SEO FAQ: What is a Link Disavow?

Adrianna Mieras

Senior SEO Strategist

When you get a notice from Google saying that your website has unnatural links pointing to it, the search giant wants you to use the disavow tool to remove them. Sounds easy enough, right? Before you get ahead of yourself, it’s important to know that the disavow tool has some limitations. Knowing how to use it, when to use it and what results to expect will help you utilize the tool efficiently. Remember, internal linking is a key ranking factor for Google, so you definitely want to make sure that you have good links in your content and that spammy sites aren’t linking back to you.

Let’s get started with our Q & A session.

1. What is a link disavow?

The disavow tool allows you to ask Google not to count certain links that point to your site. You can find the tool here. Using the tool incorrectly can hurt you, however, so it’s a good idea to know which links are unnatural and which aren’t. Google provides a good read on how to use the disavow tool correctly.

2. After disavowing links, will I always see a recovery?

Not necessarily. It all depends on the current situation. Does the site have other genuine, reputable links? Even if it does, you may still not see a full recovery. It will ultimately depend on how Google perceives the remaining links pointing to your site which have not been disavowed. Google also depends heavily on high quality content to assess a site's value and whether it deserves to rank in it's search engine for certain keywords, so it's always a good idea to supplement informative content with your link cleanup campaign.

3. How much of a recovery can I expect to see?

Google's response to the disavow tool is varied. Just because you use it on a few unnatural links doesn’t mean you will regain your placement in the SERPs. The real recovery comes when you replace spammy links with good ones as well as start to create premium content for your audience. Also, if your site was hit by a particular algorithm such as Panda or Penguin, you’ll have to wait until the next algorithm "refresh" for Google to reevaluate your site and determine that it now meets the algorithm's quality criteria.

4. Can I pick and choose which links I want to disavow?

Yes, you can pick any domain to disavow from those which have links pointing to your site. However, it's important to ensure that the domain is indeed an unnatural link that is hurting your site. The purpose of the disavow tool is not to pick and choose the links that are working for you. A good rule of thumb is that if the links don’t follow Google’s webmaster guidelines, then it's a good idea to disavow. Google has also published an article on what generally constitutes a poor quality link.

5. Should I always disavow at the domain level?

In the vast majority of cases, yes. Most websites will give you many links from the same domain, especially the spammy ones. We would say this is the case 95% of the time. But, there is one circumstance to be aware of. Say you have a client who used to send out press releases with multiple anchor text links and these got picked up on a reputable syndication site. In this case, you should disavow the link at the URL level.

6. Is the disavow tool difficult to use?

Technically, no. The key is knowing which links are unnatural and which are not, so definitely take the time to understand this element by reviewing the articles in question #4. However, before using the tool, you might consider reaching out to any individual webmasters hosting a spammy link to your site to request a direct removal of the link in question. If no response, then you should use the disavow tool to inform Google that you wish to be disassociated with that link.

7. Is there any way I could hurt the other website by using the tool?

While that’s very kind of you to worry about the nature of others’ websites, you don’t have to be concerned. If you disavow a competitor, you’re not going to hurt their website. However, if a particular website receives a mass amount of link disavow requests from others using the tool, then it's possible Google may see this site as spam, in which case it probably is and you should be proud to have contributed to ridding the web of such spam sites :)

8. Does an actual person read the disavow file?

No. These files are only read by machines, not an employee of Google. Whatever comments are attached to the email you receive are for your own use; they aren’t being written by someone individually.

9. Are there any penalties from Google for using the disavow tool?

No. Google will not flag your site for using the disavow tool. Some webmasters worry about this because they fear that their site will be looked at as spammy, but this isn’t the case. Things aren’t so black and white because links that may seem unnatural to some sites can be more natural to others. Furthermore, links that may have helped your site previously could now be seen as unnautral to Google.

10. Is there any way to reavow a link?

It is possible to reavow a link, however this is very seldom done. It is best to ensure that the links you are disavowing are definitely ones that you wish to flag. Should you find that you disavowed a link by accident, simply remove the it from your disavow list and resubmit. However, you shouldn't expect a quick turnaround from Google. Reavow requests take a lot longer than disavow ones because of the various precautionary measures that Google takes.

11. Is there a way to disavow too many links?

Absolutely. Don’t go disavow crazy by removing whatever links you think are hurting your site. Nothing replaces the eye of a trained person. Though it may be tedious, it pays to go through each link and categorize their quality. Disavowing too many links can be just as dangerous as disavowing too little.

12. Can I hire someone to help me?

Yes you can. And you may want to. If you’re not an expert on which links to disavow and which to keep, it pays to hire a professional who can take on the job for you and ensure that the task is carried out correctly. There are many variables that Google considers to determine an unnatural link and the identification process can be challenging for a non-professional.

Conclusion

The disavow tool is a useful feature, but there are many misconceptions that surround it. Hopefully this Q & A session has helped to clear some of these up. Remember, the disavow tool can harm your website if used incorrectly. Additionally, your expectations need to be practical. You can’t simply disavow links and expect to see a full recovery. As such, it is highly recommended to consider a reputable digital agency if you are looking to clean up your link profile and win back some of your rankings in the search engines.

About the Author: Adrianna Mieras

Adrianna is an SEO Strategist at SEMGeeks. She holds a BA in Communication Studies with a concentration in Digital Communication, Information and Media from Rutgers University. She takes pride in her work and thrives off of "position one" success. Born and raised at the Jersey Shore, Adrianna spends her free time riding her bike along the beach and swimming in the ocean. She has a passion for people, places and new experiences. It is rare to find her without a smile on her face.

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