Who Should Use the Google Disavow Links Tool?

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Google released a links disavow tool and there’s an explosion of people talking about it.

You can watch the official Google video. And there’s a post on the Google webmaster central blog with more information.

In light of this new release, many people are asking questions and wondering if they should even use this tool.

I’d like to offer up my advice.

If you’re in a situation where your rankings are already poor AND it’s because of your links then I’m not sure what you’d have to lose by using this tool.

It's going to save you time in cleaning up your back link profile.It’s going to save you time in cleaning up your back link profile.

I can’t claim to know for sure, but it seems Google created this tool due to pressure by webmasters who felt the way they handle linking penalties was extremely unfair.

By linking penalties I mean a manual penalty given by the Google webspam team. In the past (prior to somewhere in the last half of 2011), you were given a manual penalty and you never had any idea why you got that penalty. They would just send you to their quality guidelines page and tell you that had something to do with it.

But more recently, Google has been a little more open about the reason why they’ve given some penalties. They’ve stated some were due to ‘bad links’, using terms ‘like unnatural links’ or ‘inorganic links’ (meaning links that weren’t given to your site because it has something of value on it, but more or less manufactured links).

If you got this type of notice along with your manual penalty then at least it narrowed the issue down for you, but trying to get enough of the links removed by hand is not an easy task.

I’ve known people who had to take several passes at it to get enough ‘bad links’ removed before the manual penalty was revoked.  And I’ve also heard of people needing to actually PAY sites to remove their links.

That’s really messed up.

This has gotten a lot of people very upset.

You don’t usually control the sites the links are on so you have no control over the situation.

It could take hundreds of hours of your time to get enough links removed to make any noticeable progress. You don’t own the sites giving you the ‘bad links’ so you can’t do anything to speed the process up.

For another, there’s been a lot of talk of negative SEO.

If you really want to damage someone else’s rankings, you can because it’s all out in the open now that links can hurt rankings.

So what’s to stop someone else from just building a ton of ‘bad links’ to your site?


That’s a real issue.

Again, you don’t have any control over getting those links removed. It could take you months or even years to get them all down and if you’re losing rankings over them then that really sucks.

To give you another scenario, there are many people who don’t know anything about SEO, just that it exists, and they’ve blindly trusted an SEO company to help them improve their rankings.

Many SEO companies will just build ‘bad links’ back to the owners site and now they can be in a situation where those links are hurting them (or have resulted in a manual penalty for link building).

Google seems to have stepped up their manual penalty process. Maybe they hired a lot more people. Maybe the people getting them are more vocal.

But the thing is there have been a lot of disgruntled webmasters and SEO’s really going to task on Google’s linking penalties and how it’s a completely unfair deal to be on the wrong end of the stick on that one. 

So it seems they agreed, it is a poor way to run things. Basically they’ve been holding webmasters hostage over their links and there was nothing they could do about it. So there should be a way for a webmaster to disavow links.

Maybe they didn’t build them, maybe they did and now they realize they’re doing more harm than good, it doesn’t matter.

Now there’s a way to let Google know you don’t want them counted.

I know there’s a lot of distrust with this disavow tool and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but in my opinion, that’s why this tool was created.

I don’t think anything bad is going to happen if you use it, especially if you’re in this situation.

Again, if you have a manual penalty against your site and it’s for ‘bad links’ then you don’t really have a choice in the matter.  Your site is just sitting in a giant hole and won’t get out until you remove those links.

You don’t have to use the disavow links tool, but if you want to get your site out of the manual penalty you’re going to have to clean up the links.

disavow linksThis tool is giving you a way out from contacting all the sites giving you these ‘bad links’.  Instead of wasting hours and hours of your time you can use this disavow link tool.

I know in the video Matt Cutts says you’ll want to try to get as many links removed as you possibly can first, but you know, you could use the disavow tool and try to get them removed manually while you’re waiting for it to take effect (as he says it takes weeks to see a benefit).

I’d tell people in this situation to disavow the links they believe are causing the problem and then file a request for reconsideration right after. Mention they have done this and link to their uploaded text file (just FTP it somewhere and link to it in the message). That way the webspam staff can see you are willing to disavow those links.

I know people don’t want to trust this tool, but again, if you’re in the situation where you have a manual penalty against your site for ‘bad links’ then this tool will help you out of a very difficult situation.

The other scenario where it might be worth using this tool is if your rankings dropped at the time of the Penguin update.  One thing worth noting is that Penguin deals with more than just your link building. It includes several webspam techniques including keyword stuffing. So you’ll want to keep that in mind.

For many people though, if they saw a drop in traffic around the time of the Penguin update, it’s probably due to their link building. And specifically having their keyphrases stuffed in the anchor text of their backlinks too many times.

