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Google’s Disavow Tool: What You Need to Know, and 4 Common Myths

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Google’s Disavow Tool: What You Need to Know, and 4 Common Myths

In the aftermath of Google’s Penguin 2.0 update, more attention is being paid to sites’ link profiles. Whether your objective is a complete link audit and rebuild or simply removing a questionable link from your site’s history, the good news is that there are several ways to do it. If requests to webmasters go unanswered, Google’s Disavow Tool lets you report links you’d rather that the search engine ignore.

But as with any new tool, it’s surrounded by a number of concerns and even what I’d call myths. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of Google Disavow and avoid critical missteps that could hurt your site’s rankings in the long-run.

What is Google Disavow?

The Disavow tool was rolled out last year. Its purpose is simple: If there are some unsavory websites in your link profile, Google Disavow can help you clean them up. The tool lets you submit a list of those sites from bad neighborhoods for Google’s consideration. Disavow will not remove the links, but it lets Google know you’d like to ignore them when it comes to your search rankings. But know this: the tool is not a cure all, and you should proceed with caution if you plan to use it as the primary means of cleaning up your link profile.

Why the limitations? Let’s start at the beginning. Google’s chief spam fighter, Matt Cutts, said in a video that it’s important to use the tool judiciously. Instead of wholesale uploading every bad link to your site via the tool, consider it as your last resort. He specifically says that Google expects you to reach out to webmasters multiple times before resorting to Google Disavow.

To repeat: Google wants you to take steps to have the links removed before you begin disavowing. This means identifying the sites and reaching out to them the old fashioned way, with an email request indicating that you’d like the link removed from their website. While sending hundreds or even thousands of emails is time consuming, the time you invest will be worth it because it can help you avoid incurring future penalties. For a detailed overview of how to identify which links need to be disavowed or removed, see my article “How to Know Which Links to Disavow in Google.” If you’re not the DIY-type and would like to have a link audit done for you, look into a professional link profile audit.

What To Do Before You Resort to Disavow

Before you resort to Google Disavow, take the time to launch an outreach campaign to site owners to request that links to your sites are removed. I always recommend a systematic approach. Start a spreadsheet that records the following information:

  • URL/site name
  • Link URL
  • Anchor text
  • URL that it’s linking to
  • Owner name/contact information
  • Records of contacts

Ideally, try reaching out to the site at least three times before adding it to your Disavow file. In terms of what your request should include, keep it very basic. Personalize the message, and ask them to remove the link including the information above. Try sending your messages a week apart, and follow up in an organized way. Use Boomerang for Gmail to automatically remind you if you don’t hear back from a Webmaster. If, after the third try, you still don’t get a response, make a note in your spreadsheet of the dates each message was sent and copy the messages into your spreadsheet.

If you’re under a manual penalty or some other circumstance where you’re submitting a reconsideration request, include this information with your request to Google. That will help prove that you’ve taken serious steps to cleaning up your link profile. Finally, if you reach out to a webmaster and they want to be paid to remove a link, don’t do it. Simply note the request in your spreadsheet, along with a copy of their message, and submit it with your disavow request.

Common Myths About Disavow Tool

While Disavow continues to grow in popularity with webmasters who were hit with Penguin 2.0 penalties, the rumors are beginning to fly. Here’s the truth about four of the most common myths related to Google’s Disavow tool.

1.         Using the Google Disavow Tool Will Hurt My Site

One of the most commonly believed rumors that’s been flying around since Google Disavow was rolled out last October is that it will hurt, rather than help, your website if you use it. The rumor seems to be perpetuated by the strong language that Google uses when describing the Disavow in its Webmaster toolkit. Google says: “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’s search results.” The keyword phrase here that we need to be paying attention to is, “If used incorrectly.”

It’s important that you carefully follow the procedures that Google has outlined. Conduct a thoughtful site audit. If you’re not familiar enough with the tools to do that, hire a professional to conduct a site audit or review the results of your audit with you. At the early stages, it’s most important to formulate a strategy on which links you want to keep and which require further examination and follow up.

2.         Disavowing links to my site causes Google to label me a spammer and hurt my whole web profile

We all make mistakes. If you are guilty of paying for links in the past in an attempt to improve your search rankings and you’ve received a spam warning through Google Webmaster Tools, you’re not alone; and Google is giving you a chance to rectify your mistake.

