The Ultimate Step by Step Guide to Google’s Disavow Tool

Well it’s only Wednesday and so far, this week sucks balls.

I ruined a good shirt in the wash, I had a client not show up for a meeting, and my internet connection has been up and down like a brides nitey.

In addition to that, I’ve had to deal with a site that’s been negatively affected by poor backlinks. Thousands of them.

This has resulted in me having to spend the majority of this week, swearing, throwing tantrums, breaking keyboards, and having to prepare and submit more disavow files than I really care for.

Google’s Matt Cutt’s goes on to say in most of his Webmaster videos on Youtube, “For the majority of site owners, having to prepare and submit disavow requests is probably something you’ll never need to do”.

But in this particular case, I had no choice.

Honestly, I could punch him in the face right now.

So, given my week of frustration, I figured it might be a good time to pop a few Valium, knock back a shot of Vodka and share my thoughts on Googles disavow tool.

And because I’m a nice guy, I’ll even share with you the entire process on how to use the disavow tool, when you should and shouldn’t use it, and I might tell a few jokes along the way to keep it interesting.

Here’s a vodka, lets do this.

Shitty backlinks ruin my day

It first came to my attention something was wrong with this particular site when I logged into Serpbook and saw this.

Rankings had literally fallen off a cliff and I was feeling like Donald Trump having a bad hair day.

What the hell could have caused this sudden drop in rankings?

  • Had the site been hacked?
  • Had the site been penalised?
  • Had I accidentally messed up a robots instructive?

It was obvious something wasn’t right, and that I had to do something – FAST.

But before getting too far into that, let me back up a bit and talk a bit more about Google’s disavow tool.

What the hell is Google’s disavow tool?

So firstly, what the hell is it?

The disavow tool is a feature that Google introduced back in October 2012, following on from the carnage that was caused by Penguin that was released 6 months prior. Looking back, I think the whole thing was a real mess, and to put it bluntly, I think Google got it completely wrong.

But I’ll touch more on that in a second.

According to Google, the disavow tool is a feature that allows Webmasters to dissociate themselves from low quality or harmful links that may be pointing at their sites. In other words, if your site has an accumulation of shitty links pointing at it, and it’s having a negative effect, you can instruct Google not to acknowledge those links.

Its kind of like blocking someone on Facebook, but less personal.

Why would I need to use it?

The whole purpose behind using the disavow tool is to improve the overall quality of your link profile, by eliminating shitty links. It’s kind of like saying, “Hey, this link sucks, I want nothing to do with it”.

So if your rankings are going down the toilet because you’ve –

  • Got a lot of crappy links from low quality sites pointing to yours, or
  • You’ve been trying to manipulate the search results by building unnatural links, or
  • You’ve been buying links on the down low,

…then you’ll probably have to consider using it.

But for most site owners, they’ll never have to worry about it. Infact, it’s less than likely you will ever have to even think about having to submit a disavow request, unless of course, something has gone seriously pear shaped.

When should I use the disavow tool?

The other obvious question to ask is, “Ok, so when should I use it?”

This is a little tricky to answer accurately as every case is usually very different, but to answer it as best I can, I would certainly be considering a disavow request if your site has –

  • Been subjected to a negative SEO attack
  • Over time, acquired a lot of unnatural or unrelated links
  • An over optimised link profile
  • A link profile full of paid links, bought in an effort to skew the search results

There may be other times where you might consider submitting a disavow, but those would be some of the most common.

Baking a Disavow Cake – Just like Grandma used to

So enough about that, let me show you how to go about preparing and submitting a disavow request. It really isn’t difficult. You just need to make sure you don’t screw it up.

It’s like baking a cake, just follow the steps in the recipe.

What constitutes a bad link?

I guess the first thing we need to establish is, “what makes up a bad link?”

i wish there was a simple way of explaining this, but again, that’s like asking “what constitues a bad cup of coffee?” Sometimes its pretty obvious, whilst other times its opinion based.

I think when it comes to evaulating links, you need to apply some common sense. If the site looks spammy then it probably is.

Some giveaways are –

  • No postal address or contact information
  • Shit loads of ads, pop out and sliders than you can poke a stick at
  • No social engagement (but not always)
  • Pages filled with low quality or garbage content
  • Non english syntax and other garbled nonsense
  • Porn, pharma or gambling related content/ads

Again, it’s not hard to spot a site thats a total spam fest.

