When was the last time you performed a backlink audit ? If the answer is: months or years… you have work to do as soon as possible. You see, backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors. Still, it’s quite common for backlink maintenance to take a back seat to many digital marketers.
Regular backlink audits are essential. But if you’re not convinced, here’s a little story to put things into perspective.
The first time we did our backlink audit, we were a bit shocked. We had over 16,000 links to review. Yes, 16,000 . Worse still – nearly half of them were so-called “toxic” links. These are spammy sites that link to our site and may affect search rankings.
As you can imagine, auditing, analyzing and reviewing these links has been a bit tedious. But we prioritized it and saw an increase in our SEO performance because of it. Now every month we do a regular backlink audit as part of our website maintenance. With this first audit completed, it was much easier to maintain.
If you haven’t established your own regular backlink audit schedule, now is the time. And once you’ve developed a process, it’s easy to rinse and repeat. In this article, we’ll walk you through the steps of performing a backlink audit and why it’s a critical SEO strategy. Let’s start at the very beginning.
hat are backlinks?
Simply put, a backlink is a link to your website from another site. For example, if someone links to your site, it is a backlink from them. If you link to another website, they have a backlink from you. They may sometimes be called “inbound links” or “external links”.
Backlinks are often overlooked, probably because we don’t have as much control over them as we would like. Yet they are one of the most important SEO ranking factors . Even Google itself alluded to this, at one point listing backlinks in one of its top 3 ranking categories .
It is quite essential to create a backlink profile. But it’s equally important that these links are from high-quality, authoritative sources. And that’s where a backlink audit comes in.
Why is it important to perform backlink audits?
There are many spam sites. And it’s not uncommon for these types of websites to find your own site and link to it. Since Google evaluates the domain that links to yours when determining rankings, it is essential to assess what types of sources are referring to you and whether or not they are reputable sites.
Have you ever heard of link schemes? Google cracks down hard on them. They are a bad user experience for everyone involved. Google’s policies define link schemes as follows: “Any links intended to manipulate a site’s PageRank or ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation Google webmaster guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outbound links from your site.
So if you have unnatural, spammy, or just plain low quality links on your site, you risk a penalty from Google. As a result, if you want to keep your backlink profile clean, you will need to learn how to perform regular backlink audits.
6 Steps to Performing Your Own Backlink Audit
What is a backlink audit? It is a method used to record, analyze and manage your site’s backlinks. Throughout this process, you will compile exactly how many backlinks you have, remove or disavow toxic links, and whitelist high-quality authoritative sites. Performing this process regularly will maintain a clean backlink profile while identifying potential link building opportunities.
We’ll be honest, it’s a bit complicated the first time you do it. But it gets easier over time. Follow these 6 steps to perform your own backlink audit.
1. Find all your backlinks
When performing a regular backlink audit, the first step is to make a list of all of your site’s current backlinks. Easier said than done. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help you with this process. You’ll want to decide if you want to use a free tool or invest in a more comprehensive resource. If you opt for the latter, the process will be a little easier. But regular backlink audits are definitely still doable with a free program. It will just take a little more legwork. In this blog, we will walk you through the manual process.
There are many different tools you can use. I will recommend three. But really, any link analyzer will work. The idea here is that you should list each of your backlinks, along with the source of the link.
Google Search Console
This tool is free. You’ll need to add your site to Google Search Console if you haven’t already. But this tool offers valuable insights that are useful even beyond your backlink audit process. To find your list of backlinks, follow these steps:
- Log in and select the property from which you want to download the backlinks.
- Click on “links” in the left navigation bar.
- Under ‘top linking sites’, click ‘more’.
- You will notice your total number of backlinks at the top. You can export this list as a spreadsheet by clicking on “export”.
This is the tool we used to perform our own backlink audit. SEMRush offers a “backlink audit tool” that easily compiles all of your backlinks into one easy-to-read list. But you need a subscription to use this feature. Here’s how to use the backlink audit tool to find your links:
- Go to the Backlink Audit tool and set up a project.
- You will have the option to configure your audit by entering the scope of your campaign. You’ll have the option to specify your brand name (enter alternate spellings), select categories for your brand, and select countries associated with your target audience.
- You can also enter target keywords, categories, and competitors associated with your domain.
- Then click on “start backlink audit” and wait a few moments. It takes a while to compile all your links, especially if you have several.
Moz open site explorer
If you have a Moz subscription, you can take advantage of their Link Explorer tool . It offers the same kind of functionality as SEMrush, but also gives you your domain authority, which can be useful when you start working on link building. Here’s how to get started with the Link Explorer:
Enter your URL in the dashboard.
Hit enter and you will get the following: domain authority, linking domains, inbound links, and ranking keywords.
Take note of the “inbound links”. You will receive various metrics on these links and have the option to export the list to an Excel document.
Building the list is the easy part of your audit. Once you’ve compiled your backlinks, it’s time to assess the quality of each link and take action on those that are potentially toxic.
