How, When and Why to Disavow Backlinks: The Comprehensive Guide

Understanding one of SEO’s more advanced and potentially dangerous maneuvers
Published on 
April 22, 2024
Updated on 
April 22, 2024

The backlink profiles of most websites, provided they are putting out quality content and offering useful products and services, will naturally end up being an aggregation of both built links and naturally acquired links. 

If you know what you’re doing, you can usually control the quality of your built backlinks (i.e., those that you have gone out and prospected, solicited and placed). Of course, sometimes you make mistakes while link building and build links you later regret.

When you acquire links organically, however, you don’t have as much (or often any) control over where those links come from and how they are placed. 

Because not all links are equally valuable or equally desirable, it is necessary to make good backlink analysis part of your SEO and site management. 

Sometimes you will find, in the course of that analysis, there are links that you don’t want. Backlinks are a highly important ranking factor, but Google doesn’t judge all links the same. 

There are certain links that are potentially bad for your SEO, organic traffic and, therefore, conversions and revenue. It sometimes makes sense to disavow backlinks that might end up harming your search engine optimization. 

In the below article, we are going to explore what it means to disavow backlinks, why you should consider certain types of links bad news, and what the disavowal process looks like. 

What does it mean to disavow links?

To disavow a link is to, essentially, strip it of any SEO signals that it is sending to Google. 

The disavowal process is a manual one, and it involves directly petitioning Google to ignore or discount any effect or impact of one or more links. You are “disavowing” the link–denying your affiliation with the referring domain/page. 

It is done through Google Search Console

And Google provides a comprehensive breakdown of the process here

How to determine when it makes sense to disavow backlinks

You typically want to disavow links when you find that you have a preponderance of spammy links from low quality websites. 

Generally speaking, disavowing links and using a disavow links tool is something you do when you have already tried to get rid of any spammy links manually and are worried (because of past penalties or because you believe one may be imminent) that you are risking a hit to your SEO. 

The manual process involves going through your backlink profile, uncovering links that may be hurting your SEO score (now or in the future) and then reaching out to the site owners and asking to have those links removed. 

As anyone who has done cold outreach can tell you, a response from site masters and website owners is far from a sure thing. You might find that your requests fall on deaf ears. 

In that case, your recourse is submitting a disavow file to Google. You ask Google to ignore the bad backlinks so they don’t factor into your domain authority and page rank. 

The best backlinks: Editorial links

The best backlinks you can get, in theory, are what are known as editorial links. These are links given freely by websites (with no solicitation by you) during the course of writing and article or creating other content. 

Assuming the site that has taken notice of your content and website isn’t low quality (it’s in your niche, it’s relevant, it is legitimate), a backlink from such a domain is almost always going to be a high authority backlink that is good for your SEO and ranking. 

These are the kinds of links that Google ultimately wants to see because they are the most indicative of a quality website. If other sites are freely linking to your content because they find it helpful and/or interesting, it’s a strong trust signal that your site is worth showing higher up on the search engine results page. 

Of course, you can acquire editorial links over time that are not good for your SEO. You might find that, for whatever reason (perhaps nefarious), websites in niches that Google frowns upon or applies harsh rules and regulations to (gambling, cannabis, crypto, pornography) have linked to you. 

If you don’t want these links and you are unable to get the sites themselves to remove them, then using Google’s disavow tool could be a viable option. 

You might also find yourself on the receiving end of a negative SEO attack. This is where people (i.e., unscrupulous competitors) build spammy backlinks to your website in the hopes that it will hurt your SEO, ranking and organic traffic (to their benefit). 

And, while Google has gotten very good at simply ignoring these kinds of tactics and links, it is not inconceivable that some could fall through the cracks eventually, and you find yourself needing to use the Google disavow tool to get rid of some harmful links. 

Good backlinks: manual links

This is where your understanding of the “science” of link building determines whether a link is good or bad. 

What is basically means is ensuring that any backlinks you do build keeps you on the right side of Google’s link spam policies: 

As well as 

Google will, for the most part, simply ignore these links because the algorithm is very adept at spotting what it considers to be spam. 

The idea when building backlinks, however, is that you don’t want to get flagged for spam. You want to build links in ways that actually add value for the user and improve the quality and usefulness of content. 

This is why the quality of a built backlink depends entirely on your skill as a link builder. 

If you know how to evaluate a website’s domain and page-level metrics (including traffic and traffic source, niche relevancy, content quality, and backlink profile) and understand the necessity of things like good anchor text policy and link diversification, then you can absolutely avoid low quality links and build fantastic links to your site. 

That is what you get when you outsource your link building to a reputable and experienced link building service like dofollow. 

We build user-centric links to some of the web’s biggest sites–sites that Google knows and respects. 

Check out a case study if you are interested in seeing how we boost traffic and conversions for our clients. 

