Many people, myself included, consider Google’s disavow tool to be a weapon of last resort. It’s the big gun you pull out when nothing else has worked. That’s not to say, however, that it should be treated like actual weapons of war. It’s not something to be afraid of. Yes, you can actually hurt your site with it if you’re not careful, but that’s true of any tool.
What the Disavow Tool Does
The disavow tool was released in late 2013, documented here, and found here. It’s essentially a way to tell Google directly that X link is not a link you want to count in the SEO of your site. It’s like artificially adding nofollow to the links pointing at you, only it’s a bit stronger; to Google, once a link has been disavowed, it may as well not exist.
This is an indiscriminate weapon. If you put your entire backlink profile into the tool, Google would potentially disavow all of it, which would remove any and all link value you have accumulated. You would be stuck at square one. Google does not make a value judgment about the links you want disavowed, and they will certainly remove positive links if that’s what you tell them to do.
Google already has some filtering in place for link value. When a link points at your site, they make a judgment to tell whether or not it should be benefitting you or hurting you, and if either, how much. Links from good sites that are unrelated probably won’t hurt you, but they also won’t help you all that much. Links from spam sites are often filtered to have 0 value, either positive or negative. Only links that Google assumes are artificial exploits of the system – like private blog networks they’ve discovered and dismantled – will hurt you.
Asking Google to disavow a link is circumventing this process and saying you want the link to count for 0, regardless of what it counts for now. This is primarily used because Google isn’t “on your side” with their link filtering. When they determine that a link is harmful to you, you have to remove it somehow to restore your rankings; if you can’t through one method or another, you’ll have to use the disavow tool to do it.
It’s normally used to fix penalties, but that doesn’t mean you are restricted in using the tool to only times when you have penalties in effect. You can use it both for manual actions and for Penguin-like general decreases in ranking. You can even use it just to clean up your links, if you want. It’s not something to be afraid of, really.
How Often Should You Use Disavow?
How frequently you should use the disavow tool depends on the status of your site and the links you want removed.
First of all, you can’t use it every day. Disavowal takes time for Google to get around to reading your list, analyzing it, and applying it. It can be even longer if your list is poorly formatted or extremely long. Uploading your list repeatedly just keeps putting you to the back of the line.
Secondly, when you upload a list of links, the old list you had uploaded before is removed. This has two implications. The first is that you can’t disavow links one at a time to try to get things going faster; you need to add the new link to the old list. The second is that, when you remove a link from the list, that link is returned. The link needs to stay on the disavow list if you want to keep it hidden from your rank calculations.
Other than that, there aren’t really any pressing reasons to hold off from using the tool. If you have links you can’t otherwise get rid of, add them to your disavow list and upload it again. As long as you’re not trying to disavow the same list over and over, you’re probably fine.
Quirks of the Tool and When to Use It
The disavow tool has a few quirks. I already listed one of them; it only works on links in the file you upload. If you upload a new file and it’s missing the links that were on the first file, those original links are removed. Essentially, Google does not keep a record of what was on your disavow list and only goes by the most recent list uploaded. This allows you to reinstate links you want returned, but it also means you can easily not know how the tool works and accidentally reinstate all of your spam links.
The second quirk is that disavowed links do not disappear from your link profile. They still show up in webmaster tools, in third party tools like Majestic, and any other analytics you use. This is because they still exist; there’s no external disavow flag. Google doesn’t send a message to ask the webmaster to remove the link. They don’t step in and somehow remove it themselves. They just keep an internal record of the links that shouldn’t count, and make those links not count.
There is, in fact, a size limit to the disavow file. However, it’s extremely large. You would have to be a site the size of Wikipedia to have enough incoming links to reach that limit, and that’s if you plugged in your entire backlink profile. It’s 2 megabytes, but that works out to be around 1,000 pages of text, which is insane.
The disavow tool does have a way of adding comments, but no one looks at them. They’re meant for your own edification, in case you don’t remember why you’re disavowing a certain link or set of links. The disavow tool is automatic; there is no human review from Google to read them. To add a comment to the file, simply put a # in front of the line.
If a link is already nofollowed, you don’t need to disavow it. Nofollowed links already don’t pass link value – positive or negative – to your site. Disavowing a link is basically just telling Google you want the link to be nofollowed. Sure, nofollowed spam links look bad on a backlink report, but as long as you recognize that they’re harmless, you can live a much more stress-free life.
Disavows are questionably useful when the spam link passes through a 301 redirect. The situation is kind of muddy, but you may want to include both the old and new domain involved in the redirect to make sure you disavow the link completely.
Finally, Google does not use the disavow tool to find spam sites to remove. There are two reasons for this. The first is because people would then be able to use the disavow tool to hurt sites that are otherwise legitimate, making Google put more work into filtering the intent behind the disavow tool submissions they scan. The second reason is because Google is already very good at detecting and hurting spam sites; they don’t really need your help through a tertiary tool most people don’t care about.
So when should you actually use the tool? There are a few good instances.
- If your site receives a manual action penalty, this can be a good opportunity and excuse to clean up your web presence. Most manual actions are directly related to bad links anyways, so this tool will be your means of progression.
