majority of peoples problems. Nice work.



  12. Hey Corey

    I’d really like it if there was a definitive approach to this. Clearly there is not – we use OSE, SEOmoz tools, Majestic and our own stuff heavily. I like linkresearchtools a lot so definitely a +1 there.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  13. Dan says:

    I completely agree. Everyone is freaking out about Google’s war on (their words) “Over-optimization”. If you’re “over-optimized” you’re spamming. Optimal is optimal. This profession has been dragged through the mud. Unfortunately, most business owners don’t know any better.

    A company called Captain Marketing (yeah, I’ll name names) called and pitched me (I’m an SEO / SEM marketing manager, btw). Talking all about my metatags and directory listings. I ended up telling him how jacked his company was at the end of the call. The cubemates loved it.

    This is their Captain Marketing’s homepage TITLE:

    “Internet marketing experts, local SEO company, business advertising, search engine listings, search engine optimization companies, online marketing firm, strategic SEO services, about captain marketing”

    These are the people ruining our job titles.

  14. Great post Richard,

    It’s annoying when you see competitors or even just other random sites that have highly rated links with poorly and visibly spun content. Right now I dig for my links using OSE and GWT and try to find the “evergreen” links

  15. Brendan says:

    You should definitely do that tumblr, Steve. I’ve come across a ton a crap that would be great to use there.

  16. Oli says:

    It’s not just bad link building giving internet marketers a bad name. Social Media campaigns with no focus or ROI, PPC Campaigns that are poorly optimized, bad on page optimization, no author trust inclusion, the list goes on.

    The biggest problem is that people think that by jumping in to roles such as social media manager, SEO consultant, PPC optimizer they are instantly experts, but it rarely works out that way.

  17. Gary Viray says:

    I attended a strategic planning last month of a client of ours.
    The new guy in the room asked, ‘Are you okay with paid links?’
    I brazenly replied, ‘No.’ Invest on good contents instead and you will never go wrong.

  18. John says:

    Richard, I agree with you that people are getting ripped off by many SEO companies, but what links can be built on a scalable level, that don’t take hours of creativity?

  19. dan says:

    Here’s a crazy idea: Invest hours of creativity.

  20. Paul says:

    Great article – I think that the amount of SEO’s that are generating links in this way is gradually starting to decrease – especially with Google outlining link profiles as something they’re actively looking at.

    I started working on a site with a link profile primarily comprising unnatural links a few months ago, and interestingly (following numerous reports of major blog networks being de-indexed recently) lots of the random, spammy editorial sites linking to the site have been taken offline over the last week or so. Having split our time between trying to eliminate these links and obtaining natural ones through linkbait and outreach campaigns – it’s great to see Google looking to the origin of the issue.

  21. John says:

    @dan – Thanks, that’s very helpful. I learned a lot. Seriously, how do you build “good” links when a client is only paying for two hours of your time per week?

  22. dan says:

    I’m serious. Good, quality links take time.

    With a lot of clients, in my experience, the best way to do it is spending the time to figure out a great link bait campaign that can translate across the board and apply that campaign to as many clients as possible.

  23. Doug says:

    What’s worse is that there are businesses out there spending their money and not knowing what they’re paying for. Low quality links are just a symptom of the true problem.

    If they understand the return, longevity and the risks then it’s one thing, but investing in hundreds of low-quality links to rank a keyword that’ll bring them little traffic and crucially, no customers just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

  24. Little Cannetti says:

    I’m worried I might be guilty of this practice (I’m new to seo, don’t hate on me!). Can anyone point me in the right direction for some good SEO practices and how to create good links? Is it as simple as checking the page rank and do follow before posting?

  25. Little Cannetti says:

    Just to clarify I’ve never paid for links

  26. Curious Richard… Now that the bad links have been “weeded” out in a spreadsheet, what is done with them? More specifically, what do YOU do with them?

    Maybe I assumed too much in thinking you were going to share that little tidbit of information with us all. I felt like I was left hanging at the end of your video. :-)

  27. Hi Micheal

    That’s a good question – if you can (and they’re really bad) you might consider removing them, or getting them removed via whatever means you can. If you’re on a link network or something that can be reversed easily, that shouldn’t be a big issue.


  28. Michael Kovis says:


    That is what I figured, but I had to chuckle when I got to the end of the video with the expectations of hearing your mention something about removing the bad links. ;-)

    Thanks for the response! Have a wonderful evening.


