If you don’t use a disavow file to block bad backlinks, your business could lose the good reputation you’ve built and your website could lose a lot of traffic.
In this article, I’ll walk you through how to block link spam properly. It involves something called the disavow file.
Watch the Video or Read the Full Article Below
What You’ll Learn:
- What are bad backlinks
- Why you need a disavow files
- How to find and structure a disavow file
- How to run an audit to find bad links
- 10 steps to make the most of your disavow file
- When to expect improvements from submitting a disavow file
What Are Bad Backlinks?
Before I get into blocking bad backlinks, I should probably explain what they are.
Bad backlinks, or link spam, are frequently used by black hat SEO practitioners to manipulate the search engines. They’re also expressly prohibited by Google.
Why do people use backlinks to manipulate their rank? Because it works.
Or it used to work. Since the Penguin update, it’s harder to use backlink spam to get a good rank.
In the past, and sometimes still today, people who turned to the dark side of SEO would literally buy a backlink from a website just to get some link juice pointing to their own site.
Some black hatters have been known to buy dozens, or even hundreds, of backlinks just to hit the top page of the search results for a specific keyword.
The strategy makes sense. After all, backlinks are one of the top three factors that the Google algorithm uses to determine rank (the other two are content quality and RankBrain, Google’s machine learning component).
Once Google got wise to the idea that people were buying links to manipulate the search results, the company took steps to limit the influence of backlink spam.
How did it do that? In some cases, bad backlinks are easy to detect. There are locations in cyberspace where the black hat brigade love to place their links. Heck, they even brag about those sites on some open forums.
Google monitors those discussion threads. So it wasn’t too hard to take action against bad backlinks.
Forums, foreigh websites, adult sites, directories, and other “low-hanging fruit” for unethical SEOs were often frequent targets for linkspam. Google caught on to that as well.
But not all bad badlinks are bought, and there are several elements at play when it comes to determining whether a backlink is bad and needs to be removed.
The more obvious cases of bad backlinks come from websites that promote pornography, gambling, or unregulated supplements. These websites often link back to legitimate websites as part of a scheme aimed at driving traffic to a site where the owner can collect ad revenue.
That said, any link that runs afoul of Google’s policies puts your site at risk of penalty. And quite often, violations aren’t quite as apparent as a sudden influx of comments with links to Viagra and Cialis.
A few examples:
- Text advertisements that pass through PageRank
- Advertorials disguised as articles containing links that pass PageRank
- Links containing optimized anchor text included in articles, blogs or press releases distributed on other sites. Essentially, this is a keyword-stuffed anchor text.
- Links to bookmark sites or low-quality directories
- Irrelevant keywords
- Content that appears to be generated automatically
- Links that appear to have been purchased through PBNs or other link schemes
- Widely distributed links found in footers or hidden parts of a website
The main difference between good links and bad ones is the quality of the website they come from and whether the links are relevant to the site’s content.
Nowadays, you’ll need a legitimate backlink from an aged quality domain if you want that link to count for much of anything. And you’ll have to earn it by producing quality content.
Enter the Disavow File
Google allows you to create something called a disavow file. It’s used to block bad backlinks.
Let’s say you find a spammy link pointing to your site. You think to yourself: “Hey, I don’t want that link pointing to my site. I need to get rid of it!”
Unfortunately, you don’t own the domain that holds the bad link. So you have to disavow it.
You do that by adding the URL to a disavow file. That’s your way of telling Google to ignore the link for the purposes of SEO.
It’s worth noting, though, that you should reach out to the webmaster of the other site and ask him or her to remove the bad backlink. Hopefully, that will take care of the problem.
In other words, the disavow file should be a last resort.
Why Would You Need a Disavow File?
If you play by the rules and don’t buy backlinks, why would you need to combat link spam with a disavow file?
Because some of your competitors might be out to get you. And, in doing so, they’ll break the rules.
In other words, they could point bad backlinks to your site just to give your business a bad rep. You don’t need that.
You also could lose some rank in the process.
Finally, it’s a very large world out there. Some folks might link to your site even if you don’t want them linking to your site. You’ll need to disavow those links as well.
Disavow Files Can Help Increase Traffic and Rankings
A few years ago, Ignite conducted a study on 10 websites to determine whether or not the Google disavow tool could be used to increase traffic and rankings in the current SEO environment.
Their findings? It absolutely could.
A few important points about the domains used in the study:
- All domains were over 5 years old.
- All domains had over 600 domains linking in.
- All domains had over 300 “low quality” links pointing at the site.
- Low-quality links were determined as follows.
- Page rank of 2 or below.
- Domains ranked for 0 terms in SEM rush.
- Links were on websites that were off-topic and links were unnatural
During a 4-month period, over 300 links were blocked on each of the 10 domains and evaluated on a one-by-one basis. We then performed a disavow on the links.
The results? Nine of the ten websites saw a jump in both webmaster tools search queries and Google Analytics organic traffic, and the one that didn’t had a malware issue that was resolved prior to the disavow link request.
