Disavow URL Guide: The Why, When and How of Disavowing URLs
To disavow a domain or a URL… that is the question.
For most marketers, the default answer is to disavow the domain.
But that’s not always the best option.
Sometimes it’s smarter to disavow the individual URL instead.
But don’t worry if you’re not currently sure when to use each disavow option…
…because I’m about to teach you everything you need to know about when and how to disavow URLs.
By the end of it, you’ll be able to confidently choose whether to disavow a backlink’s URL or domain.
An Introduction to Google’s Disavow Tool
If disavowing is new to you, then check out the brief primer below. It’ll bring you up to speed on what disavowing is, why it exists and how it works.
Then, from there, we can dive into the nitty-gritty of disavowing URLs.
What is Google’s Disavow Tool?
The Disavow Tool is an online submission tool released by Google in October 2012 that lets you submit a text document to Google called a disavow file.
This file tells Google which links in your portfolio they should ignore when considering your site’s rankings in search results.
In other words:
It lets you tell Google, “Hey, I don’t want these particular backlinks to hurt my rankings. Please ignore them.”
Why did Google create the Disavow Tool?
It’s no secret that spam has been a thorn in Google’s side for a while. And over the years, they’ve concocted multiple ways to combat it:
- Nofollow canonical tags to fight comment spam.
- Penguin algorithm updates to fight spammy link schemes.
- Manual actions to fight other suspicious activities.
Now, as a result of all of this fighting, there have been some unexpected consequences. Mainly in the form of sites being penalized for link schemes and not being able to redeem themselves.
To put it bluntly, once they were hit with a Google penalty, they were screwed.
Google’s Disavow Tool was created to give webmasters and site owners more control over how Google ranks their site’s pages.
With it, webmasters could tell Google to ignore bad links pointing to their site.
As a result, Google would no longer consider the links for ranking purposes. Which meant that sites that were victims of algorithm updates or negative SEO now had the means to rectify their situations and fall back under Google’s good graces.
How do you use Google’s Disavow Tool?
There are three steps required to disavow links:
First, you identify backlinks that need to be removed.
Second, you create a text-based disavow file that lists the URLs and domains you wish to disavow.
Third, you submit that file to Google using the Disavow Tool.
It’s really that simple and straightforward, give or take a few mini-steps. And in just a bit, I’ll walk you through each step and show you how to disavow URLs.
But there are a few other important things we need to talk about first.
Disavow URL Guide: The Why, When and How of Disavowing URLs
There are two questions you need to ask yourself in order to decide if a link needs to be disavowed or not:
- Is the link bad?
- Should I disavow the URL or domain?
Let’s look at each one separately.
Question 1: Is the Link Bad?
Followed links that Google dislikes are the only ones you need to worry about disavowing.
Anything else you can ignore.
That bit of advice takes the guesswork out of backlink removal.
But now we need to define the links that Google hates. Thankfully, they’ve listed them out for us:
Before we dive in and take a look at each one, it’s worth stating that low-quality links are not bad links.
Many new site owners and webmasters make the mistake of thinking this.
While they might not add much value, they’re still better than nothing. So as long as they’re local and relevant, low-quality links should be left alone.
Bad links are those links that Google will penalize you for having.
Links that are created for the sole purpose of manipulating PageRank and rankings.
If you want to get specific, here’s how Google defines them:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
5 types of link schemes we know Google hates
Google lists out five specific link schemes they’ll penalize your site over:
1. Paid links
Paid links are links that are purchased from one site by another site for the sole purpose of manipulating PageRank to increase the site’s search engine rankings.
This practice can occur between two websites, where one supplies the followed link to the other, or between a service provider and a website, where the service provider supplies multiple links from various (often low-quality) sources to the client site.
One important note is that no-followed paid links are, as far as we know, perfectly fine under Google’s current guidelines. However, I encourage caution if you engage in this practice.
2. Excessive link exchanges
Link exchanges are partnerships where two sites come to the following agreement: “You link to my site and I’ll link to yours.”
It’s essentially a paid link scheme without an exchange of currency. Instead, the “payment” is the link from the partner site.
It’s yet another classic way to manipulate PageRank without adding any real value to the site’s audience. The site owners aren’t trying to help their audience, they’re merely trying to rank higher.
3. Large-scale keyword-rich anchor text article campaigns
Try saying that three times in a row, right?
This is a longtail way of saying the following:
Spamming your page’s target keyword within the anchor text of press releases and low-quality articles and guest posts.
