I have been reading Webmasters SE and many other blogs on this topic but I could not understand how do we truly evaluate a bad link that we must disavow in GWT. Everybody seem to have a different opinion on this.

A little background

I am a WordPress developer and 3 years ago I gave away a WordPress theme to my blog visitors which has a dofollow link back to my business website. Like this.

WordPress theme designed by <a href="http://domain.com">MyBusinessName</a>

From last 2 years I was not paying any attention on organic traffic to my business website because of other projects.

That free WordPress theme helped us getting ~10K backlinks from variety of domains and websites. All most 99% backlinks are from non-related websites and in many different languages.


Last week it came to my attention that in October 2013, organic traffic from Google started decreasing and in just 2 months it became as low as 25% of October. Before October it was gradually increasing ~5-10% per month.

So I researched and draw to the conclusion that it could be because of Penguin Update. Since Penguin 2.1 was introduced at the same time.

Now I need information on what a bad/toxic link is.

I was about to disavow almost all links but after reading many topics on Webmasters SE I think I need more information on how to identify a bad link.

  1. Does credit link in footer consider as spam because it build thousands of backlinks?
  2. Do foreign language website backlinks consider as spam?
  3. Should I remove all backlinks from theme users because almost all are from non-related content domains?
  4. Although some links from non-related content domains have nice DA/PA. Should I remove those too?
  5. I understand foreign language anchor text backlink could be a spam but what if it is from related foreign language content.

The question is how exactly one can find a link that is bad and must be removed.

  • 1
    Related Webmasters question: Should I put rel=“nofollow” on author link?. In the following Google Hangouts, the question of backlinks in the footer is also addressed (basically nofollow is recommended): youtu.be/oNFeEzG36FM?t=32m35s
    – MrWhite
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 17:06
  • Thanks, I already made these changes for new downloads. I didn't know that much 3-4 years ago. It was a huge mistake by not adding nofollow.
    – Robert hue
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 18:16

4 Answers 4


I'd tend to agree with your diagnosis that the decrease in traffic could be related to the Penguin-update from around that same time. Most sites at that time showed a pretty immediate dive in their traffic. My first question would be if you received any warnings about manual actions in Google Search Console (previously called Google Webmaster Tools)?

In terms of disavow, I'd be careful with what you remove and if you do remove anything, start slow and see what happens before you disavow more. You can damage your traffic more if you get rid of things that you shouldn't. So, get rid of obvious spam first before moving into the gray zone.

Okay, warning aside...what you should remove? I think the litmus test that works best is "would a real person click on this link?" Ultimately, that is what Google wants with links - they want to credit links that guide real, actual people through the web. Yes, you want to look at things like domain authority, how well that site linking to you ranks in Google, how many links that site has, who the audience on that site is, what kind of intention and context is behind your link, and more. But, really, all that plays into the question of would a real, live human being be visiting this website, see this link, and be interested in clicking on it given where it is located on this particular website?

So, to your example of a site that may have a strong DA/PA, but with otherwise unrelated content, I'd start by looking at context. Is it a site-wide link in the footer that hardly anybody is going to see let alone click on? If yes, disavow that link. Or is it part of content (maybe on the about page as in "check out this great template we used to create our website")? If yes, keep it because a real person might see it and be interested in clicking on that link.

In terms of foreign language, it really is the same question. Yes, that means you have to translate foreign language anchor text to see what it has to say and to figure out what context the link is presented in. But, after translating it you want to evaluate context to figure out if a person would click on that link or not. Foreign language by itself doesn't really say if it is spam or not.

Also, I'll share this resource from Moz that you may find helpful in auditing your links. At least, I've found it useful - plus it links to other articles that can help you address the question around what makes a link bad and whether or not it should be disavowed. In particular, this part I think is key:

Disavow tip: When Google penalizes a site, or affects it algorithmically because of unnatural links, their goal is to demote sites who have been actively cheating. Every site has weird looking links that make you think, "Where the heck did that come from?" But there is no need to go disavowing everything that you don't recognize. Penguin will not affect a site just because it has some odd looking links.


Hope all of that helps.

  • Footer links in WordPress themes are sitewide and almost all theme have credit for developers without any context. For example check footer of this theme. Designed by Elegant Themes credit link in footer is sidewide and without context.
    – Robert hue
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 14:44
  • Yeah, then in those cases I'd tend to recommend a disavow since those are the kind of links Google is trying to get rid of. Still, be worth making sure you can't find any links that are that something different. Also, if you do go down the road of disavowing those links, just start with the ones that seem the most spammy and see what the results are before doing a new batch. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 15:46

Years ago, a template developer called me on a Sunday evening a bit in a panic. He had links in his templates and it had become a significant problem. I was using one of his templates and that is the reason why he was calling.

