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All You Need to Know About How to Disavow Links (And Why It Matters)

disavowing links

Posted in Backlinks, Link Building, and Search Engine Optimization. 11 min read

Today, we’re going to be discussing a mysterious and misunderstood topic: Disavowing links on Google.

Even though the link disavow tool has been around since 2014, there’s a lot of consternation around it from digital marketers of all stripes. Many people never use it at all, while some simply aren’t confident that they truly understand how it works.

With luck, you won’t have to disavow backlinks very often. However, there are situations where you’ll definitely want to. In fact, these are so serious that overlooking the value of this tool can actually hinder your entire SEO strategy.

To really understand how the tool works and why you need it, let’s spend some time on a subject near and dear to the team at Bluleadz: How websites get links and what makes a bad backlink.

How Websites Get Links

There are many different ways for a website to get backlinks, but most of them derive from the same source: Awesome content that people want to share and promote. A link back to content (literally: a backlink) serves as a sort of “editorial vote” vouching for its quality.

No matter how Google wiggles, squiggles, and squirms, there’s one core idea that it hasn’t really been able to change in its 20-odd years of operation: Backlinks are important. Super important.

Even in today’s complex world of “social signals” and dozens of other ranking factors, backlinks remain – by far and away – the most vital off-page SEO ranking factor. Even so, if you’re wondering how to succeed in SEO in 2018, you can’t get links from just anywhere.

The most helpful links are authoritative, meaning they come from other sites Google regards highly, preferably within your own niche. With that in mind, effective digital marketers have narrowed down their link generation strategies to a handful of recognized white hat techniques.

These include things like:

Sharing Content on Social Media

Sharing your content to people who need it, when they need it, is the most effective strategy for link building in 2018.

If you’ve got a well-targeted following that overlaps well with your best customers, you’ll find consistently posting great content on social media helps tremendously. Not only will you get social “engagement” like shares, but you’re also much more likely to get links.

Online Influencer Outreach

For a more targeted method, many SEO experts focus their attention on influencer outreach. This means tailoring your content to a very specific niche audience and then looking for webmasters who share or curate similar content.

You can email influencers directly or message them on social media. Often, if your content is good, they will link to it within a very short time.

Local SEO

Local SEO has a wide variety of specific techniques that all result in backlinks. For the most part, these links help in business attribution – that is, they attest that a certain business exists at a certain address, that it has a particular phone number, and so on.

This is extremely valuable for traditional “brick and mortar” businesses that want to capture mobile “near me” search traffic.

Specialized Link Directories

Link directories aren’t nearly as powerful as they used to be when it comes to off-page SEO. Even so, some directories can give your backlink portfolio a boost.

Look for directories that are tough to get into, such as those curated by industry associations and professional societies. These usually sit on aged, authoritative domains that cater to a discerning audience of experts.

Guest Blogging

Guest blogging is great for situations where you want to pave the way for future collaboration. You get to help out another site while providing excellent content to a ready audience.

Usually, this will give you a link that lasts for as long as the hosting site does. Plus, you’ll continue to get organic traffic when that site's visitors trawl its back catalog for useful content.

How Websites Get Bad Links

So, Google can’t quite kick its addiction to backlinks. But that’s not the whole story.

One innovation Big G has implemented is a radical change in which links matter most.

If “good” links are authoritative, bad links are just the opposite: They sap your credibility. The weird thing about bad links is that although the average person might not be able to recognize a good link, they're much more likely able to point out a bad one.

Many bad links are from shady websites that promote gambling, pornography, or illegal activity. These sites may link back to legitimate places on the web as part of a plan to game the system. Usually, they are trying to drive traffic to a third site that might be hard to detect.

And that’s not the only way you can get bad links!

Pretty much any link that goes against Google’s linking guidelines can be considered bad.

In this category, the biggest threats are as follows:

Buying and Selling Links

This category goes beyond the obvious to include things like links received for goods, services, and product samples. Many cases of sending a blogger a free review item to get their opinion on it may be considered “buying and selling” links if Google takes an interest.

Excessive Link Exchanges

Link exchanges – or reciprocal linking, if you’re feeling more charitable – are intuitive: “Link to me and I’ll link to you.” While this has existed since the dawn of the web and is still common among hobbyists, it’s considered a faux pas for businesses trying to rank on search.

Large-Scale Article Marketing or Guest Posting Campaigns with Optimized Links

Don’t panic: Guest posting is still a useful part of a white hat backlink strategy. The key here is to make sure that every piece you provide as a guest post is completely fresh, written to that exact audience, and doesn’t overuse optimized keyword text.

Automated Programs or Services

Extremely popular among a whole variety of marginal, ultra-cheap “backlink services” with dodgy operations around the world, automated programs pump out tons of spammy links based on a few simple instructions. These are usually social bookmarks and other links of poor quality.

Some less common situations also run afoul of Google’s rules, including:

  • “Advertorials” where payment is received to include links.
  • Links in press releases that are distributed on other sites.
  • Certain low quality directory and bookmark site links.
  • Links distributed in software widgets on multiple sites.
  • Links in the footer or templates of numerous websites.
  • Forum comments with optimized links (including signature).

You might have noticed that Google has some pretty loose definitions here. For example, not even Socrates himself could tell you what “excessive” link exchanges are versus plain old ordinary “link exchanges.” The story is similar with “large scale” guest posting.

The problem with all of this – and it’s a problem Google recognizes – is that many of these ways of building links were considered uncontroversial not too long ago. Even businesses acting in good faith could have used several of these methods back when they were in vogue.

