The Complete Guide to Disavowing Links for Google and Bing
Google has named content and links as its top two ranking factors that affect how well a website performs in organic search results. As such, links have a wild history of being manipulated and spammed, making their acquisition risky but still important.
Google’s sophisticated link analysis algorithm, Penguin, has run in real time as part of Google’s core ranking algorithm since the Penguin 4.0 update in September 2016. Because it can recognize most bad links, Google’s algorithm just ignores them now rather than penalizing the sites they point to.
However, in our experience managing SEO for clients, we’ve found many cases when a low-quality link profile still hurts a website. In these cases, we must closely evaluate their every link, and be honest about its value to the brand.
Search engine link disavowal tools are needed in today’s link penalty environment. These tools cut ties between a site and links pointing at it that might be seen by engines as dark marks. As with all powerful tools, Google’s and Bing’s disavow tools require careful use to avoid damaging mistakes.
This guide provides steps on disavowing links for both Google and Bing and includes:
- Commentary on Google and disavowal
- How disavow files help you
- Who needs a disavow file
- Drawbacks and limitations of disavow
- How to build a disavow links file for Google
- Bing’s disavow links tool
- What’s next
Commentary on Google and Disavowal
In 2019, Google’s John Mueller stated during a webmaster hangout that the “vast majority of sites” do not need to use the disavow tool. In line with that statement, Google did not immediately include the disavow tool as part of the new Search Console experience. However, access to the original tool was not removed.
You do not have to be working in SEO for long to realize that it’s not always wise to take Google at face value when they make such statements.
We have long found that actions Google states are unnecessary, sometimes continue to work very effectively. This isn’t because Google is trying to mislead, necessarily. But the internet is a big place, and they cannot possibly make statements that apply equally to every site.
Additionally, such statements often arise from advancements in the algorithm, such as new ways to detect bad links. These changes have allowed Google to make massive strides in bad link identification over the years. But even their technology is fallible and can be fooled.
In November 2020, almost three years after the launch of the new Search Console experience, Google finally added a new version of the disavow tool.
As you can see from the screenshots below, little has changed in the disavow tool, and the process remains largely the same.
Old Google disavow tool:
New Google disavow tool:
How Disavow Files Help You
Quality backlinks are a requirement of healthy search rankings. But you can’t go far if your site is associated with off-topic or spammy inbound links. While it’s important to attract good links, it’s just as important to remove bad ones. This is why link pruning is a critical task of SEO.
A problem arises, however, when you’re stuck with a few bad backlinks. If you can’t get them removed, and Google is not discounting them from your link profile, then how do you avoid a search engine ranking loss for these backlinks? Fortunately, both Google and Bing have an answer: each search engine has a tool for disavowing links, which means telling them the backlinks that you want them to ignore.
The search engines’ disavow links tools can help your website in many ways.
First, it can improve your inbound link profile. Disavowing a low-quality backlink essentially blocks it from the search engines’ considerations. If a search engine feels that a low-quality link is dragging down your trust factor, removing that link via disavow can help your site regain some of that trust. In fact, we’ve seen that getting rid of low-quality backlinks can provide positive results in a way similar to attracting quality links to your site.
Another benefit to using the tool is the opportunity to discover negative SEO. While gathering link information, you might find artificial links pointing to your site that you had no part in generating. If you are indeed negatively targeted by your competition, asking nicely to remove the links may not work. While rare, negative SEO is a great example of when disavowing links can stop poor-quality links from harming your site.
Who Needs a Disavow File?
As mentioned above, Google states that most sites should not need the disavow links tool. In a Webmaster Hangout, John Mueller reiterated it this way:
That’s kind of the goal with all of this. And that’s why the disavow tool isn’t like a main feature in Search Console. You kind of have to look for it explicitly. That’s all done on purpose. Because for most sites you really don’t need to focus on links that much.
Search Console Help calls it an advanced tool and warns users to use the tool only if:
You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, AND The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site.
So do you really need this tool?
The short answer: probably. (Sorry, Google.)
Why? There are many reasons disavowing links might be the right choice for you, the first of which is that few sites have a perfect link profile.
If we think of your site like a home, over the years “stuff” accumulates. You have to dedicate time to finding the things that are no longer helpful and getting rid of them. From cleaning out the gutters to decluttering the garage, we know this is a necessary maintenance task.
Websites are no different. As sites age, they can attract more junk. Also, links that once were useful may now be broken or outright dangerous. As our founder Bruce Clay says: “Everyone has a weakest link. We all have links that we wish would go away.”
That’s why many sites today have a disavow file. While initially envisioned as a last resort, disavow tools have become a required last step in a complete link pruning process.
Once you’ve worked to remove as many low-quality, off-topic, or spammy inbound links from your site, if you’ve found you’re stuck with a few stragglers (which is very common), the disavow links tool might be the best way for you to avoid current or future penalty.
