What is an unnatural link? You may be thinking that unnatural links are easy to notice. 

And in many cases you’d be correct. But, in other cases it isn’t so obvious. 

According to the Google Quality Guidelines, there are various rules about what they deem as “link spam”, and this gives us some guidance on what unnatural link building looks like. 

However, if we were to completely follow Google’s guidelines to the tee, you should also take note of this line – “Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam.” 

That is quite wide in scope, so in this article we’ll shed more light onto the type of links that may put you on the wrong side of Google, how to avoid unnatural links, and the truth about the risk of Google penalties. 

So as we described, this is in the Google Quality deadlines, and technically, any link that is built for the purpose of affecting rankings, is considered an unnatural link. 

The reason stems from the way that Google attributes value to results in the SERPs. If we go back to how Google’s PageRank algorithm worked when they originally made it – it was heavily reliant on links. 

The more high quality links going to that page, the more likely it’ll be rewarded with a higher ranking position. 

Google isn’t completely reliant on links as a ranking factor, especially now, but they are still very important. They’re probably a lot better at finding sites with spammy links, noticing excessive use of exact match anchor text, and other things indicative of particularly unnatural link building. 

Now, the dilemma that Google has is that if someone actively builds links to content – content that is not the highest value piece for that SERP (from a human perspective) – it has essentially impacted the integrity of the rankings of those term(s). 

So their preference will always be that people don’t actively try to acquire links, and they just make the best content, hoping that people find it valuable enough to link to. That was the original intention of using links as a ranking factor, and Google will always prefer that. 

The reality is – this isn’t going to happen. People will always want to ask for links (by whatever means), and the true value of content isn’t always going to win out in every case. 

If we stick to the strict definition, then a natural link is essentially when a website voluntarily links to another website without any request, or any kind of incentive from another party. This is a genuine endorsement, based purely on the editorial value of that piece of content. 

Whereas an unnatural link as we explained, are links that are indicative of an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings. This could be via paid links, link schemes/link exchanges, giving products for links, or any other kind of incentive. 

However, if we use the strict definition of a natural link, it becomes an unnatural link if you play any part at all in getting that link. Even sending an outreach link showing someone your content, is not natural! 

However, it isn’t practical for search engines to penalize people actively getting links. Google also isn’t all-knowing, so it wouldn’t even be possible for them to know exactly how you got the link, however, the algorithm has evolved so much that they can use some indicators to understand the “likelihood” of something being unnatural or not. 

And if you are working on your website’s SEO, your goal should be to build links actively, but make things look as natural as possible. By doing this, you can make your link profile stay on the right side of the algorithm, and reduce the risk of Google devaluing your links. 

When someone builds links and isn’t mindful at all of making things look natural (especially when it’s on low quality sites), they will eventually be noticed and Google will deem those links to be unnatural. They may not get a “Google penalty” per se, but devaluing is definitely possible. 

Unnatural links are often built via more black hat methods, or methods where the intention is purely to build links at scale, regardless of site quality. 

The problem with this, is that even if unnatural links do give you some short term SEO boost, it will cause some harm in the long term. Contrary to what some SEOs say, it isn’t always going to cause a “penalty”. A penalty (i.e.a manual action) tends to happen when someone is engaging in unnatural link building/SEO methods that cause particular alarm, and requires manual action by someone at Google’s end – thereby causing a penalty. 

You may sometimes receive a warning from Google however, which will look like this.

Google's warning on unnatural links to your site

However, regardless of it resulting in a penalty or not, unnatural links can still cause that traffic drop, as Google will detect those links, and then devalue them. Any benefit those links did have, will deteriorate, and then you’ll land up with the same result. 

It’s also important when you’re outsourcing your SEO and link building, as you have to be extremely aware of what is unnatural looking link building, and what isn’t. And let’s say you engage with an unscrupulous or inexperienced SEO, who does end up doing unnatural links, you need to be able to know what you should be looking for, and what you may need to get removed. 

Equally, it also informs on how you should be doing link building, and you can identify a service which is focused on white hat strategies, so you can stand the best chance of building links that will have a long term impact. 

A link building audit, comes in really useful if you are just not getting enough traction, and need to determine if your historical approach to link building is at fault. 

