It has been 10 years since Google first introduced its disavow tool, giving site owners more control over the impact of toxic links pointing to their websites.
But since that time, Google has discouraged users from utilizing disavow too often while also getting better at identifying low-quality links. So should search engine optimization (SEO) strategists still leverage this tool to help improve the quality of their off-site signals and backlink profile?
Here’s a breakdown of what the disavow tool is, when to use it and other important information site owners should consider when tackling toxic backlinks.
Since the beginning of SEO, Google’s No. 1 ranking factor has remained the same: backlinks. If a website wants to rank well in search engines, it needs to have lots of backlinks from other reputable websites.
But not all links are created equally. Links from low-quality, spammy websites are considered toxic because they hurt your overall site authority rather than elevating it. Websites with lots of toxic backlinks are unlikely to rank well in search results unless they take the necessary steps to decrease the negative impact of those backlinks.
The history of backlinks, Google and the SEO industry is a complex one. Understanding this history and how Google’s handling of backlinks has changed (and is continuing to change) can help you make smarter decisions about if or when to use disavow.
To better understand how the SEO industry arrived to where we are today, here are some key moments in the history of backlinks and Google to keep in mind.
Essentially, Google once had a much harder time identifying low-quality backlinks, but now, they are far more advanced in spotting them. They are also much better at recognizing other important signals on web pages, like content quality and page experience.
So what does this mean for SEOs today? Well, the impact of low-quality links is not nearly as harmful as it used to be, meaning the occasions for using the Disavow tool are growing more scarce.
But still, site owners should be aiming to earn more high-quality links to their websites and paying attention to the overall health of their backlink profiles.
Using backlink analyzer tools, site owners can get a better idea of whether or not they have concerning links populating their backlink profile.
Most of these software tools have their own unique calculations in determining the toxicity of links, but they are most often measured through metrics like domain authority (DA) of the linking site, anchor text, and on-site link location.
Although created for site owners, Google actually discourages smaller sites from using the Disavow tool liberally. That’s because Google now discounts low-quality links when it identifies them, so even if you do have toxic backlinks, Google is, in theory, not counting them against your ranking potential.
But despite this, many site owners have experienced decreased keyword rankings and SEO performance following suspicious link activity, prompting them to take action. Any SEO strategist worth their pay will not just sit around and do nothing while negative links drag down keyword rankings.
So in general, here are some occasions when disavow may be the right choice to reduce the impact of toxic backlinks:
Google provides very clear instructions to webmasters on how to create and submit a disavow file. But if you are not sure about whether or not to disavow links, make sure to discuss it with an SEO professional.
The reality is, if you are not used to evaluating backlinks, you can actually end up harming your rankings if you use disavow incorrectly. Because backlinks are so important to ranking, you don’t want to end up disavowing links that are actually helping elevate your site authority and are improving your ranking potential right now.
Before you start disavowing links, make sure you conduct a thorough audit of your backlink profile. This can be done using a variety of backlink analyzer tools, many of which work the same way. Simply, download a list of your backlinks and mark those that appear low-quality or spammy.
Some signs of toxic websites include the following:
After you identify which links are the most harmful and therefore worthy of disavow, you can put together your disavow file to submit to Google.
The general idea of a disavow file is this: A list of websites that you want Google to discount backlinks from.
The disavow file does not actually remove those toxic links pointing to your website; it just tells Google not to consider them when evaluating your link equity.
If you don’t want to use a tool, simply open a .txt file and specify one domain or url to disavow per line.
Once you have your .txt file, you can upload it via your Google Search Console account in the disavow tool links page. You will see a big warning from Google asking you to consider whether disavow is really necessary.
To proceed with disavow,
It will likely take a few weeks before Google starts discounting the impact of those links. If at a later date you have additional domains you want to disavow, you will need to upload a new file.
Although Google is improving its handling of spammy backlinks, the SEO industry can’t quite stop worrying about toxic links quite yet. Disavow may sometimes be necessary in certain circumstances, but make sure you carefully consider all of your options and only use the tool when it’s absolutely necessary.
Thankfully, Google recognizes the impact that toxic links can have on rankings and acknowledges that most often, site owners don’t want spammy links to populate their backlink profiles. Google’s recent Link Spam update already is helping crawlers ignore those links without the need of a disavow.
But until Google perfects this part of their ranking algorithm, it’s good for SEOs to keep the disavow tool in their back pocket.