Traffic dropped? De-indexed from Google? Performing a routine link audit? Whether you fear your site may be suffering at the hands of an algorithmic penalty, you are in the process of manual penalty removal or you have simply noticed a dip in rankings and suspect foul play, you can take comfort in the fact that you have got Google’s Disavow Tool to take care of damaging links – but knowing which to disavow is the trick.
Last year I published an article on How to Remove Bad Backlinks that Penalized Your Website – the process that comes after this is disavowing the links that you were unable to remove.
In a nutshell, disavowal is the distancing and disapproval of particular links which Google eyes unfavorably. It tells the ‘Big G’ that, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, you don’t want them to take a selection of ‘bad’ links into account in their search engine ranking algorithm.
Putting the power of link-building back into your hands, as a webmaster, is critical in our increasingly competitive online world. It must be warned though that the disavowal process is not for the fainthearted or ill-informed.
As you might have already learned from investigating a penalty, or trying to recover from one, you will know that it is not always possible to cleanup all offending links following a full-scale audit by politely requesting removals – repeatedly.
You’ve experienced it. Some Webmasters never respond; and those that do might only offer abuse or request money for removal.
So, in late 2012, to combat this and the rise in cyber commercial warfare (negative SEO), Google introduced the Disavow Tool firmly placing the power of the internet’s largest search engine results pages back into your hands. Webmasters rejoiced!
With great power comes great responsibility though: one wrong move may nullify a healthy link and prove fatal to your Google rankings, waving goodbye to your site’s organic visibility and the consequent free traffic it brings to your business.
When might you disavow a link?
Simply put, if you suspect your site’s ranking is being harmed by poor quality links and practices that you have no control over, you should ask Google not to take them into consideration.
It is important to note that it is by no means a ‘get out of jail free card’. Google states in its warning before you disavow links:
“You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.”
Let us list a number of scenarios where you might think you need to disavow a link.
Scenario 1: Investigating a suspected Google penalty
A sudden, unexplainable dip in sustained organic search traffic or conversions would be justifiable cause for concern.
Some webmasters can be over-zealous in their assumptions of a penalty, when no such penalty exists.
How to investigate a manual link penalty is not straight-forward. There are a number of reasons for which your site might have experienced a drop in traffic, but won’t require you to disavow links:
• Transitional rank – a loss in traffic can occur when your site has gone through a significant change. A redesign, including a switch to Flash; restructure affecting your permalink configuration; or a full content re-write could all be culprits.
• Indexing issues – a recent change to your site’s structure, a poor internal linking structure or an out-of-date sitemap could be at fault.
• Search behavior – sometimes terms fall out of fashion in Google’s searches, particularly in fast-changing industries like technology.
• Site usability – poorly implemented site design changes.
• Competition – a new competitor may have entered the market, or an existing one may have ramped up their direct marketing efforts.
• Problem content – ‘thin content’ or duplicate content will make your site less searchable in Google’s index.
• Seasonal trends – there may be certain times of the year where you know business or certain lines aren’t traditionally busy (for example, coats in summer – bad example for British readers, but you get the gist).
If there’s no immediately obvious reason from those above, or you have knowingly initiated in some questionable link-building that my contravene Google’s guidelines (whether yourself or through an SEO agency), then it is possible you have been hit with a manual penalty.
Scenario 2: Recovering from a Google manual penalty
The sure fire way to know you have been hit with a Google manual penalty is when you access your Webmaster Tools account.
If you have been hit, an alert giving an ‘unnatural link warning’ – or words to that effect – will appear at the top of your dashboard as soon as you login. It may also appear in Manual Actions under the Search Traffic tab.
Now, if you have any hope of recovering your site, you will need to perform a link audit to see exactly what backlinks are pointing towards your site and disavow those which are causing the damage.
Scenario 3: Negative SEO attacks and spam
Even when unprompted by the need to remove a Google manual penalty, you should be performing a weekly link audit. If you don’t already, then you should.
It might reveal something sinister gnawing away at your organic search results behind the scenes. Above all else, it serves as an effective preventative measure to your site’s long-term future in Google’s rankings.
Particularly in a site and business’ infancy, it can be very easy for a domain to be flagged by Google due to unethical competitive practices – like negative SEO.
An example of negative SEO is when a site is fired with hundreds or thousands of automated unnatural dofollow exact match anchor text links from article directories, forums and blog comments loaded with spam. Similarly, a site can be hit with anchor text unrelated to its industry, knocking it out of its local search.
Whilst the practice isn’t commonplace, it is important to be aware of the threat, and how you can safeguard against it, particularly when working online in competitive industries. Performing a link audit regularly and disavowing these links will help you keep on top of this worrying trend.
