What Google’s Disavow Links Tool Is and Isn’t For

October will mark the five-year anniversary of Google adding the Disavow Links tool to what was then still called Google Webmaster Tools, and anecdotal evidence I’ve accumulated in that time suggests that only a small fraction of the total people aware of its existence actually understand how it’s intended to be used.

I’ve spoken to people in the business who almost reflexively say the word “disavow” in mentioning that they detected backlinks that seemed fishy, or, in the case of the particularly trigger-happy, backlinks that they just didn’t remember acquiring (as if someone at an enterprise-level company should be expected to record, let alone remember, every backlink that its website gets). “The site that gave us this link looks weird. Can we disavow it? Google lets you do that now, right?” Well, yeah, in the sense that they did create this tool and we do have access to it. But the disavow tool is not to be reached for the minute you notice a link that arches your eyebrow. It’s to be kept behind emergency glass and used only when you’re as sure as you can possibly be that 1) the link is toxic, and 2) there is no other way to remove it.

Use the disavow tool wisely, and you unleash one of the most fearsome foes that spam has ever seen. Use it nonchalantly, and it will come back to haunt you. So let’s talk about the rare conditions that actually might inspire you to consider this nuclear option called the Disavow Links tool, the better to keep you from exposure to radioactive fallout. Or something.

A Brief History of Link Spam Penalties

It was 2012 when the Google spam team got serious about link spam enabling low-quality pages to pollute its SERPs and undermine the search experience. The first shot they fired was the April rollout of Penguin, the supplementary algorithm that aggressively downranked sites determined to have “unnatural” backlink profiles. The targets here were sites that had gamed the link graph by amassing cheapo links in huge quantities, in over-optimized forms, and/or by unscrupulous means, to jump to the top of SERPs. After all, the principal and uniting concept behind PageRank, the foundation of the Google algorithm, was that the quantity and quality of a page’s backlinks were to be regarded as “votes” in favor of the page. In other words, if a website links to a page, it stands to reason that the site is recommending that page to its readers, therefore they must think it’s worth reading. Pump up your PageRank with a bunch of insubstantial links created en masse, and you’re exploiting the whole idea.

So, links that were bought or otherwise unearned had to be distinguished from links that legitimately did amount to positive testimony from real humans, so Penguin looked to target sites with a high ratio of linking pages to linking domains, a huge amount of links issuing from the same IP C-block, a suspicious number of links featuring keyword-rich anchor text, and other markers strongly suggesting “unnaturalness”. Penguin was a tough sheriff, to be sure, but that was the idea: since appeals to kindness and betterment of the web were clearly not enough to end grey-hat SEO (who would voluntarily discontinue a tactic that had been working?), Google could only hope to deter it by threatening, and demonstrating, punishment. If you had backlinks of questionable purity, the only way to avoid Penguin, or to recover from it, was to get rid of them. Get with the program or enjoy your new life on Page 18.

There was just one problem: most bad links proved very difficult to get rid of. Sure, webmasters or SEO specialists who had acquired them by setting up shell domains themselves could simply pull the plug. And those who had done so with the help of personal connections could end it with a text message reading “ABORT”. Link removal is easy when you control the linking sites. But for every crummy link that they obtained that way, most webmasters had ten that they’d gotten through some decentralized link wheel or murky back-alley message board. As they soon discovered, links like that belonged to schemes bigger than any one linking domain, so there was precious little chance of getting them taken down with a polite email.

I myself have had to try to get links removed on behalf of my clients a number of times over the years (usually an effort to undo the work of an SEO specialist that they’d hired a decade earlier), and I’ll just tell you, anecdotally: it’s only about 25% of the time that there’s a webmaster contact email address to be found on the site at all, and not once have I ever seen any reaction at all to a request email that I’ve sent to that address. No reply of acknowledgement, and certainly no evidence of the links coming down. And the remaining 75% of the time, there’s no email address on the site at all. You can try your luck with a whois lookup in that case, but don’t be too surprised if that also fails to lead you to a real human being. After all, what’s going on here is that the site is shady and the webmasters don’t want people to be able to get to them.

