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Link audit: avoid penalization and evaluate backlinks in 4 moves!

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Link audit: avoid penalization and evaluate backlinks in 4 moves!

The incoming links of our site say a lot to Google: they allow it to understand if we deserve to reach the #1 position because we are "referenced" by authoritative portals or if it is better to lower our ranking because we are linked by unreliable sites. In short, backlinks greatly affect all the efforts we are making to gain visibility on search engines. That's why the link audit is essential to prevent any possible penalization and develop an effective SEO strategy.

But what is it all about?

How does a link audit of a site take place?

What benefits does it bring to the site?

Below, you can find the answers to these questions. At the end, you'll know what a link audit is and how to carry it out in a scrupulous and careful way in order to promote the growth of your site.


What are the goals of link auditing?

link audit

We have already seen that the inbound link represents for Google a "reference" of your site. However, a recommendation is considered invalid, if not even negative, when it comes from a site of poor quality or even spammy. Among the updates of Google useful for SEO there is in fact also the one defined "Penguin" the algorithm was born to make an in-depth analysis of the incoming links of the sites, evaluate the level of quality and possibly penalize the site that receives them. What was born to fight SPAM and the purchase of backlinks, turned out to be a hindrance in the link building strategies that many companies had undertaken. This is why link auditing is important. Under this term fall all those activities that concern the analysis of the links of a site, and therefore of: 

  • Internal links, which connect the different pages of the same domain;
  • Outbound links, i.e. all those links that start from our domain and reach a third domain;
  • Inbound links, which are all those links that start from a third domain and arrive at our site.

In this article, we'll deal specifically with the latter aspect of link auditing, which is the focal point of a link building strategy. But let's go into detail: what are the objectives of link audit? Below we see some of them:

  • Identification of all the links that are coming to our site. This allows us to know at any time how many domains are linking to our site, to stay up to date on the effectiveness of the link building strategy we are adopting;

  • Identification of penalization risks. After having ascertained how many incoming links are to our site, we can understand the situation we are in: has our site become easy prey to fake directories or spammy sites? Finding out from the beginning the risks we are running will allow us to act to avoid being penalized by Google Penguin;

  • Identification of positive links. Through the link audit we can understand who has linked to us and for what reason and, therefore, if we are creating a solid presence on the web.

Now that we understand what the main objectives of link auditing are, we can analyze the 4 simple moves to analyze our site and, most importantly, prevent penalization from Google Penguin to become "authoritative" in the eyes of the search engine.

#1 Searching for inbound links: how to find them?

ricerca link audit

The link audit, as a rule, starts with a generic search for incoming links coming to the site. In this case, as in many other situations, Google already provides us with a free tool that we can use to get the information we are looking for: Google Search Console. Let's see in detail how this tool works and how it can help us to analyze our site at the level of inbound links.

We access Google Search Console and select, among those present, our site. Then, we move to the left menu, look for the section "manual actions" and click on "links". At this point, 2 different categories will appear in front of us:

  • External links, broken down by "main linked pages," "sites with main links," and "text with main links."
  • Internal links, with the subcategory "main linked pages".

Let's keep the first category in mind and analyze:

  • Which are the pages of our site that have obtained the highest number of backlinks. If we have already started a strategy to reach new incoming links, we should see that the links lead to our homepage or to the pages that we consider the "hottest", i.e. more attractive;

  • Which sites link to us the most. Already from this first information we can guess if there is something wrong (we will find strange url, that contain the word "SPAM" or that, however, do not indicate anything related to our activity);

  • What are the texts with which we are linked (anchor text). Each link contains a reference keyword. The main anchor text should be the name of our site or our core business. For example, NetStrategy will get mostly backlinks with the keywords "NetStrategy", "SEO Agency", "Inbound Marketing Agency".

At this point we will have a general overview of the situation of our site. The first information obtained through Google Search Console will have to be confirmed by a more in-depth analysis, which is provided in the second step of the link audit.

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#2 Inbound link analysis: what to consider?

analisi link audit

The first phase of the link audit - the one related to the search for backlinks - then culminates in the in-depth analysis. If, in fact, Google Search Console has already given us some food for thought, it is now necessary to deepen the situation of our site, in order to identify the risks we are facing or the positive backlinks we are receiving. How to do it? There are mainly 2 methods:

  • Manual backlink analysis. Google Search Console gives us the ability to export the collected inbound link data to Excel. We can find the "export external links" button at the top right of the main links page. Next, we will select "other sample links" and "CSV". At this point we will open an Excel file that will enclose together the urls from which most of your links arrive. Attention: not all backlinks will be present and, above all, we will have to observe them one by one to understand if they are favorable - and therefore they must be maintained - or if they are negative - and therefore a recovery activity is necessary.

  • Analysis by means of a tool. To help us in the arduous task of understanding if the links we receive are useful to the cause of improving credibility in the eyes of Google or if they are harmful, in recent years many online tools have been created. The best are Majestic and Ahrefs, but they are not the only ones.

As an example, let's try using SEO profiler. By entering the url of our site, we can get some data about:

  • Number of inbound links and top backlinks;
  • Suspicious links: a list of incoming links from urls that Google might evaluate negatively;
  • Anchor test: the keywords that are used by third party domains to link to our site;
  • Inbound Domains;
  • Sector of the sites from which the inbound link comes from. This factor is not to be underestimated: the search engine will positively evaluate backlinks coming from sites that have activities related to ours;
  • Country of origin of the backlinks;
  • LIS (Link Influence Score), that is the level of credibility in the eyes of Google of the page from which the links arrive;
  • Age of the links: a lasting link is considered much more authoritative than a recent link.

