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Disavow Links Tool – Help or Honeypot?

Disavow links tool found in Google Webmaster Tools Yesterday Google released a new tool known as the Disavow links tool. The purpose of this tool is to allow you to remove or at least discredit what Google refers to as ‘Unnatural Links’.

The tool exists within your Webmaster Tools account and can be used against any site registered in Webmaster Tools, as of yet there is no menu or navigation pointing to the tool but you can find it here.

When should you use the Tool?

Well, this is the real kicker isn’t it and where some important distinctions must be made. In the video announcement linked at the bottom of this post Matt Cutts details some of the requirements of using the tool and makes it perfectly clear that this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card and that to benefit from this tool you must first go through all the stages of a standard reconsideration request.

The rest of this post is going to assume you have done some, or paid for some, knowingly or not, manipulative SEO and link building that has caused you to get a manual penalty from Google. A manual penalty will always result in an unnatural links warning in webmaster tools so don’t confuse this with a Panda or Penguin penalty which is just an addition to the standard ranking algorithm.

So, lets quickly look at at the steps required before you can use this tool.

1. Manual Link Removal

The first job is to remove as many links from the web as possible rather than asking Google to ignore them. So, to do this, you need to compile a comprehensive list of all of your backlinks and identify any that are their purely to drive rankings or manipulate search results. Just obtaining such a list is a job in itself and where there is a large backlink profile it would be prudent to take data from several sources including Google, Bing, Open Site Explorer, Majestic and aHREFs. This will enable you to get a fairly comprehensive list together.

Once you have put together this list then there is the job of classifying all non natural links and removing them. This is a difficult job, links may have moved, webmasters will not respond to your requests, you must be diligent and persevere through these challenges whilst being fastidious in your documentation of your attempts to remove the link.

You must identify the best ways to contact people, find emails from whois reports where needed, email multiple times and top multiple addresses, use Twitter, Facebook and other means where possible, in extreme cases, send a letter and only when you have exhausted every avenue can you call this part of the job good.

The following is a quote from Matt Cutts at Google which can be mined for some further insight:

at the point when you have written to multiple people, multiple times and you have only been able to get some certain fraction of those links down and there is some small fraction of those links left, that’s when you can use our new tool.

I like to try and extrapolate some meaning from Google’s typically vague announcements so lets break this down:

  • Multiple people, multiple times – Get more than one email address for each site and hit it more than once
  • Some certain fraction of those links down – There is an amount of links being removed that they are looking for you to reach. This is not a hard and fast rule but aim for at least 50% before you even consider filing a request
  • Small Fraction – this is just further confirmation that they expect you to remove more links than you leave

2. Reconsideration Request

Once you have completed a rigorous attempt at link removal and documented every single step of the way then, and only then should you file a reconsideration request. If you have documented everything you have done you should have a comprehensive list of links, details of what you have had removed and for links you could not remove a log of the multiple people contacted multiple times for each bad link.

Package this up, detail any links remaining, be sure to detail the lengths you went to for the links you managed to have removed as well as the ones that you could not budge.

3. Disavow Links

So, this where in the process that the disavow links tool comes in. This is not a way to piggyback all that effort above, you must pay penance for your crimes against search and only then can this tool be used to remove the ‘small fraction’ of remaining links.

How to use the Disavow Links Tool

The tool itself is seemingly pretty simple to use and works by uploading a basic text file that includes all of the links that you wish to have ignored and to do this you upload the page that features a link to your site. Additionally, there is an option to signify that Google should ignore all links from a given domain rather than just a single page which is done by prefixing the URL with the domain: keyword (domain:spamdomain.com). The file also supports the addition of comments that are prefixed by the # symbol so you can provide additional information regarding your attempt to remove that link.

Example File Format

# attempted to contact webmaster@spamsite.com & contact@spamsite.com on three occaisons and got no response
# please disavow all links from spamsite.com
 domain:spamsite.com
# attempted to contact via three addresses listed on contact page + Twitter and Facebook - no response from all
# please ignore links on this page

http://www.anotherspamsite.com/links.html

To do this you simple select the domain in question from the disavow links tool here and then click the big, red, scary disavow links button and then ‘choose file’ and submit.

What happens then?

Well, in principle, this is not a complicated process and your site now has a file listed against it which contains links that should be ignored. You will have to wait for a while, possibly several weeks whilst all of these pages are crawled and the link is effectively discounted from your link graph.

Should you use the disavow links tool?

Simply put, in most cases no, you don’t want to use this tool and you certainly don’t want to use it if you are unsure about the links you are removing. You could end up doing more harm than good. Additionally, this tool is seemingly only for use against Manual Penalties so again, unless you have had a manual penalty notification and have tried diligently to manually remove the links, then this tool is not for you.

A tip from the top

At the end of the official announcement over at the Google Blog they do provide one tip for those newly hit with an unnatural links warning and that is to look at the latest links in Links to Your Site feature in Webmaster Tools. Once in webmaster tools browse to Traffic > Links to Your Site > Who links the most > More and then you can download.

The file you get will list links to your site and additionally, you can download the latest links only so where a sudden burst of links has caused a problem, this can be a solid place to start your investigation into what caused your penalty notification.

Help or Honeypot?

I heard a great quote from Matt Cutts where he stated that in regards to fighting spam, they don’t want to play “whack-a-mole” and they would rather tackle things algorithmically. So, it was somewhat surprising when they manually deindexed a bunch of blog networks like BuildMyRank.com in an effort to remove lots of paid links and SERP manipulation. So, there is a question here of what will Google do with all of this information? Will they start playing whack-a-mole and killing other sites and networks of sites or will they continue to just use it to improve their algorithms?

Whilst it can be interesting to play conspiracy games here, for the average webmaster, this does not really matter and as ever we are back to earning the kind of valuable links that will stand the test of time with the time honoured tradition of content marketing and such like.

These aren’t the tools you’re looking for …

This tool likely has some use in the grand scale of things for sites that are struggling under the weight of a manual penalty but clearly, this is only going to be useful once a full penalty audit and comprehensive attempt at manual removal of links has been conducted. If you would like some help or assistance with any of your Google Penalty woes then drop a comment below or give me a shout.

Disavow Links Tool Announcement Video

References

Disavow Links Announcement: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/a-new-tool-to-disavow-links.html

Reconsideration Requests: http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35843

Marcus Miller

I am an SEO Consultant based in Birmingham UK and with clients all over the world. I have been working in and around search for 15 years and currently focus on SEO Consulting, Website Consulting, Local SEO and Technical SEO Audits.

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