Here’s 5 steps you can take to find unnatural links:

Step 1 – Surface Level Analysis of Backlinks

Use Semrush, Majestic or Ahrefs (or the SEO tool of your choice), and pull up the backlink profile of your domain. From there you can then get a high level view of all your links, and can filter through them accordingly. 

The first thing I like to do is just see the authority level of the links pointing at the site. I should expect to see a mixture of authorities but there should be at least some moderate authority links going to the site, equivalent to a DA or DR between 20 to 70. 

Do follow filter on Ahrefs backlinks profile analysis

If I check for a DR of between 0 to 10, and find a huge proportion of the links are from very low authority links, that can be an indicator of there being an issue. 

In this example, we can see about 75% of the total unique, dofollow links, are from low authority sites. 

Ahrefs screenshot showing backlinks from low authority websites

There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, rather than it being an active attempt to build low quality links at scale, but this at least gives us a starting point. We can then isolate those low authority links and see if they are natural-looking, especially since they are such a large proportion. 

However, third party metrics aren’t always reliable, so another check we like to do is also filter to see how many of the links have a low amount of domain traffic. For example, setting a benchmark of Domain Traffic >= 100, can indicate what proportion of the links are likely to be good quality or not. 

Domain traffic filter on Ahrefs backlinks profile report

Step 2 – Number of Links from Specific Domains

An excessive number of links all coming from one domain, can also be an indicator of unnatural links. You can run an analysis to see all of the links you have, and the referring domain each link comes from. 

number of links from specific domains

Generally speaking, one website shouldn’t be linking to another site excessively. It may be indicative that you have a widget that people are using, and it links out to your website. 

Step 3 – Check Anchor Text Use

The anchor text that is being used within your backlink profile, can be a clear indicator of how unnatural/natural those links are. Especially, overuse of certain anchor texts and excessive use of exact match anchors, can be indicative of unnatural links. 

Most tools will have a feature like this, where you can see the number of referring domains using a specific anchor. 

What you want to find is instances where you have a large number of sites using the same anchors, especially if it’s an exact match anchor. 

This one below, shows 381 referring domains using the same anchor. 

referring domains using same anchor text

Step 4 – Manually vet backlinks

This is a time consuming, but inevitable step when you need to dig further after the previous 3 steps – and that’s actually manually going through the backlinks and assessing the quality of the sites. 

You should put the backlinks into an Excel or Google Sheet, and indicate beside each one, if it is a good link, suspected unnatural and bad link. 

This goes beyond just looking at metrics like DA, DR or even just traffic levels, as they don’t give the full picture. 

What you want to look for, is links from low quality, link farms like the example shown here. 

example of link farm websites

SEO tools would indicate a strong authority level, and traffic of almost 5,000. However, within a glance, we can see the content is of very poor quality, there’s no narrow focus, the design is poor – and altogether just gives the impression of a blatant link farm. 

This is a common tactic used by many other link building agencies, where they’ll produce reports with seemingly good quality links, where the third party metrics and traffic levels give the impression of good backlinks on the surface. But when you actually dig into each one, you realize the overall quality of the site it’s on. 

A backlink profile made up of a lot of links like this, will look unnatural, as Google over time, will understand when a site is facilitating unnatural link building, and has been made purely for the purpose of giving out links. 

Even if it doesn’t lead to a penalty, it will almost certainly get devalued at some point. 

Note: Tools like Semrush do have a Backlink Audit Tool, which sorts toxic backlinks, based on their Toxicity Score. I would view such automated tools with caution, as they are not 100% accurate, and often will flag a good link. 

If you use third party tools to check for toxicity, it has to be combined with manual vetting. 

Step 5 – Look for Signs of Negative SEO

In most cases, where there is targeted link spam, this is where a disavow becomes more important. Aside from negative SEO, I would not normally recommend an urgent need for disavowing links, unless you have a link profile that is particularly weighted down by unnatural links. 

When conducting Steps 1 to 4, this may flag something up that indicates potential negative SEO that’s targeted at your site. 

Here’s an example of a negative link campaign we saw in the vape industry. (Note: this is “lost” as its been some time since they experienced this and they have since disavowed the links) 

negative link campaign in vape industry

What we saw here, is that the website was receiving a lot of inbound links from the same domains, in the regions of hundreds or even thousands of links. This happened over a period of months, and the anchor texts used were deliberately unrelated to the target page. 

