Google loves links. It provides the search engine with valuable information regarding the quality of your site.

But not all links are created equal, and if they’re not from quality sources, they could do more harm than good.

Which is why Google introduced the Disavow file. Read on to find out everything you need to know about this Google tool.

Google's disavow file

What is a Disavow File?

Disavow files are used to combat an overload of spammy or low quality links.

They tell Google to disregard certain links when as it crawls your site, and therefore they not factor into your overall PageRank score or standing in the SERPs (search engine result pages).

The file was introduced in October 2012 as a way for companies to clean up any bad links.

As Google began to crack down on links schemes and low quality links, more companies began to look into black hat or bad SEO techniques they’d used in the past.

The disavow file offered these companies an easier way to do it.

How Links Affect Google

Let’s start with links relation to Google.

As you know, links are an important ranking factor for Google.

It directly affects a site’s PageRank. In a nutshell, your PageRank is Google measuring the quality of each link to your site. Each link is then regarded as a vote for the quality of your site.”

Based on that alone, you’d naturally want to collect as many links as possible to improve your standings in the SERPs.

Not so fast. First of all, Google will only count one link from a source. So if someone links back to you in a blog post four times, only one of those really matters.

And second is the issue of quality, and black hat linking techniques. Black hat linking is any spammy or bought links from low-quality sources. If Google detects their use and deems it violates their quality guidelines, your site will be penalized in the rankings.

Sometimes, sites amass a great quantity of these less than desirable links, which is why Google created the Disavow file.

A Warning About Disavow Files

Stated plainly: use disavow files with caution.

If something goes wrong, the link has the potential to harm your websites ranking rather than help.

Google includes the following disclaimer:

“This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.”

Lesson learned? Do your due diligence and make sure you’ve done everything you can to remove low-quality links before employing the disavow tool.

It’s not for everyone, and should generally be used as a last resort.

The reason for the stern warning is that you could inadvertently disavow a link that isn’t bad, losing the quality vote the link could otherwise provide.

My advice? Keep on top of link audits, and make sure you have someone monitoring it who really knows the ins and outs of SEO and link building.

Try to Remove Bad Links Before Using a Disavow File

Because it has the potential to backfire, there are a few ways to avoid penalties before using a disavow, including:

  • Removing overused anchor text – Anchor text overuse signals spam to Google. Make sure you use a tool like Majestic to test your anchor text distribution and make necessary edits.
  • Checking your link distribution – make sure your internal links are distributed throughout your site, and that too many don’t point to one specific page
  • Be picky about guest posting – screen for quality before offering to post
  • Contact site owners and ask for removal – If you find a link from an unworthy source site, your initial action should be to try to get it removed. So contact the site and ask; they may not be compliant, but it’s a good base to cover before using a disavow on the link

To find the bad links, make sure you’re doing regular link audits. That means using tools like Majestic to perform a backlink analysis.

Through it, you can look at your backlink breakdown and referring domains. As you browse your links, keep in mind the following:

  • Good links come from sites relevant to your brand or product
  • Look out for any links from spam sites (there is a trust score in Majestic for each domain; the higher the score, the more trustworthy the site)
  • If you worked with any SEO companies in the past that may have participated in black hat link schemes, pay special attention

When You Should Use the Disavow File

There are a few keys signs it’s time to use the Disavow file.

  1. Your site receives a manual penalty from Google – this is what every website wants to avoid. If you do receive a penalty, it’s a sure sign that the Disavow is needed
  2. To remove questionable links from your site – You don’t need a penalty to know a link is bad. Google’s Matt Cutts explains why in this video. 

Cutts does mention in another video that the disavow file is not necessary for the majority of sites. If you’re not aggressively pursuing SEO and complex linking strategies, the file is likely not for you.

How to Set Up Your Disavow File

So, you’ve exhausted all other options and have decided to go with a disavow file.

To so, you’ll follow a simple process.

First, you need to download all the links to your site.

  1. Go to Search Console homepage
  2. Click “Search Traffic” on your dashboard, and then click “Links to your site”
  3. Click “More” under “Who Links the Most”
  4. Click “Download More Sample Links”

Once you download the file, take some time to visit the sites listed. Some will be obvious spam, while others may not be immediately recognizable as such.

As you visit each site, ask yourself it seems legitimate or made solely for SEO purposes. Will it deliver traffic to your site? If the answer is no, you might want to disavow it.

Note: If you are unsure of or feel unqualified to make decisions regarding link quality, consider bringing in a qualified consultant.

After you evaluate the links, you’ll compile all the links you want disavowed into a text file (the file must be .txt and encoded in UTF-8 or 7-Bit ASCII).

You can upload links individually, or choose to disavow an entire domain using domain:domain name.

Use a # for any comments or text you don’t want Google to see.

After your .txt is file compiled, upload it to Google by:

  1. Going to the disavow links tool page
  2. Select your site
  3. Select “Disavow Links”
  4. Select “Upload File

Google does warn that the process could take up to a couple weeks for the file to be accepted and your site recrawled.

Once your file is received, Matt Cutts explains that Google sees the disavow links as a “very strong suggestion, but we don’t treat is something that we absolutely have to abide by.”

He goes on to explain that yes, it is possible to un-disavow link, but the process will take even longer and the link may not carry the same weight as it did originally.

So once again, be very sure that the links you choose have a good reason for being on your disavow list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that any new disavow file you upload will completely replace any previous ones. If you find additional links to disavow, always add them on to the existing file.

Common Mistakes When Using the Disavow File

Former Google webmaster Matt Cutts released a video detailing a few of the common mistakes he sees concerning disavow files, including:

  1. Uploading the wrong file – Your disavow file should be a text file, which  People often upload word files, excel spreadsheets, etc. which can cause Google to throw the file out because it can’t properly read it
  2. Disavowing Individual Links Instead of Domains – If you find multiple links are bad from one particular site, use the disavow file on the entire domain, rather than listing individual links
  3. Domain disavow file must have the proper syntax – It should be written domain:domain name, (domain:example.com, not domain:www.example.com)
  4. Give the context of the request in the reconsideration request – do not include in the disavow links file (you can include comments using the #, but Google will not read these)

 

Continue to Monitor Your Links

The work continues after the submission of your disavow file.

To stay on top of your links, monitor on a weekly basis with a tool like Majestic or SEMrush. That way you can immediately identify any suspicious links and add them to your disavow file if need be.

Concluding Google’s Disavow File

As you now know, the file isn’t for everyone and should only be used after attempting to remove the links yourself.

But if you do find yourself needing it, it’s a powerful way to disregard low quality links and reestablish your position in Googles SERPs.