In a link profile, the more relevant and high-quality the links are, the better your ranking will be. Gaining these links usually follows a natural course – run targeted PR campaigns and outreach and the links will follow. But sometimes this well-thought plan goes awry when a poor quality or spam site links back to you.
When this happens, your site’s performance can suffer, and – worst-case scenario – you can get slammed with a Google penalty for links from unrelated sites.
Luckily, Google has realized that toxic links are sometimes out of your control and created the ‘Disavow Tool’, in Webmaster Tools, to combat them. Here’s the what, why, and how of using it.
What is Link Disavow?
When unwanted URLs or domains link to your site, you can use the Disavow Tool to ask Google not to include them as a ranking factor when indexing your site. You can do this by submitting a .txt file with a list of these URLs or domains to Google (more on that in a bit).
Google’s official explanation reads like this:
You can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.
Like NOINDEX pages, you’re asking the Google bots to skip over these toxic links so that your site’s authority isn’t affected.
Why is it Important to Disavow Bad or Toxic Links?
Irrelevant links or links from sites you don’t want to be associated with – for example, gambling or adult sites – can negatively impact your SEO efforts. Google will identify these domains containing the links as spam, added purely to manipulate search results.
Google’s algorithm then also assumes any sites to which they’re linking are attempting to find loopholes in search rankings and will penalize them. But it’s essential to be able to know the difference, as disavowing relevant links (even from sites you didn’t solicit for one) will harm your site’s link profile and consequently your search rankings. We’ll discuss the questions to ask yourself to identify good or bad links in the next section.
As guidance, you should be using the Link Disavow tool in these instances:
- If you’ve received a manual penalty from Google
- If you’ve received an algorithmic penalty from Google
- As part of a routine check of your site’s health and backlink profile
How do you Disavow Links?
Google is adamant that webmasters should first attempt to remove bad links themselves, saying:
If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy or low-quality links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links.
Usually, this is done by contacting the webmaster of the site containing the unwanted link and asking them to remove it. A reasonable amount of time to wait for a response is about a week. Then, follow up with a second request.
If this second attempt remains unsuccessful, you can start the disavowal process:
1. Locate the Toxic Links
In Google Webmaster Tools, you can find offending links by going to,
Search Traffic > Links to Your Site > Who links the most > More > “Download more sample links” and “Download latest links.”
Though Google is usually the best source for backlinks, link audit tools such as Majestic and Open Site Explorer can sometimes identify domains missing from Google’s list. Using a range of tools will give you the best idea of all the links coming into your site.
2. Build a List of Domains Linking to your Site
Google needs all of the URLs and domains that need to be removed in one list.
To do this, download the sample and latest links from Webmaster Tools, as well as any link audits you plan to use from other tools.
In each spreadsheet, find the column containing the URLs linking to you and copy them into a new spreadsheet.
To isolate the domain from the URL, in your new spreadsheet, insert a column to the left of your current one. Type in the following:
Highlight Column A and press Ctrl + D. This will copy the code all the way down the column. You’ll now have the root URLs (soon to be cut down into just domains) in Column A, and the original URL in Column B.
Currently, Column A contains formulas, but you’ll need them to be text values in order to work with this data. To switch them, highlight Column A, press Ctrl + C to copy and then select Edit > Paste Special > Paste Values Only.
In order for Google to disavow the correct domains, your URLs needs to start from the domain/subdomain level (so without the http(s):// or www.).
The reason behind this: if you disavow on the URL level, you may miss some toxic links.
For example, if you disavow the URL https://www.badlinks.com/article.html, the same link may exist at
To do this, highlight Column A and click Edit > Find and Replace.
- In the “Find” field, type http://. In the “Replace with” field, type nothing. Then, press “Replace All”. This will shorten your URLs and bring you closer to domains and subdomains only.
- You’ll have to do the same with “https://” and “www.” (don’t forget the full stop after “www”) to ensure all the links start from the domains/subdomains.
You’ll only want to list each domain or subdomain once, so use the deduplicate tool to take out any copies.
3. Audit the Domains and Subdomains Linking to your Site using the Original URL
After all of the spreadsheet tricks above, it’s now time for a manual audit of your backlinks. Work your way down Column B in the list you’ve created, visiting each specific URL. Find the link to your site and decide if it should remain or be disavowed.
In Column C of your spreadsheet, track your progress and decision by writing ‘keep’ or ‘disavow’.
To determine if a link should be kept or disavowed, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this link solely for link building/SEO purposes? If yes, disavow.
- Could this link truly direct clients your way? If no, disavow.
- If a Google employee or your competitor saw this link, would you be worried? If yes, disavow.
Once you’ve filled in Column C, highlight the column and choose to filter your data. Deselect ‘Keep’ so you’ll only be shown those that you chose to ‘Disavow’.
Once you have only the ‘Disavow’ domains showing, copy Column A (your domain column) onto a new tab.
4. Formatting and Downloading your .txt file for Google
Google requires a specific format to recognize the links you’d like to disavow.
- a text file (.txt)
- encoded in [UTF-8] or [7-bit ASCII]
- each line contains only one link or domain
- domain removals require “domain:” at the beginning of the URL (instructions on doing this below)
Go to the tab containing just your ‘Disavow’ domains. To add “domain:” at the start of each domain name, type the following formula into Column B:
Use the Ctrl + D trick from earlier to copy this formula down the entire column, and then paste the formulas as values, again using the Paste Special function.
Column B now contains your disavow directives:
Delete Column A, so you are left with just the fields in Column B.
Download this list as a .txt file.
Once downloaded, you may want to leave comments for yourself in the file about a certain link and your attempts to disavow it.
To do this, add a separate line starting with #.
These are for your records, as the Googlebot who crawls your disavow doc will not take your notes into account.
Once you’ve made all the notes you need, save the .txt file somewhere you can easily find it on your computer.
5. Submitting the Disavow File
At this point, the hard work is done, and you can hand over your list to Google.
To submit the Disavow File:
- Log into your Webmaster Tools account
- Go to the Disavow Tool
- Choose the correct site from the dropdown list (if you manage more than one)
- Click ‘Disavow Links’
- Upload the file you saved on your computer
- Click ‘Submit’
- Pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
- It can take Google a while to process your disavow request. Depending on the extent of your site and the backlink profile, you may have to wait anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
If you plan to do a backlink audit regularly (and you should to maintain good site health), anytime you upload a new .txt file, you are completely replacing any previously uploaded file. So if you had 300 URLs to disavow last month, and this month you found 25, your disavow file should have 325 URLs listed when you submit it this month.
A regular link audit contributes to your site’s SEO efforts and helps you maintain good standing with Google. While you need to be careful when using the Link Disavow tool, by following the steps above you’ll be set to remove low-quality links and improve your site’s overall health.
Author bio: Chad Harwood-Jones is managing director of Ad-Rank Media, a natural search agency specialising in SEO, content marketing and digital PR.
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