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Data-Driven Marketing

Backlink Audit 101 — 5 Steps to Understanding Your Site’s Links

Backlinking audits should be a regular part of your SEO regime. Here’s our guide to backlink audits, including the what, how, and when to perform one.

9 mins read time
Devan Randolph
Devan Randolph

Aug 29, 2022

As a marketer, you’re putting in the work, watching your organic traffic grow, and gaining authority in the space as a result. But suddenly, you see your traffic drop off. (insert panicking emoji) In a crazed frenzy, you check for algorithm updates, tracking errors, and ranking losses to no avail. 

Then a lightbulb goes off — backlinks! To your horror, you perform an audit for the first time in months? Years? Only to find thousands of unchecked backlinks pointing to your site from who knows where. All at once, your computer crashes and bursts into flames rendering you helpless…

Alright, so it may not be this dramatic, but you see where we’re going with this. 

Backlink audits play a big part in your SEO strategy and have critical effects on your overall site rankings. Although it’s common for digital marketers to leave their backlinks unchecked for long periods, it’s not advised. Below we’re going to uncover the ins and outs of backlink audits as well as why they are crucial and the steps to complete one. 

What Is a Backlink Audit?

Backlink audits are the evaluation of all the links leading back to your website. Think of backlinks as a referral, but not all referrals come from reputable places. And you want only the best websites referring visitors to your website. Think about it — you’d take advice from a trusted friend over a shady individual, right? The same concept applies here. 

Why Are Backlink Audits Important?

Backlink audits identify the good referrals, help eliminate the bad ones, and pump up your rankings in the process. Remember, backlinks are an effective tool in an SEO strategy but only if they are coming from a reputable site. There are two different types of backlinks that we’ll discuss below: the good and the toxic.  

Good vs. Toxic Links

Good backlinks are from trustworthy and reputable sites. For example, gaining a backlink from Yahoo! (which is both popular and reputable) is a referral that tells Google, “Hey, I (Yahoo!) am vouching for XYZ site.” Google sees this and now makes XYZ site more prioritized in rankings. This is the goal. 

However, toxic backlinks, as you can probably guess, link from sites that are spam ridden, have broken links, mismatched intent, or non-indexed sites. These referring links decrease your reputation in the eyes of Google and therefore need to be identified and removed.  

5 Steps to Complete a Backlink Audit

From a simple Google search, you will quickly discover that there are many different ways to complete a backlink audit. Various tools can be handy for saving time and gaining more insight. For instance, performing a manual audit can take hours depending on the number of links you need to sift through. However, utilizing a tool can yield results in 30-45 minutes. Let’s look at some of those tools and dive into what to do after you’ve found those “toxic” links.

1. Choose Audit Program(s)

There are program options for any size business and any size budget to achieve a successful backlink audit. While you may find one successfully does the job, it’s popular to integrate multiple programs to get a more holistic view of your site. Here are the top three we would suggest and the pros/cons that accompany them:




Google Search Central

  • Free to use
  • Accurate information
  • Most up to date
  • Time-consuming: Users have to evaluate each link manually

SEMrush Backlink Audit

  • Free to get started
  • Analyzes using 30 toxic factors
  • Checks each backlink for red flags
  • The “Free” version has limitations 
  • Doesn’t show domain authority
  • Doesn’t show page authority

Moz Open Site Explorer

  • Finds broken links 
  • Checks spam score of each link
  • Offers domain and page authority checker
  • Moz only offers link explorer on the Pro plan
  • Pro plan is pricey compared to competitors
  • Reviews show that it tends to miss some linking domains

2. Audit Your Existing Backlinks

Auditing your backlinks involves visiting each linking site and determining the credibility and value of the site. This means analyzing the:

  • Domain authority
  • Number of broken links
  • Content (are they spam-ridden?)

  Assuming you have hundreds or thousands of links to sift through, doing this task by hand can be arduous and time-consuming, as we mentioned earlier. This is why you should definitely be using the help of an analysis tool like SEMrush or Moz to do the heavy lifting for you. 