So it ended up looking like a terrifyingly large number of sites penalized by Penguin were without an easy road back to Google’s good graces. Their webmasters had picked up bad links back when SEO was the wild west and they felt like they were going to live forever, and then, like so many college grads regretting their head-and-neck tattoos, they entered a new world where those links would no longer be tolerated, but had no way of making them go away. They’d do as much manual removal as they could (which was very little), submit a heartfelt mea culpa in the form of a Reconsideration Request, get denied, and watch pitifully from the rain-spattered window of Page 18 as their competitors gobbled up all the organic traffic that used to be theirs. This is the sad post-Penguin landscape into which the Disavow Links tool was born, six months later, to the universal relief of SEO and digital marketing managers at the ends of their ropes the world over.

A Desperate Measure for Desperate Times (and Only Desperate Times)

Here’s a nice blog post from Cyrus Shepard describing his experience of working to solve exactly this problem for a client just as the tool was released, and the help he got from it. Though it was a manual action rather than Penguin that got his client’s site busted, take his account as an exemplary use case for the tool, and as a reasonable basis for your own expectations regarding what your recovery from a similar situation might look like.

And here is the critical point. Desperate situations like Shepard’s are the only kinds in which this tool is supposed to be used.

He knew from years of experience and months of entrenched familiarity with this particular client’s link profile that the remaining bad links he had were doing him harm, and he spent a miserable chunk of time banging out takedown request emails to webmasters before he got his hands dirty with Disavow. In all probability, his story would have been uglier — maybe even too ugly to blog about — had the tool not been released while he was already in the middle of his mess. Had it come out a few weeks before rather than a few weeks after he began his efforts on behalf of this client, he might have made the exact mistake that this post is warning against, and deployed it too early, before he had a grasp of which links were which. This might have caused him to scrub his profile of links that actually were doing him good.

This is precisely why the Disavow Links tool must be used as a last rather than a first resort: because once you succeed in scrubbing a domain from counting toward your link profile, it’s gone forever. So whether the alarm has sounded in the form of a manual action notice in your inbox, or whether you’re just noticing flagging rankings with no clear surrounding narrative and decide you’d best audit your backlinks, you’ve got to try everything in your power to confirm the nastiness of the worst links, and to reach the people responsible for them, before you break that emergency glass, or you could be disavowing links that are helping you. The fact that Google so strongly encourages you to include explanatory comments in the Disavow submissions themselves — e.g. “we think these links are negative SEO on the part of a competitor, and can’t find an email address associated with the linking domain anywhere” — just further emphasizes the care with which Google insists you wield this tool. Most people intoning its name don’t realize that.

How to Know It’s Time to Disavow a Link with the Disavow Links Tool

  1. You are convinced that the link is bad. Either through your own methods of sleuthing or through those of an SEO expert in your employ, you’re sure that this was either a link acquired to inflate your backlink profile (most likely by a previous SEO specialist from a more innocent time), or a link created by a competitor in an effort to get your site flagged by Penguin or a manual action. There is vanishingly little reason to believe that the link was naturally earned.
  2. Whether because the webmaster you emailed hasn’t responded after six weeks and the links are still up, or because there is no webmaster to be found at all, you know that this bad link is here to stay unless you can convince Google to stop counting it.

If your situation meets these two criteria, then congratulations: you are exactly the person for whom the Disavow Links tool was created.

Note that this post doesn’t provide information about how to use the Disavow Links tool once you’ve decided you must. For that, I cheerfully direct you to a post by Marie Haynes, on the Moz blog, which provides the best step-by-step instruction manual that I’ve found on the web. That is the post to study when you’re sure that the time has come to invoke the tool.

All this post is trying to do is to convince you that that time probably hasn’t come yet.

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