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The Disavow File: Removing Guilt by Association

It’s perhaps the ultimate non sequitur.

You were seen sharing a bus ride with some raucous fellows who turned out to be hooligans, and now that little old lady furtively glancing in your direction cowers in trepidation as you walk towards her down the dimly-lit street.

Or maybe a friend or relative was caught doing something naughty and the rumor mill has you down as “another one just like that.”

It’s guilt by association, the unjust and erroneous perception that you’re every bit as caddish as the ones you have the misfortune to appear connected to.

Well, by unlucky happenstance, there is a cyber equivalent—and it’s cruel, nasty and downright unfair.

Specifically, it happens when your website finds itself on the receiving end of backlinks from less-than-savory sources.

Thankfully, though, there is a remedy.

Actually, there are two remedies that meet Google’s official approval, although only one—the disavow file—is a truly viable long-term solution for most websites, for reasons explained later.

(The other Google-sanctioned remedy is to request removal of unwanted backlinks, but there are limitations to that which I’ll get into below).

A Primer on Good and Bad Backlinks

Before we delve into such things, though, step back with me for a moment to 2012 when Google introduced its Penguin update.

Among other niceties, Penguin’s purpose was to revolutionize how Google would treat backlinks thereafter.

It all began altruistically enough.

The aim was (and remains) to place higher ranking value on the quality of a website’s inbound links rather than focusing on the quantity, as had been the case pre-Penguin.

Hence acquiring backlinks from relevant, on-topic pages or posts on respectable, authority websites attained (and still retains) mission critical preeminence given the sheer weight Google places on them as a ranking factor.

Google began to deconstruct each link to determine the value its various elements should impart to the linked-to resource.

Accordingly, the authority, relevancy and contextual anchor text of the web page linking out to yours all come into play in arriving at the final score for the backlink.

The gold standard, therefore, is where your website receives a keyword anchor text backlink nested in relevant prose from an equally relevant page or article on an in-niche authority site, as that effectively passes some of the backlink giver’s authority, credibility and relevancy on to your site.

In short, it’s exaltation by association and the principles to attracting it via good backlinks are well documented.

Unwanted Attention

There is, however, a dark side to Google’s methodology here.

If you’re thinking it applies where a backlink simply originates from a low-key, low-prestige resource within your niche, you’re not quite on point yet.

That kind of link—the vanilla backlink, if you will—may be of low value in shunting your site up the rankings, but cannot reasonably be construed as positively injurious.

No, what I’m referring to here is where a backlink to your site comes from a pariah resource.

That means a fairly broad spectrum of sources ranging from spam sites to virus-laden horrors that, when visited, might trigger your-browser-is-being-hijacked warnings or which feature pornographic or otherwise despicable content.

In that case, you have on your hands the good backlink’s long lost evil twin: the rather unimaginatively named bad backlink.

Signs of a Bad Backlink

To get a fuller grasp of what constitutes a bad backlink, we need to be a little more forensic about it. Consider some common tells when analyzing your links:

