Google offers a suite of tools within its Search Console that helps SEOs manage the way Google views and interacts with their site. One of the most useful and controversial tools provided to users over the years has been Google’s Disavow Tool. The Disavow Tool has been the subject of much discussion since its release in 2012, with debates on the topic continuing to this day.
What Is The Disavow Tool?
The Disavow Tool enables webmasters to inform Google that an in-bound link should be discounted by Google. If you have a manual action or believe you may receive one then you should consider taking advantage of the Disavow Tool. If you have taken part in link schemes that are outside of Google’s Quality Guidelines then your site is at risk.
Google’s Quality Guidelines
Google’s Quality Guidelines page is not comprehensive in everything they prohibit and even state as much. A general rule from the page is “Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.”
What is the “spirit of the basic principles” and how can webmasters have confidence that what they’re doing is correct? If you follow the below points then you are operating in a safe area:
- Make people your priority, not Google
- Be transparent in everything that you do
- Continually ask yourself “will this help my users?” and “does this attempt to deceive the algorithm?”
- Focus on the strengths of your business, brand and website
For more specific guidelines about prohibited techniques then click through to Google’s Guidelines page.
The History Of The Disavow Tool
On October 16, 2012, Google announced the Disavow Tool on their Webmaster Central Blog. Along with the announcement was a Q&A session delivered by every SEOs favourite person, Matt Cutts. Shortly before Google released this tool, they rolled out the now-infamous Penguin Update, which penalised sites using spammy link tactics. The two go hand-in-hand and were maybe developed with each other in mind.
Interestingly, the language used on the Disavow Tool page suggests that the tool was primarily created to deal with negative SEO, or in other words, link attacks from a nefarious source.
“If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site.”
The interesting part is the “links you do not control” section which suggests this tool is primarily built to protect and clean up negative SEO. However, given the fact that so many sites were partaking in prohibited link schemes, which Google was obviously aware of, suggests that this tool was created with bad SEO in mind, not just negative SEO.
The Disavow Tool was actually created because the SEO community asked for it. Before then, Google would have total control over which links were deemed spammy and would take the appropriate actions behind the scenes.
This left many SEOs frustrated as webmasters were already submitting things like sitemaps and robot files, so why not allow webmasters to be proactive and submit disavow files?
Google succumbed to the pressure and eventually released it under the basis that it should only be used if a manual penalty was present. This was likely accelerated by the fears of the SEO community post-Penguin Update, who felt more vulnerable to negative SEO attacks.
The specific language used about “links you do not control” may be in reference to these fears and at attempt to quell them.
Who Should Use The Disavow Tool?
The Disavow Tool is an advanced tool and comes with a warning. Links are still such a fundamental part of a website’s organic visibility that if used incorrectly a website’s keyword rankings could crash. There’s also a lot of blurred lines when it comes to identifying low-quality links that should be disavowed and a link that probably shouldn’t. With this in mind, only experience webmasters or an experienced SEO agency should handle link disavows to prevent any loss of rankings and organic traffic.
How To Use The Disavow Tool?
In an ideal world, you would have a completely clean link portfolio from trusted sources using genuine content. Unfortunately, such a link profile probably doesn’t exist, unless your site is brand new. Here’s a rundown of how to use the disavow tool:
Collect A Comprehensive List Of Backlinks
It’s a good idea to use a couple of different backlink tools as each will offer slightly different results. Ahrefs, SEMrush or any other backlink tools will be sufficient.
Identify Low-quality Links
Export the list into a spreadsheet and order by the tool’s respective link quality metric from lowest to highest. Some links will be painfully obvious that they need removing, others will require a manual check. Unless things are 100% obvious at a glance, then it’s worth taking a look manually.
Request Link Removal
The disavow tool can only do so much. By asking the webmaster to physically remove the link from their site, you are guaranteeing that it is not associated with your site anymore.
Disavow The Links
If the site owner doesn’t respond, can’t be contacted or refuses, then it’s time to use the disavow tool. Assuming you have Search Console installed, then that’s the place to start.
Firstly, How Do We Navigate To The Disavow Tool?
This is a bit of a strange one since Google has now forced everyone over to the new version of Search Console, which is a little frustrating. In typical Google fashion navigation to the Disavow tool is not straight forward within the dashboard, and may not be possible. Instead, simply make sure you are signed in to search Console and then Google “disavow tool”. This will take you to where you need to be.
Next step is to click on the red “DISAVOW LINKS” button. Which will take you to this page:
It’s like a box inside a box, inside a box. Now click the grey “disavow Links” button. Which will take you to the final page:
Creating The Disavow File
You will need a program that uses the .txt file format for the final file. For PC, use Notepad, and for Mac, you can use TextEdit. Before then, it’s a good idea to have all of your low-quality link URLs in Excel, in column B.
In column A type “domain:”. See below:
Now combine the two columns by typing In cell “C3,” and entering the formula “=A1&B1”. This will result in the following:
Notice that there is no ‘space’ between the colon and the domain.
No copy column C into your text editor and paste as ‘values’. This will paste just the text and not the formulas, and will look something like this:
Uploading the disavow file
Save the .txt file and go back to the disavow tool. Click on ‘Choose File”.
This will ask you to select a file to upload.
Simply click “open” and then “submit”. You will now get a confirmation message letting you know that x amount of domains have been disavowed. Woo!
Common Disavow Mistakes
With so much subjectiveness surrounding disavowing links, it’s worth reading through some of the most common mistakes made.
- Being Too Gentle
Relevancy, relevancy, relevancy. If a link is relevant and offers value to a web user keep it. If it doesn’t, disavow it. It’s so tempting to retain links from authority domains, but you have to ask yourself “If I clicked that link and landed on my site, would it be useful?”. If not, then disavow it.
- Missing A Bad Link
If there is any doubt about whether a link is bad, then check it manually and ask the same question as before. If the link is from a legitimate and relevant site and offers value, then it’s OK. Also, consider the following:
- Does the site accept paid links?
- Are the anchors suspiciously commercial, e.g. “buy shoes online”
- Forgetting About Links All Together
Links always have been and will continue to play a fundamental role in SEO. Just because you’ve had bad experiences doesn’t mean you should forget about link building. Instead, you should educate and take the learnings forward to build a legitimate and powerful link profile.
For more tips on what SEO strategies ‘to do’ check out these recent Marketing.com.au articles:
- Local SEO Guide for Growing Your Business
- 11 SEO Tips for Beginners to Boost Website Traffic
- Learn 8 Things You Should See in SEO-friendly Hosting
- 9 SEO Mistakes You Should Avoid to Ensure Better Ranking