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To disavow or not? Getting it right, 10 years later.
Determine whether a link disavow is needed and avoid costly mistakes.
Google’s disavow links tool launched nearly a decade ago, on October 16, 2012. As we approach the tenth anniversary, webmasters still have confusion and disagreement regarding how to approach a link analysis and properly use backlink data when considering a disavow. A lot has changed since 2012!
Whether you’re disavowing as a preventative measure or a means to recover your rankings, we’ll review current-day approaches to take based on our experience disavowing links over the past decade.
Who may need a link disavow?
Let’s begin by answering who likely doesn’t need a disavow, and that’s most of you. If you’ve stuck with natural link acquisition and SEO traffic is on the rise, a link disavow is unlikely to help. This is especially true if your site already has a relatively small number of backlinks or is in a less competitive vertical. Submitting a disavow can even hurt the rankings of otherwise healthy websites if the tool isn’t used wisely.
Consider analyzing your backlinks and submitting a disavow if:
- You have an “unnatural links” notice in Google Search Console and corresponding manual action.
- You know unnatural links were acquired to your website, either recently or at any time in the past. Even links from years ago can come back to bite you as Google continues mapping out artificial link networks.
- You’ve experienced unexplainable traffic/ranking loss or traffic loss near the time of a known Google link-based update or core algorithm update. Similarly, traffic may be flat over long periods of otherwise strong on-page SEO and content creation initiatives, and you suspect off-page factors may be the reason why.
- You see a lot of new spammy links pointing to your website regularly and may be the target of a negative SEO attack.
- You don’t fully trust the algorithm and want to get a better understanding of your current link profile and level of risk.
Links from scrapers and other obvious spam are likely to get filtered out and ignored by Google, providing no value but also not counting against you. Nearly all websites have them, and you can usually ignore these yourself or include them in your disavow if you’re worried. But links from known link sellers and link networks can become a big problem. Frequent link-building tactics necessitating a link disavow include:
- Buying guest blog posts or “sponsored content” without the appropriate link attributes.
- Buying links with a guaranteed minimum level of “authority.”
- Buying links from a list of sites that have varying pricing for placement.
- Obtaining keyword-rich anchor links pointing directly to SEO landing pages.
- Buying links at all, for that matter, especially from anyone offering pre-selected placements.
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Compiling your backlinks & properly analyzing them
For an advanced SEO looking for the most comprehensive look and their link data, merging multiple datasets (Google Search Console, Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic, Semrush, and so on) will paint the most complete picture of your backlink profile. For the rest of you, hiring a professional to help is the best path forward for the rest of you – a second reminder that disavowing can do more harm than good if not fully confident in your approach. Should you choose to do it alone, downloading the links provided in Google Search Console will likely suffice, even if they’re only showing a small “sampling” of your overall link profile.
Once your link data is obtained, you’ll have to make some decisions on how to analyze your backlinks. Most webmasters take shortcuts, relying on software to tell them how “authoritative” or “toxic” a link might be. This is a quick but dangerous way to compile links for your disavow.
Although convenient, we do not recommend relying on:
- Third-party link metrics from SEO software listing the “authority,” “trust,” or “rating” of your links. These scores better represent a site’s ability to rank itself than its ability to pass link equity (or harm) to you. None of the companies who provide these metrics are Google, Google doesn’t use their data, their scoring is based on their unique & often limited crawl, their data and link values all vary from each other, and they generally don’t consider if a website which links to you has disavowed any of its own links or has been penalized by Google for selling links. Ironically, many penalized sites will receive a high “authority,” “trust score,” or “rating” due to the quantity of their (spammy) backlinks, and these are certainly not sites you’d want a link from!
- Blindly pasting any software’s “toxic” or “spam” link list into your disavow. We’ve seen webmasters rely on this all too often, leading to further traffic loss. A third reminder: a disavow can do more harm than good if completed improperly.
- Making decisions based on a linking site’s traffic levels. A link can be natural and relevant, even from a town library, local nonprofit, or hobbyist website. These sites likely have low traffic levels since they traditionally don’t rank for large amounts of commercial phrases. However, links from them are still natural & freely given to support your overall link profile. Don’t disavow these!
Instead, ask yourself:
- Does the site linking to you appear to be a good resource, put online to provide value to its audience? Is it maintained by someone who has subject-matter expertise or a strong interest in the topic at hand? Are they linking to you in a natural way, as an extension of their own content and compiled resources? If so, this is likely a great link to have and one you won’t have to worry about causing issues.
- What does the linking site’s link neighborhood itself look like? Are the backlinks natural, or do they appear manipulated for SEO purposes? Are the external links throughout the website there to provide more information about the topic being discussed and consistent with the site’s theme? If the site’s internal & external links pass the smell test, you’re likely safe to exclude this link from your disavow file.
- Is the website linking to you filled with varying content and many unrelated external links? Is it a blog you’ve never heard of with articles about everything, always linking out to a commercial website within each article? Links from sites fitting this pattern are likely in a link network or database, can potentially be harmful to your SEO performance, and were a primary target of Google’s link spam update last summer. You’ll want to consider links from websites fitting this mold for your disavow, especially if they’ve never sent you any direct traffic via someone actually clicking on your link.
Preventative or reactionary analysis & disavow frequency
Like most SEO efforts, staying on top of your link profile is rarely a one & done initiative and more often resembles a game of cat & mouse, depending on the scenario. If your website and its traffic levels are healthy and growing, revisiting your backlink profile can be done on a less frequent basis. Semi-annually or yearly may be appropriate depending on your level of concern.
A preventative disavow may make sense in this situation; if troubles arise, Google is months behind on reconsideration requests, and that’s not a situation you want to find yourself in. Always remember that links are really hard to get and a primary part of Google’s ranking equation, so being conservative with a disavow here is usually the best approach.
On the other hand, webmasters may find it worthwhile to review their backlinks and update their disavow files more regularly if they’ve been affected by manual action or link-based updates in the past, or they suspect they are being targeted by a negative SEO campaign. More frequent revisions can help ensure you’re ahead of the algorithm when disassociating yourself with links that have the potential to cause issues in the near or long term.
From its early days a decade ago, Google’s disavow links tool has remained an often misunderstood part of its Search Console for webmasters. From initially being needed solely as a response to 2012’s “Penguin” algorithm rollout and as a way to resolve manual actions, its use cases have evolved for both preventative and reactionary scenarios. Likewise, the way webmasters review their links for a variety of purposes has changed over the past decade.
Regardless of your need to visit the disavow tool, it’s important to keep in mind how earning natural, trusted links can be one of the biggest SEO growth drivers, directly contributing to traffic and ranking increases over time. Safe & effective link earning reduces risks in your backlink profile and helps avoid the need for disavowing at all.