For example, instead of “disposable vapes”, the person conducting the negative SEO, used anchors relating to CBD, hemp and even disposable nappies – probably to “confuse” Google. Unfortunately at the time, it did impact this company’s rankings and they experienced traffic loss. 

The solution was to collate all the unnatural links, place them in a disavow file and upload it into Google Search Console at regular intervals. Over the course of some months, this company did eventually reduce the impact of that campaign, and effectively reversed all the traffic loss. 

1 – Link Schemes

Link schemes are when you have a group of 2 or more websites, colluding to link to each other in an organized manner. An example of a circular link scheme is illustrated below.  

Link schemes

Credit: Majestic

It’s not exactly like a PBN, as these sites may have traffic and somewhat valuable content. But, they are linked together, to the point where the pattern is very clear. 

If the links are not relevant at all, then either get them removed, or nofollowed. If you own the entire structure, then of course you can do that yourself, or otherwise, email the people in charge of content/links at each website. 

This is against Google Quality Guidelines and you want to avoid engaging in organized link schemes. 

2 – Link Exchanges

Link exchanges or link swaps, which are done purely for the basis of manipulating rankings, is another type of unnatural link you want to avoid. 

We’ll cover the specifics around excessive link exchanges in more detail, in another article. 

Generally speaking, “social” link swaps, based on two parties finding editorial value in each other’s content – is different and can be considered safe. I don’t think Google is looking to penalize those types of links. 

However, where link exchanges can creep over more into the area of a ‘link scheme’ is when it becomes an organized link exchange, where either party does not really have the choice of making the link nofollow, there can be a tendency for links to be irrelevant and the context may be forced in some way. 

The main way to think about whether you’re doing it correctly is, would having a page like this actually be good for your readers/clients to use?  

Or does it just exist for search engines? 

For example, let’s say you’re a real estate agent and you have a resource page listing home inspectors, local mortgage companies, and other related sectors. This would be ok.

But,  let’s say that page started swapping links with realtors in other cities and unrelated businesses like casinos or car insurance companies  – then you’re starting to fall into the territory of link exchanges becoming more like a link scheme. 

3 – Injected Links

This is a pretty blatantly, spammy technique, where automated software is used to inject links into other websites. 

One of the techniques that people used to use to get these links, was that they’d sign up for a text link ad service, and their website would be distributed, and receive backlinks & advertising, inside a designated ad space, in the blogs the service had access to. 

However, the end result being that you end up with a lot of links with the same anchor text, distributed across sites which are probably not relevant. 

You would be best to avoid injected links completely, and to not sign up for services like these. 

Hacked links may even come under this, as there are black hat SEOs who will use XSS vulnerabilities in websites, to inject links.

4 – Sitewide Links

Sitewide links are often on the footer, or sidebar of a website – and can create an excessive number of outbound links going to a single target website. Those links will then have the exact same anchor. 

Sitewide links can occur naturally though, and these are fine. Some examples:

  • Some web design agencies may get mentioned on the footer of their clients websites.
  • Recipe blogs being linked to in the sidebar of other food bloggers.
  • Showcasing the SaaS/CMS system that powers a website – e.g. “Proudly Powered by WordPress” which links back to Wordpress.

Things like this probably won’t cause any harm, but when you have some degree of control over how people are linking to you – you can stay on the safe side by ensuring you only get branded links, and have them tagged with nofollow.

Historically, people did used to buy sitewide links on peoples blogrolls, and this was why they did receive a bad reputation. Google does see these types of links as natural, so if you have links like these, stop using them, and get them removed.

It’s important to note, one site doing a sitewide link to you, won’t cause a penalty even if it’s a large number of pages. But if there is an unnatural pattern forming, with a lot of sites linking to you on a sitewide basis, this can cause issues

5 – Low-quality Directories and Bookmarking Sites

Directory links are good foundational links, if you use legitimate sources. 

For example, there may be niche directories that are relevant to your business, local directories which list businesses in your region, or even the large players like Yelp, Yellow Pages and Better Business Bureau. 