  • Top level domains – If your site is being linked to from a foreign site with no obvious marketing, content or linguistic connection to yours, that’s at the bare minimum likely to be some kind of spam site.
  • Pages stuffed with outbound links – More evidence of a site’s spammy inclination is where its pages have obvious overkill in the number of visible outbound links.
  • Blatantly foul anchor text content – This would be where the linker is using anchor text pointing to your site along the lines of “hot babes” or something else that raises Google’s eyebrows.
  • Low SEO metric scores – A link from a site with low or no social scores plus low or zero Domain Authority is suspect if it has been around for a while, as that suggests it has festered as a low-value resource through either neglect or bad content. Nevertheless, if it’s a newly launched site and appears to be in-niche, well managed and on-topic, I wouldn’t automatically construe a backlink from it as bad.
  • Evil-looking URLs – “spamlinkgiver.com” would naturally arouse suspicion without having to visit the linking resource, but relying on URLs alone is risky because some pretty generic-looking site names might feature really relevant content or provide a forum with sub-topics or threads that are 100% within your niche.
  • Keyword stuffed content – This one might require some SEO experience to truly discern, as the layperson’s definition of “keyword stuffed” might not tally with Google’s. As a basic rule, if it looks like the average reader would find the prose unnatural or cumbersome to read due to repetitive anchor text, it’s probably the kind of resource that could taint your site.
  • Low traffic to the link-giver site – There are numerous online tools to estimate traffic to other people’s websites. As a red flag, low traffic can’t be taken as a negative pointer in isolation because the niche may be seasonal or the site may have been recently launched (and thus has lacked the time to build traffic). So you’d have to take a holistic view of it, starting with the on-page content and general user experience, before declaring its backlink to your site good or bad.
  • Site is not indexed or is buried low in the rankings – This is a fairly reliable sign that a site is likely to be somewhat toxic, unless it passes the “newly launched” test.
  • Evidence of its ranking or traffic having fallen off a cliff – There are several explanations for “cliff falls,” some legitimate, some not so. The worst case is where a site has been penalized by Google for bad practice, while the best cases include temporary fallout from a Google algorithm tweak, inadvertent self-harm via clumsy on-page SEO tinkering or the outcome of a negative SEO attack (more on that below).
  • Site enjoys few or no good backlinks – This would be another sign that the site contains low-value content, except where it has only been recently launched.
  • Site is bristling with inbound links from one or a tiny number of domains – If this is compounded with too many outbound links, that might point to excessive mutual link building, one of Google’s pet hates.
  • Site has seldom undergone updates – A classic sign that a site has either been forgotten about or has been created as a fire-and-forget instrument to manipulate rankings on the sites it links out to.
  • Too much of a good thing is a bad thing – If you find that you’re receiving a torrent of relevant and otherwise worthy backlinks from a single resource, this might look like you have induced the link-giver to try to game your ranking position, and therefore qualify all the links it has given you as bad.

Google’s Treatment of Bad Backlinks Then and Now

Prior to 2012’s Penguin, it was possible to game Google’s rankings by creating link farm websites that fired out huge numbers of what would be, by today’s metrics, bad backlinks.

Google took no punitive action against websites on the receiving end of such links and instead, often rewarded them, leading to a whole industry of black hat SEO practices.

But Google very much understood the manipulative nature of this caper, prompting the Penguin update to interpret bad backlinks as a reflection on the quality and relevancy of the recipient, with concomitant ranking demotions.

Now hang on a second.

Isn’t that ever so slightly… unfair?

Why should your high-quality content be downgraded in the rankings just because some spammer linked to your site?

While I can’t answer that definitively, I would tentatively suggest that Google reasons that:

  • There’s a fair chance that you are secretly responsible for trying to gain an advantage for your site using link farm or other search engine gaming techniques, either knowingly or by employing someone else to do it who acted knowingly.
  • It deters you from attempting any form of black hat SEO if you come to realize that even being the innocent target of a bad backlink is enough to get your site penalized.
  • It forces you to be proactive in defending your site’s reputation in general, not just with regard to the backlinks it attracts, which should lead to better content, user experience and so on.
  • It might provide feedback (although this is my conjecture!), via the disavow file, of sites that Google’s algorithm may not have recognized as genuine bad backlink sources. For example, if enough webmasters within a niche include a site in their disavow files that has otherwise stayed under the radar, Google may have reason to conclude (correctly or wrongly) that the said site is a baddie.

Thankfully, while Google encourages you to ask offending websites to remove what you have identified as bad backlinks to your site, it recognizes that you won’t always be successful, to which end it provides a remedy in the form of its disavow tool (more on this below).

Bear in mind, though, that Google’s documentation on the matter points out that disavowal is really only necessary where your site experiences a superabundance of spammy, low-quality backlinks and that it naturally notices and ignores occasional straggler spam links.

Death by a Thousand Links: SEO Hit Jobs

There is, of course, a rather obvious flaw in Google’s guilt-by-association model: It opens the door to the possibility of industrial-scale vindictive backlinking.