You might also want to use the tool if you’re turning a new leaf in your SEO strategy. You or a past vendor may have consciously created unnatural backlinks in the past. Whether or not you have been penalized for these backlinks yet, you’re eager to follow the search engines’ guidelines. Using this tool helps you to get on the path of SEO best practices.
Here are other very important reasons you might need to use the disavow links tool.
You know you need a disavow links file if any of the following are true:
- You receive a manual action or a Google link warning in Search Console. (Also see our 9 Tips for Getting Your Manual Link Penalty Overturned.)
- You suspect an algorithmic ranking penalty based on links.
- You believe you might be a victim of negative SEO.*
*Note: If you suspect negative SEO against your site, we strongly recommend that you work with an experienced SEO. Negative SEO that works is exceedingly rare. Commonly the links that are cited as negative SEO are so bad that they cannot be missed. As a general rule, if you can easily identify spam, so can Google. We strongly recommend ruling out all other issues before determining that your site has been impacted by negative SEO.
Drawbacks and Limitations with Disavowing Links
If you fall into one or more of the categories mentioned above, the disavow links tool might be the best option for you. That said, there are drawbacks and limitations to disavowing links.
The biggest problem with the disavow links tools is that disavowing links may backfire on the user.
Sites may inadvertently damage their link profile during a clean-up effort. This often happens to sites with manual actions. You may be forced to prune links that still have value in the effort to appease Google. So your site may end up getting unpenalized, but your link profile is severely depleted as a result.
For this reason, we greatly stress the importance of using search engine disavow tools with the help of a professional and even offer an SEO Penalty Assessment Service to help you.
How to Build a Disavow Links File for Google
Google’s disavow links tool requires you to submit a list of the domains and pages you wish Google to ignore when evaluating your inbound link profile.
The first step to using the Google disavow links tool is to create a .txt file. Per Google’s instructions, this file type has to be a.txt file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII. Within this file, list the URLs and domains you want to disavow; each domain and URL should have its own line.
To include a domain-level link in the file, add “domain:” before the URL of the domain home page (for example, “domain:shadyseo.com”).
To submit a page-level link, simply list the URL.
Add notes to each submission by starting the message with “#” on the line before the URL or domain listing.
Once you have your .txt file, you can now submit the final list to Google’s Disavow Links tool. Here’s how:
- Sign into Google Search Console.
- Go to https://search.google.com/search-console/disavow-links.
- From the drop-down menu, select the website for which you are disavowing links.
- Select “Disavow Links.”
- Select “Choose file.”
- Upload your .txt file.
Important: When you upload future disavow files, you must include all previously disallowed domains and URLs. Google overwrites each previous disavow file, rather than appending new data to it. Incidentally, if you have disavowed something you shouldn’t have, uploading a new file with that address omitted will remove it from your disavow list.
Pro Tip: Domain-Level Disavow
Google cautions users about the domain-level disavow because of potential damage it can cause. However, disavowing links on the domain level can be a more thorough approach to cleaning up bad links. Commonly, domain-level disavow is used in situations where a site is generating many links or is likely to create additional unwanted links in the future. For instance, a spam directory that lists you in every county nationwide would be better blocked at the domain level. A link can be a moving target within a site, and the only way to safely extract it is by disavowing the domain as a whole.
Bing’s Disavow Links Tool
The way to use Bing’s disavow links tool is slightly different from Google’s tool because you don’t upload a .txt file. Instead, you have to manually enter each domain or URL.
- Log into Bing Webmaster Tools.
- Go to “Configure my site” and then select “Disavow Links.”
- Within the Disavow Links tool, use the drop-down menu to indicate that you are disavowing a page, directory, or domain URL.
- Enter the URL you want to disavow and click “Disavow.”
- Your submission will be featured underneath the tool along with the date it was disavowed.
- If you want to a delete a submission, select the check box and click the “Delete” button.
For more details, see the Bing Help file for disavowing links in Bing.
After you’ve submitted the links you want Google and Bing to ignore, it’s time to wait. Google says it could take weeks before it recrawls your site and “reprocesses the pages.” This might be especially frustrating if you’re waiting to recover from a certain manual or algorithmic penalty. Bing says you might not notice any dramatic changes at all! At least you can sleep a little better knowing that you’ve cleaned your house of low-quality backlinks – until, of course, it’s time to do it again.
Want some help identifying which linking sites shouldn’t be trusted? DisavowFiles.com is a free crowdsourced database and SEO tool that gives users insight into their websites’ backlinks. This tool was the buzz of SMX Advanced when we launched it because it offers data that can simplify the process of backlink evaluation and disavowal. Read more about the free DisavowFiles tool.