What you want to avoid, is the directories that are not really designed for users, but purely for the purpose of outbound links. They often are poorly made, not maintained properly (if at all), and the results may often be inaccurate, irrelevant and/or with some questionable websites listed within it. 

example of directory website you should avoid

Here’s another one called ODP. A very random, low quality directory. This type of link maybe wouldn’t have been cause for alarm in previous years, but if you have an old site and did pick up a lot of directory links like this over time, it might be time to start removing or disavowing links like this. 

example of directory links to disavow

6 – Over Optimized Links in Press Releases and Syndicated Content

Press releases are not going to cause any harm, but trying to over optimize the links within those press releases can. 

So the general advice here is to stick to just using branded anchors, or just naked URLs, rather than trying to be very deliberate in using a keyword. 

Barry Schwartz and John Mueller talked about it here, in this this Webmaster Central Hangout back in 2013: 

  • At 5:40 John says press releases should be marked as nofollow. 
  • At 8:00, Barry asks again, and John clarifies that they saw this pattern over several years, where press releases were being used to manipulate rankings, and that they see this as an unnatural link. 

7 – Paid/Product Exchange Links on Low Quality Sites

There are different schools of thoughts about the concept of “paid links” – be it exchanging links for money, product or something else of monterey value – and whether you should be building these types of links or not. 

We’ll cover it in more detail in another article. But we’ll just lay out the facts here around how it relates to being seen as “unnatural.”

A link being paid, is not in of itself, going to make the link unnatural, since Google has no way of knowing if anything was exchanged for that link, unless the person tags it with a rel=”sponsored”, or rel=”nofollow” – and in which case the link does get ignored. The ambiguity comes in, if it’s left as a dofollow link. 

If you rely solely on paid links, is when it comes a problem. You will come across the following issues:

  • Generally speaking, paid links will be on sites which are of lower quality, and if they lower their editorial standards enough, they may end up just linking to anyone that gives them money. In other words your link may end up in a “bad neighborhood” from a link perspective. 
  • Sites that sell links tend to not have a lot of rules around context and anchor usage. That means you may be tempted to use an exact match anchor text, and a lot of other people buying links there, may also use exact match anchors.
  • Some very legitimate sites like charities, local sports teams, universities (i.e. scholarships) or professional associations may have a donations page, and will link out in exchange for a donation or sponsorship. The problem comes when you start to overuse this technique, and it becomes clear that you’re building sponsor/donations links at a large scale. 

So if you are exchanging money/product in exchange for links, be aware of those risks, and ensure to (1) diversify your tactics as much as possible and (2) do your due diligence when vetting websites and inserting links. 

If you have older links built with these techniques that do look unnatural you can try reaching out to get them tagged with a rel=nofollow. 

8 – PBN links

Private blog networks (PBN) are a staple technique for black hat SEOs. It essentially involves creating a large group of websites, that interlink to each other, or other networks, and then using it to insert links, which will point to a target website. 

These PBN sites often have little if any traffic, and are only created for the SEO benefit. 

Undoubtedly, these can still work, despite Google’s attempt to discover and devalue many PBNs over the years. However, the effects can be short lived and may only give a short term boost. 

And if Google catches you using PBN links, it will eventually devalue the links, and you’ll be at a much higher risk of being penalized. 

Here’s an example of someone on BHW sharing how they used PBN links, and then lost all their rankings.

someone on BHW sharing their negative experience after using PBN links

So if a previous owner, or a service provider has been building PBN links to your site, you can distinguish them from legitimate links. They’ll be very poor quality sites, even worse than a link farm site – often characterized as pages filled with gobbledygook, and exact match anchors pointing at various websites.

If you have received a penalty, the best course of action should be to try and get the links removed (if you build them yourself and have actual access to those networks then of course remove them), otherwise disavow those links. 

9 – Comment Spam

There’s nothing inherently wrong with commenting on blogs, and occasionally, sharing a link when it’s relevant to the blog, and will actually provide further value, or support a point you’re making. 

But done at scale, with over optimized links –  is another tactic which is considered an old black hat technique, and will look unnatural to Google. 

10 – Spam Links from Blog Posts & Product Pages

These types of links take the form of very spammy looking links, from low quality sites, often with no niche relevance, and often overly optimized anchors, or completely irrelevant anchor texts. 

Over the years at TLG, we have audited some client sites and noticed work from other freelancers or agencies like this. 

There isn’t really any logical reason to create a campaign like this, other than someone trying to take a quantity vs quality approach to link building. 

The best thing is to either drown out these low quality links, with good quality link building, or if you’ve already received a penalty, is to disavow the links. 