- If your site dips in the rankings in sync with a link algorithm update such as Penguin, there’s a good chance you have some links holding you back. Disavowing them will help you recover your rankings. This isn’t technically a penalty, but people call it an algorithmic penalty because it operates in much the same way.
- If you perform a backlink audit and discover new negative backlinks, add them to a disavow list. You can work to get them removed or nofollowed prior to actually submitting the disavow request, but there’s no reason not to disavow them if you need to. It’s generally a good idea to do this kind of disavow audit once every six months or so.
A Sample Disavow Process
If you want to audit your links, the first thing you’re going to want to do is obtain a list of your links form any source you have. There are a lot of different apps out there with link auditing capability. The four big ones are Google’s webmaster tools, Majestic, Moz’s Open Site Explorer, and Ahrefs. Pull your link report from each of these and combine the data so you can remove duplicates found in each tool. You might consider pulling your link report several times over the course of a few days from Webmaster Tools, because Google taps out when you surpass more than 1,000 linking domains. This is the recommended method. However, the selection they report isn’t necessarily fixed, so you can get some extra links in each report.
Ideally, if possible, you will contain two columns worth of data in your spreadsheet. The first is the exact URL. The second is whether or not the link is nofollowed.
You can strive to remove links that are nofollowed but that are also spam, that’s fine. However, since they aren’t affecting your site in a tangible way beyond “altering the opinions of anyone who pulls your link profile” they aren’t worth disavowing. For the sake of simplicity, you can just remove and ignore any link that is nofollowed. It doesn’t need to go in your disavow file, as explained above.
Now, one thing you can do is duplicate the data to a new column so you can prune it down to just the main domain, rather than subdomains and pages. You don’t want to get rid of all of the original data, but this will help you do a quick audit on a site-level basis to see if the site is going to be spam or not. Obvious spam sites you can disavow at the domain level, even if they have hundreds of links pointing at you, to get them all at once.
To do this, you want to make a column to the left of the column you’re using for URLs. In Google docs, you can type in the formula =left(B1,find(“/”,B1,9)-1) assuming your URL column is B and your new column is A. You can then click to highlight all of column A and hit ctrl-D to fill in the formula through the whole spreadsheet. This formula prunes out everything after the TLD and /. For example, www.example.com/subfolder becomes www.example.com.
Right now the actual content of column A is the formula, not the URLs. You want it to be the URLs. What you need to do then is to highlight the full column and copy it with ctrl-C. Then click edit, paste special, paste values only. This replaces the formula with the URLs you see.
You’ll still have some variation. You’ll see www.example.com, http://example.com, http://www.example.com, and both of those last two with https instead of http. This means the same URL can show up several times, still. Now we need to prune those out. Thankfully, you don’t need a formula for this. All you need is the find and replace tool.
Highlight the A column. Click edit, find and replace. Type in “www.” and replace it with nothing. Click “replace all” to remove any instances of www. in your list. Now repeat the process with http:// and https://. When you’re done, you should have a full list of URLs, and a lot of duplicates from any site that links to you more than once.
Now remove the duplicates. Moz’s version of this process recommends not using a dedupe function in Google spreadsheets, but it might work just fine if you don’t have a huge list. They recommend creating a new column to the left of A and using the formula =if(B1=B2,”duplicate”,”unique”). This formula will check to see if a cell is the same as the one below it. If you sort your data in column A, this will make it so that any unique URL has an entry labeled unique, and any second or third or onwards link will be flagged as a duplicate. You can then just remove the duplicates.
At this point you need to do your actual audit. Visit each site and determine if it’s a site you want linking to you or not. This article is a little old, but it has a good list of criteria to help you decide. There’s no automated process you can use here.
I like to make three categories. One is immediate disavow and one is keep. The middle one is “review per link” which allows you to look at all of the links coming from that site – assuming there are more than one – and determine whether or not you want the links to stay on an individual basis. Sometimes a link can appear out of context and hurt you on a site that otherwise helps you with good links; you can disavow that one link and keep the value from the rest.
Now, before you actually go about disavowing the links, it’s generally a good idea to contact the webmasters owning the sites in question to ask them to remove the link. Send them a contact message with a simple body; “I’ve been performing a link audit and discovered a link to my page on your page. I would appreciate it if you could remove or nofollow this link.” Include the link and the page, to make it easy on the webmaster to fix it, and you’re golden.
Any link that isn’t fixed or removed can be disavowed. You’ll have three types of entries in a disavow file.
- # this is a comment; you can tell because of the leading #.
- domain:example.com is the flag added to a link to disavow the whole domain.
While they are recommended, you don’t need comments at all, and in general you should avoid disavowing specific links, because link schemes can change. Thankfully, in almost every case where you might want to preserve most links on a page but disavow one, you can talk to the webmaster about it. Disavowing entire domains is the better practice, so in reality you only need one type of entry.
Now all you need to do is export the list. If you have a long list and want to automate it, make a column that has the formula =”domain:”&A1 to add domain: to the front of the URL you have pruned down to. Then do the “paste as values only” trick to get the actual data. Download the list as a txt file or copy and paste it into a txt file. That file is what you submit to the disavow tool.
When you’re done with submitting the file – a simple process of selecting your Google property and uploading the file – you’re done! Now you just need to store your records so when you do a link audit next year, you have something to work from.