What Links to Target with Google’s Disavow Tool – Whiteboard Friday

Do you need to disavow links in the modern age of Google? Is it safe? If so, which links should you disavow? In this Whiteboard Friday, Cyrus Shepard answers all these questions and more. While he makes it clear that the majority of sites shouldn’t have to use Google’s Disavow Tool, he provides his personal strategies for those times when using the tool makes sense.

How do you decide when to disavow? We’d love to hear your process in the comments below!

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Video Transcription

Howdy, Moz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. I’m Cyrus Shepard. Today we’re going to be talking about a big topic — Google’s Disavow Tool. We’re going to be discussing when you should use it and what links you should target.

Now, this is kind of a scary topic to a lot of SEOs and webmasters. They’re kind of scared of the Disavow Tool. They think, “It’s not necessary. It can be dangerous. You shouldn’t use it.” But it’s a real tool. It exists for a reason, and Google maintains it for exactly for webmasters to use it. So today we’re going to be covering the scenarios which you might consider using it and what links you should target.

Disclaimer! The vast majority of sites don’t need to disavow *anything*

Now I want to start out with a big disclaimer. I want this to be approved by the Google spokespeople. So the big disclaimer is the vast majority of sites don’t need to disavow anything. Google has made tremendous progress over the last few years of determining what links to simply ignore. In fact, that was one of the big points of the last Penguin 4.0 algorithm update.

Before Penguin, you had to disavow links all the time. But after Penguin 4.0, Google simply ignored most bad links, emphasis on the word “most.” It’s not a perfect system. They don’t ignore all bad links. We’ll come back to that point in a minute. There is a danger in using the Disavow Tool of disavowing good links.

That’s the biggest problem I see with people who use the disavow is it’s really hard to determine what Google counts as a bad link or a harmful link and what they count as a good link. So a lot of people over-disavow and disavow too many things. So that’s something you need to look out for. My final point in the disclaimer is large, healthy sites with good link profiles are more immune to bad links.

So if you are The New York Times or Wikipedia and you have a few spam links pointing to you, it’s really not going to hurt you. But if your link profile isn’t as healthy, that’s something you need to consider. So with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about the opposite sort of situations, situations where you’re going to want to consider using the Disavow Tool.

Good candidates for using the Disavow Tool

Obviously, if you have a manual penalty. Now, these have decreased significantly since Penguin 4.0. But they still exist. People still get manual penalties. Definitely, that’s what the Disavow Tool is for. But there are other situations. 

There was a conversation with Marie Haynes, that was published not too long ago, where she was asking in a Google hangout, “Are there other situations that you can use the disavow other than a penalty, where your links may hurt you algorithmically?”

John Mueller said this certainly was the case, that if you want to disavow those obviously dodgy links that could be hurting you algorithmically, it might help Google trust your link profile a little more. If your link profile isn’t that healthy in the first place if you only have a handful of links and some of those are dodgy, you don’t have a lot to fall back on.

So disavowing those dodgy links can help Google trust the rest of your link profile a little more. 

1. Penalty examples

Okay, with those caveats out of the way and situations where you do want to disavow, a big question people have is, “Well, what should I disavow?” So I’ve done this for a number of sites, and these are my standards and I’ll share them with you. So good candidates to disavow, the best examples are often what Google will give you when they penalize you.

Again it’s a little more rare, but when you do get a link penalty, Google will often provide sample links. They don’t tell you all of the links to disavow. But they’ll give you sample links, and you can go through and you can look for patterns in your links to see what matches what Google is considering a spammy link. You definitely want to include those in your disavow file. 

2. Link schemes

If you’ve suffered a drop in traffic, or you think Google is hurting you algorithmically because of your links, obviously if you’ve participated in link schemes, if you’ve been a little bit naughty and violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, you definitely want to take a look at those.

We’re talking about links that you paid for or someone else paid for. It’s possible someone bought some shady links to try to bring you down, although Google is good at ignoring a lot of those. If you use PBNs. Now I know a lot of black hat SEOs that use PBNs and swear by them. But when they don’t work, when you’ve been hurt algorithmically or you’ve been penalized or your traffic is down and you’re using PBNs, that’s a good candidate to put in your disavow file.

3. Non-editorial links

Google has a whole list of non-editorial links. We’re going to link to it in the transcript below. But these are links that the webmaster didn’t intentionally place, things like widgets, forum spam, signature spam, really shady, dodgy links that you control. A good judge of all of these links is often in the anchor text.

4. $$ Anchor text

Is it a money anchor text? Are these money, high-value keywords? Do you control the anchor text? You can generally tell a really shady link by looking at the anchor text. Is it optimized? Could I potentially benefit? Do I control that?

If the answer is yes to those questions, it’s usually a good candidate for the disavow file. 

The “maybe” candidates for using the Disavow Tool

Then there’s a whole set of links in a bucket that I call the “maybe” file. You might want to disavow. I oftentimes do, but not necessarily. 

1. Malware

So a lot of these would be malware. You click on a link and it gives you a red browser warning that the site contains spam, or your computer freezes up, those toxic links.

