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Who Should Use the Google Disavow Links Tool?

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.

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I've known people who had to take several passes at it to get enough ‘bad links' removed before the manual penalty was revoked.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.

This 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.

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This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Kerry

    Thanks for this, it’s very helpful.

    Just one thing. Why is it messed up for people to have to pay something to have links removed? In most cases we’re talking about sites in blog networks where clients paid an SEO company to put the links there – but now that they want them taken off they expect the site owners (who have not been paid anything) to spend time removing 10s or 100s of links for free. That’s why it’s not happening – those site owners have better things to do with their time.

    I personally will remove most links anytime I’m asked, but if somebody expects me to remove 20+ links I’m going to ask for a few dollars to cover my time. Does that seem unreasonable when I have never gained anything by having their links on my site?

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Kerry, yes you have a good point. If it’s a few dollars to cover your time that’s one thing. But someone trying to make money basically by holding someone’s business for ransom is another and that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote this. Now people don’t have to worry about this as they should be able to disavow the links on their own.

      Also, if you join a blog network then you did pay for a service (usually a monthly fee). In most of the instances I’ve heard involving blog networks the owner of the network was willing to remove the links. Often the blogs in the network are just deleted (along with all the links) because there’s not point to maintaining them once their blown. Again, now if the owner of a blog network was trying to get more money out of you to remove the links, you don’t have to worry about it.

      I really think this tool will benefit webmasters and was only built because Google got a lot of negative feedback from people in this situation (where links were harming them and they couldn’t get them removed). I don’t feel that way about everything Google does, but do think this is a positive for us. I’ve been surprised at how many folks think there’s some other motivation behind it.

  2. JK

    Thanks Lisa for some thoughtful advice. Seems a reasonable step from Google despite the understandable skepticism around their motives. This will give them a wonderful database of probable manufactured link sites (at the very least they’ll see patterns) and they can apply some weighting to them.
    I saw a 85% drop in traffic with no penalty email…so I will use the tool.
    Strategically as an SEO’er for local business I see this makes my value higher…even if it makes my job not quite so simple.

  3. Ernest

    Lisa, I think backlinks are overrated in any case, I build a website in February 2012 and did the on-page SEO but no backlinks because I went into another direction. I did have a keyword rich domain name and a country TLD and now after 9 months with no backlinks (except for 3 obscure ones from a Chinese company in an unrelated business) this site is ranking on the first page of the local Google search engine for several keywords in a very competitive field (Forex trading). Ok! I now it is not a .com site ranking on Google.com, but still….

    1. Lisa Parmley

      That’s great your site is doing so well.

  4. Alex Newell

    Thank you Lisa. I agree with your point of view but there is sharp disagreement on this issue. I believe that Matt Cutts said that we should use the tool if we had a note in webmaster tools that you have self made links – would you go along with that?


    1. Lisa Parmley

      Yes, like I said in the article if you’ve got confirmation that links are impacting your rankings in a negative way you should consider using the tool. So yes, if you’ve got an ‘unnatural link warning’ message or you have a manual penalty (which many people who got those warnings ended up with) for your links. And again I’d consider using it if you manufactured links and know you were impacted by Penguin (checking the dates like I cover).

  5. Garth

    The disavow tool is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of in a while. Google feels the only natural link is a random, spontaneous link placed by a 3rd party with no regard for its effect on SE algorithm effects either way. If a webmaster actively seeks links in any way, Google sees that as trying to manipulate your rankings with them. So essentially, a webmaster is supposed to take no interest in incoming links, and just go about the business of creating the best site you can, and let the web decide if your content is worthy of a link.

    Yet Google expects you to micromanage evey link coming into your site, by analyzing every single link and trying to figure out if it is “Google approved”, putting in the effort to try and have it removed if you suspect it is not, and groveling before almightly Google to please “disavow” links if you don’t have enough control to remove them? Seems like a lot to expect from people who aren’t supposed to even be thinking about links at all (in Google’s imaginary world).

    Google owns the search engine and writes the algorithms, let them decide what links they want to give value to or not, or if they want to value links at all. Let them do whatever, but don’t expect people to jump through hoops trying to gain their approval. My time is better spent elsewhere.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Garth, I know what you’re saying, but unfortunately Google has an awful lot of the search market all wrapped up. Many site owners lose a lot of their profits if they’re manually penalized for link building and feel they have no choice but do what they want. When I first started running an online business there were many search engines so the traffic was spread out through several of them, now search is 90% Google. Maybe that will change in the future and I think everyone involved with business would be better for it if Google didn’t have such a monopoly.

      1. Garth

        Don’t get me wrong, I make sure everything I do is search engine friendly, and have had some successes, but sites I rarely touch anymore jump around so much for no apparent reason, I give up on trying to figure out why, it just seems to be which ever way the wind is blowing at Google at any given time. So, I do work Google into the equation, but they are no longer my first priority.

        Their market share is actually closer to 65%, and I never count out Microsoft. People have been saying IE is dead for a long time, but I don’t see that happening, and MS is trying to bring Bing back into the mainstream consciousness again. A lot of people use Google out of habit, that can work for or against them.

        Google does make some great products, but they want all the search engine traffic, plus video traffic with YouTube, plus social traffic with G+, browser users with Chrome, email and on and on. What’s next, Gikipedia? Gamazon? eGads, they’ve created Godzilla! We need more competition to keep ’em honest.

        (Pardon my rant)

  6. Robert

    Lisa – thanks for this information. Checking my backlinks lately, I see many that are inappropriate and even some porn sites. I have no idea how they got there and how they are impacting my rankings. The porn sites are usually in a foreign country (India I think from the language they use). I have emailed them and asked to be remove but of course, I never hear back. Maybe they don’t understand English.

    So, perhaps this can be a tool I can use. I was severely impacted on April 24.

  7. Wendy Owen

    Hi Lisa, thanks for the very intellegent article, I have a site that went from an average of 25,000 uniques per month down to around 250. Thing is it dropped gradually from Feb this year with a sharper drop in May. This leads me to believe it was affected by Panda rather than Penguin. I never recieved a un-natural link notice which seems to confirm this.

    Having said that I would still like to check the links. Do you know the best way to do this?

    Many thanks

    1. Lisa Parmley

      If the site’s in a Google Webmaster Tools account it should show you the links. If you don’t have it in there you can add it, I’m not sure how long it will take to show up. There are also many free tools for checking backlinks. One is linkdiagnosis.com.

      1. Wendy Owen

        Hi Lisa
        Yes but I can’t get Google to verify my site. I’ve tried 5 methods to get the site verified and every one has failed. I will try linkdiagnosis. Thanks for the suggestion.


  8. Jeremy

    Hi Lisa, I was planning to start a web empire, wheres the best place to start.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      You really need to just start with one site and have some sort of business plan in mind.

  9. Trevor

    Great post Lisa, very useful information.

    What would you say is the best site to check your backlinks? I’ve used ahrefs and open site explorer and the results they bring back differ greatly for the same site.

  10. Owen

    Great post on the disavow tool. You explain things so well and I’m truly enlightened.
    Maybe it’s time to not just rely totally on Google and embrace Social Media.
    Thanks, Lisa

  11. Jordan

    I have had a lot of problems researching posts about small business, happy I discovered your blog.
    ..incredibly useful
    Added to StumbleUpon, they would find this interesting!

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