  29. James Carson says:

    Great post – excellent video. Since it’s so easy to find the crap, I can’t imagine it would be that hard for Google either.

  30. Richard says:

    I know, right? Thanks James – a video tour of some of the worst examples might be in order…

  31. Jay Soriano says:

    Wil still hasn’t responded to allegations in his article, “How Google Makes Liars Out of the Good Guys in SEO.” The article was well written, but a little hypocritical.

    Here’s a link to the comment thread:

  32. Modi says:

    Hi Richard,

    I was wondering if we not for sure that de-indexed sites would be accompanied by a PR drop. I’m afraid that if this is not the case then the above exercise would be return invalid results.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to use SEO Tools for Excel and check whether those URLs are indexed or not? Running it weekly we could spot how quickly backlinks get deindexed as a result of Google deindexing certain sites, flagging up low quality backlinks.

  33. Spot on Modi – we do that in-house :-)

  34. Ben Acheson says:

    Well said Richard. Bad SEO is way out of control. You might like this infographic:

    How to Spot a Bad SEO Agency

  35. Sandeep says:

    Hi Richard..I agree there will some stupid agencies who will be building links in mass production but i am not sure much is being done about it. I have just joined a company and link profile is shocking as most of the links are coming from Homepage website with 2-3 pages and page rank of 5-7. The ranking is gone up and i am not sure for how long. I am not totally agreeing with these type of links but its working for some companies with low budgets, it’s a matter of time when Google web spam team will detect them. I am surprised Google Web Spam team is not able to see all this when we can or their concentrating more on Google Plus for ranking signals.

    i am not sure page rank is the best metrics to look for instead of mozrank. I am not even sure when the last time page rank was updated whereas mozrank can give us nearly clear indication of current website. We can take them both and see the difference if there is a huge difference then definitely it’s a spammy website.
    Wait to hear from you.

  36. Dave Lauretti says:

    I was delighted to read this article and wish the entire ethical SEO industry would keep on writing on this subject. The more we do, the more business owners will become aware that they have many more options than settling for the pseudo SEO companies they’re in danger of getting involved with.

    Great article Richard. Thanks.

  37. Max says:

    Here’s what y’all don’t understand: say i have great content, frequent updates and a great social presence. I also have a nasty competitor with deep pockets that decides to spam me (I.e. goes to and pays $20 for 2000 automated spam links on -1 pr sites). I can do nothing to prevent this. It’s not fair that google will punish me, right?

    So where am I going with this? If panda is to remain altruistic then analytics data will be paramount. as long as back links are part of the equation you will all keep smacking your heads against the pavement; google will continue to use links to evaluate site relevancy. Then they will eventually
    Juxtapose the keywords In those links against the engagement of organic search traffic for the same keywords. If that level of engagement is superior the site will improve in the rankings.

    My point is that if your design is cohesive, product/service offering is legit and site is well optimized on page your link profile will only matter insofar as your are showing google that you are doing something to promote yourself.

    So stop thinking so hard about good vs bad links and start thinking about getting clients with good
    Products and services.

  38. Lesley K says:

    @ Max – it’s a great idea….however in practice it isn’t the case….we are hearing of a lot of sites losing rankings in a big way. These are legitimate businesses with good products, great sites and good content etc.

    It’s not enough.

    In an ideal world it would be….but this is the googleverse.

    ‘nough said.

  39. The days of SEO where you can just spam the web with a bunch of erroneous links and expect good results are long over. The problem is many SEO “professionals” have failed to evolve over the years. You have to be a good marketer to be a good SEO person and that I think is what Google is striving for with their upcoming and recent algorithm changes.

  40. Dirk says:

    Fair enough, but what’s the alternative to buying bullshit links if you can’t attract them naturally? Let’s face it: Working in the dirty “pills and poker” industry, there’s no such thing as “great content” holding the potential to receive good backlinks from readers or other webmasters without monetary compensation…

    I think the only way to go in my case is to build high quality websites and use them for backlinking purposes again…

  41. Vusal says:

    Nice article Richard,
    Google kills the websites for “bad links” they have, which is a bit dump… one of my competitors built spam links recently to MY site, and guess what, Google decided to penalize my site :)

  42. BB says:

    Yes, what is the reason to “weed out” the bad links, when you can’t actually get rid of them? Sounds like wasted time…

  43. Nathan says:

    Why are you focusing on domains with a PR of -1? Doesn’t that just mean that Google isn’t returning a value? When Google removes PR from a site, doesn’t it drop to 0?