If I were Google, I probably wouldn’t want to see those types of links linking to a site. I don’t like them linking to me. I would probably throw them in the disavow. 

2. Cloaked sites

These are sites when you click on the link, they show Google one set of results, but a user a different set of results. The way you find these is that when you’re searching for your links, it’s usually a good idea to look at them using a Googlebot user agent.

If you use Chrome, you can get a browser extension. We’ll link to some of these in the post below. But look at everything and see everything through Google’s eyes using a Googlebot user agent and you can find those cloaked pages. They’re kind of a red flag in terms of link quality. 

3. Shady 404s

Now, what do I mean by a shady 404? You click on the link and the page isn’t there, and in fact, maybe the whole domain isn’t there. You’ve got a whole bunch of these. It looks like just something is off about these 404s. The reason I throw these in the disavow file is because usually there’s no record of what the link was. It was usually some sort of spammy link.

They were trying to rank for something, and then, for whatever reason, they removed the entire domain or it’s removed by the domain registrar. Because I don’t know what was there, I usually disavow it. It’s not going to help me in the future when Google discovers that it’s gone anyway. So it’s usually a safe bet to disavow those shady 404s. 

4. Bad neighborhood spam

Finally, sometimes you find those bad neighborhood links in your link profile.

These are things like pills, poker, porn, the three P’s of bad neighborhoods. If I were Google and I saw porn linking to my non-porn site, I would consider that pretty shady. Now maybe they’ll just ignore it, but I just don’t feel comfortable having a lot of these bad, spammy neighborhoods linking to me. So I might consider these to throw in the disavow file as well.

Probably okay — don’t necessarily need to disavow

Now finally, we often see a lot of people disavowing links that maybe aren’t that bad. Again, I want to go back to the point it’s hard to tell what Google considers a good link, a valuable link and a poor link. There is a danger in throwing too much in your disavow file, which a lot of people do. They just throw the whole kitchen sink in there.

If you do that, those links aren’t going to count, and your traffic might go down. 

1. Scraper sites

So one thing I don’t personally put in my disavow file are scraper sites. You get a good link in an online magazine, and then a hundred other sites copy it. These are scraper sites. Google is picking them up. I don’t put those in the disavow file because Google is getting better and better at assigning the authority of those links to the original site. I don’t find that putting them in the disavow file has really helped, at least with the sites I work with. 

2. Feeds

The same with feeds. You see a lot of feed links in Google’s list in your link report. These are just raw HTML feeds, RSS feeds. Again, for the same reason, unless they are feeds or scraper sites from this list over here. If they are feeds and scrapers of good sites, no need. 

3. Auto-generated spam 

These are sites that are automatically generated by robots and programs. They’re usually pretty harmless. Google is pretty good at ignoring them. You can tell the difference between auto-generated spam and link scheme again by the anchor text.

Auto-generated spam usually does not have optimized anchor text. It’s usually your page title. It’s usually broken. These are really low-quality pages that Google generally ignores, that I would not put in a disavow. 

4. Simple low quality

These are things like directories, pages that you look at and you’re like, “Oh, wow, they only have three pages on their site. No one is linking to them.”

Leave it up to Google to ignore those, and they generally do a pretty good job. Or Google can count them. For things like this, unless it’s obvious, unless you’re violating these rules, I like to leave them in. I don’t like to include them in the disavow. So we’ve got our list. 

Pro tips for your disavow file

A few pro tips when you actually put your disavow file together if you choose to do so. 

Disavow domain

If you find one bad link on a spammy domain, it’s usually a good idea to disavow the entire domain, because there’s a good chance that there are other links on there that you’re just not spotting.

So using the domain operator in your disavow file is usually a good idea, unless it’s a site like WordPress or something with a lot of subdomains. 

Use Search Console & third-party tools

Where do you find your links to disavow? First choice is generally Search Console, the link report in Search Console, because that’s the links that Google is actually using. It is helpful to use third-party tools, such as Moz Link Explorer, Ahrefs, SEMrush, whatever your link index is, and that’s because you can sort through the anchor text.

When Google gives you their link report, they don’t include the anchor text. It’s very helpful to use those anchor text reports, such as you would get in Moz Link Explorer, and you can sort through and you can find your over-optimized anchor text, your spammy anchor text. You can find patterns and sort. That’s often really helpful to do that in order to sort your information.

Try removing links

If you have a disavow file, and this happens on a lot of older sites, if you’re auditing a site, it’s a really good idea to go in and check and see if a disavow file already exists. It’s possible it was created prior to Penguin 4.0. It’s possible there are a lot of good links in there already, and you can try removing links from that disavow file and see if it helps your rankings, because those older disavow files often contain a lot of links that are actually good, that are actually helping you.

Record everything and treat it as an experiment

Finally, record everything. Treat this as any other SEO process. Record everything. Think of it as an experiment. If you disavow, if you make a mistake and your rankings drop or your rankings go up, you want to know what caused that, and you need to be responsible for that and be a good SEO. All right, that’s all we have for today.

Leave your own disavow comments below. If you like this video, please share. Thanks, everybody.

Bonus: I really liked these posts for detailing alternative ways of finding links to disavow, so I thought I’d share: 

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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