The topic of disavowing links has always been a hotly debated one, with SEO experts disagreeing on whether to disavow “bad” links, and how this might affect site rankings on Google. Though the extent is debatable, ranking algorithms still do factor in link quality, so a poor link could very well damage search rankings. With all the changes and challenges bought by 2020, we are finding it wise to regularly audit links for their relevance and quality. Let’s take a closer look at how and why to disavow backlinks – and how to determine whether you need to do it at all.
A brief intro on disavowing
In the past, Google ranked pages by link quality via PageRank, but this system was quickly exploited. The Penguin algorithm update in 2012 aimed to discourage sites with an abundance of spammy links. These sites could only recover by removing those bad links, and hence Google’s Disavow tool was born. Later, Penguin 4.0 saw an important change: Google wouldn’t penalise low quality links so much as devalue them, meaning you only needed to disavow a link if you’d received a notice to this effect, i.e. a “manual action.”
Fast forward to today, and Google maintains that disavowing links will not do much to help your site’s ranking. The unofficial position, however, is a little more ambiguous, with Google’s John Mueller claiming that disavowing may in fact benefit some sites. Ultimately, disavowing can help in some cases, but Google makes it rather difficult to use the necessary tool – and going too far can definitely backfire.
Understanding manual actions
You can find out your site status by looking in the Google Search Console under “manual actions.” This is simply when Google lets you know that it plans to omit/penalise certain lower quality content from search results. Penalised links can include anything from keyword stuffing or hidden text, unnatural or inorganically received links, automated links, PBNs, comment and forum spam, influencer-inspired/paid links, suspicious redirects, thin content and the like.
Is it a good idea to disavow?
As with most things SEO-related, it all depends. Just how low quality are the links and how much are they affecting rankings? A good rule of thumb is to only disavow when you literally have no other option. For example, first reach out to the owners of low-quality links pointing to your site and ask for them to be removed, using disavowal only as a last resort. Ultimately, it’s an advanced feature that should be used carefully since it could cause more harm than good.
What if I don’t have a manual action?
Before you do anything, you need a comprehensive link audit to properly understand how your links are performing. Rest assured that Google will ignore all but those links that your SEO team are directly responsible for. In appraising link quality, look for anything that violates Google’s terms, such as paid links, link schemes and reciprocal linking/swapping, suspicious anchor texts, articles with links to dodgy sites, malware and cloaked sites, or “pills, poker and porn.”
If these links don’t generate revenue and also don’t affect your organic search traffic, then the solution may be as simple as removing the page completely.
Tips for effective disavowing
Naturally, remove any links you’ve received a manual order for.
Focus on creating links with value to human readers, and which will boost your site’s domain authority and trust.
Unless you’re ultra-confident with SEO, use a backlink monitoring tool or consult an SEO team for expert advice on exactly which links to disavow as part of your routine site audit.
Check that you’re receiving links from high-authority, industry relevant sites.
Links to expired domains or overly regional content may slip through ordinary filters, so keep an eye out for them.
Generally, the most likely culprits are links that have over-optimised anchor text, links that are not industry relevant or links that seem spammy, so start with those.
Don’t assume that removing any old link will automatically improve rankings – it may just do the opposite.
Finally, there’s plenty of wiggle room, and many links will fall in a generous grey area.
The best strategy
Overall, your focus should be on maintaining the highest quality outbound links possible and disavowing those that are obviously and significantly harming your organic search results – otherwise tread carefully. Keep an eagle eye on any incoming links that could be harming your site’s reputation. Even scrupulous link audits can miss a few bad links, but this relatively small risk should be weighed up against your overall SEO priorities, the risk of disavowing incorrectly, and your marketing strategy in general.