Some unethical people—principally rivals within your niche—might launch a bad backlinks assault on your website (or hire someone to do it) if it’s ranking higher than theirs or growing too fast for their liking.

And it’s not always a sudden or, worse still, ongoing deluge of bad backlinks as defined above. It might also include some kind of arrangement entailing legitimate-looking anchor text links in an effort to try to make it appear to Google that you are the one behind it all, acting as an overzealous SEO manipulator.

The usual end effect of such SEO hit jobs is your average search engine position entering a nosedive.

Unless, that is, you notice what’s happening on time.

Which brings me to the good news.

If you use Monitor Backlinks to continually report on new backlinks to your website, you stand a very good chance of nipping the bad backlink contagion in the bud before it can mature into a fully-blown ranking collapse.

You can use the tool to get real-time notifications of every new link (as well as when a link is removed and when your competitors get a new link), making it easy to catch the baddies as soon as they appear. From the tool, you can also create a disavow file to get those bad links disavowed by Google as quickly as possible.

But before we get into that, let’s look at Google’s recommended go-to remedy for bad backlinks.

Asking Nicely: The Limitations of Removal Requests

The first action when you detect bad backlinks should be—if you are taking Google’s official advice—to approach the webmaster of the offending site and formally request the removal of the unwanted link(s).

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, that kind of thinking resides somewhere along the short scale between naivety and idealization.

Sure, Google wants the SEO ecosystem to be as healthy and natural as possible, and might therefore wish that cordiality and decorum would always prevail between webmasters.

But reality is a troublesome thing when field-testing idealizations!

For a start, it’s not always possible to contact the webmaster of the backlinking site.

Then where you can make contact, there’s a fair chance that your request will be ignored. And quite plainly, you have absolutely zero chance of being heard if your site is undergoing an SEO assassination attempt by the linker.

And finally, even where you do manage to extract a promise of affirmative action, it doesn’t follow that the promise will be kept promptly or even at all!

Besides, with bad backlinks pointing at your site, you can’t sit around waiting for the whole removal process to take off.

This is time-sensitive stuff and therefore requires urgency.

So, for all of the above reasons, it would appear much more preferable to take as much control over the situation yourself as possible by jumping straight ahead to Google’s fallback remedy, the disavow file (unless, of course, the source of the bad backlinks is a misguided manipulation effort originating with you or your team, in which case the manual removal route is truly the best way to go).

The Disavow File: Removing Guilt by Association

The disavow file is essentially a list of all the websites or pages that you want to permanently dissociate your site from.

Although when I say permanently, I should qualify that a little.

Given that SEO is what mathematicians call a “complex system,” explicit cause-and-effect sequences are not always easy to identify.

For that reason, perhaps, opinion is divided on the permanence aspect. Some experienced SEO professionals say it can be effectively reversed (after a while) if you remove the initially disavowed resources from the disavow file and resubmit it, while others say disavowal is forever and that once you submit that disavow file, “what’s done cannot be undone,” to quote Lady Macbeth.

Whichever camp is right, the downstream ripples from a disavowal event could be the ultimate reason why Google prefers that you first ask for manual removal of bad backlinks, i.e. in case you carelessly disavow a valuable backlink source.

The critical thing, therefore, is to never lose sight of the fact that disavowal should be done judiciously.

With the potential ramifications of the disavowal operation in mind, some policy positions have to be settled once the decision has been made to pull the trigger:

  • Should it be a broadly scoped generic “catch-all” disavow file?
  • What are the issues with listing offending sites at domain level in the disavow file?
  • Or is page level disavowal adequate?

The Risks of Generic Disavow Files

You may have noticed that some SEOs advocate the early use of a generic disavow file containing a long list of all or many known spam sites or link farms.

The thinking behind this appears well grounded at first glance. It’s somewhat akin to crafting a vaccine for your website, a preemptive shield to counter any future tainted links landing on it.

However, Google’s John Mueller recently affirmed this measure to be pretty much “unnecessary work” and that an ad hoc, as-the-bad-backlinks-arrive approach is better.

