By Jesse Stoler
15 Jul 2015

Using the Disavow Tool to Clean Up Toxic Links - Tutorial Tuesday

Advanced SEO

Hello, and welcome to another installment of Tutorial Tuesday, Linkarati’s weekly series dedicated to highlighting a particular SEO process and/or tactic.

This week, I’ll be explaining how to submit a disavow request.

Tutorial Tuesday Banner

Hello, and welcome to another installment of Tutorial Tuesday, Linkarati’s weekly series dedicated to highlighting a particular SEO process and/or tactic. This week, I’ll be explaining how to submit a disavow request.

If you’re reading this, you have probably come to the realization that nothing in life is perfect. Hey, even Thriller has that one borderline unlistenable Paul McCartney song. This applies to SEO and backlink profiles as well. Even the best backlink profiles surely have a few questionable inbound links. And since we’re only a short time away from the era of the linkspam bubble, there are plenty of backlink profiles with more than just a few of such ugly links, many of which were deliberately built.

The Penguin algorithm severely penalized such sites, and it continues to do so. Where the algorithm fails, there’s a manual webspam team ready to clean up the remaining, spammy mess.

Despite Google’s ever-increasing policing of the web, plenty of unnatural links can be found in your backlink profile. These are links you may have built yourself in the era of spam. Or maybe a competitor is building these links in your name (it happens more than anybody would care to admit). The links could even be well-intentioned and user-generated, but built in spammy ways. It’s a free Internet out there, and you can only control so much.

Either way, these are links that can do damage. And although I don’t enjoy engaging in fearmongering--really, I don’t--it can take only one link. Ask Doc Sheldon about it sometime.

What can you do when you find your bad links?

Robin Image

Google has a feature known as the disavow tool. To be clear, the tool doesn’t REMOVE your links; it just instructs the search algorithm not to count them. Think of them like Russian votes for people other than Vladimir Putin - you know they exist, but they probably aren’t being counted.

The disavow tool can be used recklessly, and do more damage than good. This tutorial is being written to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.

Here’s how you can use the disavow tool to diminish the toxicity of your bad links.

Step One: Do Everything Else!

That doesn’t sounds like a productive step one, I’m aware. You wouldn’t expect the first step of a duck a l’orange recipe to say, “Step one: who are you, Marie Antoinette? Eat something normal, you aristocratic poser.” But here we are. Before you start disavowing, I would encourage you to manually remove the links you can. What do I mean by that? Outreach, outreach, outreach!

If you can unearth the email addresses of these people linking to you, attempt to contact them before you start the disavow process. This will accomplish two things:

  1. You might be able to remove the link entirely, rather than just render it algorithmically useless, and

  2. It shows Google you made the effort.

The second point is considerably more important when you’ve been hit with a manual penalty from Google’s webspam team. The team insists not only that you attempt to outreach webmasters, but that you record and report your efforts.

If however you are simply acting preemptively and attempting to fend off the Penguin algorithm or negative SEO, this isn’t mandatory. Google has explicitly stated that it’s okay to use the disavow tool upon the first sign of trouble if you so choose. I recommend you go through the outreach process anyway. If it’s a link that truly embarrasses you, it’s preferable to get rid of it completely where NO ONE can see it, let alone search spiders. You’ll find that some sites are nearly impossible to contact, hence the existence of the disavow tool.

Step Two: Find Your Bad Links

If you want to disavow links, you need links to disavow.

What makes a bad link a bad link? Well there are several characteristics to look for, including but not limited to:

  • Unnatural, keyword rich anchor text

  • An absence of contextual relevance

  • Hidden behind html in the footer

  • On a site filled with a bevy of spam

  • It leads to an irrelevant page

  • It points you to the most annoying song of the 80s, excluding the aforementioned McCartney/Jackson collaboration

Okay, the last one is a joke. Everything else though is an indication of a bad link. If you’re ever in doubt about a certain link, ask yourself this question:

“Does this link serve any purpose to the average human using the Internet, or does it exist solely for the purpose of manipulating search engines?”

