What to do about unwanted links from “malicious domains”


Google’s John Mueller answered a question about what to do about spammy links. The links and a subsequent “penalty” coincided with the date of one of Google’s 2021 spam updates.

Mueller provided advice for this specific situation.

Unwanted links and correlations

The person asking the question said that spam sites link to non-existent pages and trigger a 404 response.

Google Search Console may alert publishers to 404 error responses, but that in itself is not a problem.

Calling them “mistakes” implies that there is something to fix. But the word “error” simply means that a browser request for a web page caused the server to respond that the browser request is in error because the requested page was not found.

Using the word error in the context of a 404 Page Not Found response means that the error is on the browser side.

The W3C, the non-profit HTML standards body, states that error on the side of the client (i.e. the browser or a web crawler) making a request for a web page has made an error because the page was not found.

The W3C documentation states:

“The 4xx class of status code is intended for cases where the client seems to have made a mistake.”

The 404 response code is called 404 Not Found in the W3C documentation:

“10.4.5 404 not found

“The server couldn’t find anything matching the request URI.”

So just because a spammy site was triggering 404 page not found responses doesn’t mean it’s harmful.

And Mueller shows in his answer why the links that cause 404s are neutral.

This is the question:

“What can we do if we have thousands of spammy links that are continuously placed as backlinks on malicious domains?

They contain spammy keywords and cause 404s on our domain.

We see a strong correlation between these spammy links and a penalty we received after an anti-spam update in 2021.

We have disavowed all spammy links and reported the domain that is listed as the source of the link spam.

What else can we do?

John Mueller responded in three parts, first addressing the importance of the 404 response and the second part addressing disavowal.

Finally, it suggests what the person asking the question should do.

Links to missing pages are removed

The first part of the answer stated how Google treats links to pages that don’t exist.

Muller replied

“I think it’s always very frustrating as a site owner.

When you look at it, you think someone else is ruining my chances in search results.

But there are two things that I think are important to mention in this particular case.

On the one hand, if those links are pointing to… pages on your website that are returning 404s, so they’re basically linking to pages that don’t exist, then we don’t take those links into account because there’s nothing to associate with them on your website.

Basically people connect to a missing location and then we’ll say, well, what can we do with that link, we can’t connect it to anything, so we’ll remove it.

So that’s kind of the first part, as a lot of them are probably already abandoned.

This aspect of spammy links, that they point to non-existent pages, means that Google was not counting these links at all. These links made no difference and could not have been the cause of a spam related drop in ranking.

Disavows additionally removed links from the system

Muller continued:

“The second part is you mentioned that you disavowed those spammy backlinks and especially if you mentioned that these are links from a handful of domains, you can do that with the domain entry in the backlink disavow tool.

And that also takes them out of our system.

So we’re still going to list them in Search Console and you might still find them there and be a little confused about it, but essentially they have no effect at all.

If they are disavowed, we tell our systems that they should not be taken into account, either positively or negatively.

Google’s John Mueller discusses spammy links

What really caused the rankings to drop

This is the part that many editors and SEOs struggle to see clearly. It seems obvious that the spammed links correspond exactly to the dates of a given Google update. But this is a false correlation.

But if you think your site is perfect and see those spammy links, then the spammy links are to blame. But as Mueller showed, in this particular situation, that was not the case.

The cause of the ranking drop was something else.

Muller explained:

“So from a practical standpoint, both from the 404 side and the disavow side, these links are probably not doing anything negative on your website.

And if you see any significant changes with regards to your website in search, I wouldn’t focus on those links, but rather on some kind of deeper search and that could be within your own website.

Kind of to understand a little bit better what value you’re actually providing there, what can you do to really set yourself apart from all the other websites in terms of the type of awesome value you’re providing to users, how can you make this as clear as possible for search engines.

That’s kind of the direction I would take there.

So, don’t waste too much time on those spammy backlinks. You can just disavow the whole domain they came from and then move on.

There is absolutely nothing you need to do there.

And especially if they are already… linked to 404 pages, they are already kind of ignored.

Take away food

There are several takeaways from Mueller’s answer.

  1. Links to 404 pages are abandoned by Google and have no effect, neither bad nor good.
  2. If disavowing spammy links doesn’t help after a few months, then maybe the original problem isn’t the links, it’s something else.
  3. Keep in mind that the troubled site is not perfect and there is a problem that needs to be diagnosed.


Read Google’s 404 Response Explainer

Are 404s hurting my site?

What to do about spam links

Watch Google’s John Mueller at minute 20:54:


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