  44. Ted Ives says:

    Nathan, I think by -1 Richard means “N/A”.

    To me though, “N/A” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, it just means “not a whole lot of PageRank”, i.e. “relatively ineffective”.

    I think it’s more valuable to try to figure out if you’re obtaining a link from a site with a penalty. For instance, if a website returns PR3, but doesn’t show up in Google SERPs for its own website name at all, it might be worth steering away from that one for a link.

  45. Richard says:

    Hey guys, yes – Ted’s correct. checking the site / link is indexed is smart, actually it’s quite an old tactic – check new referrer is indexed, if not, link to it from somewhere you know will get it indexed…

    The -1 may indicate something is worth checking out in almost all cases, it is.

  46. rambabu seo says:

    as we know links are blood for any website, so we must keep in mind any of the links we are getting or building should not seem to be low quality or unuseful. thanks richard writing this article on such important topic to know what things we must know building links

  47. The returned -1 on the public Google PageRank metric indicates that the domain has not yet been checked by Google or is otherwise unknown to them. Seeing as the visible PageRank is only updated quarterly (approximately), there are large periods of the year where domains are still awaiting their first PR update – and this is where the -1 is shown.

    As already pointed out however, a good bet to place your analysis emphasis as these will likely be new or blacklisted domains indicating their has been some ‘bad practice’, manipulative or artificial link building occurring.

  48. Derek Jansen says:

    Great post Richard. I guess the good news is that those relying on the crappy paid links are finally getting what they paid for with the Venice update. The paid link networks are dropping like flies, left right and center – so I guess its the end of the road for these sort of “one size fits all” link practices.

  49. rambabu seo says:

    yes derek, exatly that sort of way we need to work now and in order to make new high authority links

  50. Barry Adams says:

    “Let he who is without sin…”

  51. Jacob says:

    I see so many posts about SEO like this where people bash everyone elses link building strategies. While I agree the examples you showed are bad ones, what you failed to mention are good ways of building links. You don’t even mention other articles that explain good ways of building links.

  52. Tyler Herman says:

    Deindexing only confirmed that Google will still give the same “search juice” to people using these practices, they will just have to build new link networks or find other methods to do the same thing.

    I’m sure many people are working tirelessly on rebuilding what Google tore down. Everything will be back as it was 3 months from now.

  53. Fergus says:

    Hi Richard, inevitably negative SEO will rise due to the recent Google updates, it’s a cheap method to build rubbish towards a competitor site and cause havoc. I’m surprised Google doesn’t provide any solutions to allow webmasters to add a robots file or server side script to block bad incoming links, say to Google hey we don’t like these links please do not associate my site with them. Perhaps it’s not possible.

  54. Richard says:

    Hi Fergus

    We suspect that during a re-inclusion request that essentially gives it up on your own backlinks, Google might temporarily do this – at least they choose to ignore the negative impact generated by the bad links.


  55. Fergus says:

    The trouble is re-inclusion requests are incredibly slow and the damage is done, it’s hard to get a site out of the quicksand (for the average not huge brand site). To actually remove the offending links can be a painful process, not impossible though, I’ve found ‘paid’ link removal gets the job done far more rapidly, which is kinda ironic really…

  56. Martin says:

    This is very true, we’ve found that although a huge time sink in terms of resources, we’ve had some great good success on removing bad backlinks. In the majority of cases (mainly old reciprocal linking partnerships) we’ve managed to completely remove loads of links for free.

    Content network links have proved significantly harder to remove and in this case cash certainly talks. The question is though is this a good use of time, often penalties are only for the specific primary keyword being abused in the anchor text. If your not too hung up of the ‘money terms’ and your client is looking for traffic and conversions it might be better to invest in good quality content for a year or so, then go back to Google and ask nicely.

    End of the day your right there are so many bad SEOs out there creating a ‘right old mess’ for someone to try to un-do in the future. That or burn the domain and start again in some cases, although I’m yet to meet a client happy to do this.

  57. Freud says:

    Of course this practice is not going to pay off in the short or long term. Lurred in by sales people the broken promises and wasted cash result in misery for people waiting for results. It’s such a sad state of affairs that human behaviour has sunk so low. Write good quality content and join likeminded forums to share your quality discussions, like this one :)
    It really pains me to know that 90% of the SEO profession is made up of scam artists. Offering nothing in return for peoples hard earned cash. Ironically the only benefactor is the rule maker – Google!