11 – Forum Spam

You’ve probably seen this before if you’ve frequented some forums. An automated bot that comments in random threads and has a link back to some random, irrelevant websites. 

Aside from it being really annoying, and creating work for forum mods – they’re also very unnatural looking!

Most forum links are nofollow anyway, but it does still get abused. Having a link in a forum profile, or forum signature is ok, as long as its relevant to the forum and is there for user value purposes.

To stay on the safe side, I’d recommend not using exact match anchor texts here, and keeping it to a small % of your overall backlink profile – rather than building forum profile links in massive scale and putting yourself at risk of looking unnatural. 

12 – Spammy Guest Post/Sponsored Posts

Guest posting is definitely not dead. 

But, guest posting on low quality, irrelevant sites, or guest posting with no consideration of over optimization – probably is dead.

The whole intent behind guest posting as a tactic is to provide content of value to the audience of that site. And if done right, you’ll be building links on relevant sites, and segueing that guest post to a topic that crosses over with your business or content – which makes the link contextual. 

Matt Cutts covers this topic in more detail here. It’s a little ambiguous on what “high quality” guest posting is, and what isn’t high quality. 

But our stance, is to:

  • Focus on the quality of the sites you’re posting on. Properly vet them and ensure they are not link farms. 
  • Don’t over optimize the anchors. Especially when its exact match anchors, for commercial terms, it can look unnatural. So you need to create some natural variation in your anchor texts. 
  • Ensure you don’t plagiarize your own articles, or keep rewriting the same guest topic over and over for each website.
  • Contextual relevance is important. The closer the niche of the site you’re guest posting on, or at least the more logical that guest topic is in ‘bridging the gap’ between the 2 sites, the more natural it looks. Forcing a link in a topic, where you’re having to stretch to create the relevance will look more out of place. 

Again, it’s also about the scale. 

Guest posting shouldn’t be the only tactic you’re using to get links, and even if you’re relying on the link in the author bio, I don’t believe this creates an unnatural pattern. In fact, having branded links is probably more natural, although you don’t get as much SEO benefit when they only link to the homepage. 

The problem arises, when you do what I mentioned above, and do it at a volume where it’s very noticeable – it creates an unnatural pattern. 

13 – Scaled-up Web 2.0 & Automated Link Spam

There are services who will offer to build links at scale, often powered with some kind of software. 

They may be using things like SENuke, XRumer, or services where they create web 2.0 backlinks at scale. 

Whatever method they use, you will lose a degree of control, as you won’t know exactly where the links will get posted, the context surrounding those links, and there’s a risk of over optimization of certain anchor texts. 

A lot of backlinks with subdomains like blogspot.com, blogger.com, tumblr.com etc, can be indicative of this type of spammy, low quality link building. 

14 – Widget Links

There are various widgets that are being distributed by companies, which are free for people to display on their website. The only caveat being that they want to be credited with a backlink. 

Here’s an example of a weather forecast widget below:

example of widget link

Now the problem arises, if you try to scale this technique up too much, and are too aggressive with your choice of anchor text. 

Google released an article talking about this, and essentially, say that anyone abusing widgets with “keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links” is at risk of manual action. This could also be from someone using keyword anchors that are nothing to do with the linking site, like the example below. 

example of irrelevant widget link

The general guidance is either to not insert links, make them rel=nofollow or they are a branded link like the first example we showed. 

However, Matt Cutts did release a video advising to completely nofollow all widget links. 

This is erring very much on the side of caution, and it would be dependent on the kind of scale you’re doing, with widget link building. 

We have worked with a client who did extensive widget link building in their early days before working with us, and while they did not receive any manual action, they believed that the links were devalued after some time. 

This may be possible, but at TLG, we’d advise not relying extremely heavily on widget links, and as much as you can, ensuring the widget is actually niche relevant – i.e. it is a ‘logical’ link in terms of what the widget does/the site using it compared to what your website is. And, of course, use branded anchors. 

If you’re not the widget creator, and you’re dealing with historical backlinks that are being devalued/causing a penalty, then you’ll need to reach out to the widget creators and get the script changed. 

15 – Redirect Links / Expired Domains (kind of) 

Redirect domains are a technique that can work, and there are of course entire marketplaces built around this economy. 

