Marketing October 31, 2012 Last updated September 18th, 2018 1,800 Reads share

Google Disavow Tool – The Ultimate Guide

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On the 16th October Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s Webspam Team, announced the release of the Google Disavow Tool. This tool was released to address the devastation left after Google released their Penguin update and also I suspect as a measure in combating negative SEO.

In this indepth post I’m going to explore what this tool and Penguin mean for your website, how its changed the landscape of SEO, why who you choose to conduct your company’s SEO efforts is now critically important; negative SEO and what that means for your business and how, when and why you would use the tool should you need to.

But first a little general background

Google first dropped their nuclear SEO bomb, nicknamed Penguin, on the world wide web on April 24th 2012. For many a “low cost/affordable SEO” provider the world over, and anyone using mass submission or low quality link building tools, the nightmare began. Penguin was a massive change in how Google calculated SERPs position because it was designed to look at off-page links a different way.

Prior to this, all links were good. Some links were better than others but by and large more was better. With Penguin that all changed. A whole host of new ranking algorithm factors came into play and any link building activities that had been undertaken previously needed to be re-examined.

With the Penguin update Google targeted “over-optimisation” of anchor text (the text you actually click on in a link) and as a side effect they brought to life a whole new type of backlink. No longer were all links of varying degrees of good. Today, some links are great, some are good and some links are toxic.

Links can be good or they can be toxic by virtue of where they are, how many of them are using the same anchor text and number of other factors.

So in the post Penguin world, for links, more is no longer always better. In fact quite the opposite: now if you have too many of the wrong kind of low quality back links, your website’s SERPs position could suffer or be obliterated completely.

With the Penguin update Google signalled very clearly that they wanted to stamp out aggressive SEO link building activities.

Link Juice from the poisoned well

Sometimes when trying to explain how backlinks worked prior to penguin, SEO people would talk about “Link Juice”. The concept is that Link Juice flows through links pointing from other people’s websites to your own. This Link Juice results in a positive increase in your authority (in the eyes of Google) and that usually corresponded to an increase in SERPs position. So put simply more link juice meant a higher search ranking.

Now with the advent of “unnatural links” (bad/poor quality links) Google have essentially created Toxic Link Juice because now it’s possible to have damaging Link Juice flow to your website through poor quality links.

Google Disavow Tool – what is it?

A lot of websites got hammered by the Penguin update and their traffic dried up. One day they had thousands of back links point to their websites through which much Google Love flowed giving them great SERPs position. The next morning Google deemed a lot of those links over optimized and they became toxic.

Google’s Disavow Tool may come as a welcome relief to the webmasters of such sites. The Disavow Tool allows you to specify external websites that have links pointing to your website, that you want to tell Google they shouldn’t count in their algorithm.

In other words you want to disclaim any relationship with a particular website page or domain and with this tool Google have given everyone with a Webmaster Tools account the ability to do just that.

How to use the Tool?

I wrote a blog post recently on how to use the Google Disavow Tool, which you can read should you want more detail on How to use the tool. To summarise that post, most probably you should not use the tool at all!

This tool is very powerful and could easily cause your website more harm than good. And that’s if you use the tool correctly, never mind the possibility of making mistakes which cannot be undone.

More on that from Matt Cutts here:

At this point in time, the likelihood is that there are only two scenarios in which you would need this tool:

Scenario 1: You have been battling to try and regain your pre-Penguin SERPs position since April.

In this situation it is highly likely you will have received a warning in your Webmaster Tools to advise you of the types of unnatural links you have pointing to your website.  These warnings can act as a guide to help you weed out the offending links and have them removed or disavow them.

You will need to complete a full back link analysis of your website and I strongly urge you to only use the Disavow Tool with extreme caution and prejudice. Resist the urge to get medieval on the links you are unsure about.

Scenario 2: You have become the victim of Negative SEO.

To date this has been a very rare phenomenon but it definitely does and can happen and I suspect as time goes by if things remain as they are now that we will see an increase in Negative SEO.

Negative SEO is where a competitor deliberately builds low quality, unnatural looking links to your website with the goal of sending lots of toxic link juice to your website. The net effect of this would be that your website ends up with a decrease in SERPs position which opens up a higher spot for your competitor who Negatively SEO’d you.


