It’s not always clear what you should and shouldn’t disavow.
When you find an unnatural backlink, should you:
- Disavow the URL only or
- Disavow the entire domain?
Both options have consequences that can either hurt or help your rankings.
This particular guide will focus on disavowing domains.
Disavow Domain Guide: The Why, When and How of Disavowing Domains
Before we dive into the “meat” of disavowing domains, we first need to get clear on one thing:
Disavowing domains and disavowing individual URLs are not the same…
… and there’s one key difference:
Disavowing a domain disavows all current and future URLs originating from that particular domain; whereas disavowing a URL disavows only that specific URL and nothing else.
Let’s use an example for a bit more clarity.
Pretend you have an unnatural link pointing back to your site: http://example.com/unnatural-link
And you want to disavow it.
If you disavow the URL only, then any other links that come from Example.com will still count as backlinks to your site.
But if you disavow the domain, then all links from Example.com—both current and future—will not be counted as backlinks by Google.
Disavowing a domain has a significantly greater impact on all links coming from that particular domain. Yet, it’s often the better choice to make in most situations.
That being said, it’s important to know the pros and cons of disavowing domains.
Potential Problems with Disavowing Domains
There are potential problems that can surface when you disavow domains.
This section will address two of the most significant issues that occur if you don’t carefully select the domains you’re going to disavow.
1. You can inadvertently hurt your rankings
The most common mistake made when disavowing links is disavowing a link that isn’t actually hurting your rankings.
The same is true for disavowing domains.
Here’s the thing:
It’s easy to assume that if a domain has one unnatural link, then every link coming from that domain must be unnatural. But that’s not always the case.
There are times when unnatural links can originate from higher authority sites. And when that happens, it’s almost never a good idea to disavow the entire domain.
To do so could potentially rob you of future backlinks that could help you rank higher.
The moral of the story is this:
You can’t rely on just one warning signal to determine whether a domain should be disavowed or not.
You must do your due diligence—investigate each domain-based backlink, visit the site in question, etc.—before deciding to disavow.
And I’ll show you how to do that in just a minute.
2. You can lose valuable backlinks in the long term
Fact: Any domain you disavow has the potential of coming back into good standing with Google.
This means you could miss out on valuable backlinks from domains you’ve previously disavowed. Domains that were once in poor standing with Google, but have since redeemed their good status.
Examples of these types of situations include sites:
- With malicious software that has recently been removed
- That were the victim of a negative SEO attack
- That were previously penalized by Google and have since had the penalty removed
The question is:
How do you regain link value from those redeemed domains you’ve disavowed?
It’s simple actually.
Just remove the domain from your disavow file and resubmit it to Google.
However, there’s one caveat …
It takes longer for Google to process your updated disavow file because they’re more diligent in reviewing the file due to disavowed links and domains being removed that were previously included.
As a result, I strongly recommend that before you ever decide to disavow a domain, do your due diligence and be certain that it’s the best course of action.
When It Makes Sense to Disavow a Domain
There are two key scenarios where 95% of the time it’ll make sense to disavow a domain.
1. Your site is hit with a Google penalty
Google penalties come in two varieties: algorithmic and manual.
An algorithmic penalty happens when a site is automatically penalized due to one of Google’s algorithm updates, which results in the site no longer following Google’s guidelines.
A manual penalty happens when a site is manually penalized by a member of Google’s web spam team after they determine that your site has broken a Google guideline.
Both penalty types impact your site in the same way:
- They demote your site in Google’s search results (drastically cutting traffic).
- Your site will need to be reassessed by Google, either automatically or manually, depending on the type of penalty incurred.
- Your site may be able to regain its positive status on Google, but, in some cases, this can take a substantial amount of time.
And, almost always, you’ll need to disavow domains to fall back under Google’s good graces.
2. Your site experiences a sudden drop in rankings
If your site was previously ranking on the first page of Google and suddenly gets dropped to page four, spam-ridden websites could be the culprit and will need to be disavowed.
Here are the three main causes that lead to your rankings suddenly dropping:
1. Negative SEO
Negative SEO occurs when competitors send unnatural links to your site to purposely hurt your rankings. This practice is becoming more and more common, and no business is immune to its effects.
2. Purchased Links
If you previously purchased links from a backlink provider and have recently experienced a sudden drop in rankings, it’s likely that the links the provider gathered were from spam-ridden websites.
It’s also likely that several of these links stem from the same domain. As a result, they’ll need to be disavowed.
3. Other Spammy Sites
Backlinks from other spammy sites can point back to your site as well—especially if you’re currently running a link popularity campaign.
All of these sources of spam backlinks will share several of the same characteristics:
- A high Spam Score
- A high number of external backlinks
- Exact-match anchor text (or no anchor text)
- Low domain and page authority
- Not indexed by Google
- Originating from a foreign top-level domain
In the next section, I’ll show you how to use Monitor Backlinks to find these spam backlinks and disavow their domains using a combination of Monitor Backlinks’ Disavow Tool and Google.