Ultimately, we felt there was a strong correlation there, and that by blocking low-quality links to a website with the Google Disavow tool, better rankings and traffic can be achieved.
Finding the Disavow File
So where is this mysterious disavow file? It’s part of Google Search Console.
If you haven’t already set up your website with Search Console, you’re missing out on some important SEO benefits. So get that ball rolling before you read any further.
Once your site is up and running with Search Console, you’ll have access to a disavow file. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find.
The best thing to do is to Google “disavow file Google.” Then, look for a link to your own disavow file.
Follow that link. See if you already have a file in place.
If you do have a disavow file in place, then you’re already blocking some bad links to your website. Thank whoever did that for you.
If you don’t have a disavow file in place, then you’re not blocking bad links to your website. It might be time to start.
The Structure of the Disavow File
So what does the disavow file look like? You’ll be happy to learn it’s a simple format.
For starters, it’s not even a CSV (comma-delimited) file. It’s just a plain old text file (with .txt extension).
That means you can use any text editor on your PC to create a disavow. It doesn’t matter what you name it as long as the extension is .txt.
Inside the text file, just add the URLs that you want to disavow. Put each URL on a separate line.
If you want to, you can also block entire domains. Just preface the name of the domain with “domain:”
For example, if you want to block every link from the domain badforseo.com, put this line in your disavow file:
That’s it. That will block every link from that domain.
That said, formatting matters—a lot—here.
Pro-tip: since bad backlinks often come from the same few sites, it’s often best to block whole domains rather than just individual URLs.
According to Google Webmasters, your disavowal file must meet the following criteria:
- Must end in .txt
- All links and domains must be listed on a separate line
- All domain-level removals must begin with “domain:”
- The file must be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII, no special characters allowed.
Additionally, you can include an explanation detailing your removal efforts for each link or domain. These are for you, and will be ignored by Google.
A word of caution about disavowing: accidentally removing links or disavowing with abandon can cause your SEO to suffer. When preparing links to be submitted, make sure they’re handpicked (by you or an aforementioned tool) and correctly identified as harmful.
First, Run an Audit to Identify Bad Links
Before you start adding links your disavow file, you’ll need to identify the bad ones.
The first step toward cleaning up your link profile is to bring all links, good, bad, and neutral into one location to assess the damage.
There are a couple of options here: if you have hundreds of bad links, you can clean things up manually through Google Search Console.
Thousands, and you’ll need to use a tool like Link Detox, which can help you identify “toxic” links and clean them up.
If you go the “Google route” the process is as follows:
- Log into your search console account
- Select Links to Your Site from the menu on the left-hand side
- Download links–you can choose to either download all links or drill down by selecting an option such as “who links most.”
The downside of using Google is they won’t tell you which links are hurting your site.
Instead, you’ll need to export your link profile in an Excel spreadsheet and manually review each one. Those links deemed toxic will need to be added to a disavow file, which you can then submit to Google for removal. We’ll talk more about the disavowal process later.
You can also use a tool like Link Detox to help you run an audit on your entire backlink profile. If you have thousands of bad links—or just want a better way to stay organized — this is a good choice.
Link Detox aggregates all of your links, pulls them into one report, and assesses the risk associated with each link at a glance. I like this one, as it’s affordable (basic plan is free) and it offers a quick snapshot of your link profile.
10 Tips For Making the Most of Your Disavow File
1. Look for Trends in Links
First, look for trends.
You’ll often see the same spammy domain cropping up again and again. And if you’re seeing these trends, you can only imagine that Google will do the same.
As I pointed out above, when that happens, it’s easier to block the whole domain than it is to block single URLs.
Also, you’ll frequently notice bizarre domain names thrown into the mix. Look for domains with unusual extensions (like .xyz) pointing to your site. That’s a signal that those sites could contain link spam, and should be put into your disavow file.
2. Don’t Be Fooled by Page Rank
Another thing to keep in mind: just because a backlink comes from a resource with a high page rank, that doesn’t mean it’s not link spam.
It’s too often the case that SEOs only look for link spam from sites with low page rank. But sites with a high page rank could give you grief as well.
And keep in mind: just because a site has a high Domain Authority in Moz, that doesn’t mean it’s a great website. If you visit the site, you might find that it’s been hacked or is itself using backlink spam to earn a better rank.
So check your backlinks. Even if they look good based on the high-level reporting from your tools, they might still be bad for business.
3. Go Comprehensive and Block All Bad Backlinks
In your disavow file, you need to block all the bad links.
If you just block a couple of them, that’s not going to do you a whole lot of good.
For example, if you’ve got about 5,000 bad links pointing at your site and you only block five of them, that doesn’t do much of anything.
Even if you block 4,990 of them, you often will not be let back in the index after a re-inclusion. Google is that stringent about it.
Instead, look for common domains throughout all those bad links and make your life easier by blocking those entire domains.
So don’t just think about blocking dozens or scores of links. Think about blocking hundreds of links. That’s going to help you get a better rank.
There’s a balance here, though. In your attempts to block link spam, make sure that you don’t block good links. That move definitely won’t help you rank.