  58. Rahman says:

    Nice article, but in near future, even good links won’t matter much. Google will give no importance to links or anchor texts.

  59. Ted says:

    Well, everyone’s talking about manual removing process. Great! Now imagine a domain, that was countlessly poured with senuke or xrumer, abandoning is not an option, no more hair on SEO’s head. I realize that here’s a spot where you guys are showing-off and marketing, but here’s the case. Anyone interested – welcome for details.

  60. Matt Janaway says:

    I’m afraid that there are SO many cowboy SEO companies out there. I get at least 2 calls a day from SEO salesmen – I purposely waste their time asking about their techniques and methods and some of them are sooooo 2002!

  61. Matt Janaway says:

    I’m in the same boat… Every other week I get “but this works and its cheaper and quicker than your methods”. My response is always the same… “Just watch these idiots fall from grace as soon as they are caught”. The problem is, lots never get caught!!!

  62. Great info and great website. Its getting harder and harder to get a good listing. You just take it day by day.

  63. Dan says:

    This is what makes the SEO industry and all the comment on it so frustrating. Even on the best sites, such as this one, SEO professionals are essentially talking to other SEO professionals and not to their customers. As far as I can see, ALL of my competitors rank better than me on the basis of crappy links, but the only expert advice I hear is ‘don’t build crappy links’.

    I’ve invested all my money (none left, can’t pay for ‘SEO consulting’) and huge amounts of my time to get an ecommerce site off the ground. No help is available (that I can afford to access) except trite restatements of ‘improve the quality of your content and you’ll attract links organically.’

    The barriers to entry in any ecommerce field have risen massively in the last few years as Google drives out small players and makes it easier to dominate niches with large PPC budgets. SEO experts forget or ignore or don’t realise that ‘search’ for Google is peripheral to their business model, except as a means to generate advertising revenue.

    This essentially means SEO is dead as far as small business ecommerce sites are concerned. And BTW I’d say the barrier to entry is probably around having a turnover of £1.2m a year, if SEOgadet’s client list is a good indicator.

  64. Ray Cassidy says:

    Following on from Dan’s comment below. I’ve been sucked in by the spammy promises – at the same time as thinking I was avoiding the spammier side of link building. One of the unfortunate problems is that many business owners are not prepared to pay for the actual work involved.

    I found this blog while trying to hunt out a trustworthy affordable link building service for my own client’s websites. These clients range from the penniless community association up the road, to the consultant with not enough clients to fund a regular link building session and who doesn’t act on the advice and directions I’ve given him for developing links himself in the slack time he has got; to a gentleman who has a small budget but is trying to break into massive corporate coaching circles. Ideally I wan to deal with one company who can link build for me for the tiddlers through to a couple of potential titans! After my misjudgement earlier in the year which actually hurt a client website, I find it really difficult to jump. My own business is still so cash starved that I simply cannot test the services out on any of my own sacrificial websites. So folks any recommendations for budget ethical super effective link building providers. And don’t take awqy the impression that I’m bleating – I ain’t- I just want to find somebody who expects to earn a reasonable return on their graft but who isn’t so painfully expensive we can never get started. Solve that problem for me and the world will be a much smilier place ;-)

  65. GEORGE SCOTT says:

    I recently received 2 requests to remove links from one of my link pages. They claimed to have been told by google that the page they were on was low quality.

    First: where is a list like this to be found?

    Second: About the end of March I did a lot of re-writing pages, and my traffic dropped from about 1500 page loads per day to about 600.

    Third: I’ve always exchanged links with anyone interested.

    My site has been up for 12 years and has 98 pages. 10 of them are link pages, categorized as to subject and alphabetized, with internal subject classes. The page in question is for misc. links: stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else. This page is a PR 1, which kind of surprises me: I didn’t think it would rank. My site is a PR 3.

    Some of the recent exchange sites are obvious “link lists”, and I’m wondering if that is bringing my site down! I check out a link before I put it up, and all of them have legitimate looking sites, but those sites linking back to me might be questionable.


  66. king says:

    I am still searching for ways to remove some backlinks. Could you write a post on that?

  67. Rang says:

    This is very useful information. Great Article. Thanks for sharing it.

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