Creating low-quality backlinks to a page targeting the keyword “best dog bowls” where “best dog bowls” is included in every single link’s anchor text.
4. Automated link creation
Automated link creation involves using software to “mine” backlink opportunities and then have that same software automatically create backlinks that point back to your site.
Any type of practice that resembles this is frowned upon by Google.
5. Requiring a followed link
Google sums this one up best:
“Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of using nofollow or other method of blocking PageRank, should they wish.”
In other words, don’t force people to place followed links in their content pointing to your site.
Question 2: Should I Disavow the URL Only or the Entire Domain?
Okay, so you found a bad link.
Now the question is should you disavow the individual URL or the entire domain?
What’s the difference?
When you disavow a URL, you’re removing only that particular link from your portfolio.
On the flip side, when you disavow a domain, you’re removing every single link from that domain that currently exists in your portfolio plus blocking any future links from that domain.
So, as you can see, the consequences are greater when a domain is disavowed.
That being said, it often makes more sense to disavow the domain because a majority of spam links originate from spam domains—in which case you want to make sure you don’t receive any additional links from that domain in the future.
When it makes more sense to disavow a URL
The question then is…
When should you disavow a URL?
For starters, if you receive a fluke spam link from a more popular and higher quality site (which does happen from time to time), you’d obviously want to only disavow that particular URL.
Another situation where it makes more sense to disavow only the URL is when you can’t decide whether the domain is spammy or not.
Of course, you always need to research a domain to make sure it’s spammy before you disavow it.
The best way to do that is to visit the site and look for the following spam indicators:
- Poor site design
- Spun content
- Poor spelling and grammar
- Pages full of links
- Exact-match keyword domain names
- Excessive advertisements
- Low-quality content
(Note: Exercise caution when visiting suspected spam sites. Don’t click any links or submit any forms. And if Google warns you of malware, then hit the back button immediately.)
But if you’re still unsure after researching the site, then, for now, you only need to disavow that URL.
The site itself could still be fine and future backlinks from its domain could actually benefit your site.
Sure, you can always remove a domain from your disavow file and resubmit it to Google. But that process can take months and Google doesn’t guarantee that it’ll even be done.
So it’s a good idea to treat disavowing as a semi-permanent process.
Ergo, you always want to be sure the domains and URLs you’re disavowing are actually sources of bad links.
Potential Problems with Disavowing URLs You Need to Be Aware Of
Any time you disavow a link there are consequences that occur.
Either you’ll help your ranking or hurt your ranking.
Naturally, we want to always fall into the former category when we disavow a link.
With that in mind, let’s look at a couple of potential problems that can stem from not paying attention when deciding to disavow a URL.
Careless disavowing happens when you don’t research the link before you disavow.
In other words, you don’t take the time to make sure that it truly is a spam or unnatural backlink.
Even depending solely on the metrics you see in Monitor Backlinks (or any other backlink monitoring software) is sometimes not enough.
You always need to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the link needs to be disavowed.
Disavowing a harmless link
This relates to disavowing a URL that’s not actually hurting your rankings.
Here’s the thing:
You come across a lot of “expert info” online that can be misleading. Info that feeds you incorrect information about certain types of links that can hurt your rankings.
In the past, I’ve heard SEOs state that no-follow links and low-quality links can hurt your rankings…
…which simply isn’t true.
And this same concept also transfers to other metrics.
For instance, just because a link has a higher Spam Score doesn’t mean it should automatically be disavowed.
Sure, it has a higher risk of being spam. But if that’s the only metric that clues you in to it being spammy, then that’s not enough to warrant it being disavowed.
Always remember this rule of thumb when assessing links:
The higher the number of spammy metrics it has, the more likely it needs to be disavowed.
So what’s the solution?
Only ever disavow links that you’re 100% confident are spammy and can hurt your rankings. If ever in doubt, simply don’t disavow.
Not disavowing a domain when warranted
This involves disavowing the URL when disavowing the entire domain is warranted.
For example, let’s say there’s a domain with 20 links pointing to your site.
You’re certain that five of the links are unnatural (based on what you’ve seen in Monitor Backlinks and your own research). The other 15 you’re unsure of. So you research the domain.
After checking it out, you’re confident the site’s spam. But you don’t want to lose the other 15 backlinks, so you only disavow the five obviously unnatural links.
Fast-forward a couple of months and you now have 15 more links coming from that site that are blatant spam. And as a result, your rankings for the pages they’re linking to have taken a significant hit.
You now decide to disavow the domain. But by that time, the damage has already been done. And you now have to wait possibly months for Google to disavow the links.