As well as that, sometimes you may rebrand your company, and have old websites that you want to redirect to the new site. That’s perfectly normal, and you are probably safely in the “natural” link zone by doing this. 

Where it becomes an issue, is if you are not carefully vetting any expired domains you’re buying, or you’re carrying over spammy, unnatural links, from the backlink profile of the domain you are doing a 301 from. 

Regardless of the strength of the backlink profile of the new domain – the redirect, will transfer the majority (if not all) of the link equity, and by extension, Google’s perception of those backlinks.

So either fix the unnatural inbound links of that domain before doing the redirect, or consider against using it. 

General rules of thumb to consider here with 301 redirects/expired domains:

  • Make sure the domain has some logical relevance to the domain/page you’re redirecting it to. If anything’s majorly off with the relevance, it can simply look like you’re building unnatural links. Even if you don’t get a penalty, they may simply not have much impact. 
  • Don’t change your 301 multiple times. I have seen occasions where a domain/page is being redirected multiple times. 

Eric Ward talked about this a bit:

“Here’s the biggest danger of the 301. You’re 301’ing not one domain to another domain, you’re 301’ing from the domain to an interior section of another site. That means, at any given moment, you could decide, and you have links to the vanity domain that are then being forwarded to that new page. You could go into your htaccess and decide to change that 301 that it points to and point it to something else. Google doesn’t like that. Once Google has followed your 301, which is supposed to be a permanent move, and then you go in there and you change that 301 so now where it used to point to this directory, now it points to something new and people do this all the time because they’re trying to basically, hey that helped that page rank, why don’t we change the 301 and see if we can get that page to rank. If Google detects that you’re manipulating your 301’s that way, that’s the implication.”

If abused, this could be seen as unnatural and at TLG, we think at the very least, that link equity may dissipate after a certain point. Redirect once, maybe twice, to stay on the safe side and to retain as much of that equity as you can. 

  • It is ultimately about the scale at which you’re doing this. Be sensible about the domains you’re redirecting, and the amount you rely on this method. Buying dozens of domains, and redirecting them, in the hope you’ll get a ranking boost, may be a recipe for disaster further down the line. 

If you receive a warning from Google about unnatural links, or you suspect your links have been devalued, make sure you conduct a thorough audit of your backlink profile using your favorite backlink analysis tool. 

Semrush, Moz, Majestic and Ahrefs are just some of the tools you can use. 

We’ve discussed all the specifics you want to look for, and all the different types of unnatural links you might uncover, but here’s some of the places you’ll want to start with first. 

Anchor Text – The anchor text needs to be descriptive of the page it’s linking out to, and be contextually, and logically relevant within the page containing the backlink. Anchors that are partial or exact matches with your keywords are not necessarily cause for alarm, but too many of them will be. 

Domain Metrics – this might be DA, DR or Authority Score, are some of the metrics you may come across depending on what tool you’re using. It won’t tell you a lot purely from this one metric, but too many low authority links can be indicative of something to investigate further. Majestic is particularly useful here though, as the Trust Flow and Citation Flow metrics they use, and probably more powerful than the metrics of other tools. If you bring up your backlinks, and do a Trust Ratio calculation (TF/CF = Trust Ratio), this can give you some high level overview of the quality of those links. This is definitely not an exact science, but generally speaking, if the TR = 0.5 or more (and ideally close to 0.8 to 1.0), it’s a pretty good link. Links with a very low trust ratio may be indicative of low quality, unnatural link building. 

Link Relevance – How relevant are those backlinks to your website and the content its linking to? You will want as much contextual relevance as possible. Even if the niche isn’t too similar, the context has to make logical sense and the link must ‘bridge the gap’ effectively. 

Link Location – You generally want editorially placed links, within the body of the page, rather than the sidebar, footer, navigation menu and header. It should be easily located by users and search engines, and not hidden away within the code. 

Rather than put yourself at risk of getting the unnatural link warning from Google, and getting a manual penalty, its better to be proactive, in ensuring you follow good practice. Here’s a few tips:

Anchor Text Variation

A lot of the risk associated with unnatural links, centers around the use of anchor text, as this is one of the main ways in which they can detect unnatural link building. 

Make sure you have an idea of the anchors you can use for your pages, and vary them as much as possible. At the same time, aggressive anchor text doesn’t always cause devaluation/penalty, and if you do everything else correct, like really focus on sire relevance, site quality etc – you can probably get away with a bit more aggression on the anchor text – but it would be prudent to monitor your anchor text usage, and vary it. 