This is a red flag they were manufacturing links back to their pages and trying to manipulate the search engine rankings (which is something Google doesn’t want you to do).  So that’s the reason for the rankings drop. It’s not the same as a manual penalty.

If you went down due to the algorithm you do not need to file a request for reconsideration.  You can fix the issues without sending any correspondence in to Google.

However, unlike most algorithm updates where you can fix the issues and come back, this one is particularly nasty because if you remove or disavow your links (and those links were helping you prior to the update) you’re probably not going to come back where you were.

If you had a #1 ranking for a keyphrase and you disavow links then you’re probably not coming back at the #1 spot.

But it’s not likely you’re going to get back to where you were without removing the links either so it’s really your call.

Penguin was rolled out on April 24th, 2012.  So that’s the date you’ll want to look at in your traffic stats (even just webalyzer will do).

If you see a big drop on that date and it stayed around, you were most likely impacted by Penguin. And if you weren’t doing anything really crazy with your on-site optimization, you were probably impacted by the link building aspect of things.

So I’d check out the links and upload a text file as per their instructions.  If you want to try to get some of the links actually removed as you wait then that’s probably a smart idea.

In addition to the first Penguin rollout there have been some updates. According to seomoz.org, there was one on May 25, 2012 and another on October 5th, 2012 (and likely more in the future so you should check depending on when you’re reading this).

If you saw a noticeable drop in your rankings or a drop to your traffic on any of those dates that continues, you are probably in this boat and may want to think about using the link disavow tool.

I’d be more cautious about using the link disavow tool if you’re in this boat as opposed to having a confirmed manual penalty for link building.

Other options you have if you were impacted by Penguin include:

  • Ignoring the links altogether and trying to get legitimate links back to your pages (so focus more on moving forward than on going backward and revisiting links you built in the past).
  • To try changing the anchor text and pages the links were going to. You were probably caught because you used the same keyphrase in your anchor text too many times and linked back to the same pages too often. So you can try to diversify this.  However, if you do this then a later update targeting your links can cause you problems again.  So it may just be a short-term fix.
  • Or lastly, you can use the link disavow tool and/or try to manually get your links removed.

If you’re going to use this tool, what links should you remove?

I would approach this the same whether you have a manual penalty due to bad links or were impacted by Penguin.

And I would probably take the side of being more aggressive with using the disavow tool than many will. But I’ve seen a lot of correspondence from the Google Webmaster Tools console where they are actually giving out examples of the “unnatural links” and I was really shocked at how aggressive they are when it comes to labeling a link this way.

Really, almost any link you manufactured to get higher rankings could be labeled this way. If Google can connect the dots you placed that link and the owner of the site would give anyone else a link back too then it can fit into the ‘bad link’ pile.

These are all links Google would rather not count, so they usually fit in the category of ‘unnatural’ or ‘inorganic’.

And if you have any paid links those need to go too.

Blog networks, especially those that are public are really nothing more than a paid link so I’d disavow all of those (unless you really went to great lengths to hide these links, but I can guarantee you, if it was from a public blog network they were not hidden real well).

So if you don’t want to mess around with this, I’d be more aggressive. If you’re in this boat, where you’ve either been impacted by a manual penalty for bad links or you were impacted by Penguin (and were not going crazy with your on-site optimization), then you went way overboard somewhere with your links.

You can either waste a lot more time now trying to figure out where the line is that you crossed or you can just really use the heck out of this tool.

Obviously if anyone gave you a link because they thought something on your site was of interest, you want to keep that link.

But all the rest may need to go. If there are manufactured links given to boost your rankings and anyone can get those links (there’s no editorial discretion), they may need to go.

Are you going to rank where you were?

No way. Anytime you start messing with your links, you’re likely going to see a decrease in your rankings.

But the thing is, you’ve already seen that or you wouldn’t be reading this.  You’ve already seen a decrease (or you’ve got a manual penalty and aren’t even ranking high for your own site name).

I can’t imagine it’s going to get worse.

It’s not likely you’re going to rank where you were.

But you’ll have a new chance to get un-stuck and start building the types of links that will do you some good.

Will people who own blog networks want you to use this tool?

No, because now the sites in their networks are going to be flagged. So you’re going to see a lot of distrust from people running blog networks and other people offering link building services regarding this tool.

And I don’t blame anyone for having distrust with this tool.  I’m just not sure if you’re in either of the categories I just mentioned that you’ve got a lot to lose.

The links may have helped you in the past, but they aren’t helping you now.  And they may actually be harming your rankings, so they can probably go. That way you can move on and start pushing forward.

And again, you can get your links manually removed and not use this tool.  But the disavow link tool may save you a lot of time versus trying to get the links manually removed.

Lisa Parmley
Lisa Parmley

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