Now let me tell you something that I saw recently. I'm an SEO consultant based in London, UK, and sometimes my prospective clients will share audit reports or reference work done by other SEO agencies. We're not all perfect. I get that. But I've been seeing a lot of SEO agency recommendations follow a similar pattern.
It regards disavowing links. And It goes something like this:
We have identified links to your website that are toxic. Toxic links are links that come from blacklisted IP addresses, and they are associated with spam. We, therefore, suggest that you disavow these links to show Google that we don't want these links pointing to your site.
You might have heard this advice before or internalised it after reading an article about spammy links. But this advice is toxic, and unless you know what you are doing, you can needlessly hamper your page's ability to rank.
Let me walk you through what's really happening here.
What is a disavow?
A disavow is a tool that’s built into Google Search Console. It’s designed to inform Google that a link to your site is ‘bad’ and that it should ignore this link. The idea is that the link is harmful to your site’s ranking, and therefore it’s ideal to have Google remove this. Usually, this is done after a search penalty appears in your Search Console.
Using this tool can hover be tricky. It’s easy to implement, but telling Google to completely ignore a link isn’t always the right choice. But how do you decide when to use this tool?
What is a 'spammy' link?
A spammy link is usually from a PBN or other low-quality site. Usually, these sites engage in some grey-hat SEO practices. Ultimately, any links from these sites will likely be understood by Google as low-quality or spam.
How to identify a spammy link
To do this you’ll need to export your links or view them in an SEO tool, such as SEMrush or Ahrefs. Performing a link audit will help you to identify spammy links. And you should be on the lookout for the following:
- Paid links - these are links that are on a post that is clearly flagged as sponsored. These are against Google’s guidelines.
- PBN links - these can be harder to identify but you should take a look at the site and ask yourself if it genuinely looks like a real site with a real business behind it. If you can tell it’s not, then guess what, so can Google.
- Low-quality links - these are usually directories and in the comments sections of sites. There’s no real value in these links and they are often farmed by low-level link building services.
- Negative SEO - this is where someone malevolently builds bad links to your site in order to negatively affect your ranking.
But you should be careful. Just because you have identified a spammy link doesn’t mean you should rush to disavow it.
Should you ever use the disavow feature?
Disavow is a feature available to all webmasters in their Search Console dashboard. It's a simple way to tell Google that it should disregard a link on another web property that points to your site.
This is a powerful tool and one that is needed. As you have no control over what is placed on other sites, it can be an important tool for SEOs. But disavows are not to be messed with. After taking over a client's Search Console, I have seen them performed for no reason. The truth is that many SEO 'experts’ see this as a deliverable. And therefore, they spend a lot of time doing this potentially damaging process for their clients.
Even someone who knows what they are doing would be careful about using this feature. And then they would likely do it in a controlled manner over a long time period.
You can see this trend emerging amongst SEOs who know what they are talking about. A recent poll showed that 38% of SEOs never use the disavow tool and this post by Marie Haynes, a leading SEO expert, shows that they have stopped using the tool because they believe it’s not needed.
Image source: Search Engine Journal
Granted it can be hard to quantify this as we never truly know how the Google algorithm is working on each site, and which factor contributes to a ranking decrease. But why risk disavowing a link if there’s a high chance it could cause you to lose the links benefit.
What does Google do with spammy links?
The thing is that Google is actually quite smart. Here's what it does when it sees a spammy link pointing to your site:
- It gives you value for it.
- It doesn't give you value for it.
There are good links, and there are bad links. Google understands this, and it will deal with this accordingly.
They even say this in their documentation:
Step 0: Decide if this is necessary
In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most sites will not need to use this tool.
A while back, Google had a big issue with negative SEO. If it's that easy to sabotage a competitor's site with quickly built, spammy links, then negative SEO would boom. Hense now, Google will likely just ignore a bad link to your site.
What should you do with spammy links?
Unfortunately, there's no complete way of knowing how Google sees a link to your site. Of course, as SEOs, we can make an educated guess. But by disavowing links, you might be losing value without knowing it. Ranking issues are rarely down to spammy links. There's a whole host of other issues it could be, from poor content, lack of topical authority, technical SEO issues, and many more.
By disavowing links, you risk removing the value of good ones.
Even SEO professionals that have worked in SEO for a number of years can't conclusively say that a backlink is bad or good. Google themselves have even warned webmasters about how they should use the disavow tool.
A lot of SEOs like myself are trying to educate our clients on the dangers of incorrectly using the disavow tool. Where there has been a Google penalty, you might find grounds for using this feature. But even then, you should consult an expert and go through the process in a structured way. And you should disavow with caution, not with reckless abandon.
But unless there's some kind of manual penalty, and you genuinely believe that you have exhausted all options to find the source of your site ranking issues, please try and avoid disavowing.
Not only can disavowing have a negative impact on your site, but it could also even be limiting your site's growth.