How to Use the Google Disavow Tool

Kevin Getch Written by
Kevin Getch
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By Kevin Getch

Introducing Google’s Disavow Tool

As of October 16, Google has officially launched its disavow tool, which enables webmasters to report inorganic inbound links for their domains and shed the nasty ranking drops associated with links of this quality. Rather than ignoring bad links as it has done in the past, Google is now on a crusade to protect users against them. This new tool could be a major boon for users, but only if fully understood.

What’s an Inorganic Link and How Did I Get One (or Many!)?

Because Google uses links as one of their ranking signals, the natural growth of links has become vital to their site-valuing strategy. Inorganic links are links that have come about through channels or methods that Google deems unnatural. These methods include paying for links, link exchanges, and all manipulated approaches to link building. Examples of these wild-west-style link strategies include fake profiles, directory submissions, low quality articles, blog comment spam, footer link spam, and artificial blogrolls.

While notifications of inorganic links may come as surprise to you, they likely originated from actions that you, your SEO company, or a third party took. The disavow tool is a new method for effectively washing these pesky links out of your hair… and your ranking.

Who Should Use the Disavow Tool?

The new tool has been designed primarily for use by those affected by Google’s Penguin Update, which targeted websites with purchased or spammy links.  Reactions to Penguin included panic among SEOs and publishers who wanted to ensure that they could wipe their linking slate clean. In addition, a fierce discussion of mud-slinging “negative SEO” arose regarding practices that could be used by competitors to connect websites with bad links in an attempt to harm their rankings. From this fearful climate emerged the disavow tool, which seems to promise a fresh start for sites burned by their own or third party link building practices.

Head of Google’s spam team Matt Cutts strongly advises that only “powers users” wield this advanced new tool.  Despite the widespread publicity, only a small percentage of people will receive unnatural link notifications, and of those links, many can be resolved by contacting webmasters about taking them down. The bottom line: most people don’t need to use this tool, and those that do are encouraged to try other methods first and in addition to disavowing.

Before You Disavow… Reach Out!

There are many methods for removing bad links, and the best option for any webmaster is to try these avenues first. Contact websites and ask them to remove spammy links. Do a little old-fashioned communicating before you dive into disavow-ville.

Note also that Google already deals with rel= “nofollow” links algorithmically, and does not penalize you for them, so no need to use the tool for these.  

What You can Expect from the Disavow Tool

When a webmaster provides Google with a disavow request, Google takes it as a “very strong suggestion,” according to Cutts. In other words, the tool is not an automated, 100% guaranteed web-ranking-savior. While most requests, if made by well-informed users, should be accepted, others may not be. Therefore, there is the need for alternative link-removal strategies, such as contacting the linked site.

If your request is accepted, put your patience cap on. Link disavowal is estimated to take weeks. In addition, be sure that when you enter links to disavow, you really mean it. Removing good links accidentally could affect your rank in Google, and re-avowing, or reactivating links that you have disavowed, can take even longer.

Comprehensive Guide: How to use the Google Disavow Tool

You are a power user. You have contacted as many websites as you can about taking down spammy links. You still have links that need removal and a desire to clean up your site. Great. Refer to the following  tips on how to use Google’s latest tool.

  1. To  Disavow links from a specific URL, use the following: http://bad-link-domain.com/bad-link-page/
  2. To Disavow from an entire domain: domain:bad-link-domain.com
  3. Use # to begin the line used for comments:  Commenting may be useful for a large file that needs separating into groups.
  4. Take the List to Google:  Once you have compiled your list of links, and provided comments to organize them/ communicate specific issues, navigate here: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main.

Select the appropriate website from a list of verified sites and click the “Disavow Links” button. You will then encounter the following warning:

Google Disavow Tools

Once you click on “Disavow Links” button, a pop-up screen will open and you will be asked to choose a file containing your disavow list.

How to Use Google Disavow Tool

Choose the file you prepared prior and hit “Submit.” Successfully uploaded files will be visible on the same screen.

Instructions for the Google Disavow Tool

Extra Skills

  1. Updating or Deleting your Disavow list: Google offers two download options for editing existing files, CSV and Google Docs/ Google Drive. These options come in handy since you cannot upload more than one file at a time. The old file will be overwritten when you upload a new file, so make sure that you include all your links in addition to those you are adding. Change of heart? Delete the file and start over.
  2. Link Analysis: No need to break the bank on link analysis tools. Google Webmaster Tools offers a perfectly good option for seeking out bad links that only focuses on links Google included in their list.
  3. Affected pages: Google occasionally takes action against a specific page or phrase rather than targeting an entire website. You can use Google Webmaster Tools to find which pages might be in trouble based upon traffic or ranking drop. Be specific with your filters to ensure accurate results.
  4. Link Quality Check: Sometimes, spammers will target your regular pages and create unnatural links within them by spamming other sites. In order to detect these unsavory moves against your pages, again refer to Google Webmaster Tools and navigate to Traffic > Linksto Your Site. Sort these results by “Source Domains” and observe the link qualities you find.  Investigate any pages with an unusual number of linking domains, particularly in the case of a site that would not commonly have many more links than another page on your site. Click through to reveal the affected pages, which you may wish to add to your disavow list. While you want to be 95% sure before disavowing, one general rule applies:  if it looks like spam, and tastes like spam, it probably is spam.

Google’s Disavow Tool is a powerful resource that complements Google’s recent link preference updates and offers sites options beyond spammy former practices.  Used in moderation, this tool will shape the way in which websites develop and help to usher in an age of integrity-rich link building strategies.

We have been cautiously optimistic of the disavow tool and are currently testing the tool with a client that came to us after being affected by the Penguin update. We are tracking their current traffic and rankings and will quantify what effect if any using this tool has on them. We will update this post with the results.

Have you been hit by Penguin or Panda? Have you used the disavow tool and had a positive… or negative experience? Please share your experience below so everyone can benefit.

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