SEO Basics: Conduct a Link Audit to Avoid “Unnatural Links” Warning

Written by: Jason Bayless | May 23, 2013

Google will let you know if your site’s backlinks run afoul of their Webmaster Guidelines, but who wants to be on the receiving end of an “unnatural links” warning? Or have their website knocked out of search engine results pages?

Without a link audit, you never know which backlinks to your site may be about to blow up in your face. The right time to perform an SEO link audit of your backlinks is when your rankings are doing fine and you haven’t received any warnings from search engines. Here’s how to audit your backlinks:

Use Google Webmaster Tools to check backlinks

You’re probably already using Google’s Webmaster Tools to help you manage your SEO efforts. If not, it’s easy to sign up for a Webmaster Tools account, add the code to your site, and validate your website to get started using this useful free SEO resource.

To check your backlinks in Webmaster Tools, select the website you want to work with, then select Traffic > Links to Your Site > More. Next click on “Download Latest Links.” You can export this data to either a .CSV file or to Google Docs.

It’s important to note that the backlinks you’ll get from Webmaster Tools are just a sampling of your backlinks, not a full list. So how is this data useful? If you’ve already been hit with a penalty, you can use this feature of Webmaster Tools to examine the backlinks you acquired around the date you received the penalty. Or the date that search engine traffic suddenly dropped off sharply – especially if a big Google update also happened around that time.

Other backlink-checking tools

If you want to get a more complete list of your backlinks, you will need to go beyond Webmaster Tools and use a paid SEO tool such as Link Research Tools, Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer, SEOmoz or Majestic SEO. All of these tools are well-regarded by SEO professionals, so choose the one that best fits your needs.

Red flags to look for in your backlink list

What characteristics make certain backlinks bad for SEO? There are several factors, but we’ll deal with the three biggest problems. When you’re checking your backlink list, watch out for:

  • Links from websites that aren’t indexed by Google. Search for the site in Google using “site:domain.com” (with “domain.com” replaced by the actual domain, of course). If the results say your search doesn’t match any documents, the site is not indexed, and there might be a good reason why not.
  • Links from a page full of spammy or unrelated links. Shady sites promoting casinos, pills and payday loans are not the kind of company Google wants your website to keep.
  • Links from a website for which you get a virus or malware warning when you try to visit it. (Pretty obvious what the problem is there.)

Knowing how to access all your backlinks can be a pretty powerful way to keep your website safe from Google warnings and penalties, so be sure to check your backlinks regularly and keep them clean.