03.06.2021, Vladislava

The Complete Guide on Disavowing Links

When it comes to link building, it’s never quantity over quality. You may not know, but some bad backlinks are tanking your search rankings, and it’s high time to do an audit and cleanse.

Today, we’ll be talking about the value of disavowing links, what the process entails, how to disavow backlinks in Google Search Console, and all other useful information in between.

Why Disavow Links?

As a website owner, you don’t want certain external links to be associated with your website and impact Google’s ranking of your page. The existence of “bad links” to your website may lead to a violation of Google’s policies and, subsequently, a penalty if they aren’t removed. 

Broadly speaking, by disavowing backlinks, you’re mitigating the consequences of:

  • Poor link building practices you have implemented at some point, trying to cut costs or money;
  • Someone intentionally builds bad links to your pages to make you less competitive.

When you disavow links proactively, you minimize the chance of having low-quality links in the first place. When you disavow links reactively, you offset some of their negative SEO impacts.

What Is a Bad Backlink?

Bad backlinks cover all links coming from untrustworthy, low-quality websites. There are many factors that affect link quality, some of which came from the infamous Penguin algorithm change in 2012. Ever since the update, Google started to penalize web pages that were associated with these bad links and black hat SEO.

Let’s compare “good” and “bad” backlinks: 

  • Good links look organic, add value to the content and the website, and allow readers to better understand the topic. Good backlinks are sourced from websites with useful, relevant content.
  • Bad backlinks look artificial, forced, or off-topic. There are various reasons it can happen, but the takeaway is that they are pinged by search engines and harm your search results.

Not only can your website get algorithmically downgraded by Google, but you might also get a manual action.

Now, let’s look at different types of bad links and where they come from.

Low-Quality Sites and Directories 

Here are the characteristics observed on most low-quality sites: 

  • Poor design, typography, and overall look and feel;
  • Full of ads - Adsense, banners, affiliates, text backlinks, etc.;
  • Very little text;
  • Inconsistent or incomplete content, possibly written by a script;
  • Full of grammatical and punctuation errors;
  • Seems like the last update was years ago;
  • Lots of pop-ups other obtrusive elements;
  • Slow load speed.

Low-quality directories are a smaller issue compared to low-quality sites. Still, some unethical services pitch to unsuspecting website owners. Ask yourself whether you expect to get referral web traffic from the listing. If not, it’s not worth the trouble.

Comment and Forum Spam

Google doesn’t welcome comments that tarnish other people's hard work. Comments and forum posts should add value to the existing content; otherwise, they look like a list of nonsense keywords.

Blogs with unfiltered followed backlinks are generally old and unread, but they continue having a negative impact on the pages they link to. Google is pretty good at devaluing these types of links. If you find a link to your website posted as unsolicited advertisements in comments on forums, blogs, wikis, and online guestbooks, it’s better to disavow them.

Hacked Sites

There are many hackers out there, and there are many vulnerable websites as well. There is a high chance that the webmaster didn’t even notice new “hacked” contextual links on their secondary, inner page. In this case, you can contact them directly, and they should know how to remove backlinks from webmaster tools. 

There is a real fight between legit white hat SEO specialists competing with sites that have mass hacked backlinks. But it is never a good or sustainable strategy. If you can’t delete the links entirely, you can always disavow them. 

Negative SEO Attack

Negative SEO is a malicious practice to sabotage a competitor’s search engine ranking. Needless to say, it has a malevolent nature, and your job is to get rid of the consequences in a timely manner. 

For example, you might see the number of backlinks grew immensely from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. If you haven’t done this yourself, someone might be performing a negative SEO attack on you. This unnatural spike might result in manual action unless you submit a reconsideration request.

How Disavow Files Help You

Think of your website as a house that accumulates a lot of stuff over time. Some things are no longer helpful, and it’s time to get rid of them. The disavow file allows you to pinpoint exactly what you want to clear out from the house - i.e., what backlinks you want to purge in Search Console. 