Spammy links

Bad backlinks are those that utilize spammy tactics to create (or pay for) links. They include: 

  • Blog comment spam
  • Paid links on link farms and other spammy sites
  • Article directories
  • Forum links
  • Thin and blatant advertorials

Depending on how you engage in any of the above tactics, you might fall into either black hat link building or grey hat (neither black nor white). 

One of two things tend to happen when you use the above tactics. 

The first is that Google will ignore the links. You will have wasted your time (and, if you’ve paid for links, your money) on SEO that doesn’t accomplish anything. 

The second involves Google issuing you what is known as a manual action penalty. 

If you have a large number of “unnatural links to your site,” as Google stipulates above, it could decide to penalize your parge or website in the rankings. This can result in significant hits to your traffic, and, ultimately, revenue. 

If this happens, you can try to get the bad links removed manually or you can disavow backlinks with Google.

Preemptive backlink profile health

You don’t have to wait for a manual action penalty to cleanse your backlink profile of harmful backlinks. 

A periodic backlink audit (every quarter or bi-annually) that looks at the links you have built and acquired is a good way to stay on top of who is linking to you and which links may need to be addressed or removed. 

Keep an eye out for links from spammy websites. There are a lot of tools (free and paid) out there that will provide you with a spam score for your links. 

Once you’ve narrowed down culprits, you can then decide whether you want to take the disavow route. 

Being careful

When you disavow backlinks, you need to be extra careful. 

It can be risky business because you can end up disavowing links pointing to your site that are actually quality links from quality sites.

It really comes down to how good you are at identifying problematic links. 

If you accidentally get rid of good links, it can hurt your site’s SEO and end up taking a while to get those links re-avowed and contributing to your domain authority. 

If, however, you’ve already been on the receiving end of a manual penalty in the past and/or you think one may be on the way, preemptively disavowing any low quality backlinks could be the better option than waiting and seeing. 

Any disavow process should be done with the knowledge that Google gets better at spotting and ignoring spammy backlinks all the time. 

This applies to both links you have built yourself and any bad backlinks acquired organically. 

What this means is that it is often not even necessary to use Google’s disavow tool or attempt to get rid of bad links. 

Provided you’re not out there deliberately engaging in the kinds of black hat tactics that Google can penalize, a sites links, the helpful and the unhelpful, are going to be accounted for by Google in the natural course of things. 

They’ll factor in your good ones and discount poor quality backlinks. 

How to disavow backlinks with Google’s disavow links tool

Whether you’re preparing for a manual action penalty, have already received one, or are just trying to play it safe (again, proceed with extra caution), below is how the process works. 

Collect the offending links

The way you submit links for disavowal using Google’s disavow tool is via text file. 

The disavow file is a text file that contains a list of URLs (one URL per line).

Things to keep in mind:  

  • There can only be one URL per line.
  • You are not able to disavow a whole subpath (e.g., in a single instance 
  • If you’re trying to disavow backlinks from a whole domain or subdomain, you have to put the domain:prefix in front of it (e.g., 
  • You have to encode the file in 7-bit ASCII or UTF-8 (Microsoft word is fine). 
  • The file has to be a .txt file. 

Uploading the .txt file in Google Search Console

After you have gathered together the list of bad links you want to disavow, visit Google’s dedicated disavowal page in Google Search Console. 

You will be asked to select your property (your website) from the dropdown menu. If you don’t see your website in the menu, you can click the “disavow links” option, and you will be given the option to then add your website. 

Next, upload your text file. Google will let you know if there are any formatting errors that need fixing. 

Keep in mind that it can take Google a couple of weeks to review your file and get back to you. It can also take a couple of months for any disavowed links to stop being part of a backlink profile. 

This means that it can take that long for any decrease in ranking or organic traffic to return to pre-penalty levels. 

Does Google always comply with a disavow links request?

Google doesn't have to do anything it doesn’t want. They are not obligated to reevaluate any links you send them. 

Generally speaking, however, they tend to disavow backlinks as you give them to them. 

The importance of preemptive care: solid user-centric link building practices to avoid disavowing backlinks

Ideally, you don’t want to ever need to think about disavowing backlinks. 

Most sites that try to do things by the book, usually don’t have to spend much time considering disavowal strategies. 

If you’re out there building excellent content for your readers, trying to develop relationships with reputable, authoritative websites in your niche that will link to you, and understand the fundamentals of good anchor text, backlink diversification and are willing to promote your site and its pages, you can end up with some really good backlinks that will set you up for long term SEO success. 

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. We can tell you how you ought to do things, but good link building takes time, effort, relationship building and some trial and error. 

If you have the budget and are willing to entrust your link building to the experts–link builders who know what it takes to succeed in the world of modern, highly contextual AI-powered search – get in touch with dofollow and find out more about how great links are built. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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