Guide to Disavow Links for Beginners
What are Disavowed Links?
Disavowed links are links from external websites that a website owner asks search engines to disregard or ignore to rank their website in search engine results pages (SERPs).
For example, if your site gets a link from randomspamsiteexample.com then chances are it's spam and could be harmful to your authority, so it's always good to check to see if it should be removed, or at worst - disavowed.
Why Should I Disavow Links?
When a website receives a lot of low-quality or spammy links from other websites, it can negatively impact its search engine rankings, so to mitigate this problem, you can use the disavow tool provided by search engines like Google to indicate which links should be ignored by their algorithms.
This brings us to the next question…
What Determines a Bad Backlink?
Although there is a lot of grey areas and subjective opinion on what makes a backlink good or bad, it’s important to first understand Google’s definition of a low-quality link:
According to Google, a low-quality link is:
“intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google [or] may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
In other words, any link that artificially tries to create a backlink where it naturally wouldn’t appear organically.
A few examples of definite bad backlinks are as follows:
Paid links occur when a website owner pays another website owner to put a backlink on their website. Although not always identifiable, some indicators may make it easier for Google to identify paid links, such as site-wide dofollow links with exact-match anchor text, dofollow links from unrelated sites/content, and dofollow links from pages with obvious footprints such as "Sponsored Post”.
Private Blogging Networks (PBNs)
PBNs, or Private Blog Networks, are groups of websites that are created and maintained to manipulate search engine rankings. PBNs usually consist of expired or auctioned domain names that still have high PageRank, domain authority, and backlinks from other reputable websites.
Search engines like Google have algorithms that can detect PBNs and devalue or penalize websites associated with them. In 2014, Google started taking steps to remove PBNs from its index. That’s why, using PBNs can be risky and may result in severe penalties for the websites involved.
If you're trying to determine whether a directory is low-quality, consider whether you think it will generate referral traffic. If the answer is no, it’s most likely poor quality.
Many directories now use nofollow links, which makes disavowing unnecessary in these cases, however, while a few high-quality or niche-specific directories may be worth the effort, using directories is generally not an effective approach to building site authority.
Comment and Forum Spam
Google encourages commenting on authoritative sites and forums that are relevant to your content and linking back to related content on your site, however, the problem lies in the automation or scaling of this process, making it spammy. Nowadays, many commenting systems automatically set all links to nofollow by default, so there is likely minimal risk or reward associated with this practice.
Backlink spamming is the most frequent form of negative SEO, where competitors intentionally link to your website from hundreds or thousands of low-quality websites.
If you notice a sudden, significant spike in referring domains after checking your backlink profile, it may indicate that your website has been targeted in a negative SEO attack.
Receiving numerous spammy links in a brief period will raise Google's suspicion, potentially leading to a penalty, so it’s important to disavow these links if they are bad links.
When to Disavow Links?
It’s important to note that disavowing links should not be done without much caution, as Google even warns that “If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google Search results”.
According to the same article, you should only use the disavow tool if:
- 1“You have a manual action against your site for unnatural links to your site”
- 2“You think you're about to get such a manual action (because of paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines)”
If so, then firstly, you should try to:
a) Remove the link yourself, if you have access to the website
b) If you don’t have access to the site, approach the website owner and request the removal of the link(s)
Only if (a) and (b) are not successful, then you should disavow the URLs or domains that link to your website.
What Happens When You Disavow a Backlink?
When you disavow a web page or domain, you are essentially requesting Google to disregard certain links to your domain. If the request is granted, those links will not be taken into account when determining your search engine ranking.
It's important to note that Google is not required to accept your request for link disavowal. They make it clear in their documentation that submitting a disavow file is merely a "suggestion” and not a directive.
How To Create a Disavow File
At its core, a disavow file is a simple text file that can be in either .txt or .csv format. Each line within the file must contain one of the following elements:
The file that you create must be UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII encoding and have a maximum file size of 2MB, or 100,000 lines, whichever comes first.
How to Disavow Links in Google Search Console
To disavow links in Google Search Console, follow these steps:
- 1Go to the Disavow Links tool within Google Search Console.
- 2Select your website.
- 3Click on the “Disavow Links” button.
- 4Choose the .txt or .csv file containing the links you want to disavow.
- 5Click on “Submit” to upload the file.
- 6Review the information on the confirmation screen and click on “Done”.
Hike + Disavow Links
The Backlink Healthcheck tool in Hike helps you audit and clean up any harmful backlinks. It will list potentially harmful backlinks that have been flagged as having a low SEO authority score, which you can see by the number next to it.
You can sort the backlinks into those you wish to keep, and those you wish to disavow, after inspecting them and making your decision. Once this process has been completed, you can export your final disavow list and finally upload it to Google Search Console.
However, a low score doesn't always mean it is harmful, so it’s best that you manually check it yourself before deciding whether it should be added to the disavow file for submission.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself the following questions:
If you answered yes to any of the above, then likely it would be a candidate for disavowal. You can then download the finalized list in a file that you can then upload to the Google Search Console disavow tool.
Hike SEO makes it simple to spot potentially harmful or bad backlinks, saving small business owners time from having to do all of it manually, and protecting their website from backlinks that could harm their rankings.
Learn more about off-page SEO in our in-depth article.