SEO Tip of the Week: Google Disavow

SEO Tip of the week: Google Disavow

90 Digital CEO Nick Garner talks about Google’s Disavow and how to use it in a right way in this edition of’s SEO Tip of the Week.

Hi there, this is my SEO tip of the week – extended version!

For those who don’t know what Google disavow is, it’s a way of telling Google to effectively ‘no follow’ links from either pages or whole sites. ‘No follow’ is where you say in ‘please don’t pass page rank to my site from that link’. Pagerank is one of the things you will need to rank well on Google.

Does that make any sense? if you’re not clear on all of this then go here:

Disavow | No Follow | Pagerank

Caveat: this is just my opinion here…

My experience with disavow is it can be a massive ‘free pass’ on avoiding a penalty.

Disavowing a site or a link is effectively telling Google that you don’t want to have any ranking benefit from that site i.e. you don’t want them to account for that links when reviewing you.

For example, let’s say you take on the SEO for a site and the previous SEO’ers have been spamming hard and ranking nicely, so you do some competitor analysis and realise that if this carries on, you will be in line for a manual review and penalty. Not good.

So by analysing your inbound links you can group the links around a big idea: ‘editorial justification’ i.e. were the links naturally acquired, or did they look like they were naturally acquired?

    • Junk links i.e. directories, scrapers and so on

    • Actively acquired links that do look ‘unnatural’

    • Naturally acquired links that look ‘questionable’

    • Actively acquired links that look ‘natural’

    • Naturally acquired links that look ‘good’

You use webmaster tools and if you have a subscription, then Majestic SEO and you get a list of all the domains and pages linking into your site. From there you classify the links by ‘editorial justification’ and ‘plausible deniability’, i.e. if a manual reviewer saw these links, could they plausibly assume these were ‘natural links’?

Then it’s important to order the links by some sort of solid metric. My favourite is Majestic Trust Flow because it correlates really well with actual visibility on Google search results. The logic being ‘if google loves a site, then links from that site will have value’. We did some analysis on this correlation here and if you have a thing for Moz domain authority as a metric, then have a look at this correlation analysis here.

And then you make a judgement call on what sites you want to disavow. The balance is between jettisoning those links that can get you a manual penalty and retaining as much pagerank as possible.

A good example of the sort of link to be disavowed would  be if your predecessor got a bunch of ‘advertorial links’ from local papers where the page had something like ‘sponsored post’ or ‘advertorial’ and there was a ‘follow’ link to your site…there is no plausible deniability here. That was clearly a paid for link.

The downside is you are likely to lose some rankings because you’re turning off Pagerank from many sites.

But the main point about this exercise is if you are manually reviewed by Google, they cannot bust you for links you do not want. So if you have had a history of spamming and you want to be proactive, then disavow and get a ‘free pass’ to hopefully avoiding a penalty.

Final caveat… this is just my opinion and others may disagree with me.

Anyhow here are 6 other things you may not know about disavow…

1. There is a size limit on disavow files, its 2MB or the equivalent of about 1000 pages of text or 2 reams of printed photocopy paper….

2. Google webspam team doesn’t read the comments you add to the disavow file. If you do comment, it’s for your info.

SEO Tip of the week: Google Disavow

3. Because Google disavow is effectively ‘no follow’ on a large scale, you don’t need to add in no follow links.

Google say “You don’t need to include any nofollow links…because essentially what happens with links that you submit as a disavow, when we recrawl them we treat them similarly to other nofollowed links,” Mueller said. “Including a nofollow link there wouldn’t be necessary.”

4. You can revert a disavow request. This is really important…If you do another sweep of your disavow file and you find you are ‘turning off’ pagerank from lots of good sites, then you can always submit another disavow file and just not include those sites.

A good example is if you disavow a whole site but in retrospect you decide that it’s only a few of the pages which are suspect, then you just remove the whole domain disavow and just include the pages you are concerned about. Google work off the latest disavow file you have given to them.

Tip from my friend Irishwonder: You can just remove the disavow file from the server and it cancels out your whole disavow submission, which is something you gotta be careful about in case you don’t mean to cancel it – if you want to stick by your disavowed urls list, the file should stay on the server at all times.

5. If you disavow a site or a link on a site, (so far) it’s not going to harm the site in question. Google’s John Mueller said:

“When it comes to the disavow links tool, at the moment we are not using that data in any way against the sites that are being disavowed because there are just so many reasons why a link might be disavowed. It might be that it’s a perfectly fine site but for some reason the ads on that site are passing PageRank and maybe the webmaster is not aware of that and that’s not something that we would say, “Oh, this is a spammy site”, because some of these ads are passing PageRank. Or maybe they have comments on a blog or on articles that they publish and people have been spamming those comments. Just because those links are in someone’s disavow file, it doesn’t mean that the content on that site is necessarily bad.”

6. Disavow can kick in within a few days or a couple of months. Having done some research into this, there are conflicting accounts for how long disavow takes to have an effect. Cyrus Shepard did an experiment where he disavowed all the links to his domain and he had to wait 2 months for it to kick in. Others talk about effects in a few days.

I hope that’s helpful and if you have any questions, just add these to the comments and I’ll answer them!