Doing a backlink audit is a necessary maintenance task, but preparing a disavow file isn’t. This should only be done if you identify broken or outright dangerous backlinks.

Another way that disavow files help is by turning a new leaf in your SEO strategy in a clear, organized way. Having all bad links accumulated in one list makes it easier to monitor and follow search engines’ guidelines.

Do You Need to Disavow Links or Not?

Here are the top three situations when you need to seriously consider disavowing links: 

You see a manual action or a link warning in Google Search Console. 

There might be an algorithmic ranking penalty based on links.

You are the victim of negative SEO.

In these cases, you definitely need to disavow. 

For other situations, it’s not that simple to discern when to disavow backlinks. Here are a few gray area scenarios where you don’t need to disavow them, but you can choose to do it:

  • Malware: These are websites that show you a red browser warning or make your computer freeze up. 
  • Cloaked sites: This is when Google sees one set of results, while visitors see a different set of results. They can be identified using the Googlebot user agent and a browser extension.
  • Shady 404s: You go to the linking page, and it or the entire domain is removed by the domain registrar. It’s not always harmful, but you can’t possibly know what was there before. It could be some sort of spammy backlink.
  • Bad neighborhood spam: The three P's of bad neighborhoods are pills, poker, and porn. An online casino linking to your non-casino site looks as shady to people as it does to Google bots.

List of Markers to Make Sure You Need It

The toxicity of backlinks can be measured by these markers: 

  • Low domain trust score: This metric describes the linking website’s trustworthiness and integrity. It doesn’t always indicate that the site is spammy. But a low score shows there are fewer trust signals than a reputable site may have.
  • Mirrored pages: Mirror sites with identical content are considered SEO malpractice. If you notice copied websites hosted on different servers all linking to your site, it’s a bad sign. 
  • Page layout: A low ratio of visible text to HTML also indicates the poor quality of a linking page. 

What Happens When You Disavow a Backlink?

One of the main thighs you need to know about disavowing is that it is a request. Google is under no obligation to ignore bad links to your domain. This is outlined in the documentation when you submit the file - it is marked as a suggestion. 

The success of your request is ultimately Google’s decision. It doesn’t mean that you have no power over it. After all, if you do your homework and determine which backlinks are toxic, the suggestion shouldn’t raise any issues.

The good news is that Google tries to meet you halfway. So, you can expect them to honor the link disavow instead of being punitive and ignore the links that go against guidelines. 

Can You Undo It?

Yes, the process of disavowing links is flexible enough. We’ll be going into more detail on how you can update the list of links. For the time being, you should know that links that were removed can be reinstated.

Think of it as tapping Google’s Algorithm on the shoulder and saying, “you can pay attention to these backlinks again.” You won’t be punished for this in any way.

What is unclear is how fast the process takes place. This applies to disavowing links in the first place as well as undoing it. You can’t count on the fact the links will be reinstated immediately, and their influence on your website rankings will go on as usual.

Therefore, we don’t recommend experimenting with disavowing just to see what happens. If you try to manipulate PageRank, there are other ways to do so.

What Are the Risks?

On the one hand, there is no strict punishment for trying to disavow links. On the other hand, this process should still be taken seriously. In particular, due to the following risks:

Messing things up: The tool should only be used in specific cases as a last resort. If you’re frivolous with it, you might actually hurt your SEO.

Wasting your time: Researching your link profile and making sure that you’re not disavowing any useful links takes a lot of time. Even then, you might not do it properly. This way, you risk wasting one of your most valuable resources. 

No guarantees: As we’ve mentioned, disavowing links might not work, and even your request might be ignored. 

What Is Google’s “Disavow Links Tool”?

The Disavow Links Tool was introduced by Google in October of 2012. Even though it has been around for a long time, some people are still confused about this feature. There is no issue with its complexity, though - it’s identifying the right links that remains a challenge for some people.

