Google’s disavow tool is a function in the Google Search Console that allows webmasters to request that Google discount any backlinks to their site that they don’t want. “Why would you not want as many backlinks as possible?” you ask, well, not all backlinks are positive. Although link building is one of the most important factors you should take into consideration as an SEO, not all backlinks are good.

Google regards links to one site from another as a vote for the quality of the site being linked to. As such, having a strong backlink profile tells Google that your site is a good one, otherwise all the other sites wouldn’t want to link to it in the first place. But backlinks are about quality over quantity.

Why we need the disavow tool

As backlinks are seen as votes of confidence for a site by Google, it’s important to only have good quality sites voting for you. For instance, a link from a major site filled with high-quality content, with a stellar domain and page authority and a long history on the web is great for your website. However, dozens of links from very low-quality sites will simply have a negative effect on your position in SERPs. Spammy SEOs look to manipulate the search results by building hundreds, if not thousands of poor quality links to their sites, in the hope that there is strength in numbers. Hint: there isn’t.

Once the Penguin Update was rolled out in April 2012, bad link building practices started to be penalised by Google. As such, SEOs needed a way to stop low-quality links that were pointing to their site from negatively impacting their position on the search rankings. So, in October 2012, the disavow tool was rolled out.

The tool provides webmasters with an easy way to ask Google to ignore any bad, spammy links to your site. But where do these spammy links come from? Well, you may have engaged in black hat SEO tactics that contravene Google’s webmaster guidelines, such as buying links, joining link networks or writing spammy blog posts or comments. Although, it’s also a possibility that you accidentally placed your site in a bad neighbourhood without even realising it. You may even be a subject of Google bowling.

You’d do well to remember that the disavow tool is not a ‘get out of jail free’ tool. You can’t simply build your SERP presence through black hat tactics for a short-term boost before disavowing and starting again. Google’s smart, they’re not going to let you get away with that.

Despite the disavow tool being a very straightforward way to remove bad links, you don’t want to use it with wild abandon, disavowing any remotely negative link to your site (but more on that later). Google even gives you an ominous warning when you start using the tool.

Google disavow tool warning

Don’t worry too much about Google’s threatening message, it’s just to stop you from removing any good links to your site. This is why you need to try other methods of removing potentially harmful backlinks first.

Discovering bad backlinks

Before you can even consider disavowing bad backlinks, you have to have an idea of what kinds of links you should be looking out for. We’ve written an article on the main types of linkspam you’ll want to avoid before, but it bears repeating some of them in this context.

When we’re looking through the backlink profiles of our clients here at Yellowball, we find that the backlink audit tool available through SEMRush is perfect for working out which links to your site are beneficial, and which ones you should avoid. There are lots of tools out there to check backlinks – one of the most popular being Moz’s OpenSiteExplorer. However, if you are using an SEO analytics platform (SEO Monitor, Search Metrics and co) they should offer this functionality.

When you run a backlink audit on the site, you will be given a list of every inbound link to your site. This allows you to browse through your entire backlink catalogue, identifying any harmful links.

Backlink audit

A screenshot of Yellowball’s backlink profile

It’s all well and good to see the links coming into your site, but how can you identify which ones will be bad for your rankings? Here’s a few things to look out for:

  • Link directories: Directory sites full of links to sites that tend to be badly designed, lacking any content beyond the links – making them useless as actual directories.
  • Spammy comments in blogs and forums: A very popular black hat SEO technique is to simply drop a link to a site in a forum post, usually with no relevance at all to the conversation at hand.
  • Geographically unrelated sites: If you find sites from China linking to your local business in the north of England, it looks a little suspicious to Google, so you might consider disavowing the link. Especially if the content on the website is irrelevant.
  • Sites unrelated to your service: As above, if you find that you have sites all about cooking linking to your bathroom design site, it’s going to look like a suspicious link to Google.

How to use the disavow tool

So you’ve completed a backlink audit and found that you have links coming from a variety of sites that are either supremely spammy or entirely unrelated to your target audience, what next?

As we mentioned earlier, it’s always best to attempt to remove links naturally before using the disavow tool. The best way to do this is to simply get in contact with the owner of a site you don’t want linking to you and ask them to remove the link. If you can see no way to directly contact them on the site, you should try other avenues such as reaching out to them on social media or commenting on a blog post on their site to request a removal of the link. If none of that works, it’s time to use the disavow tool.

To use the tool, you’ll want to run through your backlink audit and find any links that you’re intending on disavowing. Copy these links into a .txt file and head over to the disavow tool in the search console. Once there you should see a little box like this:

Google disavow tool

Hit the disavow links button and you’ll be taken to the below screen, where you can upload the .txt file you created earlier. Hit submit and Google will start the process of disavowing those links, so that they won’t be taken into account the next time your site gets crawled.

Google disavow tool

As we’ve demonstrated, the Google disavow tool is a powerful weapon in the SEO’s arsenal. It’s also a tool that should be respected and not used without care, or else it’s possible that you could do a lot of damage to your SEO campaign. However, when you have no other choice, it can give your SEO a dramatic boost, so you shouldn’t be afraid to use it.