What to do About Spammy Links from “Malicious Domains”

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

Muller provided guidance for this specific situation.

Spammy Links and Correlation

The person asking the question related that spam sites were linking to non-existent pages and triggering a 404 response.

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

referring to themerrors” implies that there is something to fix. But the word “error” simply means that the browser request for the web page resulted in the server responding that the browser request is in error because the requested page was not found.

The use of the word error in the context of 404 page not found response means that the error is on the browser side.

The W3C, the non-profit HTML standards body, states that an error on the part of the client (meaning a browser or web crawler) that is requesting a web page made an error because the page was not found.

W3C Documentation state:

“The 4xx class of status codes is intended for cases in which the client has made a mistake.”

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

“10.4.5 404 Not Found”

“The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI.”

So the fact that a spam site was triggering a 404 page not received response doesn’t mean it’s harmful.

And Müller shows in his answer why links are neutral due to 404.

Here is the question:

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

They contain spammy keywords and cause 404 on our domain.

We see a strong correlation between these spammy links and the fines that followed the spam update in 2021.

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

What else can we do?”

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

Finally he suggests what the questioner should do.

Links to missing pages are discarded

The first part of the answer mentions 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 see this, you think someone else is ruining my chances in the search results.

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

On the one hand, if these links are pointing to pages on your website that are returning a 404, they are essentially linking to pages that don’t exist, then we don’t take those links into account. Because there is nothing to associate them on their website.

Essentially people are connecting to a missing place and then we’ll say, well, like, what can we do with this link, we can’t link it to anything, so we’ll leave it.

So it’s like the first part, like a lot of them are probably already dropped.”

This aspect of spammy links, that they are pointing to non-existent pages, means that Google was not counting those links at all. Those links made zero difference and could not have been the reason for the spam-related ranking drop.

Rejects further links from the system

Muller continued:

“The second part is that you have mentioned that you have rejected those spammy backlinks and especially if you have mentioned that these are linked to a handful of domains then you can do that in the Disavow Backlinks Tool. with entry.

And it essentially takes them out of our system as well.

So we’ll still list them in the search console and you can still find them there and get a little confused about it but essentially they have no effect.

If they are being rejected then we tell our system that they should not be taken into account, neither in a positive nor negative way.”

Google’s John Mueller discussing spammy links

Screenshot of John Mueller of Google

what really caused the ranking drop

This is the part that many publishers and SEOs find difficult to see clearly. It seems clear that the spammy links coincide exactly with 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 spammy links are to blame. But as Müller showed, this was not the case in this particular situation.

The reason for the drop in the ranking was something else.

Muller explained:

“So from a practical standpoint, both from the 404 side and the disclaimer, those links probably aren’t doing anything negative to your website.

And if you see any significant changes in search with respect to your website, I wouldn’t focus on those links but look ahead and that could be within your own website.

To get a little better understanding of what value you are actually providing out there, what you can really do to stand out above all other websites is what you are providing to the users, how do you do it? Make it as clear as possible to search engines.

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

So, don’t waste much time on those spammy backlinks. You can reject the entire domain they are coming from and then move on.

There’s absolutely nothing you need to do there.

And especially if they’re already linking to… 404 pages, they’ve already been ignored.”


There are several avenues to Muller’s answer.

  1. Links to 404 pages are removed by Google and have no effect, neither bad or good.
  2. If disallowing spam links doesn’t help after a few months then maybe the root issue isn’t the link, it’s something else.
  3. Keep an open mind that the troubled site is not perfect and that there is a problem with it that needs to be fixed.


Read Google’s 404 Response Explainer

Do 404s hurt my site?

What to do about spammy links

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

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