Why You Shouldn’t Use Google’s New “Disavow Links” Tool

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There’s no doubt that some webmasters are excited about the potential Google’s new “Disavow Links” tool holds for removing the negative valuation associated with low value inbound backlinks.  However, before you dive in and start pasting together lists of links to submit for Google’s consideration using the tool, there are a few weaknesses you’ll want to be aware of.

Specifically, here are three very good reasons to avoid using the Disavow Links tool on your website:

Reason #1 – Small Mistakes Can Have Major Consequences

In order to submit links to the Google Disavow Tool, you’ll need to compile a text file that outlines the specific links or entire domains you’d like blocked, as well as your comments on why these links should be devalued.  This information should be listed according to the following format:

  1. Any exact links should be listed “as is” (e.g., “http://www.website.com/low-value-link.html”)
  2. Entire root domains or subdomains to be devalued should be paired with the prefix “domain:” (e.g., “domain: website.com”)
  3. Comments should be entered following the “#” sign (e.g., “# I have not been able to reach the webmaster to have this link removed”)

Each of these pieces of information should be listed on its own line, no matter how many links you’ve chosen to submit for devaluation.  Once your file is complete, the entire thing can be uploaded to the Disavow Links tool within Google’s Webmaster Tools program.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, in some cases, it will be.  However, if your site is large or if your backlink profile is relatively complex, the size of this file will grow exponentially – increasing the possibility that typos and other mistakes will change the way your information is interpreted by Google’s processing programs.

As an example of just how wrong this process can go, imagine that you’ve uncovered a spam site that’s pointing dozens of bad links at you.  You enter the domain into your disavowal file – intending to block all links emanating out from the site – but unintentionally spell the website’s address wrong.  Instead, you accidentally enter the URL of a website that’s sending you dozens of good quality links and passing your website valuable PageRank.  Once your file is uploaded and propagated across Google’s servers, these high value links are cut off, decreasing your website’s natural search performance as a result of the diminished link equity flowing into your site.

Sure, that might sound like a stretch, but just think about how many similarly named sites there are out there.  Entering “domain:searchenginejournal.com” rather than “domain:searchenginewatch.com” isn’t that difficult to imagine – especially if you do so following a long day spent parsing through all the links in your website’s backlink profile!

And yes, it’s true that Google offers mistaken webmasters some opportunity for redress by allowing them to upload files with any necessary corrections – but this isn’t a “better late than never” situation.  Repairing mistakes made to a disavowal file can take weeks or months to propagate across the web, assuming you notice them in the first place.  Even this slight disruption can result in a serious loss of web traffic and revenue, making it a good idea for most inexperienced webmasters to stay away from this tool.

Reason #2 – Identifying Diseased Links is a Time-consuming Process

Now, even if you think it’s silly to say that the potential for data entry mishaps means that you shouldn’t use the Disavow Links tool, consider that you can bring about the same results by mistakenly thinking that a link is bad when it’s actually good.

In order to use the Disavow Links tool, you must first identify the diseased links that should be devalued within your backlink profile.  Like so many things online, that’s easier said than done…

First, you must pay to use a program like Majestic SEO or Ahrefs (as the free list found within Google’s Webmaster Tools won’t give you access to all of the links found in your profile).  Then, you’ve got to go over your list of backlinks with a fine-toothed comb in order to uncover any links that look even remotely suspicious.

But don’t think that you can just dump these links into a disavowal file, upload it to Google and call it a day.  Given the risk associated with entering good links into your file on accident, it’s important that you carry out a little further investigation to conclusively sort the good from the bad.

Before uploading your list of potentially malicious links to Google, you’ll want to click through to every referring website to determine whether or not the backlink is actively passing PageRank to your site from an illicit page.  You may find that the many of the links that appear to be suspicious are actually harmless – or, at the very least, that they’ve been deactivated or appended with the appropriate “no follow” code that will prevent them from harming your site.

Of course, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t submit a disavowal list just because it’s time consuming.  If you have low value links pointing at your site, it’s important to do something about them – whether or not you’ve actually received an unnatural links notice or experienced a Penguin-related penalty.

However, I’d still argue that most webmasters will ultimately have better results by focusing their efforts on building better links in order to compensate for any lower quality backlinks that are discovered.  As long as over-optimized spam links don’t constitute the bulk of a website’s backlink profile, it’s unlikely that these few bad apples will lead to diminished natural search performance – especially if they’re accounted for with a proportionate increase in newer, higher quality links.

Reason #3 – Disavowing links may have no impact on your site’s performance

Finally, be aware that Google doesn’t claim that it will take webmaster disavowal suggestions at face value and immediately devalue any listed links.  According to the company’s initial announcement:

“This tool allows you to indicate to Google which links you would like to disavow, and Google will typically ignore those links. Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive—Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example—but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.”

Basically, you could go through all the effort of diagnosing bad links and ensuring that your disavowal file is 100% accurate, only to have your requested changes make no difference in your website’s SERPs rankings.  Currently, there are no documented cases of the Disavow Links tool resulting in a Penguin or negative SEO recovery, so take the hype surrounding this tool as a one-way ticket to better natural search performance with a grain of salt.

Overall, I’d recommend that most webmasters not worry about the Disavow Links tool at all, with the exception of those in a few well-defined circumstances:

  • Your site has lost rank as the result of the Penguin algorithm update, and you haven’t yet been able to restore your rankings despite working with external site owners to remove low value backlinks.
  • Your reconsideration requests following post-Penguin cleanup have been denied.
  • You’ve received an unnatural links warning from Google and have been unable to clean up the links identified on your own.
  • You can conclusively prove that your site has been the victim of a negative SEO attack (and really, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as webmasters believe it does).
  • You’re an experienced SEO who has spent enough time looking through backlink profiles to be able to diagnose low value backlinks quickly and effectively.

