Google disavow links tool – when and how to disavow links

There has been a lot of over-reaction to the recent Google Panda, Penguin and EMD domain name updates (mostly mid-late 2012). One area where this has been very apparent is in the number of people asking questions on forums about whether or not they need to disavow low quality incoming links to their website – usually links that resulted from link buying or comment spam activities.

Google released a disavow links tool in mid-October 2012. You can find this tool at google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main (although why they didn’t build it directly into Google Webmaster Tools I’m not sure. Maybe so that people who didn’t know what they were doing would not be using it!

What got me thinking about this issue was a website I stumbled across that was offering link removal services to people who thought they had bad backlinks. The site is charging $250-500 for a backlinks analysis and removal of backlinks using the disavow links tool. What they don’t say is when you should disavow links, and why.

When trying to understand what Google does and why, in relation to its search engine, I find that it helps to see what Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, has to say about it. He’s a bit cagy in his responses to questions because he tries not to give too much away to the professional spammers, but he usually leaves some nice clues for the rest of us in his answers.

When should I use the disavow links tool?

Google unnatural links warningMatt Cutts says the main reason to use the disavow links tool would be because Google has applied a manual penalty or issued an unnatural link warning to the site owner. So the first place to look is your Google Webmaster Tools account, in the messages area, to see if Google has notified you about what it considers “unnatural links”.  If you do not have a warning notice like this, you need to ask why you are wanting to disavow links.

Cutts also mentions a second reason you might want to do this … you’ve been impacted by the Penguin algorithm changes to Google (May 2012), which specifically targeted “bad backlinks”.  This would probably be because you were buying backlinks from link farms or dodgy SEO promoters, or because you were using comment spamming tools to build backlinks to your website. Penguin went after all of these techniques with a machete.

But Cutts is very emphatic that you should not be using the disavow links tool unless you have already taken action to remove the actual bad links. Here’s what he said in one interview when asked if just disavowing links would change anything:

“No, I wouldn’t count on this. In particular, Google can look at the snapshot of links we saw when we took manual action. If we don’t see any links actually taken down off the web, then we can see that sites have been disavowing without trying to get the links taken down.”

So what Cutts is saying very clearly here is that you won’t get any credit for disavowing links that you have not tried to have removed altogether. If you had an “unnatural links” message from Google, this is very important because often the only way to recover from that is by filing a “reconsideration request” to have your website manually reviewed. But Cutts also says, in the same interview, that “If you don’t have a manual webspam action, then doing a reconsideration request won’t have any effect.”

If you do have a webspam warning from Google, then you absolutely must submit a reconsideration request once you have cleaned up and disavowed the bad backlinks. Cutts recommends that you wait a day or two after you have removed the bad links and disavowed them before filing your reconsideration request, and also says you should mention the specific links you’ve removed in your request.

How to identify bad backlinks

The bad news is that even if Google warns you about unnatural links, they usually won’t tell you all the links they consider to be unnatural, just a few examples to get you started. This is because they don’t want to display any pattern of how they identify “bad” backlinks because that would send a message to the link spammers about how to get around their algorithm

If your website has received an unnatural links warning, or if your site has been hit by the Penguin algorithm updates, there are ways to check which backlinks are most likely to be causing you to be penalised.

The SEOMoz Open Site Explorer tool will give you an excellent analysis of the backlinks pointing to your website, including the link text used and the page and domain authority flowing from those links. But you’ll only get detail for the first five backlinks unless you subscribe ($99 a month). As this is probably a once-off exercise, it might be worth $99 to get this report so you know exactly what you’re dealing with. In any case, SEOMoz offers a 30 day free trial and you can cancel your subscription any time in this period without cost. Here’s a screenshot of their backlink report, which I found very useful.

Open Site Explorer backlink report

How to ask for bad backlinks to be removed

If you find your website does have bad backlinks and you have established evidence of which links need to be removed, the first step is to request their removal at the source. This means either trying to get the post or comment itself containing the link removed from the host site, or at least sending a request to the owner for its removal.

Bruce Clay, one of the acknowledged global experts on SEO, suggests that you create an email template that explains that you own the site in question, that you are trying to recover from being penalised by Google for unnatural backlinks or that you are trying to recover from the Penguin update, listing the URLs where the bad backlinks are posted and the anchor text used to link them, and ask that the webmaster remove these links for you.

If the webmaster does not respond, or does not remove the links, you can at least use these emails in your reconsideration request to Google to show that you gave it a good try. If you can’t find out who to contact about a particular backlink, try doing a domain ownership search and sending your email to the technical contact for that domain.

Google disavow links tool

How to use the disavow links tool

Once you have done your best to get the bad backlinks removed, you should prepare to use the Google disavow links tool. You will need to be logged into your Google Webmaster Tools account to use this function.

Before using the disavow links tool, you will need to prepare a CSV file of the URLs of the links you want to disavow. This should include those bad backlinks that other webmasters have agreed to remove, as well as those you cannot get removed. You need to be aware that it can take a week to two weeks for the disavowed links to the processed by Google and if you upload a new CSV file during that period, it can delay processing (at the least, any additional links you put into the file will take longer to process.

Get it right! The last thing you want to be doing when you’ve already been penalised by Google is to be giving away useful backlinks by disavowing them! So make sure the URLs in your CSV file are the ones you want to get rid of, not just the ones you think might be a problem.

I mentioned before that the easiest way to get your list of backlinks to start creating the disavow links CSV file is to use the SEOMoz Open Site Explorer tool, but you can also use Google Webmaster Tools to get this list (it just won’t tell you how valuable the links are).

In your Webmaster Tools account, under the Traffic heading in the left nav, find the “Links to your site” option. This screen will show you who’s sending the most backlinks to your site, which content is being linked the most and what keywords are being used to link that content. You can download the data into an Excel file which can be cleaned up and uploaded to the disavow links tool.

Conclusion

The Google disavow links tool is a handy addition to Google’s repertoire of SEO support tools, but one that needs to be used thoughtfully and carefully. Don’t rush into using it without knowing what you’re doing or you might discover that the scraps of traffic left behind when Google penalised your site for “bad links” has also dried up!

If you have any questions about this article, please post them using the comments form below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Have you been penalised for bad links by Google? Tell us about your experience and how you dealt with it.

 

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