It is very, very easy to assume that a drop in ranking is a competitor attempting to undermine you, however statistically speaking it’s much more likely that you have a different SEO problem. My advice: be 100% sure that it’s Negative SEO before you start the burn, slash and disavowing of links.

Negative SEO & the SEO Apocalypse

As a result of the Penguin algorithm change Negative SEO became more of a potentially challenging issue. Prior to this algo update Toxic Link Juice didn’t exist. Now however it does, and by consequence sending it to your competitors (in theory) should damage their search position. I don’t have any first hand test data I can share with you, but if you have access to any test data it would make for good discussion if you’d share it with us in the comments below.

This is a nasty way to do business and aside from the moral issues, I’m not entirely convinced it works very effectively. Certainly with the Disavow Tool it’s less likely to work in a sustainable way, but I would have serious concerns about what will happen to the websites Negative SEO campaigners will use to build a flood of unnatural links.

Some people here and here feel that the Disavow Tool & Penguin in combination herald the beginning of the SEO Apocalypse.  The thinking here is that with the Disavow Tool Google have cleverly released a tool that will help them identify the sources of low quality links.

For example, let’s say John has 100 links all pointing to his website from one domain. These links are unnatural links that John paid someone on Fiverr to add to their site for a few dollars. John’s site got hammered in April from Penguin and now he wants to get rid of those links because they all use the same anchor text.  By using the Disavow Tool, he is making Google aware of this website, and more than that he is saying to Google (if he’s abiding by their guidelines on tool usage) that he feels that this website is a target for their Webspam team to take a look at.

In essence the Disavow Tool could also be called the Crowd Sourced Web Spam Detection Tool.

It is still very early days of this tool and only time will tell us what type of wide ranging impact it will have on the SEO landscape, but in the example above it is more likely that this website John had disavowed will become more toxic as a result.

More toxic site = more toxic link juice = prime target for Negative SEO’ers. Not to mention bad for anybody else who is in receipt of a back link from the toxic site.

One thing is certain, the release of the Disavow Tool in combination with Penguin means that a number of SEO tactics that would have belonged to the Grey Hat category of techniques are now firmly in the Black Hat category.

What you urgently need to do today as a website owner:

I would strongly urge you to urgently do nothing with the Disavow Tool. The likelihood is that there are only a tiny handful of websites that are in such bad shape that using this tool makes sense.

By all means run a thorough analysis of your backlinks, but you will always be better served asking for links to be removed from the website owners directly rather than using the disavow tool.

Even if you think you have a lot of toxic link juice coming to your website that is affecting your ranking, it’s extremely difficult to be 100% sure it’s not some other SEO factor. There is no definitive way to tell, unless you have a warning in Webmaster Tools, that its toxic link juice that’s causing your site’s Search Position harm. If it’s not Toxic Link Juice, and you mistakenly think it is, you’ll disavow links which were actually helping your search placement. And remember, that with the Disavow Tool the Undo button is a dodgy, broken thing that doesn’t work most of the time.

How do you increase your search position now?

In my opinion there is only one sustainable way for any company to proactively increase their website’s traffic and search ranking.

Inbound marketing campaigns

This is how we approach off-page promotion at Lime Canvas. Essentially Inbound Marketing strategies are content oriented marketing techniques focused on creating great content which is very shareable and then making sure as many people find out about the content as possible.

Once upon a time SEO was about being technical and understanding how to manipulate the latest algorithm from Google to your benefit. It was about understanding keyword research data, it was about testing, accumulating data and tweaking websites to perform better. It was about hunting for backlinks or creating properties to host backlinks.

Nowadays SEO is about creating content and building a brand’s digital footprint. Nowadays SEO is as much about social and geographical factors as it is about backlinks, because at the end of the day SEO has always been about Traffic, and how to get more of it.

If you are creating a lot of “shareable” content for your blog and web properties then you will get links naturally over time. Forget your automated tools that will mass submit articles or social bookmarks. Even if those tactics still work a little bit now, give the Disavow Tool and the Webspam team enough time to gather data and I suspect things will change.

Have you had any interaction with the Disavow Tool, Negative SEO or being hit hard by the Penguin update? Tell us about your experiences below…

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Neil Sisson

Neil Sisson

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