A How to Guide on Identifying Bad Links and Pruning Them Using Google’s Disavow Tool

When the long-awaited Disavow Tool from Google was announced finally at the PubCon Las Vegas, search professionals around the globe breathed a sigh of relief. There is a way now with which they can deal with the penalties laid on them by the Penguin Update due to ‘un-natural links’. They can now ‘disavow’ these links and get their site back in Google’s good books.

If you want to use this tool, you will have to identify your bad links first and then work on pruning them. Once you submit the list of links you have to disavow, you will be given a choice of comments or links or domains to block. Of these options you must choose accordingly. But remember that you must use the tool only on the links which you haven’t been able to remove manually.

Google itself has stressed that the tool is a last resort after you have exhausted all manual efforts to get bad links removed. Because once Google disavows them, you may even lose the good links and eventually your ranking may fall even further. What are these bad links and why Google penalizes you for them are discussed in the next section.

The Update That Changed It All: Penguin

It would be safe to say that Google’s Penguin Update has shaken the very basis of SEO practices: link building. Until recently, sites linking to your site were not much of a problem. But now, if you have ‘unnatural links’ (as Google calls them) linking to your site, it can hurt your ranking severely.

The update has come down heavy for businesses selling links, as well as sites which have built a spammy link profile by using exact match anchor text extensively. This activity is flagged off by Google as ‘unnatural link building tactics’ and falls under heavy spamming.

Many sites which have not been intentionally buying links have also been hit by the update, simply because they have links from ‘untrusted sites’. Webmasters are struggling to find a way to fix these link issues and get their site back up. The urgency to do the same is intensified because the Penguin can strike again anytime.

It’s Not Over Yet

At the recently concluded SES San Francisco, Google’s webspam team head, Matt Cutts, gave a clear warning against the Penguin. He said that the algorithm was in its experimental stages. Google was fine-tuning it and ’till they get it right—the Penguin roll outs will give ‘huge jolts’.

The Panda Update is smoother and subtler now (after more than a year of the first roll out), but the Penguin can smack hard. This announcement by Matt sent nearly the entire SEO fraternity scurrying to find: “penguin proofing techniques.”

The panic attack has not been helped by the link warnings being sent via Google Webmaster Tools. Google has been sending ‘unnatural link’ warnings to webmasters since February 2012. Now and after the Penguin smack, people finally understood that their entire effort of building links over the years could be the reason for their site falling in SERPs.

The message from Google is loud and clear: There is more to come. And the ball is in your court now, as to how you will identify and deal with those ‘unnatural’ or bad links.

The Best Way Forward: Backlinks Check

You have to take up the mammoth task of a backlink audit to see where are the toxic links coming in from and how you can get rid of them. Analyzing your link profile can be a time taking and tedious task, but you will have to do it—the sooner the better. Bad links may include:

  • Links coming in from poor quality/spammy sites
  • Disproportionate anchor text links
  • Links from blog networks
  • Links from paid posts
  • Links from dead & rotting directories
  • Links from irrelevant & ‘untrustworthy’ sites

A great way to spot an unnatural link profile is to compare your site with your competitors. A thorough comparison will let you know of the major differences between their link profile and yours. To identify the ‘unnaturalness’ of your back links profile you will have to see:

  • Site-wide links
  • Anchor Text Distribution
  • Link Networks
  • Blog Links
  • Blog Comments/Forum Links
  • Article Directories links
  • Web Directories links
  • Footer Links

Whether you have been hit by the Penguin or have been warned by Google for having unnatural links, you will have to analyze the backlinks mentioned above and make comparative analysis with your top five competitors (at least).

Top Backlinks Evaluation Tools

There are a number of SEO tools out there you can use for deep evaluations for backlinks. Some of these are free, while some will require subscription. Let us see, what each tool can deliver:


This tool allows you to research your backlinks profile quickly and simply. It is a paid tool and offer Backlinks Reports; inBound Link Analysis; Link management and daily rank tracking.

