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The biggest news to hit the SEO world recently has been the release of Google’s new “Disavow Links” tool, which offers webmasters a way to request that the search giant devalue any low value links that appear in their backlink profiles.
On its surface, the tool may seem like a godsend for webmasters who have struggled with either malicious negative SEO attacks or the inability to remove low value backlinks following a Penguin penalization. However, as with many of Google’s recent releases, it’s fair to say that when things seem too good to be true, there’s usually a catch…
In the case of the Disavow Links tool, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t some type of “press button, remove links” offering. In fact, there are plenty of different cautions that should come along with using it, which all webmasters would be wise to learn and respect.
Here’s what you need to know about using the Disavow Links tool to clean up your website’s backlink profile:
Disavow Links Files Must Be Set Up Correctly
The first thing that webmasters who are considering the use of Disavow Links must be aware of is how important it is to structure their link files correctly, as mistakes made throughout the process could result in an unintended loss of link equity.
According to Google’s instructions, link disavowal files should include data in the following formats:
- Full URLs for specific backlinks that should be devalued (e.g., “http://www.website.com/bad-link.html”)
- Entire root or sub-domains listed after the word “domain:” (e.g., “domain:website.com”)
- Comments explaining the reason behind your devaluation request, denoted using the “#” sign (e.g., “# Requested removal for this bad link but have been unsuccessful”)
Every piece of information you plan to submit to Google should be entered onto a separate line in a text file, and then uploaded to Google using the protocol described within the Disavow Links tool interface.
While this may seem simple, the reality is that requesting the devaluation of any of your backlinks is a delicate process. A single typo found within your text file could cause Google to devalue your beneficial backlinks along with the bad ones, leading to a potentially significant decrease in rankings and/or traffic.
As an example, consider the impact that blocking an entire domain could have on your website’s natural search performance. Suppose you see a seemingly bad link in your site’s backlink profile that appears to come from an entirely spammy domain. If you don’t take the time to thoroughly diagnose the quality of all the links pointing back at your site from this domain and instead request that the entire domain be disavowed, your risk severing the flow of PageRank from any good backlinks found on this website – leading to a possible rankings decline.
(Note: Although Google allows webmasters who have mistakenly disavowed good links to remedy this situation by resubmitting their disavowal requests, the process can take several weeks to propagate across Google’s index – if webmasters notice that they’ve made mistakes in the first place. As a rule, it’s far better to be cautious about selecting which links to disavow than to attempt to remedy mistakes once they’ve happened.)
Identifying and Diagnosing Bad Links Takes Time
The example listed above highlights the importance of making sure that you only request the devaluation of links that are truly causing harm to your website’s backlink profile. But as with most things online, that’s often easier said than done!
To diagnose bad links, you must first download a complete copy of your backlink profile. While free tools (like both Google and Bing’s Webmaster Tools programs) outline a portion of the links pointing back at your site, you’ll only get the full picture by paying for a service like Majestic SEO or SEOMoz PRO.
Once you have access to this information, you can begin the painstaking process of weeding through your data for any links that look “suspicious.” There are a number of different factors that could tip you off to low value links, including:
- Links that use overly-optimized anchor text (including phrases that you haven’t targeted on your own)
- Links from bad neighborhood sites
- Links from foreign language websites
- Sidebar links
- Links from sites created exclusively for SEO purposes
Unfortunately, finding links that look suspicious isn’t enough to go off of – you must also confirm that these links are actively passing PageRank to your website.
To do this, navigate to each of the links you’ve identified as being potentially diseased. If the page is no longer active or if your link has been marked up with a “no follow” tag (either in the page header or in the link’s HTML), it isn’t necessary to take action against a given link. If the link appears to be functioning and passing PageRank, you may have a candidate for the Disavow Links tool.
The Impact of Disavow Links Isn’t Currently Known
But don’t jump the gun just yet! One final thing you must be aware of when it comes to the Disavow Links tool is that Google hasn’t conclusively stated what impact any data submitted through this utility will have on a site’s link profile valuation.
In Google’s exact words:
“This tool allows you to indicate to Google which links you would like to disavow, and Google will typically ignore those links. Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive—Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example—but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.”
As a result, most webmasters will see better results by either attempting to overcompensate for bad links with the creation of higher quality backlinks or by contacting webmasters to request that offending links be changed to more benign options (through the addition of the proper “no follow” attributes or a change to less-optimized anchor text).
Really, most webmasters should consider using the Disavow Links tool under the following circumstances only:
- You’ve received unnatural links warnings in your Webmaster Tools account and have been unsuccessful in working with other webhosts to remove the offending backlinks,
- Your site has been unsuccessful in filing a reconsideration request following a proven Penguin penalization, or
- Your site has fallen victim to conclusively demonstrated negative SEO attacks.
Though many webmasters are quick to blame natural search performance changes on suspected negative SEO campaigns, nine times out of ten, the effects they’re seeing comes as the result of on-site and off-site SEO mistakes that can be easily remedied.
Since determining what exactly led to a decrease in natural search rankings and lost traffic can be a challenge, most webmasters will see the best results from working with an SEO professional in order to decide whether or not the Disavow Links tool is likely to have a positive impact on a site’s performance. Though this may represent an unexpected cost for website owners, it’s definitely a worthwhile trade-off compared to the possibility of accidentally destroying good links through the improper use of the Disavow Links tool!