How can a bad link affect my site?

Google, (stupidly) acknowledges ALL links.

Which means, you’ll be rewarded for great, high quality, natural links, but also possibly kicked in the nuts – for low quality links.

I say stupidly because the reality is, Google should ONLY be acknowledging GOOD links, and completely ignoring bad ones.

Why?

Because if bad links can have a negative impact on a site, then what’s stopping site owners from slamming their competitors with bad links?

Nothing.

Infact, it unfortunately works, and is known in the SEO industry as “negative SEO”.

More on that later.

Auditing your link profile

The first thing you’ll need to do is to get a complete snapshot of your entire link profile. This is a collection of ALL the links pointing to your website.

This process is commonly known as a “link audit”.

You can do this quickly and easily using Ahrefs.

Simply enter in the URL of the website, then click on “ONE LINK PER DOMAIN” then view the report.

Here’s a snapshot of this site – SEO Point.

Take that report and export it into an XLS spreadhseet.

Once you’ve done that, you can then sort your spreadsheet by domain rating or “DR” ascending, as shown below. You’ll want to do this, because spammy sites usually always have low domain ratings (or authority). So it makes sense to start with the crap first, by sorting this way.

Then from here it’s just a matter of going through the list, taking a look at each of the referring sites, and making a decision as to how it should be actioned.

To do this, you’ll want to simply copy the URL, view that page in a web browser, and if it looks like ass – paste it into notepad.

SPECIAL NOTE – When you’re going through the list, be sure to not only take note of the referring page (where your link is placed), but also, have a good look at the actual site itself. If the whole website looks like crap, then you’ll want to disavow the ENTIRE DOMAIN, not just one page.

I’ll explain why in the next step.

Creating your disavow file

Creating the actual disavow file is a piece of cake.

However, as mentioned above, when you’re going through the list, you’ll want to check the entire site – not just the referring page.

Why?

Because if the entire site is a spam fest, you’ll want to disavow it at the DOMAIN level – not just one page.

Here’s an example.

You can see in this example that instead of just disavowing a single URL, I’ve disavowed the entire site – websitelist.in.

You can do this by typing in domain:example.com (be sure to remove the http and www stuff)

This site was obvious spam, so I’ve killed it at the root level. This is always recommended if the site looks like rubbish and you want to be absolutely certain it’s not linking to your site in any way.

Once you’ve completed the process, your disavow file should look something like the example below.

A few things to note –

  • You can see I’ve chosen to disavow a few single URLs along with entire domains.
  • You can also see that I’ve added a small notation at the top. Notations should really only be added for your own reference, as no one at Google actually reads these files. To add a note, you simply add a hashtag at the beginning of each line, followed by regular text.

That’s it.

Save it as a regular text file and move on.

Submitting your disavow tool

Once you’re satisfied that your disavow file is ready to be submitted, you’ll need to head over here, and do the following –

  • Firstly, ensure that you’re logged into your Google account
  • Choose the web property that you wish to submit the disavow file for
  • Upload it

Once you upload your disavow file, you’ll get a confirmation message informing you that the request has been received.

What happens next?

What happens next is anyones guess really, but I can tell you with certainty that the following happens.

F all.

There really is no point in waiting for something to happen, because it’s not going to.

  • You’re not going to suddenly see your rankings improve overnight
  • You’re not going to get a nice letter in the mail from Google
  • You’re not going to get a damn thing

Actually, I tell a lie. You’ll get an email from Google saying they’ve received your submission.

But that’s it.

This is what pisses me off about the disavow process. Once you’ve submitted the request, there’s no way of knowing what the hell’s going on. Which leaves you wondering –

  • Did it work?
  • Has it been processed?
  • How long before something happens?

It really is quite annoying.

Key points using the disavow tool

Okay, so now that we’ve covered that, let’s look at a few other key points you should be aware of before you start disavowing everything in sight.

Don’t delete previous disavows

As far as I know, you need to “add” to your existing disavow file, before submitting a new one. So don’t delete your previous disavow file, leave it in place, and upload additional links you’d like to add to those listed in the first.

So in simple words – copy the contents of the first disavow file, and INCLUDE it in the second disavow file.