2. Analyze the quality of backlinks
If you use a tool like SEMRush, you will automatically be warned about potentially toxic links. This process gets a bit trickier with a free tool, but still doable. You will want to analyze each backlink for the following:
Referring domain – This is the address of the site where your backlink is located. Investigate the site. Is it spam? Or is it a high quality domain?
Anchor text – Pay attention to what is used as anchor text for each backlink. This is the text that is used for the link. Usually an exact URL for anchor text is a red flag from a spammy site.
Domain Authority – This is a very important metric for analyzing link quality. Basically, DA refers to how well a site ranks on search engine results pages (SERPs). The higher the DA, the better the quality of the backlink. But just because a backlink has a low DA doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily a quality link. Sometimes these types of links can lead to more reputable links down the road. You have to start somewhere after all.
Other things to watch out for are sites that may link to your pages dozens or even hundreds of times. These are usually spammy sites. Also watch out for sites that add your domain to their footer as a reference. While this may be innocent, it can give you hundreds of links from a low quality site that could potentially damage your SEO.
Take note of each potentially “toxic” site. If this is your first time doing a backlink audit, you may have several. Don’t be scared, it’s normal. Once you have established your regular backlink auditing process, those links will be much easier to manage.
3. How to remove a bad backlink ?
Now that you have a list of toxic sites linking to your website, it’s time to take action. You will want to divide your listings into two different categories: link spam and low quality links. Low quality will be different from your spammy sites because these backlinks are legitimate enough, but they affect your backlink profile. Spam sites are clearly undesirable sites that you should not waste your time contacting.
It is, however, important to contact the site owners for these low-quality sites, as Google can penalize you if you disavow sites for no apparent reason. If possible, contact them and ask them to remove your link. Here is an example of a good awareness message:
Subject: Please remove the link
I am working on cleaning up our website and need your help to remove some links from your site. Although I am sure that your site is credible, I try to eliminate as many links as possible.
Here is the page with the link:
Here is the page of my site to which you connect:
Please remove this link and send me a quick note once you do. This will help keep track throughout my link cleaning process. Thank you very much !
Obviously, you’ll want to keep track of your responses and efforts. If you’re getting nowhere with your awareness, you’ll have no choice but to disavow these sites.
4. Disavow bad or toxic links
Google offers a special tool for this. The Disavow Links tool allows you to tell Google to ignore these links when indexing pages. It is important to use this feature with caution. If used incorrectly, you could harm your site’s search performance. But if you’re convinced a site is spammy, or if you’ve already tried to contact a low-quality site with no response, disavowing is your best bet.
To use this tool, you need to save a list of all the links you want to disavow in a .txt file. If you keep track of your links in an Excel file, all you need to do is “save as” a .txt file. If you use SEMRush or Moz or another tool, you will need to export your list.
We always recommend doubling, or even tripling, checking your list. You definitely don’t want to disavow a high-quality, authoritative backlink.
Once you have your list, head over to the Disavow tool . Select your property and upload your listing. Yeah, it’s as simple as that. Once you’ve uploaded your listing, Google will process your request and you can expect the links to be disavowed within the next few days.
Remember, only disavow links when you have no other choice. This is the last resort option.
5. Note all the quality backlinks
Throughout the backlink audit process, you have hopefully noticed high quality authoritative sites linking to your website. This is what backlinking is for. It is therefore very important to rate these sites and use these naturally obtained links as a basis for future link building strategies.
Note any high quality links and consider reaching out to some of these site owners to introduce yourself. Consider the types of high-quality sites that refer you, and think about other similar sites that might also be worth checking out.
Backlinks are very valuable when they are legitimate. It is therefore important that your backlink audit does not only focus on removing unwanted links. Also use it to build a comprehensive backlink building strategy. And you’re in luck – we’ve written an in-depth guide on how to build your backlinks (without begging).
6. Check and monitor progress
When you think you’ve completed your backlink audit, you haven’t. A backlink audit is never unique. This article explains, after all, why you need to perform regular backlink audits . So a big part of the process is measuring and monitoring your results.
Keep an eye out for any improvements in search rankings or website traffic as a result of your efforts. And don’t forget your outreach email. Has anyone responded to your request? Did you send a follow-up reminder? Maybe they deleted your link without responding.
By providing a regular cadence for your backlink audits, you will be able to verify the results of your efforts. Plus, with regular maintenance, you’ll make sure you never have to sort through thousands and thousands of links again.
Clean up your site with regular backlink audits
So this is it. This is how you establish a regular backlink auditing routine. Keep in mind that SEO best practices are constantly evolving. Your backlink audit strategy must therefore adapt over time. And the more you audit your backlinks, the more information you’ll have about the kind of links you want — and the kind of links that need to be removed.
And remember, there are many tools that can help you. As the world of SEO evolves, keep an eye out for new information, strategies, or tools that could help make your backlink audit easier and more effective. Your search ranking performance will thank you.