SEO Expert Advice: Disavow Backlinks That Harm Your Reputation
If you’re an online marketer, you know how important backlinks are. Backlinks are essentially a digital recommendation letter from Google that lets people know it’s safe to visit your website (and that you’re an authority on a given topic).
As you build backlinks, you might be thinking more is always better, right? Well, not exactly.
What’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Backlinks?
While a website with a lot of backlinks may at first blush look to be a valuable gold mine of authority, not all backlinks are good. Here is a look at which backlinks are worthwhile, and which you should completely disregard:
Defining “Good Backlinks”
Good backlinks can be defined as coming from a trusted or relevant source. “Good” sources include major news outlets like the BBC or the New York Times, or sites like Wikipedia and The Huffington Post.
Now, it’s not to say that you’re in trouble if you don’t have backlinks coming from NPR or something similar—high-authority sites within your niche are actually more representative of this “good” category in terms of Google’s position on the topic.
Unnatural backlinks come from websites that have little to do with what you have to offer.
For example, this could include Russian language links pointing to your site if you operate a locally-owned consultancy in the Midwest. Or it could mean that off-topic sites are linking to you, which undermines your authority within your niche.
Regardless of where they’re coming from, unnatural links pointing to your site can potentially damage the reputation of your website.
Low-ranking and unnatural/spammy backlinks can subject your website to penalties.
The Google Penguin algorithm scans for spammy backlinks and determines your ranking in the greater pool of websites competing for the same keywords that you use. In short—Google operates in terms of the old adage, “guilty by association”.
Receiving a penalty can largely affect a website’s search engine ranking, and can even lead to the complete website downfall in the most severe cases. It is reported that backlinks are still a key factor in Google’s ranking algorithm.
So having bad backlinks instead of good ones can bring about the opposite effect when it comes to ranking. Clearly, not all backlinks were not created equal. There are backlinks that are unnatural or just plain bad. These unnatural backlinks are often coming from spammy websites.
When Google updated to their Penguin algorithm, they started handing out algorithm penalties to the websites that have unnatural backlinks or ones that read as spam.
Let’s take a look at why disavowing backlinks is important and show you how to disavow backlinks using a disavow tool.
Why You Should Disavow Backlinks
Disavowing backlinks is a good way to prevent bad backlinks from affecting your rankings. Think of the process to disavow backlinks as a cleanup that keeps you in Google’s good graces and helps you avoid the penalties that can have serious implications for your website.
Disavowing backlinks is also a way to do a total cleanup of the links that fall outside of SEO best practices in terms of today’s algorithm. Undertaking this action can help undo black hat SEO tactics, including fake profile links, comment spamming links, and link buying.
Essentially, if you find any negative SEO attempts against your website, you can disavow to protect your standing. Your best bet is to conduct regular audits to prevent any penalties, rather than waiting until you get a notification indicating a problem.
With that in mind, here is a look at some of the preventative measures you can take to protect yourself via the Google Disavow tool.
Spotting The Bad Backlinks
Before you disavow backlinks, it is extremely important to identify the backlinks that could harm your website.
Keep in mind, there are no tools that can give a definite list of the spammy backlinks that are actually bad for your website, but there is a manual work around. Use a backlink tool like Ahrefs to take inventory of your backlinks. The tool will spit out a complete list of all your backlinks and you can manually scroll through and identify which ones need to go.
In a lot of cases, bad backlinks are pretty easy to find. They’ll look pretty obviously spammy—affiliated with an unrelated site or one from another country that doesn’t have a great reason to be browsing your solutions.
Other times, you’ll need to actually visit the website to determine whether a backlink is in the clear or if it stands to cause some real damage to your website.
Here are some common ways to find bad backlinks:
Spammy Comments on Blogs and Articles
These are really common, and can be quite annoying, for website owners. This might include links to get rich-quick schemes, or bots copying and pasting the same links over and over. These comments are even starting to get more personalized, adding in the author name and email.