So if your first one had 350 links in it, and your second one has 85 links in it, then you should be uploading a file that contains 435 links.

Make sense?

There’s more on this over at Search Engine Land.

You can “reavow” links

Believe it or not, if you screw something up and accidentally disavow a good link, then you simply remove that good link from your disavow request and it immediately becomes “re-avowed”.

Not many people are aware of this.

I thought that was pretty cool, because let’s face it, if you’re scanning through hundreds or thousands of links, then it would easy to make a mistake.

Maximum file size is 2Mb

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a notepad file that’s 2Mb in size, so you probably don’t need to worry too much about this. However if your site is absolutely massive, then the file size restriction may become a factor.

I doubt it though.

Delete or disavow?

A common question a lot of site owners ask me when speaking about disavows is this, “John, should we try and have the links removed, or should we just disavow?”

i always encourage site owners to make an effort to remove links (if possible) rather than disavowing them. I do this for a few reasons –

  • Removing the link gets rid of it for good
  • Removing the link prevents having to stuff around disavowing

There are however a few considerations you need to think about.

For instance, if you’ve got a MASSIVE list of links to sort through then the entire process is going to be exhausting. Rather than reaching out to hundreds or thousands of site owners asking them to remove links, you might be better off just disavowing.

The other thing is, that often especially with spammy sites, is that most of them won’t bother replying to your request anyway, or you wont be able to find their contact details.

Some assholes even charge a fee to remove links.

So the whole process can become more of a hassle.

You will however, have to use some common sense, and do what you feel is right for you.

Common mistakes using the disavow tool

This might sound funny, but Ive actually heard of someone disavowing their own domain. This resulted in their site absolutely tanking in the search results. Thankfully, it is possible to RE-AVOW, so they were able to rectify the problem pretty quickly.

I guess outside of doing something stupid like that, you’ll just need to ensure your syntax is correct, and that you haven’t accidentally added in any unnecessary spaces or hashtags or anything, anywhere they’re not supposed to be. A simple mistake in your syntax could cause the disavow request to fail.

Have a watch of this video below as Matt Cutts from Google, covers some of the most common mistakes made during the disavow process.

My thoughts on the disavow tool

There shouldn’t f*cking be one

Google should stop screwing us around by acknowledging poor links. They should IGNORE bad links and only reward us for links that actually matter.

Why?

The answer is simple – NEGATIVE SEO.

If I blast a competitors site with shitty links, why should they then have to worry about having to clean that crap up? And better yet, why should that site lose its rankings because I blasted bad links at it. That’s negative SEO big time, and its not right.

It shifts focus to the wrong areas

Site owners should be spending their time thinking about how to improve their sites, by creating great content, and an awesome user experience. NOT worrying about technical aspects of SEO, such as their link profiles, or if their competitors are hurting them with bad backlinks.

When site owners have to concern themselves with this type of nonsense, they lose focus of what really counts – creating a great site.

Negative SEO is real

Google in a way, admitted that shitty links have an affect and that’s stupid, and from what I’ve seen this week, it’s true.

Just a small handful of links have been enough to negatively impact this site, which is absolutely ridiculous.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this blog post, most people wont have to worry themselves about having to use Google’s disavow tool – ever. But certainly, for some site owners on the web, there may be instances where competitors decide to target you with shitty links, which will unfortunately result in you having to take corrective action.

I’ve seen this happen to some really good people and it’s a shame.

Again, Google should simply ignore bad links and reward site owners with the links that actually matter.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say.

Post up a comment below. I respond to everyone.

2 comments on “The Ultimate Step by Step Guide to Google’s Disavow Tool

  1. Audrey on

    Hey there, interesting post and I must admit I did laugh more than once at your ’emotional’ writing style. 😂 One point though, I thought that since penguin 4 rolled out that it wasn’t necessary to disavow. Your recent experience suggests that perhaps it still is and that negative SEO is still effective. Have you been able to recover the site? Cheers.

    Reply
    • John Romaine on

      Hi Audrey,
      Yes I believe negative SEO is still possible which is a shame really. Google continues to suggest otherwise but thats not we see out on the field.

      Google should only reward good links and ignore the rest. That would save everyone a lot of mucking around.

      Once I cleaned up this particular sites link profile it came back, but it took time, and hasnt recovered 100%. Its close though.

      Reply

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