The higher the number of relevant sites linking to you, the higher your rankings will be, right? What happens if a non-relevant site keeps linking to you? Or worse, you get a backlink from an adult or gambling site?
These irrelevant links can be hurting your rankings. For this reason, Google released the Disavow Tool as a way for you to tell Google to not count specific backlinks.
The Disavow Tool allows you to ask Google to remove certain URLs or domains as a ranking factor in the indexing of your site. You do this by creating a .txt file with a list of these domains or URLs and submitting it to Google.
Google explains it this way:
You can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.
Understanding Google’s warning on the Disavow Tool
When you access the Disavow Links Tool, you’ll see this message:
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 only disavow backlinks if you believe that there are 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.
Why would Google provide such a warning? Are they concerned about any damage you might inflict upon your site by accidentally amputating valuable links?
More than likely, they issue this warning because indiscriminately disavowing links without making the effort to remove them first is dangerous. Just as problematic as the toxic links themselves is the rush to disavow them without making any reasonable effort to remove them.
I wanted to point out this issue because of its importance and because Google provides this easily-misunderstood warning on the very entry point to the Disavow Tool.
Now that you understand the warning, let’s go into the reasons for using the tool.
Three reasons for using the Disavow Tool
The Disavow Tool has one main purpose — removing harmful links from Google’s consideration. There are three reasons why you would want to do that. I’ll go through each one, from the worst-case to best-case scenario.
Reason #1: Use the Disavow Tool if your site receives a manual penalty
Manual penalties are the bogeyman of the Google-dominated web world. If you receive a manual penalty, you will need to use the Disavow Tool. Manual penalties are the reason why Google created the Disavow Tool in the first place.
Reason #2: Use the Disavow Tool if your site receives an algorithmic penalty
Although not quite as horrific as the manual penalty, an algo penalty can still deliver a knockout blow to any website. If you have experienced a traffic drop due to an algorithmic change, there is a good chance that toxic backlinks are to blame. The Disavow Tool will help you recover.
Reason #3: Use the Disavow Tool as you routinely check for and remove toxic links from your site’s link profile
Should you use the Disavow Tool even if you haven’t felt the sting of a manual or algo penalty?
According to Matt Cutts, yes. Here’s what he said:
If you are at all worried about someone trying to do negative SEO or it looks like there’s some weird bot that’s building up a bunch of links to your site and you have no idea where it came from, that’s the perfect time to use disavow as well….even if you don’t have a message in your webmaster console….So if you’ve done the work to keep an active look on your backlinks and you see something strange going on, you don’t have to wait around. Feel free to just go ahead and preemptively say, ‘You know what; this is a weird domain. I have nothing to do with it, and no idea what this particular bot is doing in terms of making links,’ so go ahead and do disavows even on a domain level.
Here is the video where he discusses this:
He’s telling you to use the Disavow Tool as a matter of routine link auditing. Cutts hates spam. So should you. Thus, to get rid of the spam and heroically battle the nefarious forces of the Internet, use the Disavow Tool.
I recommend regular auditing of your link profile. Your link profile is one of your most important SEO assets. Protecting it with vigilance will help you to reap traffic and ranking dividends for years to come.
The Disavow Tool is one more tool in your toolkit as an expert SEO or webmaster. You should know how to use it.
Three laws for using the Disavow Tool
There are three main principles I want you to follow when using the Disavow Tool.
Law #1: Request removal first, disavow second
Here’s the most important thing: Don’t use the Disavow Tool unless you’ve tried to remove the link first.
This is the only way you should go about things. First, try to remove the links by requesting removal from the “offending” webmasters. Once this has been attempted and proven unsuccessful, go through the disavow process.
I’ll provide a quick overview of this process so you can have a clear understanding of how to prepare for a disavowal.
Be sure to keep records of this process. I recommend using a removal request service or creating a detailed spreadsheet with complete information on every link, every webmaster contact information, every date, and even screenshots of every email you send with a removal request.
- Locate the offending link. The best source for your backlinks is in Google Webmaster Tools > Search Traffic > Links to Your Site > Who links the most > More > “Download more sample links” and “Download latest links.” Audit this list using an automatic or manual review process.
- Research the link to find webmaster contact information for the site. A contact form or email address is sufficient.
- Contact the webmaster and request removal.
- Wait a reasonable amount of time – about a week.
- If no action, reach out to the webmaster again to request removal.
- If the webmaster does not respond, create the disavow.txt file, following the instructions below.
Now you’re ready to disavow. But please, do not attempt to disavow unless you have first gone through the process of requesting removals!
Law #2: Create an impeccable disavow file
In this step, you will develop a file that lists all of the URLs and domains that need to be removed from Google’s consideration.
The list that you create should contain a record of your removal efforts. As I explained above, prior to any disavowal, you should go through the process of removal request while keeping detailed records of that process. This is why: Google wants to see that you have made an attempt to contact the webmaster who can remove the offending link.
Here is a sample of a disavow file that Google declares to be legit:
You should make sure that you’ve formatted your list correctly. Many webmasters have experienced rejection of their entire lists due to improper formatting. Here is how to develop your file:
- It should be a text file (.txt)
- It should be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
- Each line should contain only one link or domain
- Domain removals require “domain:” at the beginning of the URL, e.g., domain:toxiclink.com
- When you record your effort at removals, your description must begin with “#” on every line of text that you do not want to be part of the disavowal
When you upload a new file, it will replace any previously uploaded file.
Law #3: Disavow accurately
Now, you’re ready to submit the disavow file. The hard work is done. It’s time to give the list to Google.
- Log in to your Google account
- Go to the Disavow Tool
- Select your site
- Click “Disavow Links”
- Choose the file you created
- Click “Submit”
Keep in mind that it will take a while for the disavowal to be processed through Google’s crawling and indexing. Disavowals don’t happen instantly. Google describes the process as taking “a number of weeks.” Matt Cutts explained in an interview with Danny Sullivan that it could take a lot longer:
It can definitely take some time, and potentially months. There’s a time delay for data to be baked into the index. Then there can also be the time delay after that for data to be refreshed in various algorithms.
The Disavow Tool is not an SEO cure-all that will usher your site into new heights of ranking and traffic. It is, however, one of the tools that you can and should use to improve your site’s SEO.
Disavowal isn’t glamorous. It’s far more fulfilling to see backlinks from content marketing or to experience the joy of tons of traffic than it is to hack away at toxic backlinks. Nonetheless, you have this resource at your disposal for the times when nothing else will fix the unwanted backlink problem.
What tips do you have for using the Disavow Tool?