There’s also unverified anecdotal evidence that disavowing a non-existent backlink might lead to your resource becoming temporarily de-indexed, in which case it seems that even SEO vaccines come with a side effects warning.

The Nuclear Option: Domain-Level Disavowal

Assuming, then, that you have been thorough in compiling a list of bad backlinks pointing at your site and you’re now ready to start disavowal, you have to make an informed decision about the extent of the process.

If the site meets one or more of the bad backlink criteria listed earlier, it’s almost certainly safe to add it at domain level (as opposed to the specific, offending page) to your disavow file.

I mean, do you think a pornographic website linking to yours is ever likely to change its spots and join your niche and gain high levels of trust?

Of course you don’t.

For this reason, most SEO experts seem to agree that disavowal should largely always receive a domain-level treatment.

I would only add two further guiding principles in domain-level disavowal:

  • Never domain-level disavow any social media site (the reason should be obvious—you’d be shutting the door on a reputable source of potential referral traffic).
  • Never domain-level disavow any broadly scoped high Domain Authority site regardless of its offending backlink’s relevancy to your site, because one day you might be glad of a relevant link from it. It’s better instead to page-level disavow where such backlinks are detected.

Precision Strikes: Page-level Disavowal

Page-level disavowal is only really something that you would consider if you’ve received a swathe of spammy or otherwise harmful-looking backlinks from what is otherwise a solid, high Domain Authority website.

We’re talking popular, respected sites with a broad subject range, such as generic news sites or in-niche sites (for example, a website that serves all manner of sub-topics for web developers), or maybe a forum on a subdomain that incorporates one or more threads that have sent a deluge of unwanted backlinks your way.

This kind of scenario highlights an admittedly uncommon, but nonetheless possible, reason why you might want to excise the offending page only, while keeping the door open for the wider domain beyond.

Making It Happen: Creating and Submitting the Disavow File

By this stage, I hope I’ve provided a solid theoretical basis upon which you might build a solid disavowal policy.

Now for the execution!

Using Monitor Backlinks’ Disavow Module

Unless your website only has a very small backlink profile, you’ll ideally try to make things efficient for yourself when it comes to singling out bad backlinks for disavowal.

That, of course, means you’ll want to automate the process as much as possible.

Happily, you can use Monitor Backlinks to glean an overview of your site’s current backlinks profile, which you can then scrutinize for bad backlinks using a backlink audit.

(One of the great features of Monitor Backlinks is that every time your site receives a new link, it notifies you by email right away, thus alerting you to any potential bad backlinks—plus the good ones too, obviously).

disavow-file

If you’ve already created a disavow file on Google Search Console, you can download it in .csv format or view it in Google Docs (which allows subsequent downloading in additional formats).

After that, upload the disavow file to Monitor Backlinks, then go to the Backlinks overview page and select those links earmarked for disavowal. This will automatically alter the uploaded disavow file, which will then be ready to export for resubmission on Google Search Console.

disavow-file

If, however, you haven’t yet created a disavow file at Google’s end, you can easily generate one in the approved format on Monitor Backlinks and export it in readiness for the final step.

Manually Using Google’s Disavow Tool

With the disavow file now freshly primed, it’s time to upload it via the Disavow Tool on Google Search Console.

Select your website’s name from the dialog box located beside the red “Disavow Links” button and then hit the button, observing the warning message that appears.

disavow-file

When you’re ready, use the gray “Disavow Links” button below the warning message and delete any existing disavow file. Then click on “Choose File” and navigate to the new disavow file you just generated on Monitor Backlinks.

Finally, click the blue “Submit” button to finish the process.

 

By now you might feel that the whole issue of bad backlinks is a problem of Google’s own making, and I genuinely cannot argue too much against that conclusion.

But if you take wise countermeasures—particularly by using Monitor Backlinks to give you early warnings of inbound links to your site—it need not turn into a ranking calamity at all.

Register for a free month-long trial of the tool to find your bad links, create a disavow file and get it submitted to Google with minimal effort—and no commitment.

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