On top of all that, there’s always the possibility that you’ll make the wrong move in choosing a vendor and discover that, to your horror, that person engages in link building practices that look more like 1998 than 2018.

What do you do about it? The answer is disavow those bad links!

What Is Disavowing?

You can’t control everything that happens out there on the web, but the disavow tool is Google’s way of helping make sure you have complete control over what happens to your site.

Disavowing gives you the power to select individual links (or even entire domains) and tell the search algorithm you want those “ruled out” when your search result position is calculated.

This prevents links of low quality from dragging down your performance on search. This is especially critical if you’ve been dinged for having lots of “artificial” links that might cause you to be dropped from results entirely for your target keywords.

There are some indispensable things to know about disavow:

You’ll Usually See Some Recovery After Using Disavow

Most companies don’t use disavow until they’ve seen a severe algorithmic penalty that impacts their search performance. In the very worst cases, a website has already been hit with a manual penalty by Google’s search staff before anyone thinks of using the tool!

Using the disavow tool can certainly help in these situations. However, it’s crucial to realize that this won’t look like an immediate “bounce” back to your pre-penalty SERP position. While most disavow users see clear results within a few weeks, you’ll have to work to get re-established.

According to long-time Googler Matt Cutts, disavowing can take months in some circumstances!

You Can Usually Disavow Links at the Domain Level

Disavowing links takes time and effort – you need to go through your catalog of backlinks and figure out what could be causing you strife. Luckily, there is a way to make things go a bit faster.

Google gives you the flexibility to disavow individual links, but you shouldn’t have to in most cases. Generally, the reputation of the domain is a good indicator whether any link from that domain is worthy: If the domain is dicey, you can jettison all those links with one quick tweak.

How to Disavow

The process of disavowing links is easy enough. All you have to do is create a text file where you will list, one by one, the links or domains to be disavowed in your link portfolio.

Naturally, that starts by visiting Google Analytics or another favorite analytics suite. Determine which links seem to be the problem and, when realistically possible, request that bad links be removed from the offending website first. If the links persist, move on to using the tool.

Once you have a list of problem links, it’s time to whip up your official disavow file.

A disavow file is just a text file with special formatting that allows Google to recognize the links you specify. Although some sources have concluded that these files are analyzed in depth by a Google team (you know, for blackmail material) that seems to happen rarely – if ever.

That said, there is a catch: If your file isn’t formatted correctly, it will be rejected. This can be a real annoyance, since time is of the essence when it comes to reversing course after a penalty.

Luckily, it’s not so hard to follow the rules once you know what they are.

Your disavowal file must:

  • Be a text file – that is, it has to end in .txt (like any Notepad file).
  • Be encoded in either 7-bit ASCII or in UTF-8 (no special characters).
  • Be formatted with only one link or domain on each separate line.
  • Have a line starting with domain: at the start of each domain removal URL.

In addition, you’re expected to record the efforts you’ve made at removal within your disavow file. These do not have to be detailed descriptions, but each line should start with the pound symbol (also known as our good friend, the hashtag).

Accidentally failing to prepend # to each comment will usually mean that your disavow file gets rejected. Likewise, any mistakes in the other steps will lead to rejection or, at the very least, mean you won’t get the results you were expecting. To save time, always double-check your file.

Once you’re sure it’s ready, submitting it is simple:

  • Log into your Google account.
  • Head over to the Disavow Tool.
  • Select your website from the list.
  • Click “Disavow Links.”
  • Choose your file and click submit.

4 Ways Your Site Is Impacted by Spammy Links

If you’re wondering whether it’s really worth it to get into the whole issue of disavowing links, just think about all the ways your site can be negatively impacted by spammy links.

Let’s consider some of the big ones:

Spammy Links Reduce Your Search Engine Rankings

First and foremost, getting caught with spammy links can cause your SERP rankings to drop like a rock.

A few spammy links may not make any difference at all – just about any site that’s been around has some – but you can never tell when that tipping point is going to be. And wouldn’t you rather have one less factor to worry about while planning out your SEO formula?

Spammy Links Make You Look Weird to Legitimate Web Users

You might think your legitimate users will never actually see spammy links, but that might not be the case.

They can still come across them, especially if an intensive search brings them into the wilderness beyond the second page of Google results. If the average person sees scam sites are linking to you, they’ll be much less likely to trust you with their business.

Spammy Links Make It Harder to Achieve SEO Victory

Spammy links add drag to your entire digital marketing campaign. They reduce the impact of your efforts to build links and cultivate a following.

They even dilute the data you collect about your off-site SEO and can lead you to believe that your methods aren’t working (or aren’t working fast enough). Like dark matter, they are hard to see and distort everything around them.

Spammy Links Can Get Your Site Totally De-Indexed

In a worst case scenario, spammy links will ultimately get you totally removed from Google – that is, de-indexed. For obvious reasons, this has long been the most fearsome punishment in the world of search.

Once you’ve been de-indexed, your entire site may no longer appear for any search query. It’s notoriously tough to escape from “Google jail,” even if you’re innocent.

With all this in mind, there’s no reason to fear link disavowal. You’ll probably only need to use it once or twice a year to keep your links looking fresh – though, the very first time you use it, you might find you prune about 10% of your total links.

That’s the big story on disavowing links and why you should be doing it. It doesn’t just help Google provide better results; it also helps you succeed in your own mission to provide value to your prospects, leads, and customers.

That’s a true “win-win” situation for digital marketers.

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