Backlinks are a search engine optimizer’s best friend.
But they can also be your worst enemy.
A good backlink has the power to send your site referral traffic, improve your brand visibility and reputation, and even help you rank higher in Google search results.
This isn’t fair if you’re not the one who built the link in the first place.
Fortunately, Google has a tool that can help you – the Disavow Links tool.
However, before you use it, there are some important things you’ll need to understand. We’ll explain everything you need to know – and how to use the Google Disavow Links tool – in this guide.
Back to basics. What are backlinks?
A backlink is simply a link on an external domain that points to your site. They’re relevant for search engine optimization (SEO) because they’re important for calculating a website’s trustworthiness, or “authority.”
PageRank, the driving ranking algorithm used by Google, prioritizes ranking sites with high authority. Authority is calculated using a number of ranking factors – but one of the most important is the number and quality of backlinks pointing to the domain (and the individual page in question). In other words, if your website has a lot of high-quality links pointing to it, it will be much more likely to rank highly for your target keywords and phrases.
Of course, ranking higher isn’t just a matter of building as many links as possible – otherwise, anyone could rank highly in search engines. You also need to think about the quality of your links; links that come from high-authority, reputable, topically relevant sources are much more valuable than their counterparts.
If there are some links that are “high-quality,” “valuable,” and “good” for SEO, then that means there must be some links that are “bad,” right?
So what does that really mean?
On a simple level, bad backlinks are backlinks that harm your website’s reputation, either in the eyes of users or as determined by Google itself. Even one of these links could potentially interfere with the calculation of your website’s authority – in other words, it could jeopardize your ranking strategy.
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
If the link isn’t adding value, or if it isn’t relevant to you or your users, it’s probably a bad link.
The most egregious offenders tend to fall into one or more of these categories:
If you intentionally engage in shady link building practices, like spamming backlinks or manipulating PBNs, you probably deserve whatever ranking penalties you get.
But what if you didn’t intentionally build these bad backlinks? What if someone on your team built them by mistake? What if you’ve recently learned the “right” way to build backlinks and you want to recover from your previous errors?
Don’t worry. There’s an option for you.
Google offers a “Disavow Links” tool to allow webmasters to get rid of problematic backlinks. Essentially, this is your opportunity to instruct Google to ignore specific backlinks for ranking purposes. These links may remain on the web, and still be capable of forwarding traffic to your site, but they won’t be considered when calculating your authority or rankings.
Do note, however, that this is considered to be a “strong suggestion,” rather than a directive. Google reserves the right to ignore your disavow file.
So why does this tool exist?
First, understand that Google is staunchly anti-spam. The company has been fighting spammy SEO tactics for more than 20 years now, introducing penalties and disincentives for webmasters who violate Google’s terms of service. These include both algorithmic penalties, which occur automatically to reduce your chances of ranking well, and manual actions, which have far worse consequences for your site.
The Penguin update, along with subsequent smaller updates, imposed new quality standards so that Google could be more accurate in evaluating web link quality.
Of course, Google also wants webmasters to be in control over how they’re represented online. While webmasters can often choose many of the links they establish on the web, there will always be the opportunity for an ignorant or malicious actor to build an unwanted link.
Hence, the Disavow Tool became a practical necessity.
This sounds great – it’s a tool that can help you weed out any problematic links before they impact your rankings, right?
Take a step back. The Disavow Links tool wasn’t designed as a first line of defense. Rather, it’s supposed to be a last-ditch effort – a tool only to be used if you have no other options.
Before you turn to the Disavow Links tool, there are some important steps you’ll need to take.
Evaluate Whether the Link Is a True Threat
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.
Instances of negative SEO and instances of bad backlinks built without your consent or knowledge are exceedingly rare. Most links, even ones on lower-authority sites, are actually good for your website. In addition to passing authority, links increase your brand visibility and help you generate referral traffic. Even if it’s not an especially powerful link for SEO, it may be worth keeping.
Google itself says of disavowing:
This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google Search results.
Before you try to remove the link, make sure it’s a legitimate threat.
If you’ve received a manual action and/or a notification from Google, it’s a legitimate threat.
Otherwise, you’ll need to study your own backlink profile and rankings to determine whether the link is a threat. Conduct a backlink profile analysis using a link checker tool to see where your links are coming from, and look for any anomalies. Do you notice a significant drop in rankings around the time you acquired a suspicious link?
If so, this link may be a threat.
If you haven’t received any formal notifications and your rankings haven’t dropped, you probably have nothing to worry about.
Try to Remove the Link on Your Own
If you do have a problematic link, your first line of defense is to try and remove the link on your own. If you have any pull, like if the link exists in a piece of content you wrote, you may be able to remove or change the link yourself.
Otherwise, you can usually get the linked remove by finding and reaching out to the webmaster in charge of the website where the link is hosted.
There are several ways to find the owner of a site, such as:
Make a polite, but firm request for the webmaster to remove the link and wait to hear a response. In many cases, they’ll be more than happy to comply with your request.
Commit Yourself to Best Practices With Link Building (and SEO)
This should go without saying, but make sure you’re committed to following best practices with link building and SEO overall. If you’re practicing SEO responsibly and focusing on the quality of your users’ experience, you may never find yourself in a position where you have to disavow a link. You’ll also see better, more consistent results in general.
Are you still interested in disavowing links with Google’s Disavow Links tool?
Let’s check to be sure. At this point you should have:
Have you done all three? If so, you can follow these steps:
First, you’ll need to create a list of all the links you want to disavow. Your link audit should have revealed which links are in need of disavowal.
The format of your .txt file needs to be consistent. The file itself must be encoded in UTF-8 or in 7-bit ASCII. And it has to end in .txt.
You’ll have to specify one URL or one domain per line; not that you can’t disavow an entire subpath, like example.com/en/
If you’re going to disavow an entire domain, you’ll need to include the prefix “domain:” like this:
The maximum length of a URL to include is 2,048 – but you shouldn’t have to worry about hitting it.
The maximum file size is 100,000 lines. Note that this includes blank lines and comment lines. It can’t be more than 2 MB.
If you want to include comments, you can. All you have to do is start the line with “#”. All lines that begin with this symbol will be ignored.
Here’s an example of what this looks like in practice, straight from Google:
# Two pages to disavow
# One complete domain to disavow (when multiple bad backlinks exist from that site):
Once you have the file together, you’ll be ready to submit it to Google.
You can submit only one disavow list for each property you own at a time. If you upload a new list for the same property, it’s going to replace the original one you uploaded. You must also be designated as an “owner” of the property before you can upload a disavow list for it.
When you’re ready, head to the Disavow Links page and select your property from the property list. Your list will only apply to this property.
Then, click upload and choose the file from your local computer.
If the file has any errors, Google will let you know – and you’ll see exactly what needs to be fixed before the upload will go through.
If the upload is successful, Google will incorporate your list into its index. This is a process that generally takes a few weeks, so give it time.
Over the next few weeks, Google will recrawl the disavowed links and adjust its vision of your website’s backlink profile. Keep an eye on your rankings as they shift the next few weeks.
If you ever need to remove the disavowal list for a property, select a property from the property list on the Disavow Links page and click “Cancel Disavowals.” Again, this will take a few weeks to take full effect.
There you have it. With Google’s Disavow Links tool, you should never end up stuck with a bad backlink you didn’t build yourself – meaning you should be able to fully recover from any manual action or ranking penalty you didn’t truly earn.