What’s the takeaway?
If you research a site and determine it’s spammy, don’t second-guess yourself or try to milk it for a few more backlinks.
Be proactive and disavow the entire domain.
How to Safely and Easily Disavow URLs Using Monitor Backlinks and Google
Okay, so now you know the types of links that should be disavowed and when to disavow an individual URL versus an entire domain.
The final piece of the puzzle is to walk you step by step through the process of disavowing a URL.
1. Determine if the URL needs to be removed
Spam indicators are your best tool for deciding if a URL needs to be disavowed or not.
And the easiest way to find these spam indicators is by using Monitor Backlinks.
Here’s how to do it:
(If you don’t have a Monitor Backlinks account to follow along, you can sign up for a free, no-risk 30-day trial here!)
First, log in to your Monitor Backlinks account and go to the Your Links module:
This module lists all of your site’s backlinks, complete with valuable information and statistics about each individual backlink.
It’s this info that you’ll look at to determine if you need to disavow the URL. I’ve highlighted the most important columns below:
1. Anchor & Backlink. This shows you the anchor text of the link and which page on your site it links to. Exact-match anchor text can indicate a higher risk of spam.
2. Status. This shows you the current indexing status of the link’s domain and page.
3. Spam. This shows you the likelihood that the link’s domain is spammy based on Moz’s Spam Score metric. The higher the number, the more likely it’s spam.
4. Domain Authority and Page Authority. This shows you the backlink source’s Domain Authority and Page Authority. Low scores can be an indicator of spam.
5. TLD/IP. This shows you the origin of the top-level domain. TLDs from countries foreign to your own can be considered spammy by Google.
6. EXT. This shows you the number of external links on the backlink’s source page. Anything over 100 external links has a high risk of being spammy.
The more spam indicators a link has, the higher the likelihood that it’s an unnatural link and needs to be removed from your backlink portfolio.
2. Try to manually remove the link
If the link needs to be removed, your first plan of attack should always be to try and have it removed manually.
Even Google recommends you do this:
The best way to manually remove a link is to reach out to the site owner and request that they remove the link.
A message like this should be all you need:
Hi [owner’s name],
My name is [your name] and I own/run/work for [website name].
I am trying to clean up my backlink portfolio and noticed a link originating from your site that came from a spam comment.
I would appreciate it if you could remove this comment and link from your site. Doing so would benefit both of our causes.
Here’s the link: [insert link URL here]
Thanks, [owner’s name]. Let me know if you have any questions!
Some site owners will happily remove the link. Others won’t.
If they don’t, no worries. That just means it’s time for you to disavow the link.
3. Disavow the URL
Monitor Backlinks makes creating a disavow file crazy-easy.
After you’ve created the file, all that’s left to do is submit it to Google (which takes all of two seconds).
Here’s how it works:
First, find the backlinks you want to disavow and click the checkbox beside each link:
Next, click the “Disavow” drop-down button, followed by “Disavow URL:”
Once you’ve followed the above steps to select all the backlinks you want to disavow, your next step is to create your site’s disavow file.
To do that, you’ll go to the Disavow Tool module:
From here, make sure all of the correct URLs are listed for disavowing:
Then, click the “Export Disavow Rules” button at the top-right corner of the page:
Wait a couple of seconds and the disavow file will download to your computer:
The final step is to visit Google’s Disavow Tool (you can get to it by clicking the “Send to Google” link in the Disavow module)…
…choose your website (aka: property)…
(If your website’s not showing, then you need to add it to Google Search Console first.)
…and click “Disavow Links” to upload the disavow file and submit it to Google:
Congrats! You’re done.
Here’s what happens next:
Within 48 hours Google will be notified that you submitted a new disavow file.
Then, within a few weeks (sometimes months), Google will recrawl the links you submitted in your disavow file and consider them disavowed.
Every time you have additional backlinks that need to be disavowed, simply add them to your disavow list using Monitor Backlinks, create a new disavow file, and resubmit it to Google.
And there you have it!
I just showed you how to properly identify and disavow individual URLs.
This guide, combined with the disavow domains guide, has everything you need to make informed decisions regarding disavowing any type of backlink.
I recommend you bookmark both guides.
(And make sure you’re using a tool like Monitor Backlinks to audit your backlinks. You can take advantage of the free 30-day trial offer by clicking here.)
Google’s Disavow Tool together with Monitor Backlinks will help ensure your rankings don’t take a hit from bad backlinks.
Use both tools to your advantage.
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