Other Websites Linking to Your Site using the exact Anchor Text Keyword
Another thing you’ll want to keep an eye on are links coming from websites made exclusively for SEO linking purposes. It’s easy to spot these (once you’ve got a list, of course), as the connection between you and them will make very little sense. In this situation, it’ll be pretty clear that the link exists for the sheer purpose of filling some sort of link quota.
How to Disavow Backlinks using Google’s Disavow Tool
The most common and most popular disavowing tool is the Google Disavow Tool which rolled out in October 2012.
Since then, this tool has helped SEO experts and webmasters alike weed out the bad links and keep the good stuff. This tool also helps to easily create a disavow report that can be submitted later to Google Search Console.
An important part of your backlinks strategy is disavowing. Here is a step-by-step guide to using the tool:
Request a Removal Before Disavowing
Attempt to reach out to the site owner and ask that the link be removed before attempting to disavow links. Requesting removal can be done by using s removal request service or by creating a detailed document complete with screenshots and contact details, then forwarding that information to the webmaster.
According to the Google guidelines, only when that request fails should you use the disavow tool. If the offending webmaster didn’t respond after a reasonable time, then you may escalate the situation and disavow the links.
Download Your Backlinks
In order to actually get going on this process, you’ll need to compile a list of those backlinks that you intend to disavow. You can do this quite easily by using tools that download backlinks for you or by going straight to the source with Google Search Console.
From there, follow the steps as listed below:
- Click your website > go to Search Traffic > then, click Links to Your Site > Who links the most, then click More.
- Download the list by clicking on the Download this table link, and from there, save it as a CSV file.
First, you’ll want to clean your list by breaking down the links into categories:
- Highlight the links that you have doubts about.
- Make sure to carefully audit the links that should be disavowed and those that shouldn’t.
Identifying unnatural links can be tricky so it’s better to refer to the Google Quality Guidelines for safety measures.
Creating Your Disavow File
After checking your list multiple times and have finalized the links that you want to disavow, it’s time to create your first disavow file.
Remove all http://, https:// and www. from the links included in the file, then add “domain:” at the beginning of each domain.
It is advisable to always disavow domains rather than just the URL. Disavowing on the domain level allows you to disavow the whole offending website, so it can do double duty down the line, keeping other parts of offending websites from linking to you.
Next, export your file into .txt file. It should be in UTF-8 format or 7-bit ASCII. You can also leave comments on your disavow file for Google. Do this by adding “#” then your comment. Here’s an example of a comment:
# This is the section where you can write your comments
# Requesting to disavow the following domains
Using Google Disavow Tool
Now that you have your disavow file, it’s time to do the actual disavowing. The first step is to go to the Google Disavow Tool. If your website is verified by Google Search Console, you’ll automatically see the website on the dropdown.
Click DISAVOW LINKS. A warning will be shown before going through the actual disavowing process:
Once you’re sure about disavowing links on your website, click the Disavow Links button under the warning. You will then be redirected to that same warning, but this time, you’ll be asked to upload a file.
Next, you’ll upload the .txt file that you made earlier. Again, this file contains ONLY those links you wish to disavow.
Once you’ve uploaded and submitted the file, you’re done!
Do know that the result is not immediate. This process may take a few days, or even several weeks. You might also experience errors, which can be because of failing to remove the http:// and www for the links you wish to disavow or by using special characters.
Can You “Re-Avow?” Parting Thoughts on Disavowing Links
While blindly disavowing is never a great option, sometimes you may accidentally disavow a good link. Whether you’ve had a change of heart or disavowed by mistake, you can reverse your actions.
How? Simply edit your disavow file and upload that information to the Disavow Tool.
You want to be careful with your disavows, especially because your actions directly impact those on the receiving end. Additionally, this process might mess with your website if you’re not careful, which could pose its own problems where the Google algorithm is concerned.
Proceed with caution, run multiple audits on your files, and do proper research before burning the whole thing down.
If you need help with the disavow process, or are looking for SEO help in general, call Results Driven Marketing at 215-393-8700. We are experts on all things SEO and look forward to answering your most pressing questions.