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.
What Are 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.
Backlinks and Google: A Brief History
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.
- PageRank Patent (1998): Google’s PageRank algorithm uses backlinks to understand the importance of web pages. The more links pointing toward a page, the more likely Google is to promote that page in search results.
- Black-Hat SEO Strategies (2000-2011): Although backlinks are a good way to understand the authority of web content, Google quickly learned they were also ripe for manipulation. In the early days of Google, black-hat SEOs found questionable ways to get backlinks in order to elevate their web pages in search.
- Penguin Algorithm (2012): Google introduced the Penguin Algorithm to better evaluate the quality of backlinks and to penalize those sites that appeared to be engaging in black-hat SEO strategies.
- Disavow Tool (2012): Site owners responded to Penguin with some hesitancy, emphasizing that they had no control of whether or not low-quality websites linked to theirs. So Google introduced the disavow tool, offering a way for site owners to discount the impact of the low-quality links pointing to their web pages.
- Link Spam Update (2021): Google completed its Link Spam update, improving the ability of their crawlers to identify and nullify link spam. When Google crawlers identify low-quality links, they now know to ignore them in their ranking algorithms.
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.
How Do I Know When Backlinks Are Toxic?
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.
When Should I Use the Disavow Tool?
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:
- Known Link Building Schemes: Sometimes site owners purchase low-quality links without realizing they are acquiring a defective product. If you know your website once purchased backlinks from a link farm or low-quality link provider, then disavowing those links is likely an essential step to improving SEO performance.
- Negative SEO Attacks: Although unfortunate to think about, it is possible that an influx of toxic links without a clear explanation could signal a possible negative SEO attack. If your website gets a high volume of toxic backlinks with irrelevant anchor text, you may have a competitor trying to negatively impact your off-site signals.
- Google Link Notice: If you receive a notification in your Google Search Console account about a potential link issue, then you will want to take the necessary steps to resolve the issue via the disavow tool.
- Link-Focused Algorithm Update: If you experience a sudden drop in keyword rankings or organic traffic closely after an algorithm update focused on link spam, then most likely Google is still counting negative links against you. If your rankings drops are significant enough, a disavow file could help repair the damage.
How To Submit a Disavow File
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.
Step 1: Conduct a Backlink Audit
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:
- No clear expert authorship or sourcing
- External links that don’t point toward relevant resources
- Lack of topical-depth or industry expertise
- Links that come from common sections of blog posts
- Links with irrelevant anchor text
- Sites that don’t have strong SEO metrics themselves like organic traffic or keywords
- Questionable “link neighborhoods” (keeping company with other spammy websites in their link profiles)
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.
Step 2: Create Disavow File
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.
Step 3: Submit Disavow File in Google Search Console
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,
- Select the property where you want to disavow links
- Upload your .txt file
- If necessary, respond to any errors in your file that Google identifies
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.
Final Thoughts on Disavow
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.