How to Safely and Easily Disavow Domains Using Monitor Backlinks and Google
1. Determine if the domain needs to be disavowed
Now that you know what to look for, you need to find these spam indicators so you can decide whether the domains need to be disavowed or not.
The simplest and easiest way to do this is with Monitor Backlinks.
Log in to your Monitor Backlinks account (sign up here for a free trial if you’re not already a member) and go to the Your Links module:
This page lists all of your backlinks and includes several metrics and characteristics of each particular backlink.
Here are the most important columns that will help you decide whether to disavow a domain:
1. Linking Page. Tells you where your backlink is coming from.
2. Status. Tells you if the page or domain has been indexed. Non-indexed pages will be yellow. Non-indexed domains will be red.
3. Spam. Uses Moz’s Spam Score metric to show you the likelihood that the source of the backlink is spammy. Red means a high likelihood of the source being spam.
4. Domain Authority and Page Authority. Tells you the Domain Authority and Page Authority of the backlink source. The lower the score, the higher the possibility it’s spam.
5. TLD/IP. Tells you which country the top-level domain originated from. Countries foreign to your country can be deemed as spammy by Google.
6. EXT. Tells you the number of external links originating from the backlink source. The higher the number, the higher the likelihood that it’s spam.
(Note: Check out this guide for more info on what to look for when thinking of disavowing a link.)
Obviously, the more spam indicators an individual backlink has, the higher the probability the backlink is spammy and needs to be removed.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the entire domain needs to be disavowed.
There’s still a bit of research that needs to be done before you choose whether or not to disavow the domain or only the individual URL.
I recommend two methods for deciding whether or not to disavow a domain based on what you find in Monitor Backlinks:
A. Multiple spam backlinks from the same domain
This first method is easy.
If there are multiple spam backlinks in your Backlinks module that originate from the same domain, then disavow the domain.
There’s no reason to doubt that this domain is spammy.
B. Visit and investigate the domain
In many cases, you’ll have a single spammy backlink coming from a domain.
This makes deciding whether the domain itself is spammy or not a little less obvious.
In these instances, it might make sense for you to visit the domain in question, investigate it, and determine for yourself whether it’s a spammy domain.
Most of the time this will be obvious as soon as you see the site’s homepage, but not always.
So here are a few key things to look for:
- Poor site design
- Spun content
- Poor spelling and grammar
- Pages full of links
- Exact-match keyword domain names
- Excessive advertisements
- Low-quality content
(Note: Always be cautious when visiting sites you suspect of being spam. Don’t click on any links, don’t fill in any forms, and if you receive a malicious site warning from Google, press the back button immediately.)
2. Disavow the domain
Monitor Backlinks turns creating a disavow file into a cakewalk.
And when pairing it with Google, getting domains disavowed is virtually as easy as hitting a submit button.
Here’s how it works:
First, select the backlinks whose domains you want to disavow, click “Disavow” and then click “Disavow domains:”
You’ll see a confirmation message at the bottom-left corner of your screen:
Next, go to your Disavow Tool module and verify that the correct domains are listed:
Then, select the domains, click the “Export Disavow Rules” button at the top-right corner of the page.
This will download the disavow file to your computer (in .txt format).
Now, you can go to Google’s Disavow Tool by clicking the “Send to Google” button in the Disavow Tool module…
…add or select your website (aka: property)…
That’s all there is to it.
Google will be notified that you’ve submitted a new disavow file within 48 hours.
After that, it can take several weeks (possibly months) for Google to recrawl disavowed domains and consider them disavowed.
(Friendly reminder: If you’re not already a member of Monitor Backlinks, sign up here for a free, no-risk 30-day trial!)
TL;DR of Disavowing Domains
Disavowing domains involves a simple 3-step process:
1. Define the problem
- Have you experienced a sudden drop in rankings?
- Have you noticed a sudden influx of unnatural backlinks?
2. Diagnose the problem
- What’s the cause of the sudden change in rankings or backlinks?
- What’s the source(s) of these changes?
- Are these problem backlinks from the same or different domains?
3. Treat the problem
- Does it make sense to disavow the domain or the individual URL?
Use the information from this post to help you answer the questions above to decide whether to disavow the domain and, if so, how to do it using Monitor Backlinks and Google’s Disavow Tool.
Then, after you’ve treated the problem:
Perform a bi-monthly audit of the domains listed in your disavow file.
Changes in a domain’s status with Google can possibly put that domain back into good standing, which, in turn, may warrant removing the domain from your disavow file and resubmitting it to Google.
Remember: Disavowing domains can mean the difference between first and third-page rankings.
So make sure you’re constantly monitoring your backlinks, disavowing those that are harming your rankings, and maintaining your site’s disavow file so that it represents the most up-to-date information.