If you don’t fall into one of these groups, you’ll almost always be better off by investing your efforts into building better quality backlinks or working with past linking partners to modify your existing links than to worry about using the Disavow Links tool to request the devaluation of seemingly low value backlinks.

Do you plan on using the Disavow Links tool to improve your website’s link profile quality?  If so, I’d love to hear more about how you’re approaching the process and whether you have any concerns about using the tool in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Digital Genetics

Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost user acquisition, and grow their... Read Full Bio
Sujan Patel
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  • “I’d still argue that most webmasters will ultimately have better results by focusing their efforts on building better links in order to compensate for any lower quality backlinks that are discovered. ”

    I agree with you on this one. If there is something really, really bad in your profile that you can use the disavow tool to protect yourself from then I think it’s worth it. But you need to replace those discounted links with ones that weigh in your favor.

  • When people started screaming for a link disavowal tool, I wrote about my concerns : http://inboundandagile.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-a-link-disavowal-tool/

    THe only thing in my concerns that I could add to your list is the potential negative impact that disavowing links has on other sites. If 500 lazy webmasters disavow links from a website that Google had not previously flagged, I’m concerned that would cause a chain of events that would result in all links from that site being discounted, which could negatively affect every site they link to. If that’s you or me, we could see a drop in rankings.

    I think Google gave in to webmasters only in name, but in reality, they’re just using the tool as part of their spam process that the algorithm isn’t yet up to speed on.

  • @Nick Stamoulis. I agree. You’ll also need to focus on the anchor text for those bad links as well. If the bad links have anchor text for your money phrases you’ll need to pay attention to that as well when you’re building(gathering) quality links.

  • I personally believe backlinks have more positive value than negative, unless from a very poor or illegal website. Plus, what if someone links to your site from one of these terrible sites, theres nothing you can do about it, so how can that affect you so much?

    I dont see the point in this tool. Links = good

  • Good sound advice on the disavow tool. I was at PubCon a few weeks back when Matt Cutts personally announced the tool (to much fanfare). I tend to agree with you that the results (if you reap any) may not justify the risk or the time and effort required to disavow the links. The alternative strategy of letting dead dogs lie and focusing those efforts on quality link building may be the best answer.

  • I still believe what ever you done just left behind and try to make your future bright, rather than to waste your time in revealing links, yes if your website hurt a lot with any website link you can consider for sure but there than that try to focus for up coming links. and make your link profile better than past.

  • I’m still not a big believer in the disavow tool. Unless you have thousands of just awful links, then why use it? If you have that many bad links then yes invest the time and clean them up and learn moving forward. But if you don’t have too many just work harder at getting better links to outnumber the bad ones. No big deal!

    • mickey mouse

      this is probably the most sane posting on this page

  • Thanks for the article Sujan. I am particularly interested in seeing some case studies in the near future based on sites who have used the tool. I waiting to see if the time invested in tracking down diseased links pays of when they are disavowed, compared to an attack type strategy whereby you mentioned focusing your efforts on building more, quality links.

  • Thanks for the article. I am also curious what to do with disavowing multiple backlinks from one domain (sitewide links for example). If you’re in a blogroll do you have to disavow every backlink from every page in the index from that website? And what if next week they wrote new articles/pages? Then I have to disavow again and again and again.

  • Hello Mr. Patel, since Google launched link Disavow tool I have been reading in articles, blogs that how can we use this tool and what are its advantages. Now I am getting to know what are the disadvantages of this tool. I agree with you that mistakes with targeted poor URL can lead to a big time lose & it can happen while you are working on a long sheet of bad links which you want to disavow. It sounds like this tool is time taking and if somebody doesn’t have much bad back links then instead of investing so much of your valuable time you can build quality links to compensate those bad links. Overall what actually I got from this post that we shouldn’t use Disavow tool if the amount of poor links is low.

  • I don’t know. I think it is important or at least it will become more important. If you site is being scrapped and 100s of your own articles content are being reposted with links or even worse broken links. Or in some cases I have seen 30+ links all in a 1cm x1 cm white space in someones header. Today I noticed a new one. A new directory who had add my site without asking. Don’t worry, he will remove it for $15. Shocking really. I think these things can have problems in niche markets where everyone in the top 20 results are there based on seo. These sites are very sensitive to changes compared to sites which get a lot of traffic from people typing in their brand name in Google.

    I think the chances of miss typing a spam site URL is going to be quite small. And really WMT gives you all the latest links so it only takes a minute to edit a doc and upload. Just have to keep on top of it.

  • Very informative article Sujan, But i think using Google’s Disavow Links tool is good, especially when your website gets affected by Google’s Penguin update. It remove/ignore the spam links targeting to your website.

  • Hi Sujan,
    Nice written post on why we shouldnt’ use Google disavow links… The all point you have shared via the above article is really very informative. Thanks for sharing it.

  • mickey mouse

    this is a bunch of BS, there is no such thing as bad links and googles technology is unable to decipher the difference at a high level. they are making up a bunch of hype and stories. it is counterintuitive to their own algorithm. think of how many millions of short, simple, links there are to yahoo.com, and yahoo.com will still come to the top of the search engine searches if you type in “search engine” dont believe the BS google hype all “normal” links or good whether theyre relevant or not

    • dustin

      Then why do they , Google, send you an email stating you have artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site and you need to clean them up and resubmit your site? If all links are good this would mean you should never get an email like this.

  • Many comments from SEO people who are ignoring the fact that if you have had a manual penalty then this disavow tool is the only way to get them all discounted.

    Maybe that’s why SEO has such a bad name with so many people commenting on here ignoring the very reason it was created in the first place.