How to Conduct a Link Audit Like Sherlock Holmes

by Chris Kilbourn

Last updated on November 25th, 2017

Feeling the pain of poor SEO efforts in the past? Thanks to Penguin 2.0 and Hummingbird, the search game has changed. It’s now more important than ever to find and root out bad links to your site.

Most links are great. But the wrong kinds of links could end up hurting your search ranking. Google Webmaster Tools distinguishes between natural links (inbound links that have evolved organically) and unnatural links (those that have probably resulted from an old link building campaign.)

If you’ve ever helped to create links, they aren’t natural. You have to get rid of them.

Sherlock Holmes Magnifying Glass
Image credit: Gail Frederick

What Do Bad Links Look Like?

You need to be able to find these unnatural links. If you can, export the data from your backlink checker into a spreadsheet and look for:

  • links with the same anchor text coming from multiple sites.
  • links from sites that are unrelated to your niche.
  • links from sites with a low pagerank or low traffic.
  • links from article directories or sites that look like link farms.
  • links from link exchanges.
  • paid links (whether in sponsored posts, bios, the sidebar or wherever).
  • links from sites with malware warnings.
  • links from sites that aren’t in the Google index (search for site:YOUR DOMAIN NAME).
  • spammy links in blog comments.

Now that you know what you’re looking for, here are some tools to help you find them.

Under the Magnifying Glass – Tools for Finding Bad Links

Glass Colors
Image credit: Laogooli

Here are some tools to help you identify bad links.

  1. Google Webmaster Tools – Google Webmaster Tools is the place where you might first get a warning about the presence of unnatural links to your site. It’s also a great tool for getting more detail on those links. Go to the section of the web interface which shows links to your site (it’s under “traffic”) and you can see and download a sample of the data on inbound links.
  2. The free version of Open Site Explorer will tell you the title, URL, page authority and domain authority of your links. There’s an analysis of top pages, linking domains and recently discovered links. However, this is limited to the first few results. You’ll have to upgrade to the paid version of Moz Tools for unlimited use of the tool.
  3. Ahrefs gives a good breakdown of inbound links according to IP, domain, type of site (such as government or educational), and TLD suffix. There’s also a good breakdown of the types of links (sitewide or not, nofollow/dofollow, redirects, forms and so on). In each case you can click for more information. Data is limited in the free version.
  4. Majestic SEO is another popular link profile analysis tool, showing you types of links,anchor text and even assigning a trust score. It has a free plan for personal use, as well as paid plans.
  5. The SEO Gadget Excel tool works with exported data from Open Site Explorer, enabling you to categorize links.
  6. Pick your own – backlink checking is such an important part of managing your site that there are dozens around, some of them built on the tools listed above, as well as those designed for enterprise users like Link Research Tools and Raven Tools. Matthew Woodward has a good comparison of some of the key ones and so does SEO Hacker.

WordPress Link Audit Tools

Spider Web
Image credit: Photofilde

WordPress site owners have a range of tools for eliminating bad links. These include:

  • Broken Link Checker – for finding both internal and outbound links that don’t work. These also hurt SEO and are worth eliminating.
  • Wordfence Security – a security plugin that runs a regular scan, identifying links out to sites identified as triggering malware warnings. You can edit those links from within the WordPress dashboard.
  • CommentLuv Link Cleaner – a plugin to get rid of all those dubious outbound links if you’re using CommentLuv on your site.

The Next Step – Remove and Disavow

When you’ve found the links you want to get rid of, you have a few options. First, you can request that site owners remove the links that you no longer want pointing to your site.

Search Engine Watch has a good tutorial on creating link removal requests. It suggests that you send a polite request to the on-site contact email and to the WHOIS contact (unless they’re the same) and that you include a link to the page which has the offending link. This will increase your chance of getting the link removed. Try a service like TaskBullet to help administer your link removal campaign.

Another option is to use a link removal tool like these:

  • Remove ’em, which finds bad links and includes a webmaster contact database for link removal requests. There’s a self-service option priced at $249, as well as a full-service option.
  • Rmoov works with an imported list of links to find webmaster contact information and run and report on a link removal campaign.

In both cases, you should keep track of your link removal efforts, because if your site has suffered a penalty because of bad links, it’s good to be able to show that you really tried to have those links removed.

As a last resort, you should try to Google Disavow Links tool. If you have exhausted all other methods and still have a few questionable links, then hit the red button and upload a spreadsheet with those links. It may take a while, but eventually you should see an improvement in your ranking.

Final Thoughts: Be Patient

The process of removing links is not for the faint of heart. It may take some time for you to hear back from website owners. Depending on the extent of the damage, you may not see results as soon as you would like.

Be patient, and be persistent. Ultimately, this is one of the best decisions you can make for the health of your online marketing.



Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Chris Kilbourn

Chris Kilbourn is a content strategist at Qzzr, an online quiz tool that allows you to create quizzes and post them anywhere. In past lives, he was a professional rock star (seriously), and he built and sold 2 successful companies from the ground up. You can connect with him via email at


Comment Policy

Please join the conversation! We like long and thoughtful communication.
Abrupt comments and gibberish will not be approved. Please, only use your real name, not your business name or keywords. We rarely allow links in your comment.
Finally, please use your favorite personal social media profile for the website field.


Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Anonymous says:
    January 8, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    The trends in this industry change and new developments take place only when Google comes up with some novel feature that ends up breaking every site’s SEO
    and compels them to consider a change in their current content presentation in order to do well.
    Yes, your website would probably have appeared on the first page of the search results, but it
    was so badly written it was unlikely to convert many
    visitors into customers. There are several ways to do it, such
    as landing page creation that can help to group your local services.

  2. Akbar says:
    July 23, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    your chance of getting the link removed. Try a service like Freelanso to help administer your link removal campaign.

  3. Dino says:
    November 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    “links from sites that aren’t in the Google index (search for site:YOUR DOMAIN NAME).”
    That links are not bad since the sites are no indexed, so Google cannot find your link there.

    • Jacob says:
      December 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Hi Chris,

      Great post, and thanks for the mention of Remove’em.

      I would like to add that one of the big indicators to Google are links pointing to your site with commercial anchor text, as the average natural link is typically some variant of your brand (domain name, company name, url, etc.)

      I would also like to comment to Dino, that links from sites that are not in Google’s index are bad links. Just because Google doesn’t show them in the index doesn’t mean that Google cannot find your link. In many cases, the site is no longer in Google’s index, because Google has deemed it to be such low quality that they have removed if from their index or implemented a penalty to remove them. A great example of this is the large number of link directories that Google admittedly deindexed last year, which we know they are following the link graph to identify sites that were soliciting links for SEO.

  4. Ashley says:
    November 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Coudn’t agree more on monitoring your links.
    You never know when google is going to penalize you and we constantly have to monitor this.
    I have used open site explorer before and also ahrefs, but some of the others not yet – so thanks for that.

    • Chris Kilbourn says:
      November 26, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Hey Ashley,

      I agree. If you do white hat link building, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


Show Me My Heatmap

Click tracking, heat maps, and no spreadsheet? Yes, please. @CrazyEgg is one solution.



What makes people leave your website?