Link audit: categorizing links to disavow
Now we know when you might want to disavow links, but how do we do choose which ones to disavow?
A full link audit must be carried out. Start by downloading a copy of your backlinks using checkers such as Ahrefs or Majestic, then compile those links with your Google Webmaster Tools’ known backlinks in an Excel spreadsheet.
All links can be categorized as follows, and all types could be feasibly disavowed within context:
• Text link
• Profile link (on social media or a forum)
• Forum link
• Directory link (can be broken down into ‘paid’, ‘unpaid / unpaid options’ or ‘free’)
• Article / Article Directory
• Scraper site
• Social network
• Comment spam
• Spam site
• Malware / Adult Content
• Banners (dofollow / nofollow)
• Paid link
• Footer / Sidebar
• Spun content
• Links on penalized sites
• Penalized / De-indexed domain
• Hidden links
• Gateway / iFrame
• Owned property (for microsites, one-page sites and tiered link-building)
• Gone (used when a link has since expired, or been removed)
The best guideline to follow when choosing what to do with a link is if it is:
• Natural and within guidelines – keep
• Unnatural in appearance, but within guidelines – keep and change
• Natural but violates guidelines – change / flag for removal (and / or) add to disavow
• Unnatural and violates guidelines – flag for removal (and / or) add to disavow
• Gone – if the domain has caused problems before or would cause problems if the domain linked to your site again, add to disavow
First flag for removal the links that violate Google’s guidelines (whether natural or unnatural), then disavow those that you cannot get removed or those found on dodgy domains that may cause you headaches again.
Natural backlink but violates guidelines
If you are able to change a natural backlink that violates guidelines, all the better. If it’s unnatural, like an unpaid high PR anchor text-rich directory link, you are better off changing that to a more natural branded link, or failing that, flagging it for removal..
Another example of a natural backlink that may fall foul of Google’s guidelines may be a similar scenario where you have commissioned an anchor text rich link to your site from a high PR blog.
Dofollow links from banners, whether part of your display advertising campaign, or your affiliate marketing programme, violate Google’s guidelines and should be nofollowed. If your creation has somehow appeared on a domain without prior approval, it could be disavowed if a request for removal falls through.
Image scrapers and social media scrapers are quite harmless sites built by online bots that trawl the net. The reason you may want to disavow these kind of links is you may not want to share the same neighborhood as some of the other domains shared on that site.
Unnatural backlink and violates guidelines
Exact match anchor text backlinks to your site (namely the homepage), from clearly spun article directories, should be flagged for removal. If it is as a result of an automated process, and lots of other spammy articles are listed on there, it is nigh-on impossible that you will get it removed by a webmaster.
You can safely add any automated links from spun articles, forum posts, directory listings and blog comments to your disavowal list.
Link schemes like link wheels and tiered link structures are unnatural. Once identified, if they weren’t solicited by you but by the hands of a bad SEO agency, you should get them removed. Failing removal, these could be disavowed too.
Backlinks now gone or suspect domain
If an unwanted backlink has now gone, despite being picked up by a backlink checker or Google, it would still be best to disavow the whole domain, as you never know whether the site may be reinstated as well as any future links.
If you find multiple links from the same spammy domain, churning out spun content/blog comments etc., you should always list the whole domain for disavowal. There is a very real threat that the site will offend again.
Google’s Disavow Tool in practice
Once you have identified the backlinks you want to disavow, the next stage is to save your list in a format that Google’s Disavow Tool will understand.
Saved in a CSV or TXT file, you should list your offending links with a note or reason punctuated by a hashtag (#) at the start.
In the case of a bad domain linking to your site on multiple occasions, disavow it at domain level.
# contacted webmaster of baddomain.com on 12/17/2014
# asked for link to be removed, ignored
If the backlink is a one-off offender, you can list the link on its own.
# appears to be a negative SEO attack
Google isn’t obliged to read your notes, but it helps if you are carrying out a reconsideration request for the purposes of manual penalty removal.
If part of your regular weekly link audit, you may see the effects of disavowal in the SERPs from as little as a few days to as long as six weeks later – once Googlebot re-crawls the offending sites and webpages.
To speed up the process, you might want to pump your list of offending links and domains through a pinging service, letting Google know to quickly re-crawl and index them again.
When you go to upload your disavow file, it is important to note that you should apply it to www and non-www versions of your domain, as well as any mobile versions of your site, for peace of mind.
The disavow file is a living and breathing single file, so you must treat it with care. If you need to add more links and domains following another audit, make sure you add these to your previous list and re-upload, overwriting the list that came before.
Best practice is to upload your file as the current date e.g. Disavow-List-01-05-15.txt so you know when it was last updated.