Link building is the lifeblood of SEO services the world over thanks to the immense value Google places on backlinks. Backlinks are important because they give the websites we optimize the “link juice” they need to rank on search engine results pages (SERPs). The more links a landing page has from authoritative sources, the better its odds of hitting the first page of Google’s SERPs.
However, there are links that you don’t want to be associated with your site. Backlinks from spammy sites, “bad neighborhoods”, and other types of websites that are actively being downgraded by Google can harm your landing pages’ search engine visibility. At worst, these links may result in your page being penalized which, depending on the severity of the penalty, can result in a catastrophic and potentially permanent loss of organic traffic. And when organic traffic disappears, conversions will soon follow.
Back in the day, when you found a potentially harmful backlink your only option would be to contact the webmasters and hope that they would remove the link pointing to your site. As you would have guessed, this would often result in ignored emails or outright blackmail. Because of these incidents, Google eventually released the Disavow Links tool.
What is the Disavow Links Tool?
Google’s Disavow Links tool (more often known as Google disavow or, more simply, the disavow tool) lets you submit a .txt file containing the domains and pages that you want to be disassociated from your website. The great thing about submitting a Google disavow is that it removes the need to contact webmasters of low-quality sites to have your backlinks removed.
Why Do Some SEOs Fear the Disavow Tool?
Google itself warns that the disavow tool should only be used in extreme circumstances and shouldn’t be used lightly. If you’re going to use the disavow tool, you have to ensure that the domains and pages you’re disavowing are truly harmful to your site. There have been cases of careless SEOs who caused serious losses in organic traffic and conversions by unknowingly disavowing links from legitimate websites.
If you plan to use the disavow tool, you have to be very precise when listing down the domains and pages you want to disassociate from. You or an SEO specialist needs to carefully look through the list of URLs tagged for disavowal and make sure that none of the flagged domains and webpages in the list contain healthy backlinks.
When is the Right Time to Disavow Links?
In our opinion, disavowals are not needed in about 95% of cases. Website link profiles will always have some level of volatility, particularly if they contain shareable content that other people want to link to. If your site is popular enough, sketchy sites will inevitably link to it.
If a client’s website’s link profile remains favorable and relatively steady over time, we’ll usually recommend that they ignore existing bad links, especially if there are only a handful of them. However, if the website accumulates an abnormally high number of bad links in a short period, we will assess if a disavowal is in order.
Generally speaking, we avoid disavowing pages and domains that are not yet penalized. Other SEO experts take the opposite stance and will regularly check for sketchy pages to disavow, regardless of how healthy the links might be at the moment. With some exceptions, we tend to prefer methods that are less likely to cause major disruptions to our clients’ websites.
What Links Should I Disavow?
While we don’t use the disavow tool lightly, there are domains that you definitely don’t want your site associated with. If you see these types of websites, consider shortlisting them for disavowal:
- Links from Private Blog Networks (PBNs). Google has consistently punished PBNs because of the negative effects these networks have on the relevance and quality of Google’s search results. While a few private blog networks are legit, most of the ones you’ll find are set up solely for SEO purposes. Any link on a sketchy PBN should be considered for disavowal.
- Links from Illicit Websites. Links in sites related to pornography, hate speech, and illegal activities are frequently penalized by Google, making them good candidates for disavowal.
- Links That Use Exact Match Anchor Text. Spamming content with exact match keywords hasn’t worked since the Google Penguin update, which was over a decade ago. The update penalized over-optimization, flagging sites that had a high volume of unnatural-looking exact-match keywords. If you find a link to your site on such a webpage, a disavowal might be in order.
- Spammy Links from Low-Quality Sites. If a page or domain has a lot of links but does not offer visitors any tangible value, it might be time to shortlist it for disavowal. Links embedded in low-quality content, fake news sites, business directories, and low-quality comment sections should be flagged and checked to see if they might damage your link equity.
To get a better idea of which links you should flag for disavowal, read How to Find Low-Quality Backlinks in Your Link Profile.
How Do You Start Disavowing Links?
Disavowing links is easy. Some might even argue that it’s too easy. In any case, you can find the basic steps below. In our video, you can follow the link disavowal process starting from 11:56.
- Prepare the Disavow File. Use MS Notepad or any app that allows you to create “.txt” files. On your application, list down the URLs and domains you want to be disavowed. For domain-level disavowals, type “domain:” then the website domain you want to be disavowed, starting with the “www” prefix. For example, to disavow links on Amazon, you’ll want to type “domain:www.amazon.com”. If you want to disavow just one webpage, simply use the full URL, starting from “http” or “https”. Make sure to use these formats so that Google will know exactly what you want to be disavowed.
- Save Your File in the Correct Format. After you’ve compiled your list of domains and URLs on your file, save it as a .txt file. Though the Google Disavow Links tool only accepts .txt files, you can name your file however you want. However, to avoid confusion, name your file something that makes it clear that it contains a disavow list for the site you’re optimizing.
- Find the Google Link Disavow Tool. If you can’t find it on Google Search or Google Search Console, you can find the link disavow tool here. From there, you should be able to select a web property that you are authorized to access. If you don’t currently have access to a selected property you should be given a prompt that you don’t have the right credentials. If you do have access to the property that you’re optimizing, you should be able to find an “Upload disavow list” button.
- Upload Your File. Click on the “Upload disavow list” button and find the .txt file you prepared earlier. Without clicking, make completely sure that you found the correct file and that the listed domains and URLs are ones that you want to disavow. Note that you will not receive an “Are You Sure?” message when you begin the upload. When you’re sure, proceed with uploading your .txt file.
- Await Confirmation. If the file was prepared correctly, you should immediately receive confirmation of the domains and URLs you disavowed. You should also receive new options to cancel your disavowal or replace the file that you uploaded. Importantly, you should also be able to access previously uploaded disavow files associated with the property, which can be handy if you’re taking over SEO duties from someone else.
- Wait for Google to Process Your Disavowal. Disavowals don’t happen instantly. As with a lot of things in SEO, it may take anywhere from a few days to a month before Google integrates your disavow list to their index, recrawls your page, and if warranted, changes your position on the SERPs.
It should be noted that disavowals only affect link equity. The links themselves will still exist and can still be used to access your site. This can have implications for SEOs who are reliant on third-party SEO intelligence tools such as Ahrefs and MOZ as these tools will not be able to detect if you have disavowed any links they happen to find unless you submit a disavow file to them as well.
Google’s Disavow Links tool is a risky but occasionally useful tool that, when properly used, can prevent a website from getting penalized solely because of the activities of malicious parties outside your organization. While the tool is often used by some SEOs as a way to maintain optimal levels of link equity, at SearchWorks we don’t believe this is necessarily a good way to use it.
We hope that this post has helped you understand Google’s Disavow Links tool better. If you’re already with disavowals, we’d like to hear how you use them in your SEO campaigns. Are you the type to use the disavow tool every week? Or are you the type who avoids using it at all costs? If you want to talk about the disavow tool or other SEO topics, we’d be happy to set up a meeting.