The The Google Disavow Tool
Within Google’s arsenal of tools for SEO’s and webmasters is the Google Disavow Tool. This tool is aimed at webmasters that may have been hit by a link penalty (algorithmic or manual) and are unable to remove the links manually.
The definition of disavow is simply to “deny any responsibility or support for.” Which is exactly what Google’s disavow tool is interned to do for your links.
The disavow tool was released around the time Google Penguin started to become a big thing. Webmasters were scrambling and many of them eventually came to ask the same question: “what if I’m totally unable to remove these backlinks?” Google responded with the Google disavow tool. In October of 2012, Google released a blog post along with a video to sum things up:
“Today we’re introducing a tool that enables you to disavow links to your site. If you’ve been notified of a manual spam action based on “unnatural links” pointing to your site, this tool can help you address the issue. If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool generally isn’t something you need to worry about.”
So for those die-hard SEO’s that just watched that, basically what Matt is saying is that if you know for a fact that you have spammy backlinks built to your site, and you have done everything that you can to get rid of those links, then you can use this tool to get rid of those links. This tool is for SEO’s and webmasters unable to remove their backlinks and have made their best effort. According to Google, this will not guarantee the elimination of all links and it will not “abide by” this list by default. What it will do is “take a strong suggestion” of the list that you have given Google and take that into account. To read more information about the Google disavow tool, read what Google Webmaster Help has to say about it.
To get started with Google disavow, navigate to the Google disavow main page. You must be logged into Google Search Console to view this. If you have multiple sites, at this point you will need to choose which site you want to disavow.
Please keep in mind that Google has posted a very straightforward warning about the disavow tool, before you begin or make any changes:
Once you’ve agreed to that warning, you’ll be taken directly to the point where you will upload the text file. Keep in mind there are very strict formatting rules for the disavow file. Failure to comply with these formatting rules will nullify your disavow file.
If you’d like to see an example disavow file, you can download our example disavow file here.
Once you’ve uploaded the file, you can come back to it at a later date and upload a new disavow file.
You will also be told if your disavow file was successfully uploaded or not, what the filename was, how many domains / URLs, and what the date and time was.
Keep in mind you cannot append to the disavow file live, you must upload a new one.
Chances are you still have many questions about the disavow file. Rather than going into more detail, Google has done a great job of answering most of the questions you might have.
Google has also posted an extensive Q & A within the Webmaster Central Blog post about disavow, which is definitely worth looking into if you are thinking about disavowing.
If you do have more questions please feel free to reach out to us at any point, we have a number of people in our office who can speak to you about the disavow file, penalties, or SEO in general.
If you are looking for a sample disavow file or to download a sample disavow.txt file, look no further. You can download a plaintext version of our sample disavow.txt file here.
Please note this is just a general template. You can use comments with the # sign. Just be sure to check and double check your formatting!
Common Google Disavow Mistakes
After a year or so of SEO’s and other webmasters using and mis-using the Google disavow tool, we started to notice that many people were using the tool incorrectly. With that, we came up with some common Google disavow tool mistakes, and how SEO’s and webmasters can combat these. The reason this is such a big issue is because many SEO’s are already upset about being penalized by Goolgle, and don’t realize for another month or more that they have been using the tool incorrectly, and now need to wait even longer for the penalty to be removed.
1. Using an improper file format. Google is receiving a ton of crazy file formats such as Word (.doc), Excel (.xls) and a number of different file formats that are not compatible with Google’s parser. Google only accepts .txt files int he disavow tool and anything else could null your submission. If you want to be sure your file is a .txt file, right click on the file and click “properties.” It should say “.txt” within the file properties window.
2. Don’t stress the details (seriously). Instead of combing through your link portfolio with a fine tooth comb, in most cases you can just list the domain that you need to disavow. There are scenarios where you don’t want to do this. For instance, on some domains you might have a few good links and a few bad links. While this is rare, in this case you should list each URL in your text file one per line.
For example, if you’ve found 5 spammy backlinks from one domain, and there are 300 more to look through, chances are the rest of them are also bad. Our advice is to scan through maybe 10-20 more of them at random, if they all give a positive signal for “SPAM” then just list the entire domain in the disavow tool.
