Backlinks are critical to SEO success, but not all backlinks are created equal and the quality of links coming into your site can mean all the difference to your SEO success. So, what should we do with low-quality, spammy links? Leave them? Should we disavow them? If you’re confused about disavowing links – you aren’t alone. This blog will try to give you a bit more information about the Google Disavow Tool, including how and when (or if) to use it; but first, a quick history lesson.
An Introduction to Link Spam
A key factor in where your page ranks on Google is the quantity and quality of the links coming into your site. Once marketers became aware of this, ever keen to jump on any potential opportunity, the era of link spam was born. This involved placing links on external websites back to your own site in an attempt to manipulate Google rankings. This led to Google’s search results being filled with low-quality pages appearing higher than they should, often in top positions. This was great for site owners, but for users, who were being served low-quality and irrelevant results that couldn’t answer their query, it was a disaster. Google had to act, and they did. They realised that if users continued to be served these results, they would eventually stop using Google and turn to another search engine. In 2012 Google began rolling out “manual penalties”. These were actions that intentionally reduced the visibility of pages, and even entire sites, if it was deemed that they had used links into their site to manipulate rankings.
The Disavow Tool
All was not lost, however, as Google then released the Disavow Tool. This allowed site owners to tell Google which links they didn’t want Google to consider by submitting a disavow file. In theory, the Disavow Tool allows you to ask Google to ignore low-quality, spammy backlinks to your site. Although they are under no obligation to respect your request, if they do, those links won’t be used in determining your ranking. You simply create a file and upload it to the Search Console to show which links you want Google to disregard. But just remember, this process doesn’t remove the links from your backlink profile, you are just asking Google not to take them into consideration.
Penguin Has Entered the Chat
In 2016, Google made an addition to their algorithm (called Penguin) which supposedly made Google more capable of ignoring spammy links. For years Google was using the data submitted via the Disavow Tool to create a spammy links database that they could use to build an algorithm to identify spam links in real-time. As a result, there was less of a need for Google to manually review sites and for any site owners to disavow any spammy links, as they were already being ignored by Google.
When to Use the Disavow Tool
There are only a few isolated cases in which you should use the Google Disavow Tool.
- A Dramatic Drop in Traffic and Rankings – This indicates an issue with your website. However, you should not rush into disavowing your links. First, make sure you’ve done your best to identify the issue and try to exclude everything else before you decide on using the Disavow Tool. Things such as website migrations and redesigns can massively affect traffic and rankings.
- When You Have a Manual Action Applied on Your Site – These are rare but they do exist, and if your website is one of them, you can consider using the Disavow Tool. There are multiple types of manual actions, so make sure you start disavowing links only if you see the “Unnatural Links” warning. To see if any manual actions have been applied to your website, go to the Google Search Console and find the Manual Actions section in the left menu. If you do see any warnings here, make sure you fix them and then submit your site for reconsideration (also done in the GSC under Manual Actions).
But, Should We Still Disavow Links?
If you’re not sure if you should use it, then don’t. The first thing you should do is complete a link audit and see which links may be harming your site the most. You need to carefully determine the bad and the good, and see which links could influence your site’s decreased ranking. If you’re not careful, you might end up losing some valid links. For years, Google has also recommended that you try removing the bad links manually, by contacting the owners of the websites that point to you (although this is certainly easier said than done!). If you’re still now sure if/when you should disavow, check out this helpful flow chart from Moz.
Some Tips for Disavowing Links
Take Your Time – If you think your site is suffering from some bad links and you want to remove spammy links, start slow by disavowing only 5-10 links at a time. Wait for a couple of weeks to observe any effects, and then add some new ones if you’re still not content.
Track your Rankings – Monitor your rankings (using tools such as SEMrush or Moz) to spot any differences, and if you see significant negative impacts, remove the disavow files and stop using the tool immediately.
Don’t Disavow All Links or Domains with Low Performance – Low Domain Authority (DA) links are part of a natural link profile. In the end, disavowing them might do more harm than good. For example, consider that a new, small website with low domain performance writes about your site and includes links to it. Should you disavow these types of links? No, that low domain performance website may become popular and have a strong DA metric. Not only this, but the link might already be contributing to your site’s well-being.
The main point that you should remember is that this tool shouldn’t be used if you’re not 100% sure how it works. It is a powerful tool that may resolve your drop in rankings, or may make things worse. If you were unable to remove the unnatural links any other way, you could try disavowing them. But the tool should be used only in specific situations, such as a Manual Penalty. If you’re unsure how to use it and what it’s capable of doing, you should avoid it. However, if you think you’ve tried everything else, it’s a worthwhile alternative to consider. Remember, the solution here isn’t necessarily to remove low-quality links, but to focus on building higher quality ones. More than anything else, we urge caution when it comes to the Disavow Tool.
What are your experiences with the Disavow Tool? Have you successfully recovered from a penalty? Let us know in the comments! For more SEO tips check out the rest of the GlowMetrics Blog.