Disavowing Your Backlinks – Essential Guidelines

Google’s Disavow Tool

Back in October 2012, Google introduced their Backlink Disavow tool. The aim of this was to help site owners manage spammy backlinks and help with manual penalties if one was handed out.

11 years on, and what have we learnt by using this?

There have been any number of stories floating around the SEO community since then with many claims and what-ifs, so how do you know if you need to disavow your backlinks?

There is also a lot of fear about the process, and rightly so – if you (or your SEO agency) perform a backlink cleanup and get it wrong, it can cause untold problems.

What Does Google’s Disavow Tool Do?

It’s quite a simple idea really – the Disavow Tool allows you to disassociate yourself from a backlink currently pointing to your website.

It does this by reading a file that you upload and then ignoring any undesirable effects that might come from it.

But it can also remove any benefits, so before you embark on a campaign to get rid of sites that don’t look right to you, please continue reading and decide if this is something for you.

Only Disavow Manual Penalties – Right or Wrong?

This is one of the most confusing areas, and it’s 100% wrong – it’s wrong because Google doesn’t identify spammy backlinks correctly 100% of the time.

This means that there are going to be occasions when you’re being hit by an algorithmic penalty that doesn’t trigger a manual warning flag.

I go into more detail below, but the same goes for a negative SEO campaign. If you know you are being targeted, don’t leave it to Google to know what is going on and have your back – it doesn’t work like that.

Should You Disavow Spammy Domains?

Every website will have some level of spammy/low-quality domains pointing to it – it’s just what happens. Even if you have not requested links, you will naturally pick them up. This will happen for a wide range of reasons but it is NOT the reason you should start disavowing them.

There are a few reasons for this

  1. Who has advised you that backlinks are spammy? You, an auditing tool or a 3rd party agency?
  2. What has been done to classify which of your backlinks are actually spammy?
  3. Have suspect sites been manually appraised?

If you get this part of the process wrong, you can do more harm than good. Why? Because you can very quickly cause more harm by disavowing backlinks that really didn’t need it. You might unintentionally be removing link associations with sites that are actually helping rather than harming.

This is why relying on 3rd party sites to tell you what is or isn’t a spammy site is not advisable. They base what they know on their own understanding of what a spammy site might be, which will change from one tool to the next.

The takeaway here is to be absolutely sure if you need to disavow, and if you do, then take the time to understand how you identify low-quality sites.

Someone Is Building Negative Backlinks

What should you do if you suspect someone is building negative backlinks to your website? And does negative SEO actually exist?

The simple answer – yes…

I have helped countless companies to manage obvious negative campaigns over the years, and as much as Google says that they recognise spammy domains, there is something to remember here…

Google doesn’t get it right every time!

I won’t go into how negative SEO works, but if someone builds links to your website and goes against Google’s Link Spam policies, that can harm your search efforts.

Some aspects of negative link-building are harder to detect for Google, such as buying backlinks, but on the whole, it is actually fairly easy to harm a site.

So, should you consider disavowing a negative backlink campaign against you?

Yes, but there are a few points to consider first.

  1. Are you 100% sure there is a negative campaign ongoing?
  2. Have you noticed a dip in traffic/SERPS? It could always be something else.
  3. Have you had any warnings from Google?

Incorrect use of the disavow tool can cause more harm than good, so you need to know for sure if something is going on. You can always reach out to me if you are unsure.

Is It Possible to Prevent Bad Backlinks?

Simply put, no.

As soon as your website starts being crawled by search engines and other tools, you are going to be on the radar for site owners to link to your site, your content and images.

There are things you can do to lessen the possibility of being found by preventing sites like SEMRush, Ahrefs and MOZ from finding you (Disallow their bot crawlers), but that isn’t a sure-fire way to prevent a spammy or bad domain linking to you.

For the most part, Google says that they don’t care about spammy domains as they take care of them, but we also know this isn’t the case all of the time.

I would tell any site owner the same thing – do your due diligence and at least keep an eye on what is happening to your site.

Should You Disavow As A Preventative Measure?

If you think that something has happened that might result in a manual action at some point or be looked upon unfavourably by Google, then there is no harm in being prepared.

There are mixed opinions about this in the SEO community, but as with all things, as long as you know what you are doing (or your SEO does), then a preventative disavow can limit the possibility of a more serious manual action further down the line.

Final Thoughts

Disavowing can be dangerous if performed incorrectly, but it can also be a necessary action, depending on what is going on with your site. With this in mind:

  1. Do your research carefully
  2. Don’t rely on 3rd party tools
  3. Be proactive if you know what has happened
  4. Don’t use domain or page lists downloaded or handed out by others
  5. Don’t make knee-jerk decisions. Think everything through
  6. Avoid known link-spam issues

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to reach out.