4. Check the Linking Site for Red Flags
If you’re not sure about a site that’s linking back to you, check it out for signs that it’s just a vehicle for link spam.
One of the ways to do that is by looking at the links on the site itself. If many of them are anchored for a specific keyword (like “payday loans”), you can be pretty sure that folks are paying that webmaster to host backlinks.
Also, check other links within the content. If you see the other out-of-context anchor text that’s linking to other sites that are trying to sell stuff, you can be fairly certain that it’s a black hat website.
Similarly, if you read a few posts and notice that in each post they’re are linking off to another website, albeit in a subtle manner, that’s a red flag. In most cases, a site like this can be on Google’s link network list. You don’t want a link from this website. Especially, if the links have keyword anchor text.
5. Use a Disavow File on Links From for Off-Topic Websites
If a website is linking to your site and it has no reason to link to your site, you should ask yourself a one-word question: “Why?”
As in: “Why would that site link to my site? We have nothing in common.”
That’s another strong site that your site is the target of backlink spam.
Often times, it will be an old site that used to sell a product or a blog that covers every industry or an entirely different industry.
6. Check Foreign Sites
Be careful with this one, but you might find a lot of bad backlinks on foreign websites. That’s especially the case if they’re in a foreign language.
Once again, ask the “why?” question. Why would a site in a different language link to your site?
In some cases, there might be a bona fide reason for it. However, in many cases you’ll find that someone is trying to give your site a bad reputation. Don’t let that happen.
7. Remember: Looks Can Be Deceiving
You might be tempted to think that a website with a slick, professional design couldn’t possibly host a bunch of link spam. Think again.
Plenty of sites that use black hat SEOs look like BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post. They’ve got a clean, easy-to-navigate layout. They also look great on mobile platforms.
That’s because WordPress themes are relatively cheap. They’re also reusable.
And, in some cases, the black hatters don’t even pay for their WordPress themes. They just get pirated versions.
Always do your due diligence and disavow any links that appear spammy, regardless of how good the website the live on looks.
8. Look for That Security Warning
If you visit a site that’s linking to you and a security warning pops up, that should be a pretty bright red flag.
If a site is infected with malware or simply raises a security warning from your antivirus software when you try to visit it, you probably do not want that link.
Put that whole domain in your disavow file. Yesterday.
9. Use Tools to Help Determine When to Use a Disavow File
You can (and should) let some of the more popular SEO tools help you determine if a website is hosting link spam.
Pick something like SEMRush. Plug in the URL of the questionable page that’s pointing to your site. Look at its history.
If you see that the page used to rank very highly for a specific keyword, but now it’s down in the dumps, that’s probably because Google detected a problem with that site.
You should detect a problem with that site as well.
Additionally, SEMRush offers a Toxic Score, which ranks each backlink on a scale from 0-100, with 100 being “very toxic.”
What I really like about this tool is there are several filtering options, so you can sort links based on toxicity, anchor text, and more, then remove them directly from your dashboard.
Moz is also handy here in helping detect bad links.
One of the key benefits of using Moz is that the platform comes with a spam score calculation that shows the user how likely your website is to be penalized by Google’s algorithm.
Moz is also super useful in that they provide domain authority scores, which ranks sites based on quality and trustworthiness. Because Google’s algorithm is patent-protected, Moz’s tool is the closest thing we have to help us understand what factors into a site’s reputation.
There are also tools like Rmoov that you can use to help you reach out to webmasters and ask them to remove bad backlinks. Pick up one of those and let them do a lot of the heavy lifting for you in terms of getting your backlink profile cleaned up.
10. Don’t Forget About your Onsite Issues
One more thing: don’t forget about onsite link schemes.
You can spend countless hours reviewing external links, only to realize later that there is a hidden link exchange page on the site you’re working on.
Additionally, make sure to do a full review of the actual website first or you could end up blocking way too many links, when the main issue was the website the whole time. Make sure you know your quality guidelines.
When to Expect Improvement From Submitting a Disavow File
After you’ve performed your audit, disavowed, and sent your takedown requests, your site likely won’t spring back to the top of the SERPs right away, especially if you got caught up in a Google penalty.
Google mentions on its support page that it takes a few weeks to process your disavowal request. From there, they upload the results into the index, and next time Google’s bots crawl the site, you should see an improvement.
Additionally, you may want to re-submit your sitemap after removing links manually so Google can log those changes ASAP.
It’s worth mentioning that your disavowed links will still show up in the Link reports. Disavowing means that you’ve essentially decided not to associate with the link, allowing you to avoid a penalty.
Wrapping Up How to Maintain a Disavow File
It’s this simple: link spam can hurt your business. It can damage your corporate identity and push your website down in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Fortunately, you don’t have to play the victim. Google has provided you with a tool that will help you stay out of trouble. It’s called the disavow file.
If you haven’t yet searched your backlink profile for bad links, why not make it a point to do so today?
Then, when you’ve found some link spam, use Google’s disavow file to block it.