Disavowing links

Disavowing links is a way to keep your link profile clean. This article explains why and how you can use Google's disavow tool, and also when you should not use it.

What is a link profile?

Links are important for SEO. Valuable backlinks can help your website to get better rankings, and lots of links from small sites also contribute to a higher domain authority. But not every link is good: some links are considered spammy or unnatural. 

The combination of all links pointing to your site is called the link profile. If too many spammy or unnatural sites link to your site, you may have a ‘toxic’ link profile, which can lead to a Google penalty.

Google’s disavow tool helps to prevent that.

What is a toxic link?

Google's documentation explains which links violate their guidelines. In short, these are some common reasons why a link can violate the policy:

  • Links that you paid for
  • In reality, of course Google, doesn’t know if you paid for a link or not. They're not reading your bank statements (hopefully?). But Google recognizes sites that are often used for paid link building, and links from those sites may be considered unnatural.
  • Link exchanges (you link to me, and I’ll link to you in exchange), when done on a large scale.
  • Spammy links built in an automated way
  • Negative SEO from competitors: mass link building to make your site look spammy, so your competitor can gain positions.
  • Not really a link, but also considered spammy: buying old, unused domains and redirecting those to your site.

What is disavowing

These toxic links may hurt your link profile, and can in turn cause lower rankings. Fortunately, there is a way to prevent this, or to fix it once the damage has been done: disavowing a link.

Disavowing means you’re telling Google: I think these links do not meet the webmaster guidelines, please ignore them. Google will ignore the toxic links, so you can avoid getting a manual action.

When should I disavow links?

Google has been very clear about when you should disavow links: only disavow links when you get a manual action regarding your link profile. A manual action So only if Google tells you that your link profile has issues, you need to clean it up. A manual action for links will show up in Search Console, and looks like this:

Unnatural links manual action

Despite Google's advice, sometimes it can be useful to take preventive measures. If you know there are toxic links pointing to your site, disavowing them before Google takes action can be a good idea.

This is what Google’s John Mueller had to say about disavowing links:

John’s message is basically that Google recognizes unnatural links and will ignore them. But also, if you’re ever worried about an unnatural link, just put them in a disavow file. 

Disavowing is a tricky thing: if you disavow links that do have value, you could actually be hurting your rankings. So don’t just disavow any link you don’t recognize, or that seems to have little value. Only disavow a link if it’s clearly spam, or unnatural.

Google’s disavow tool

The disavow tool is part of Google Search Console. To start disavowing links, you need to have access to the Search Console property of the site. Disavowing does not work for domain properties, so make sure you have access to a specific property.

In the tool, you can upload a file that contains all the URLs that you want Google to ignore for your backlink profile. 
Keep in mind, these are the external URLs of the sites linking to your site, not the pages on your site they link to.

Creating the disavow file

Create an empty text file and add the pages from which you want Google to ignore the links. Here’s an example:

# ignore these pages (this is a comment by the way)
# to exclude all links from a specific domain, you can use the domain: operator

Save the file on your computer as a .txt file. The name of the file is used in Search Console to see which links you’ve previously disavowed, so we recommend giving the file a meaningful name: siteguru-disavow-july.txt is better than disavow.txt.

Head to Search Console ? Disavow links. Select the property you want to disavow links for and upload the file you just created.

Search Console disavow tool

Be careful! It’s easy to make a mistake in the disavow file. Accidentally disavowing relevant links to your site can hurt your link profile and result in lower rankings.

A word of warning

We've said it before, but just to be sure: disavowing links can negatively affect your rankings. Only disavow a link if you're sure it hurts your link profile. If you're in doubt, and you did not get a manual action regarding links, don't touch it.

Google's original post, announcing the disavow tool back in 2012

Broken Links