The inBound Link Analysis module allows you to analyze all incoming links using the filters like:

  • Link Position
  • Link Context
  • Majestic AC Rank
  • inBound Links

The results will show the poorest quality pages first. Reviewing is a breeze with the link preview feature, and you will have a data of the most toxic links coming back to your site. The tool advises you to manually review the links and then add comments in to the links and then importing the data into the Google Disavow tool, and disavow the negative links.

Link Research Tools

It is a paid tool with a number of functionalities, but their Backlink Profiler is perhaps the best way to source and identify backlinks from various domains and get every detail about them. The list you will get will already be pruned to remove dead links. You will get to know the nature of the link, follow or no follow etc. as well. The tool will also tell you the domains giving you quality link juice.

Navneet Kaushal
Navneet Kaushal is the founder and CEO of India’s leading search marketing agency PageTraffic. You can follow him at twitter @navneetkaushal.
Navneet Kaushal
Navneet Kaushal

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14 thoughts on “A How to Guide on Identifying Bad Links and Pruning Them Using Google’s Disavow Tool

  1. Finally, somebody gets off the broken record of listing all non-reasons why you shouldn’t be using the tool.

    Good post. :thumbs:

  2. I agree. Great comprehensive post. You make the comment of being able to weed out bad link networks using SEO Majestic Clique Hunter. How do you get this tool to show you the list of links pointing from penalized sites like you mentioned?

  3. Amazing post Navneet, This post is an effective package to learn “How to Disavow”, “Why to Disavow” . You explained back links analysis tools effectively, I personally feel that Google Webmaster and Open Site Explorer are the most efficient tools to check back links and much more than that. You warned about disavow links that we must be assured that the link is bad and we need to disavow it, otherwise on some occasion we might loose good links because of bad decision making.

    Thank you !

    Chandler Bryson

  4. Navneet thanks for the excellent post. I usually use http://www.link-assistant.com/ to check quality links. The software is not free of charge but doing a great job. and regardless of the program i think it is about time that Google will make a drastic change like this to eradicate the spam inexperienced webmasters.

  5. Nice post Navneet and some interesting thoughts on the redirecting routes around Penguin.

    Too much of the talk after the Disavow tool was launched was how it made recoveries easy, though untrained website owners may have judged that to mean they should just submit all their links to Google without contemplating the fact that they might actually still be helping them. Before they know it they’ve lost all that value and don’t understand why. It’s great that you’ve highlighted that even some links which appear ‘disavowable’ shouldn’t necessarily be included.

  6. I definitely agree with you Adam about the wrong product for the wrong client. What’s the point in getting a client that leaves in three months because they weren’t a good fit for you and vice versa? It takes a lot of effort and time to land a new client and I’d rather spend my time working with a potential client that I know is a good fit for my company.

  7. Here one question from my side ” Supposing I give a guest post to XYZ blog, and I get attacked by Panda in say 1 year from now. Now, wouldn’t it have been better for XYz blog if he had not accepted my post in the first place ?

  8. Amazing post Navneet, This post is an effective package to learn “How to Disavow”, “Why to Disavow” . You explained back links analysis tools effectively, I personally feel that Google Webmaster and Open Site Explorer are the most efficient tools to check back links and much more than that

  9. What is the best practice with site-wide text links: should we remove them or just make them Home Page only (when you consider them as good links)

  10. Navneet, this is a very helpful blog article. I found it while looking for a solution for Penguin 2.0 which has just come out and devastated one of our websites.

    Will you have another blog post like this one regarding the new penguin update?

  11. Well…I used the disavow tool but the last Penguin update didn’t changed anything. I also checked the backlinks profile for some if the websites linking to mine by exporting the data from open site explorer and uploading it on the seoeta.com tool. Do you know a better war to visually create the backlinks profile by DA and PA ?

  12. It is really a nice tool to use and check for our backlinks. I have used too few times and it works fine. Really thanks for your nice post and sharing your experience with us.