The disavow tool itself is self-explanatory. It allows you to request Google not to view certain backlinks that point to your site by turning them into invisible nofollow links. 

In November 2020, Google made a UI update, but the core functionality remained the same. Google warns users that this is an advanced feature that should only be used with caution.

Why Was It Created?

The launch of Google’s Disavow Links Tool wasn’t long after the Penguin algorithm update. The Penguin update later became known as the webspam algorithm. Together, they served the same purpose of rewarding high-quality websites and punishing websites engaging in manipulative link schemes.

The tool has seen its fair share of controversy. Still, it’s the only effective method to target all unwanted links at once. And for users’ convenience, the functionality was incorporated into Google’s updated Search Console.

How to Disavow Links: 4 Steps to Take

If you’re convinced that this practice can benefit your website rankings, let us show you how to disavow bad backlinks and all the steps involved.

  1. ID Links to Disavow

    First, you need to know what you’re up against. To determine bad links, there are three areas to look at:

    1. Referring domains

      Referring domains, also known as linking domains, are those exact websites that direct visitors to your site. Each domain has varying numbers of backlinks linking to a single website. The high speed of link growth from one domain should raise questions.

      *Ahrefs referring domains report 

    2. Anchor cloud

      Anchor text is used to help understand the context of the link, and some text may be undeniably over-optimized. If it doesn’t sound natural, it might be a contender for disavowing

      *Ahrefs anchors report 

    3. CTLDs distribution map

      CTLD (the country level top domain) distribution shows the location of the referring domains. If the websites are distributed in some remote countries with no intercrossing with your target audience, it’s a red flag.

      *Ahrefs CCTLD report 

  2. Create Your List

    The next step, as advised by Google’s Search Console Help, is to assemble your list of pages or domains to disavow in a text file and format it. 

    You may not get it right on the first attempt. But don’t worry - GSC shows any errors after submission. The most common one is not stripping the prefix from the root domain.

    Here is are the requirements for the link file:

    1. Each line contains one URL or domain.
    2. URLs should be under 2,048 characters.
    3. The only allowed extension is .txt.
    4. The file should be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII.
    5. The file size should be 2MB or under with no more than 100,000 lines.
    6. If you want to leave comments for yourself or the team but not Google, start the line with a # mark. 

    *example how it should look like

    Pro Tip: Domain-Level Disavow

    As mentioned briefly, you can disavow a whole website at the domain level. This can be done if you don’t want to go through individual URLs from the same domain.  Just add the “domain” prefix to the line - domain:samplewebsite.com

    If you choose to reavow a domain, the process is also reversible.  

  3. Upload to Google’s Disavow Tool

    To upload a disavow list, you need to own the website, and you’re only allowed to have one list. If you’ve never gone through this process before, there is no issue. 

    But if you’ve uploaded a similar list before, you need to know that uploading a new list erases the previous one. So, if you want to keep the link file with previously entered disavowed domains, you should download the current list, add new lines, and upload it again to the Google Disavow Tool. 

    Here is a short rundown: 

    1. Go to Google Search Console. 
    2. Select a property from the list. 
    3. Click the “Upload” button.
    4. See if the file has any errors. 
    5. Fix the errors if necessary and re-upload. 

    After a few weeks, Google will incorporate your list and recrawl the web taking into account file information. 

  4. Log Your Changes and Monitor Progress

    Give Google some time to process the changes and start monitoring in a few weeks. If you used the # mark from Step 2, the process will be more organized and straightforward. 

    You can use Google Analytics or any other platform of your choice. Keep looking at the data related to your backlink profile. If you identified bad backlinks correctly, you should see some improvements. They won’t be instant as nothing with white hat search engine optimization is.

    Pro Tip: File Overwrite

    If you remember us talking about the new disavow data replacing the old one, it won’t come as a surprise that the only way to make changes is to repeat the entire process. 

    Since it’s only four steps, it shouldn’t take you a long time. If you want to remove certain URLs from the list, just edit out the lines you don’t need.