This question will separate the bad links from the natural links.

To find these bad links, you can use a few different sources. First, there’s your own search console. Call it the console formerly known as webmaster tools if you want.

Google Search Console Screenshot

This is my homepage for search console. You’ll notice I have two options, because as far as Google knows, I have operational responsibilities for two sites, the one you’re reading, and some blogspot I idiotically named J. Sto’s Flow. If you want to read my thoughts on how I rank the films of David Fincher or what I think the impact of Obergefell v. Hodges will be on future civil rights cases, invade my brain Inception-style, because there’s nothing on that blog.

So I’ll click on Linkarati. This is the page that will appear

Google Search Console Screenshot

Click on the “Search Traffic” option of the sidebar menu

Google Search Console Screenshot

A few new options will appear, one of them being “Links to Your Site.”

Google Search Console Screenshot

Click on this, and you’ll see a page that looks like this

Google Search Console Screenshot

Click the “More” option under the “Who links the most” section

Google Search Console Screenshot

Now you’ll see this page

Google Search Console Screenshot

This is a list of the domains linking to you, and how often. You can download this into a separate Google doc or your own CSV. But you’ll notice that this entire list is at the domain level. This doesn’t really help in our current cause of scoping out individual, unnatural links. The two buttons at the top will, however.

Google Search Console Screenshot

These options will provide at least a sample of your links to comb through.

There are of course other backlink explorers that you can use to inspect your links, including:

All of these options require a subscription of some kind.

Once you’ve picked your explorer of choice, gather your bad links line-by-line into a spreadsheet of your choice. You need something to submit, right?

Step Three: Organizing Your Bad Links

Google insists that when you disavow links, you must submit your list in .txt form.

Blades GIF

Well I’m here to help. A .txt form is simply a standard document with unformatted text. This is an uncommon default setting for saving files, but it’s typically easy to switch and save to this format.

Let’s say you stuck with Google products and built your list of bad links into a spreadsheet on Google Drive.

Google Sheets Screenshot

Note: Of course, a normal disavow list is going to be MUCH bigger than this. This puny spreadsheet was built strictly as an example for this post.

Control c (copy) this list of links and transfer them into a Google Doc.

Google Doc Screenshot

Click on “file” at the top

Google Docs Screenshot

And you will see an option for “Download as”

Google Docs Screenshot

Hover over that, and a new list will appear

Google Docs Screenshot

Click on that option for Plain Text and

Robin Text Image

A brand new .txt file, ready for submission!

Disavow List Picture

The .txt file should look something like this, each link on its own separate line.

To the Disavowmobile!

Step Four: Time to Disavow

So now you probably want to actually disavow these links.

I’ll take you. It’s right here.

Disavow Links Screenshot

There aren’t a ton of options on this page, are there? And the most important feature is highlighted in a bold red, and in capital letters. Click on that button, and you’ll see this.

Disavow Links Screenshot

It’s another advisory that you’re about to do something important and irreversible. Indeed, the disavow shouldn’t be used lightly - only when you surely know that the links are doing you harm.

Click on “Disavow Links” beneath the yellow warning

Disavow Links Screenshot

This will pop up

Disavow Links Screenshot

Another warning. I wish Google had been this incessant about the boredom I was going to cause myself before I rented The Imitation Game on their Google Play Store.

Click “Choose File,” and, well, choose your file! Once that’s done

Disavow Links Screenshot

I now pronounce you disavowed from your links.


Despite my mocking of Google’s several warnings, it’s true that the disavow tool should not be used lightly.

Links are incredibly important to your ability to rank in search.

Disavowing a bevy of links absolutely COULD have an adverse effect on your performance in organic search, especially if you’re not careful about what you disavow.

If you fear you are the victim of Penguin, a manual penalty, you consistently see questionable links pop up in your name of which you can definitively say weren't your doing, then the disavow tool is quite handy.

Jesse Stoler

Jesse Stoler has years of experience in the SEO industry. His hobbies include stand up comedy and pretending he has fans.