Thanks to all this information, we can actually understand if our strategy to get backlinks is paying off or if we need to act to avoid a heavy penalization by Google Penguin. In the latter case, we are talking about a recovery activity: we reject, therefore, the incoming link and ask Google to avoid taking into account these links.

#3 Recovery phase: how to remove malicious links?


Very often it happens to see an exponential decrease in traffic from search engines, as well as a decrease in ranking, and to panic because you do not understand the reason for this situation. Hasn't anything changed within the site? Have no pages that might cause 404 errors been deleted? Hasn't duplicate content been found? If we've already ruled out every possible cause, perhaps it's the harmful incoming links that are to be found. This is how we define backlinks that come from:

  • SPAM sites or dummy directories;
  • Sites that have no online visibility;
  • Sites that have suffered, for various reasons, penalties from Google.

Although it may not seem like it, an inbound link that originates in a site lacking authority in front of Google can be pure poison for our site and cause it to lose its ranking in the SERPs. This, of course, results in the disappearance of a good chunk of organic traffic. One of the main objectives of the link audit is precisely to prevent penalization by the search engine or, possibly, to act so that these links are removed.

So, what should we do if, after a specific analysis of the incoming links, we have found the presence of many harmful links? After having obtained, through Google Search Console, the list of links that cause the penalization, we will start the recovery phase. The objective is, in fact, to remove the harmful links from our site. This is possible by creating a file with .txt extension and coded in UTF-8 or 7 bit ASCII, which is defined "disavow file", in which we list, line by line, all the incoming links we want to reject.

Subsequently, the text will be presented to Google, to make sure that it does not take into account these links. How? Writing to the webmasters of the search engine: we click on the link https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main, we select our site, we press on "reject link" and we insert the txt file we have created.

Keep in mind that the recovery activity is extremely delicate and that is why it is usually recommended to outsource it to an SEO agency. If you want to know more about this topic, please read the following article: Google Penguin: the penalization.

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#4 Link quality analysis: how is the strategy progressing?

qualità link

If we have already started a strategy to acquire backlinks useful for SEO and we want to understand if we are getting concrete results and everything is going smoothly, the link audit can help us further. After analyzing the different incoming links and removing the bad ones, we just need to check the quality level of the backlinks left in the game: are they really good? Are they really bearing fruit and helping our site improve its reputation in the eyes of the search engine? This phase is precisely to answer these questions.

How can you get these insights? Using Google Analytics (by the way, at the link on the side you can find a complete guide to its main functions!) is the best solution. Google Analytics is a real "counter" of our site: thanks to this tool, we can know in real time its performance, the most visited pages by users, the target to which we must address. And it is through its data that we can also understand if our inbound links are excellent in terms of quality or if we can improve our strategy.

What steps and factors should we pay attention to in order to reach this conclusion? Let's see them together:

  • Referral Traffic. With this term we mean all the visits we get through backlinks. In practice: how many users see a link from a third domain to our site and click on it? This indicator, even if rather generic, is very important to understand the trend of our strategy. Let's take an example. Our site, which sells cosmetics, is recommended and linked by Clio Make Up. Obviously, we can boast a good number of users who visit us and that come from the site of Clio, which is particularly popular. On the contrary, if we have decided to rely on a SPAM site, it will be difficult for it to have online visibility and to be tracked down by someone: we will see, therefore, an extremely low (or even zero) referral traffic.

  • Period of referral traffic. After having noticed a good number of visits coming from inbound links, we ask ourselves: are they increasing over the months or do they remain constant? If we have started a backlinking strategy, we cannot stick to data that remains unchanged over time. If we see that, month after month, traffic from inbound links is growing, it means we're on the right track. Be careful, though: don't get discouraged if only 10 days after starting the strategy we still don't get results. This kind of activity takes a lot of time.

  • Bounce rate from referral traffic. After evaluating the presence of new visits from external links and their growth in recent times, we ask ourselves: do users coming from a third domain like to stay on our site? This factor is very important because it tells us if we are linked from domains that deal with activities related to ours or domains that are too different. Let's go back to the example of Clio Make Up to make the reasoning clearer: a user visiting that site is interested in the world of cosmetics. Entering our site, he will surely find what he is interested in. If the link came from a site of culinary recipes, we would hardly be able to capture the visitor's attention.

These simple steps allow us to get a clear idea of the performance of our backlink acquisition strategy and understand where we can improve. If, for example, referral traffic has been particularly high in recent months, but the bounce rate is still too high, we know that we need to improve the relevance of the backlinks. If, on the other hand, the referral traffic is struggling to grow, we will know that we need to further strengthen our strategy, trying to receive only incoming links.

To learn more about the topic covered in this article, feel free to visit our page dedicated to link auditing.


In this article we have seen 4 simple steps to perform a link audit of our site: it is a fundamental activity to understand if the strategy for the acquisition of incoming links is proving effective and to avoid the penalization due to Google Penguin. Normally, the link audit is divided into 4 specific phases:

  • Inbound link research;
  • In-depth analysis of inbound links;
  • Recovery phase for rejection of malicious backlinks;
  • Inbound link quality analysis.

Still don't feel ready to tackle link auditing on your own? Are you afraid of being penalized by Google Penguin? Would you like to understand if the strategy you implemented to grow your site is effective or not?

We are here for that! Click here to talk about your project with us

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Stefano Robbi

C.E.O. of NetStrategy. A digital marketing enthusiast with a strong penchant for quantitative data analysis, he started the digital heart of NetStrategy® back in 2009. In addition to his passion and skills in search marketing, Stefano has a specific education in strategic marketing, acquired during his M.Sc. in Marketing Management at Bocconi University and his previous experience at Microsoft Italia.

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