He explained that he worked full time and only did the template business on the side to help pay for his wife's medical bills. He continued that the decrease in traffic is really effecting his ability to make additional money and it was having a real effect. He explained that it appeared that Google was penalizing sites that are the target of template links and he was calling, e-mailing, snail mailing anyone he could. He explained that he thinks that changing the link to a citation would be okay.

I decided to help him and stayed in touch for quite a while after that.

In the end, converting as many links to citations as he realistically could really did help and the problem was resolved relatively quickly (a few months). He began to gain full traffic between 6 months to a year.

Warning about Manual Actions

The manual action was designed to inform you if a person has reviewed your site and has issued a penalty. Since then, a few automated penalties have been added. The up-shot is this. Do not think this page/option will tell you if you have a penalty. If you do, you will be sorely disappointed. Google will e-mail some found issues, however, for penalties, I have found that Google is extremely silent and not very helpful. Even for the innocent that Googles says it understands.

There has been a shift since Matt Cutts has left his position. Whoever the new person is, it seems that they prefer a hammer over any other tool. And that is a shame. In fact, it is annoying. Honest webmasters will work hard to remain within a reasonable scope that Google has historically defined. However, if you (Google) are not talking to us, or relying upon your vague guidelines, then you will be damaging yourself as well as others. This is a partnership afterall!

Templated links:

Google says (https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356):

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results:


Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites

There is some level of valid argument on this site when and whether a templated link will hurt. It appears that there are cases where a templated link will not hurt though it is limited. I do not believe this is your case- unfortunately.

Toxic Link

I do explain what I have found to be the thought process for Google and the so-called toxic link. Keep in mind that Google, at the time of writing, did not use the term toxic link. You can read that here: What is a toxic link? It may help to at least understand the process.

Disavow Link

Here, https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/2648487?hl=en, Google warns about disavowing links. Here is the warning.

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.

It has been my experience that Google understands that links are created beyond the website owners control and that much of the time, a site should not be penalized. However, with the more recent updates, it appears that where the line is drawn may have changed. I am not sure where that leaves us just yet. It is just too soon to say.

What to do?

Since your theme/template contains a back link that is against Google webmaster guidelines, I suggest seeing if you can clean this up. It may be that you can use your Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools) account to see what back links Google is aware of. You may want to export this data into a list or spreadsheet. You can also do a search for a quoted key phrase that should find sites that use your theme/template. Compare the results with your list and begin seeing who you can contact using whois. Formulate a kind letter explaining your need to convert the link to a citation or having the link removed entirely. Wait to see what results you get.

If you are not having much luck, then stop. There is no sense going down a dead-end street.

The next step is to determine what sites are likely damaging. For example, foreign language sites, low quality sites, spam sites, etc. Keep note of these in your list and only disavow those sites that are particularly egregious. Do your work slowly and in phases. It can take a long while before Google fully realizes what has happened and begin to correct the trajectory for your site. This means you are in it for the long haul.

In the end, you can fix this. I would not fully abandon contacting webmasters trying to get your links converted. This will allow you to shorten your disavow list. I imagine that there is a point where effort versus payoff will dictate how and what work you do. However, I also argue that reducing the need for disavow is your larger goal.

  • I have already read your other answers on same topic and those made me even more confuse. You mostly advocate against disavowing and use it as last resort which I totally agree too. But you explaining that every link has some link juice based on high/low authority website and this made me think that it might possible I may disavow a perfectly fine link. And that forced me to ask this question. I found that some webmaster consider Chinese/Korean links as spam even if they are in relevant content.
    – Robert hue
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 19:14
  • @Robert hue Short of a link found to be in a link scheme of some sort, yes all links do have value, however, sometimes, especially now, you want to tailor any bad behavior that is especially bad down to something more tolerable. Most sites that link out a lot are just plain low quality. I tend to tell people to focus on the really really bad. For example, there are a ton of SEO sites that report the same low quality cr@p over and over. These sites will not generally hurt you. However, link farms- and several link farms, may. Some of it is whether you are seen as part of the problem.
    – closetnoc
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 19:22

I gather a list of the back links and then run them through the Moz's Open Site Explorer spam analysis tool. If the score is bad, I add it to my list of disavows.

Here's a good guide to Google's disavow tool. I tend to avoid using it too much and only when I find really bad websites linking to me who could potentially be causing my website harm. It's a dangerous tool so avoid abusing it.


Whenever you build any backlink try note it down and analyze its effects on search engine. It has positive impact then it is good but when it hampers the website then tries to remove the backlink or disavow it. Remember one thing when you build the backlink try analyze the spam score. Do not get backlink from those domains which have spam score more than 5. Try to get backlink from high domain authority.

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