Deep Dive: Toxic Links

Posted on Jan 26, 2017 in search algorithms

The phrase Toxic Links is commonly used to describe links that can negatively affect ranking. It is 100% true that particular links can be identified as manipulative and cause a site to lose rankings. There are other kinds of links that are random, like barnacles. Many domains accumulate them, doesn’t matter if you’re Nike, they still accumulate them.  Random links do not affect a site’s ability to rank. They are background noise in the link graph. However the phrase Toxic Links is also applied to links that are not manipulative but simply low quality. There is a difference between manipulative links and low quality links.

What are Toxic Links?

Have you ever heard or read of a Googler or research scientist refer to links as toxic? I haven’t. Googlers have not historically discussed links in terms of them being toxic. Yet the concept of toxic links are intricately associated with the Penguin algorithm.  The fact is that the phrase Toxic Links is an SEO invention. Confusion can happen when the search community discusses the algorithms in terms that are disconnected with how the algorithms actually work. Mistaken notions take hold.

The Negative Link Algorithm?

There is in fact a kind of algorithm that tracks spam links. It’s the reverse of the well known Trust Rank. It’s the Anti-Trust Algorithm. But that’s not the Penguin Algorithm.

  • Links either help a site rank or they don’t help a site rank.
  • Links are either natural or unnatural.
  • Links are citations,
  • Links navigation,
  • Links are advertising
  • Links are sometimes spam.

Links are all of the above but links are not poisonous.

How to Deal with Spam Links

Every site that manages to rank for search term accumulates low quality links, typically called scraper links. They’re called scraper links because bots scour the web to copy parts of content (called scraping) in order to republish on spam sites.  This has always been the case. It’s only with increased panicking about “toxic links” that some web publishers have noticed these poor quality links.

Low quality links are normal. Every successful site has low quality links in its backlink profile. This has always been the case. Outside of hyper-competitive affiliate niches, low quality backlinks are not necessarily evidence of a negative SEO attack.

Help for Toxic Links

There is no research or patent that uses the word toxic to describe links. The fact is that in the context of search algorithmslinks are never toxic.  Search algorithms are concerned with manipulative links that are acquired for the purpose of ranking better. That’s it. This means that the for the purposes of spam detection or ranking, random links are simply discounted as irrelevant. They don’t count for ranking and they don’t count as spam.

Basically, and this is a simplification, what we have are two classes of sites. Sites that are included in the ranking part of the search algorithm and sites that are excluded and will never make it to the competitive SERPs.

Should You Disavow Links?

The only links you should be disavowing are low quality links you are responsible for.  That’s what the disavow report was created for. The Disavow Report is not an SEO tool to help you rank better. It’s a self-reporting tool to report your link building mistakes. Google knows about low quality links already and is pretty good at devaluing them so that they simply do not count.

Toxic Links and Penguin

The concept of Toxic Links distorts the understanding of what the Penguin algorithm is. Thinking in terms of Toxic Links causes a misunderstanding of the Penguin algorithm.  Anything that keeps you in the dark is not good.

Anything that helps you understand what is truly going on is good.  Thinking of links in terms of toxicity will keep you in the dark. Darkness is ignorance. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is poverty.

False Positives

Random scraper type links are everywhere and if Google started penalizing sites for scraper links there would be massive collateral damage in the SERPs and a poor user experience for users who are trying to find information.  What the Penguin algorithm is, in my opinion, goes beyond simple pattern matching. Pattern matching and statistical analysis algorithms date back over a decade. Penguin, in my opinion, is doing more than identifying low quality links. I believe there may be some mapping of relationships.

Yes, once you’re caught they should be dropped into a disavowal report. But as long as I’ve been un-penalizing penalized sites, nearly fifteen years of experience, it has always been the case that once a site’s been penalized you have to render the site clean to an exaggerated level before it’s let back in.

The point is that the phrase may lead to some publishers feeling safe because their link is rated AAA for site health and neighborhood by 3rd party ranking metrics, and overlook the reality that a “high quality” site can still be flagged as hosting manipulative links. In my opinion, this thing about Toxic Links does a disservice to web publishers and their understanding of Penguin.

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