Stop Disavowing Backlinks [And Why]
Posted by Emery Pearson on Aug 19, 2021 8:52:00 AM
Many of the SEO tools available have options that help you audit backlinks. While this can be a useful tool for tracking backlinks in general, it can be alarming for a lot of site owners or marketers who see things about "toxic" backlinks or warnings about harmful links pointing to your site. It's natural that while you're working hard to generate traffic to your site and leads from that traffic, you want to do whatever you can to keep the site in good health.
So if a tool is warning you that your backlinks are toxic, you should get rid of them, and the easy way to do it is by disavowing them, right?
Actually, no. And here's why.
What is the Disavow Tool?
First, let's talk about what the disavow tool actually is.
Found on Google Search Console, the disavow links tool allows you to upload a list of domains or links that you don't want to "count" as inbound links pointing to your site. When used properly, this file will tell Google to disregard everything included, so any of those links or sites will not contribute to a site's ranking.
The point of this tool is to help sites address previous bad decisions. While bad link building tactics are not used much anymore, years ago it was common for webmasters and SEOs to try to trick Google. People would build blogs or sites for the express purpose of creating links. Typically the pages would be filled with random keywords, and the outbound links would use keyword-rich text.
One of Google's penalties stems from unnatural links pointing to a website. For site owners recovering from or trying to avoid that penalty, the disavow tool is necessary, giving website owners the opportunity to disengage from spammy links. That's all it's for. In fact, it is not visible from your regular Search Console view precisely because Google does not want folks using it unless they have to.
Who the Disavow Tool is For
So now that we've covered what it does, let's talk about who should actually use the disavow tool.
Google is pretty clear about who should use it. At the beginning of their article about the disavow links tool, Google says:
"You should disavow backlinks only if:You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site,
The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site."
Even though the "who" here is pretty clear, what isn't clear is A) what a "considerable number" is, and B) how to know whether you're in danger of a penalty.
What Google Has Said About Disavowing
Earlier in that same article, Google reminds readers that they're looking for "paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines." Google has dealt with enough of this that they're pretty good at figuring out whether you've engaged in practices that go against quality guidelines.
Additionally, Google representatives have said more on the topic elsewhere. A 2012 interview with the head of the web spam team, when the disavow tool launched, offers some good information about the intent of the tool.
More recently, Google's John Mueller tweeted:
"The disavow tool is not about relevance, it's about discounting bad links which you placed and can't remove. I would not use it as a SEO tweak -- it's a big hammer to fix big link problems."
These are just a few (of many) examples of Google reminding site managers to lay off the tool unless they actually, truly need it.
Do I Need to Disavow?
Mueller's tweet above about disavowing being a "big hammer" means this: Disavowing links is just one part of a larger strategy to remove bad backlinks.
I have cleaned up websites with spammy backlinks, and each time it is a long, drawn out process. Unfortunately, if you actually need to use the disavow tool, that's not the only thing you'll be doing. I covered my full process of removing unnatural backlinks here.
Here are a couple of quick questions to ask to help you know if you need to disavow links.
- Have you participated in link schemes or paid for links to your site?
- Have you hired someone who participated in link-building schemes or paid for links to your site, or have you hired someone who might have?
If you answered no to those, you do NOT need to worry about the disavow tool.
The Dangers of Disavowing
At this point you might be wondering why it's such a big deal to disavow links if you don't have to. The main reason why we discourage it is because it can have negative consequences on your site. Google says as much in their warning at the top of the disavow article:
Here's what we do know about backlinks: It's impossible to know whether or not Google "counts" a link. The SEO tools that rate links are good if you're working on removing links due to a manual penalty. In those cases, you're working hard to get your site back on track with Google, so anything that could potentially be spammy should probably be removed.
If you're not under (or at risk of) a manual action from Google, disavowing links could hurt your rankings, and in turn, reduce your visibility and traffic.
Again, we have no idea what Google counts. They have never and will never be forthcoming about how they use links because they don't want people to take advantage of it. People taking advantage of backlinks is how we ended up in a world of manual actions and disavow tools to begin with. Thus, any link pointing to your site could be meaningful to Google's algorithms. Disavowing it has the same impact as it being removed—one less backlink and, potentially, less relevance. Now consider that if you're about to upload a file with ten links, or ten domains that have multiple links.
Why SEO Tools Tell You Links are Toxic
It can be scary and frustrating to log in to your SEO tool or get an email from them and have it tell you how toxic your backlink profile is. I get it. I actually personally dislike this feature of those tools. However, they are super useful if you're going through that incredibly complex process of cleaning up a backlink profile, and here's why.
When you get the dreaded email from Google that tells you that your site has been penalized due to an "unnatural backlink profile," the only thing Google provides is an example list of links they consider spammy (in the 2012 interview I linked to above, Cutts says it's because they "don’t want to help bad actors learn how to spam better.")
An example list is not exhaustive—and in my experience, not even very helpful—which is where tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs come in handy. Their rating system helps you with lists of links to check out. It can be difficult to get a full list of all the backlinks pointing to your site. Google Search Console's list doesn't always cover everything, and the various tools will pull backlinks that don't show up on the other tools. Having a lot of information is key when cleaning up a backlink profile.
So, in my view, that's what they're good for. As for why they scream about your toxic profile all the time, that I don't have an answer to. I suppose that there may be a lot of shady SEOs still out there, or perhaps site owners need reminders that the links they paid for are not good. Whatever the case may be, my advice to businesses, site managers, and marketers is to ignore the screams of the SEO tools about your toxic backlinks and work on something else. (Presuming you answered 'no' to my short questionnaire above.)
What to Do With "Spammy" Backlinks
If the warnings are something you cannot ignore and you find yourself wanting to do something about your backlinks, here's where to start.
First of all, know that Google knows that spammy backlinks happen. They've said this in multiple places multiple times. It's impossible to have a website on the internet (especially one that gets organic traffic) and not have weird links. Only have a few? Ignore them! They aren't hurting your site.
If you have a lot of weird or spammy backlinks and you just can't let it go, at least be careful. Here are some guidelines:
- Don't just take the tools' word for it—check out every "spammy" backlink yourself. If you get a scary popup about phishing, if your browser won't even let you visit the site, or if it's very obviously a bad site (I promise you'll know right away), you can safely count that as spam.
- If the site seems harmless or is totally unrelated to your industry and you want the link gone, you can try reaching out to the site to see if they'll remove it. Really, though, if it's harmless, I'd highly recommend you just leave it.
- Once you have a list of URLs or domains that you want to disavow, follow Google's instructions for formatting and uploading your file. Pay close attention to the link file format, and triple check everything you're including (typos and renegade copy/paste happens!)
- Watch your organic traffic like a hawk. If you start to see a decline in traffic, cancel the disavows! (Just go back to the disavow tool page and select "Cancel," which will remove the file.)
The key takeaway is this: you probably don't need to (and SHOULDN'T) disavow backlinks. In the majority of cases, you can ignore your backlink profile altogether.
Unless you have a manual action from Google or are in danger of one, disavowing is unnecessary and may ultimately be harmful. SEO tools that tell you about the toxicity of your backlinks aren't the be-all, end-all of backlink info, so learn more about the hows and whys of the disavow tool—and do your own research into your backlink profile—before you take any action.
Need some help reviewing your backlink profile? Set up your free web marketing checkup!
Written by Emery Pearson
Emery is the content strategist at Tribute Media. She has an MA in rhetoric and composition from Boise State University, and she is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She lives in southern California with a bunch of creatures and many plants.