How To Spot Your Potentially Harmful Links

by Wayne Barker June 26th, 2013 

The story is becoming commonplace.

It goes something like this.

4 years ago you decided that you wanted to see if you could get more enquiries/traffic/conversions/revenue from your website or your company's website.

You did some investigation or you delegated it to your marketing team and maybe went on a few SEO courses or you headed off to Google and you made a list of some of the companies that provided these services.

You hired them and you put your trust in them.

The results came.

Then Google made some adjustments to the algorithm and you disappeared.

It was only at this point that you found out that the results that you had been seeing had been propped up by SEO that wasn't sustainable.

You no longer have a relationship with aforementioned SEO company (or quite likely they don't even exist anymore) and your rankings and traffic have plummeted.

You think it's down to bad links, but you need to check. How do you do this?

In this post we are going to look at three of the most common types of links that you need to get removed -general directories, article directories and comment spam. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but more of a primer to get you started. Click on the following links to find out more information about identifying paid links and site wide links.

You need to download your links

Head over to your Webmaster Tools and download the links from there. Getting the data straight from Google's data is important for you to be able to see what Google is seeing although you should always take it with a pinch of salt 😉


Get some more link data

There are several providers that you could use here to get some supplementary data Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer and Link Detox are some examples.

For this post we will use Majestic SEO because they have plenty of data and they have just made all the data available for sites that you have access to.


So now you have your data you need to be able to check the sites. For someone who looks at sites all day long making quick decisions isn't a problem. For a novice working on their own site with limited knowledge of what makes a site bad is a bit daunting. It's a harrowing task buy you have to go through the sites one by one!

So let's have a look at the kind of sites that you need to be marking as potentially harmful the ones that contain links that might be doing you harm.

General Directories

Historically directories were a good way of diversifying your backlink profile, bumping up the numbers of links that you had and gaining some control over the anchor text that you had. Google even used to own one of the biggest general directories on the web in Dmoz. As with everything else, it became abused and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of these directories started popping up and SEO companies submitted their clients to thousands of them.

As a rule of thumb you can assume that any directory that was made for links is going to be the kind of site that you want to flag up for removal. Of all the potentially harmful links these are the easiest to spot.

  • They often have been built using a template that is similar to 100's of other directories
  • They have any easy way for you to submit a link
  • The cover a multitude of categories rather than being focussed on one topic or area


  • They are difficult to contact often having nothing more than a contact form


  • They are often de-indexed by Google. Proof that Google has no real interest in the content of this site


  • They often mention such words as 'seo friendly', 'add you URL', 'human edited' (clue, it isn't) 'free directory' or 'powered by php link directory'- casting your eyes over a few of these and you will soon start to get the picture!

Notes: Niche directories are a different matter ones that are super focussed and are relevant to your industry can still help make sure you are not eliminating these. There are some general directories that Google still trusts.


Article Directories

Another type of link that you need to be looking out for is article directories. These sites were absolutely massive a few years ago and many SEO's used them as a way to build anchor text from what often appeared to be quite authoritative sites.

If you have suffered at the hands of bad links you are quite likely to see a number of these popping up in your data. You will even find that you can filter them in your excel files that you have from Google and Majestic just be filtering by the word 'article' 😉


Beyond that you can spot these kinds of article directories via similar methods to what I describe for general directories.

Don't judge by Toolbar PageRank - it's outdated, unreliable and dare I say it? misleading. Also take into account the adjustments that Google has made to its webmaster guidelines recently:

What it says:


What it used to say:


Article directories ceased to provide anything useful a long time ago many nearly all are filled with spun, low quality and regurgitated content. They are a hotbed of anchor text abuse and you are better off flagging them all for removal

Comment Spam

You can bet your bottom dollar that if your SEO Company were building article links and non-related directory links that any comments links that you find are likely to be garbage as well. These are incredibly easy to spot and when you see a couple of them you will be able to pick them out of the line up quite easily.

  • The comment is often incomprehensible or in broken English
  • It has nothing (or very little) to do with the post
  • It has commercial anchor text related to the keywords you used to target


So there you have three of the most common types of links that you will want to look at removing if you have suffered at the hands of Google's recent algorithm changes.

Here are some resources for you to have a look over for the actual task of removing these links:

Wayne Barker

I work for Boom Online - an Online Marketing and SEO company based in Nottingham, England.

Boom Online

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6 Responses to “How To Spot Your Potentially Harmful Links”

  1. Faizan Khamisani says:

    Hey Wayne,

    Thanks for the great article, I really like the research you explain in your article and the resources you have given are very helpful.

    Thanks for the great share :)

  2. Nathan Brook says:

    Google developed a tool to disavow unwanted links to your website. I think this helps some sites recovering and also make your competitors harder to hit your website.

  3. Josh Brancek says:

    Mr. Barker, would you say that every exact match commercial keyword link could be classified as potentionally harmful??

    • Wayne Barker says:

      Hey there Josh,

      I wouldn't say that EVERY exact match commercial keyword could be classed as potentially dangerous. You need to be able to judge each and every link on its own merits. If you had a link in a blog posts that occurred naturally that just happened to be a commercial keyword I wouldn't want you to remove that. Look at the site and the link and the text together for the bigger picture.

      That said naturally occuring commercial anchor text isn't very common, commercial anchor text that was place (on a directory, article site etc) have a footprint, can easily be spotted by eye and algorithm. these are the ones that you have to look out for.

      The by product of the changes that Google have made is FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) making site owners, webmasters and SEO's scared of any anchor text in their profile. If you remove the ones that were actually placed for SEO benefit you are heading down the right tracks.