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When and How to Use Google’s Disavowal Tool

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While Google’s penalty-based algorithm updates sometimes make it seem like the search engine giant is actively trying to disrupt the ranking efforts of webmasters, the truth is Google cares about the web, and wants to do everything it can to help webmasters succeed in their own endeavors. Google Webmaster Tools, if you couldn’t tell by the name, was created for that very purpose. It contains a number of research- and analysis-based tools to improve your visibility to Google robots, improve the functionality of your site, and ultimately provide a better experience to your web visitors.

One of these tools is known as the Disavow Links tool, which exists to help webmasters remove harmful or unwanted backlinks that may be interfering with your campaign. Understanding why this tool exists, as well as when and how to use it, can be highly beneficial for your SEO campaign.

Why Would I Need to Disavow Links?

Quality external links are a good thing. The more high-quality links you have on external sites pointing back to your domain, the more authoritative your site will be according to Google, and the higher you’ll rank for relevant keywords. However, if you have low-quality links, Google will work against you by making it more difficult to rank for relevant keywords. Just one bad backlink could easily set you back weeks or months in your ranking efforts.

Types of Links That Can Harm Your Site

Google wants to clean the web of spam and irrelevant information, so the best links you can build are the ones that fit naturally into a forum, site, or conversation. If your link appears unnatural, or if it appears like it was built for the sole purpose of trying to boost your rank, it may be considered a bad backlink, and can actively work against you.

Some of the most common types of bad backlinks include:

  • Links on low-quality sources, such as article directories, link scheming sites, or other hosts for spam and throwaway content.
  • Repetitive backlinks, such as multiple instances of the same URL being used across the web with no variety.
  • Backlinks anchored heavily in keywords, or other attempts to optimize links for keywords unnecessarily.
  • An excessive number of links found on one specific source.
  • Links on irrelevant sites, such as an industry directory for an industry that’s irrelevant to your business.

If you avoid building links on these types of sources, you should be in the clear, at least for the most part. There’s still a small chance that you could be the victim of negative SEO, which occurs when a competitor or other third party builds a negative backlink without your permission. These instances are rare, but they do occur, so it pays to stay apprised of your backlink profile.

When to Use the Disavow Tool

The Disavow Tool wasn’t created to be an easy out for these instances. Google takes negative backlinks very seriously, and allowing webmasters to instantly and permanently remove a ranking penalty would defeat the purpose of ranking penalties altogether.

Instead, it exists as a last-ditch effort for webmasters to remove a particularly harmful link, or set of links. After all other options have been exhausted, it can be used as a request for Google to consider overlooking those specific links when it scans the web. Requests are manually reviewed, and are typically reviewed judiciously—the majority of requests are ultimately ignored.

Keep this in mind as you audit your backlink profile or attempt to improve your positions in Google. If you notice your rankings or your organic traffic taking a sharp drop, use a link monitoring tool like Open Site Explorer to determine whether a bad backlink could be the root of your problem. If it is, and you cannot remove the link in any other way, you’ll need to refer to the help of the Disavow Tool.

Step One: Remove the Links You Can

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Before you log into Google Webmaster Tools, take efforts to remove whatever links you can on your own. The first step is the most logical—try removing them yourself. For example, if you’ve posted a comment on a forum with a backlink pointing back to your site, try logging into that site and deleting your comment.

Of course, this strategy isn’t always going to work. In many cases, you’ll need the assistance of the presiding webmaster if you want to get your link taken down. Most sites list the webmaster contact on the contact page of their site, so send them a polite request email to have your link formally removed. If the contact isn’t listed, you can use Google itself—type in “whoiswww.example.com” where example.com is the URL of the site whose webmaster you’re trying to find. In the vast majority of cases, webmasters will be more than happy to help you out. However, if the webmaster in question is unresponsive after multiple follow-ups, or if they flat-out refuse to help you, you may need to move on to the next step.

Step Two: Verify Webmaster Tools (if You Haven’t Already)

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Before you gain access to the Disavow Tool, you’ll first need to verify your Webmaster Tools account with your domain. The easiest way to do this is to upload an HTML file (which Webmaster Tools will provide to you) to your site, but you can also verify your account with Google Analytics or your domain registrar. Once your domain is verified within Webmaster Tools, you’ll be able to login and complete the next steps of the disavowal process.

Step Three: Download Your Links

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First, you’ll need to download a full list of backlinks pointing to your site. Log into Webmaster Tools, select your domain, and once in your dashboard, click on “Search Traffic.” From there, click on “Links to Your Site,” and under “Who links the most,” click “More.” Once there, click on “Download more sample links”—as an alternative, you can click “Download latest links” and get the dates associated with your links as well. This will allow you to download a file that contains all pages and links pointing back to your domain.

Step Four: Upload Links to Disavow

Create a text file (.txt) that contains all the links you wish to disavow, using the link list from the file you downloaded. Be sure to only include the problematic links that you were not able to manually remove. Once you’ve got that all set, you can head to the Disavow Tool itself, click “Disavow links,” follow the prompts, and upload your text file. Uploading a text file will automatically replace any previously uploaded text files, so make sure your file is up-to-date. It will take at least a few days, probably a few weeks, before Google reviews your requests.

Remember, the Disavow Tool isn’t a magic solution to get rid of all your linking problems. You’ll need to carefully restructure your backlink building strategy, and actively work to remove any negative links long before you even consider using the Disavow Tool. Even when you do make a submission, it’s not uncommon for Google to reject your request. Your best strategy moving forward is to make sure you only build the highest quality links for your backlink profile, and catch problematic links proactively.

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Nick Wilson

Nick is AudienceBloom's publication wizard. He works his magic to perform outreach for external content marketing campaigns.

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