3. Probe for Link Penalties

Another piece of the backlink audit puzzle is searching for link penalties. These can be manual or algorithmic penalties and will show their face in a few ways:

  • Manual penalties: These are reviews by Google team members that have been triggered by spam or some other occurrence that warrants a human review of your site. This will usually result in a notification from Google warning you of the penalty.
  • Algorithmic penalties: A review by Google algorithms that are a result of bad links or content conflicts that results in a drop in your SERP rankings. These are harder to track and harder to fix. 

While there is no sure-fire way to correct all penalties, you can avoid long-lasting effects by performing regular backlink audits, SEO audits, and content audits to clean up your profile.  

4. Stop the Paid Links

Google has not been shy about its opinion when it comes to paid links. They refer to them as “Link Schemes” and it can have a negative impact on your site rankings. Here are a few examples of what Google deems to be link-building malpractice:

  1. Purchasing links
  2. Trading goods or services for links
  3. Using automated services to build links

If you are working on building up your backlinks, remember that organic link generation is best. We’ll go into more detail later on how to build a healthy backlink profile. 

5. Prepare a Plan of Attack for Recovery

Unfortunately, the toxic links that you’ve uncovered are not going to disperse on their own; you’re going to need to put in some work to see improvement. Now, if you have hundreds of bad backlinks, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, but breaking the task down can allow for breathing room. 

There are two ways to eliminate these toxic links; request for removal and disavowing. Let’s look at each:

  • Request for removal: Sometimes, it's as simple as asking politely for the link to be removed. This would be the fastest way since they have direct access to the link in question. Draft up an email to the site's contact detailing who you are, your website, and the link(s) you would like taken down. 
  • Disavowing: Since you’ll find that many malicious sites are unwilling to comply with your request, you will have to take the backdoor. Disavowing a link is the process of letting Google go in and remove these links. You simply take your backlink list and upload it to the disavow links tool page. Google will then review the list and incorporate it into their crawl index. This can take a few weeks, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t see results immediately.

How to Build a Healthy Backlink Profile

Now that we’ve seen the best ways to identify and eliminate harmful links, let’s look at the best ways to build a healthy backlink profile. The tactic we suggest is White Hat SEO, where you put the user experience first and let the rankings fall in line naturally. Here are top techniques to follow:

  • Link building using unique guest posts 
  • Web design built for the mobile experience
  • Optimize loading times and page speeds
  • Update your sitemap
  • Incorporate internal page linking
  • Add alt text and labels on images
  • Include SEO best practices on all titles, copy, and meta descriptions
  • Prioritize copy that is both unique and relevant, targeting long and short-tail keywords

Backlink Audit FAQs

Below we’ll answer some of your top backlink audit questions for clarity and understanding. 

Which Is the Best Tool to Check Backlinks?

There is no one-size-fits-all tool for backlink audits. Each comes with its own strengths and advantages. We suggest using Google Search Central, SEMrush Backlink Audit, and Moz Open Site Explorer. 

What Are the Types of Backlinks?

There are many types of backlinks, but there are three backlinks that are considered to be superior in our eyes when building your website authority:

  1. Editorial backlinks: An organic link that is produced by an authoritative site 
  2. Acknowledgment backlinks: An organic link as a result of you sharing expertise or showcasing your brand
  3. Guest post backlinks: An earned backlink that you acquire by writing a post for another authoritative site

How Often Should You Conduct a Backlink Audit?

Every six months at least. If you have the resources to perform it more frequently, all the better, but twice a year should be your minimum. 

Keep in mind if you don’t feel totally confident going DIY with your audit, why not let the professionals handle it? First Page Strategy offers packages and services that give you expert advice on topics like SEO, analytics — and, yes, backlink audits. Plus, we offer an SEO audit for free as a complimentary perk to our potential clients. This not only can save you hours of manual labor, but you can be confident that you’re receiving expert-level results.

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Devan Randolph

Devan earned her BA at Temple University and started her career in PR. She has since worked with clients to strengthen their SEO strategy. Outside of work, you can find her traveling.

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