Backlink Audit

If you have been outsourcing your links for a while, and are seeing a slowdown in results or a dip in traffic not attributable to on-page and/or technical SEO factors – you should do a deep dive into your backlink profile and look for the potential presence of unnatural links, much like the examples shared earlier. 

I would exercise caution on using things like the Semrush Backlink Audit Tool, and trying to make determinations with their Toxic Score, and even the Link Detox Risk (a feature of LinkResearchTools). These tools claim to flag up “toxic links” but they will not be a substitute for some human intervention and common sense. 

Disavow spam

There are different schools of thought around this and it is an age-old debate within SEO. Is disavowing links actually going to be of any help and necessary? Or if you detect unnatural link building, should you just ignore those links and drown them out with good links?

Regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, if you’re absolutely certain of those links being of low quality and not passing any value (and we’ve gone through quite a few examples here of what you should watch out for) – you won’t do much harm by disavowing. 

Just bear in mind, any significant reduction in your link volume can in of itself, cause fluctuation in your traffic and some potential for traffic loss. But, the upside is that you can set yourself up for better gains later, and less risk of being devalued/penalized at a future date. 

Now in the case of very blatant link spam and/or negative SEO, I would advise disavowing those links. 

Make sure to conduct regular audits of your backlink profile, every 3 months or so, so you can catch unnatural links before it becomes an issue. 


Link building is an extremely crucial part of your overall SEO strategy, but you also have to be careful that it’s being done correctly, and with safe, sustainable methods. 

There’s nothing worse than doing so much great work on your website and content, and having a good foundation – to then have it ruined with unnatural link building. 

At the same time, a small piece of advice that I don’t see being discussed much in the industry. Bear in mind there is a whole economy behind toxic link audits and in detecting unnatural links – use due diligence and ensure you’re not simply being bombarded with jargon, or claims of third party tools being able to detect unnatural links. The reality is, nobody knows exactly what links Google will devalue or won’t devalue. 

A link from a “bad site” can still pass value, and similarly, even a link which doesn’t look natural, can still pass value. We should see it more as a kind of “dynamic equilibrium”. 

We want to follow Google’s guidelines as much as is required. It will never really be possible to completely follow the guidelines to a tee (after all, all link building is by its very essence unnatural), but we want to be making it look as natural as possible. If the intention is there to build good quality links, using sensible methods to acquire links, and not bulking up the link profile with spammy links – then you’re on the right path. 

This is where working with a reputable agency like TLG will get your site’s rankings on the right path, with fully transparent, quality link building performed by professionals with your company’s best interests in mind. 

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is an unnatural link?

An unnatural link is a backlink which can be easily detected by search engines like Google, as an attempt to manipulate a website’s ranking positions. Essentially, it looks like there is no value (i.e. from an editorial/audience standpoint) for that website and page to be linking to that website. 

If a link is unnatural, it has a higher risk of being devalued, or putting you towards a higher risk of being penalized. 

What is the difference between natural and unnatural links?

Natural backlinks in contrast to unnatural links, have higher editorial value and have the signals which make it look like an organic link. Whether it has been earned naturally, or through proactive outreach is secondary – but it looks like a natural link. 

What are harmful links?

Harmful links are backlinks which are low quality links that can potentially damage your reputation in the eyes of search engines like Google. 

These include unnatural links, or are sometimes described as toxic, manipulative or spammy links. 

An unnatural link may not cause significant harm in isolation, but in a significant volume, can cause harm – be it risk of manual penalty, or being devalued, which will cause organic traffic loss at a later date. 

 How do I get natural links?

A natural link can either be earned organically, simply from producing content that others find valuable, and link to naturally. (i.e. an earned link). 

But, links that look very natural, can also be gained with proactive outreach as well. While this doesn’t technically make it “natural” if we use the strict definition of the phrase – it acts and looks just like an earned link, as it adds value to the page that it has been placed on.

What is an example of a natural link?

A natural link can’t be defined by a specific tactic or technique to build them, but an example would be a blog post on an industry-relevant website, with actual traffic, which has a contextual, editorial link to an article on your website – for the purpose of giving the user more info about a subject. 

This is the very essence of what you should be trying to achieve with natural links.