3. Use the correct syntax within your disavow TXT file. You wouldn’t try to eat your laptop, so don’t feed Google things it can’t consume. Many people are using all kinds of crazy syntax such as domain:http://domain.com and other variations. The only correct syntax is:
Anything else will either be improperly processed, not processed, or sent back
Furthermore, Google is getting a TON of files with actual context relating to the request within the file itself. Do not do this. This file is meant to be processed by a machine parser, not a human. If you want to explain yourself, do it within the reconsideration request, not the disavow file.
4. Disavow tool will not solve all of your problems. That’s right, it is a last resort. Clean up your links. Do everything in your power to clean up all of your links, then and only then should you attempt to disavow.
If you still have questions, please feel free to send them our way or leave them in the comments below. We’ll get back to you within a few hours with a solid plan of attack.
If you’ve owned a website for more than a year or so, chances are a ton of menacing links have started to pile up. Even if you are a goody-two-shoes white hat SEO that has never built a bad link in your life, bad links have definitely accrued over the years. Any given website will start to accumulate 10’s, 100’s or even 1000’s of bad links over time. Others think they have been on the receiving end of negative SEO and want to preemptively disavow links to avoid a penalty. Lots of webspam creeps up over time, another tool we like to use is Ahrefs:
The easiest way to determine if a link is bad or good, is to pop it open and find the link itself:
Then there are the bad links that creep up over time. Example: one day last year we had an interviewee that came in and wanted to impress us, so he built 100 bad backlinks to one of our sites and sent us a “report.” Heavens no! Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. This immediately sent a wave of anxiety through us, and got me thinking about preemptively avoiding a Google penalty.
A word from Matt Cutts about preemptively disavowing backlinks:
If you are all stressed and worried and not able to sleep at night that Google might see it and get a SPAM report about you…I would feel free to disavow those links as well.
Basically, do it at your own risk.
Removing, no-following and disavowing
If you do want to start the preemptive process of avoiding a penalty, it might be a good idea to mitigate those risks.
Start by grabbing the list of “bad” links you’ve made from Google Webmaster Tools. Go through them and put them into categories:
- Able to be removed / manual removal
- Won’t be able to remove / disavow
- Keep but no-follow
I won’t go into an entire guide to disavowing and removing links. There are a number of guides out there already on this topic. One of my personal favorites is Cyrus Shepard’s post about disavow. There are several others out there as well. Just be aware that a lot of them are written with the purpose of pushing a particular product or service so keep an eye out for that.
The point is, you want to get rid of them one way or another. The only links worth keeping that might be against Google’s guidelines such as widget links, footer links, or guest blog post links should be no-followed. A lot of times these links are still valuable due to the amount of traffic they bring in. For instance, I recently went through this process and no-followed footer links in lieu of removing them because we receive a decent amount of referrals from them.
I’ve hinted at the fact that I’ve disavowed, removed and no-followed links myself within this article and yes, I did a few years ago, and then again at the end of 2016. I wasn’t really worried that we were going to get a penalty, but I was aware that some bad links were adding up.
So what happened?
I disavowed about 30% of our links, no-followed about 10% and removed another 10% of our links.
It has now been about 2-3 months and we haven’t noticed any drop in rankings or traffic from search engines. In fact, we’ve actually seen an increase.
Please keep in mind that we are also regularly writing content, doing a lot on social media, and are linked to regularly. So it is possible that the fresh signals that are coming in are cancelling out the disavow / removal.
Note: if you want to see a copy of our disavow file, let me know.
Why disavow if no penalty?
This has been the source of dispute within our office and within many online SEO forums for some time now. I suppose it comes down to what type of person you are, and what your goals are for your site.
Personally I am a really cautious and paranoid person. I’d rather have some traffic than no traffic, and I’m always scared of getting a penalty.
I’m also trying to build a business long-term. I want our website to be here in 5, 10 even 20 years so to me its almost like clearing dry rot out of the foundation of a house.
The choice is really up to you. Please keep in mind that I’ve done a lot of research on this subject over the last few years, and some of this information contained herein is just my opinion and shouldn’t always be taken literally. Good luck!