But first, you want to make sure to show that you’ve made a serious effort to reach out to the webmasters of any shady sites in your profile before using Disavow. The importance of this point is emphasized in the language on Google’s Disavow tool site. Matt Cutts brings up it up repeatedly in articles and interviews.

Proper use of the Disavow tool is not going to cause Google to label you as a spammer, nor will it negatively affect your web profile. In fact, if you’ve already received a spam warning due to bad links and you’re working to make changes to your profile, Disavow can only help. So don’t stress about this one – as long as you’re committed to staying on the straight and narrow from here on out.

To understand why you’re unlikely to immediately and irreparably be labeled a spammer, it’s helpful to look at how the tool functions. Many folks are under the impression that once you list a site, it immediately deletes a link or devalues a site. In fact, Matt Cutts has stated that Google treats disavowed links and sites like suggestions. Once some internal threshold is reached or a manual review is triggered, the search engine takes action. When asked how long Google Disavow takes, Google has suggested weeks or months to be the reasonable timeline.

3.         Google Disavow Is All I Need to Do If I Am Under a Manual Penalty

If you’re under a manual penalty, there are several things that you need to do. First, let’s go ahead and dispel the myth that Google Disavow is the only you tool you need. It’s not. In an interview with Matt Cutts in October 2012, Danny Sullivan asked Matt Cutts whether it’s OK to just use the disavow tool without first attempting to remove links. Cutts’ answer:

“No, I wouldn’t count on this. In particular, Google can look at the snapshot of links we saw when we took manual action. If we don’t see any links actually taken down off the web, then we can see that sites have been disavowing without trying to get the links taken down.”

First, you need a full and impartial view of your current link profile. Then you need to take the necessary steps to clean up your link profile before you begin using Disavow. As you reach out to webmasters requesting that they remove your link from their site, be sure to document it as described above.

Manual penalties are different from those that you may have received when Google rolled out changes to their algorithm. Your site may have been flagged for common black hat tactics like article spinning, keyword stuffing, or an abundance of bad links. Part of the process for getting back in Google’s good graces after receiving a manual penalty is submitting a reconsideration request.

A reconsideration request is essentially a well thought-out apology to Google for bad SEO practices. It’s important to bear several steps in mind with regard to your reconsideration request. In addition to providing full documentation of all steps you’ve taken to improve your links, you’ll also want to show efforts you’ve made such as improving content and social media participation.

It’s also key that you take responsibility for your actions, and focus on how you’re going to continue building a great site in the future. Google Disavow can be one tool that helps you get back on track – but it has to be part of a broader strategy. The key overall is to show that you’ve reformed and made a sustained effort to address problem. If the issues were because you weren’t aware of policies and procedures, you need to show how you’ve become educated and will apply that information in the future.

4.         Crowdsourced spam reporting is bad for me and for search engines

One of the concerns that has come up is that as webmasters report links through Google’s Disavow tool, there will be backlash from crowdsourced spam reporting. The concern is that Google is going to go the extra mile and penalize not only the spam site, but also every site that links to it (intentionally or unintentionally).

So let’s say you have a blog on your website, but you’re not taking the necessary steps to protect yourself from trackback spam. Websites selling all sorts of unsavory goods are linking to your site. Then that site is reported by numerous people on Google Disavow, and all of a sudden your website has become a casualty of the next Penguin algorithm update.

While you may not have set out to pad your profile with bad links, you didn’t take the proper steps to protect your website or have them removed either. The key thing is to make sure to take the proper precautions to protect your site from a scenario like this.

You may feel that crowdsourced spam reporting is bad for search engines, but the reality is that Penguin 2.0 was implemented to improve the search experience. It’s up to you to do the work and ensure your site is safe. The best protection over the long-term is to conduct regular site audits as well as security audits, and address this as part of your overall site health plan. That’s much more effective and less stressful than doing damage control. For an excellent overview of WordPress Security, see this article, “The Definitive Guide to WordPress Security.”

If you’re guilty of paying for links or linking up to irrelevant sites, there’s no better time than now to start making amends. While Disavow is clearly not a magical solution for a bad link profile, it can be tremendously helpful for repairing your image in the eyes of Google. You just need to make sure you take the proper steps before you use it. So if you hear negative rumors flying around about the tool, be sure to take them with a grain of salt. If used properly, it can help your site rise from the ashes after Penguin 2.0.


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Jayson DeMers

CEO at AudienceBloom

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact ... [Read full bio]

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