How and when to disavow backlinks

05/01/2024A 5 minute read by Ellie Morgan

When it comes to SEO, there are three main pillars; content, technical and links. Great content should show knowledge, experience and expertise, links should offer a vote of confidence from trusted sources to your website, and technical SEO enables your site to maintain a solid foundation for success.

However, there are some practices out there that aren’t always recommended as they have been designed to manipulate search engine algorithms. In this post, we’re looking at the significance of these practices for link-building, specifically looking at why you may or may not need to use a disavow file.

What is a disavow file?

A disavow file is a text (.txt) document that you submit to Google using their Disavow Tool to inform them not to consider certain backlinks when assessing a website’s organic ranking.

If you’ve accumulated paid-for links or participated in any other link scheme, you might want to look at disavowing a domain, however, this is now often unnecessary.

Regularly reviewing your site’s backlink profile is crucial. Evaluate link quality, compare your backlink profile strength with competitors, and identify areas for improvement.

What links should I add to my disavow file?

​​Google advises that you should disavow links to your site if you have a manual action for unnatural links to your site, or if you think that you will get a manual action because of paid links or other link schemes that violate their quality guidelines.

Typically, spammy links are automatically discounted by Google’s Penguin algorithm and don’t need to be disavowed. The focus should be on links known to be paid for, or there because of another potential scheme.

Google’s John Mueller says;

“Random links collected over the years aren’t necessarily harmful, we’ve seen them for a long time too and can ignore all of those weird pieces of web-graffiti from long ago. Disavow links that were really paid for (or otherwise actively unnaturally placed)”.

Paying for backlinks is a well-known blackhat SEO tactic and can often lead to algorithmic penalties or a manual action, which can result in the removal of your website from search results. Google discourages website owners from paying for links with the intent to manipulate search engine rankings, to ensure they maintain high quality and relevance.

Allowing websites to pay for links could undermine the authenticity of results. It would not necessarily be the sites with authentic and organic links (which are seen as votes of confidence in Google’s eyes) that would benefit, but rather the sites that paid for the most links.

Should I remove existing domains in my disavow file?

While it is likely that website owners and SEOs will be adding fewer domains to the disavow file moving forward. The existing domains in there can be left alone as if there are no links in there that would benefit your website. If they are poor quality, the likelihood is that Google may have already excluded them, so there’s no harm in keeping these domains in the disavow file.

Are advertorials against Google’s guidelines?

If you’ve paid for sponsored content, an advertorial spot in a newspaper, or gifted a blogger for brand coverage, it’s not prohibited. However, it should not be done for SEO purposes but rather for brand awareness among the author’s audience.

On the referring page, a followed link is not recommended; instead, any link to your website should be marked as ‘rel=sponsored’. While the nofollow attribute was previously recommended by Google for such links and remains acceptable, using ‘sponsored’ is the preferred method.

How Google identifies paid links

Google uses a blend of manual and automated methods to spot paid links. The algorithm detects unnatural link patterns that may lead to being manually reviewed by the team at Google. User reports may flag paid-for-links for manual review too, as Google encourages users to report suspicious websites.

However, if you have used Google’s Link Disavowal Tool to flag your paid links, Google will recognise this, and you shouldn’t face penalties once fully processed.

The impact of paid links

We have had many clients join us after a negative impact following a period of buying links. In our experience, paid links can work for a short-term boost in performance (approximately 3-6 months), but after a drop is seen it’s often hard to recover.

SEO is a long-term practice and you should always be forward-thinking, which is why paid links are absolutely something you should avoid if you want to rank well and dominate the SERPs for many years.

Take one of our clients in the Law sector, who joined us after a large drop in SEO visibility. Prior to working with us, their backlink strategy consisted of paid-for links. This did appear to work, for roughly 6 months, but then everything changed with Google’s January 2020 core update.

Visibility for the client dropped overnight, and flatlined for months. During this time, we implemented a disavow file to instruct Google to ignore the paid links when assessing the site and worked through onsite content and technical audits to refine and improve the domain.

Recovery was eventually seen once Google’s core update rolled out in May of the same year. In this case, the paid links were holding the site back, and once the update allowed Google to reassess relevancy and quality without those in place, the client was able to see a recovery which has continued to grow to this day.

A more recent example of this is one of our eCommerce clients who joined in early 2023. They had been investing in SEO for many years, but with each core update traffic and rankings kept decreasing, especially following a core Google update in June 2021.

Before starting any technical or content audits, we’d quickly identified a high number of paid links within their backlink profile and spearheaded a backlink audit and subsequent disavow file.

The file was urgently added, as at that point we were anticipating a core algorithm update where the content would be reassessed and reevaluated, which presented us with a ‘quick win’ of sorts.

The disavow file was uploaded to Google in February 2023, shortly after Google announced their March core algorithm update. For the first time in years, this website had seen a positive impact from a core algorithm update, with no changes to their strategy apart from the addition of an updated disavow file.

In March, we presented our offsite and onsite audits and built our own strategy based on our findings, which we’re now able to see the benefits of – all thanks to a disavow.

How to spot paid links

There are a number of ways to spot paid links, but here are four of the key things we look for when trying to identify paid-for backlinks vs. natural or earned links:

1. Disclaimer check

The simplest method is to check for disclaimers on pages hosting backlinks. If a page explicitly mentions that the content is paid for or advertorial, it raises a red flag. Look out for terms such as “sponsored by” or “collaborative post” on the page.

2. Anchor text analysis

Another technique involves scrutinising the anchor text used in backlinks. We review the exact-match keywords, as they are typically uncommon and can be challenging to acquire organically. We also evaluate the context in which the linked exact-match keyword is placed on the page, as this often serves as an indicator of paid links, as their inclusion may suggest a deliberate effort to manipulate search engine rankings.

3. Pattern recognition

Examining patterns within tool exports, such as URL structure, can allow us to distinguish between natural and potentially paid links.

4. Natural vs. sales language

We assess the tone of the text associated with the links. Natural, informative language is expected, and any deviation towards sales-oriented language raises suspicion. Ahrefs data can reveal indicators of commercial content.

The future of the disavow

As Google representatives have often said that most sites don’t need to update their disavow file, it’s not farfetched to ask if Google are so good at devaluing spam links themselves, will paid links be next – and should I even bother with a disavow file?

To compete with Google, Bing (Microsoft’s search engine equivalent) released a disavow tool in June 2012, to allow website owners to devalue any inbound links they did not want to be considered when Bing was evaluating their site relevance and quality. However, in October 2023, this feature was removed.

Bing stated on the removal of the disavow feature:

“We have invested heavily in developing and improving our artificial intelligence capabilities, which enables us to better understand the context and intent of links, as well as the trustworthiness and authority of their sources. We can now differentiate between natural and unnatural links, and we can ignore or discount the latter without affecting the former.”

This goes to show that most website owners don’t need to worry about spam links and negative SEO attacks, which probably haven’t worked to devalue a site for at least 10-15 years. However, Bing does caveat their statement by saying that they still recommend webmasters pay special attention to their Webmaster Guidelines and avoid leveraging link schemes like link buying and spamming as these actions can cause their site to be delisted from Bing search.

A fair assumption from this statement is that if you – or someone on your behalf – engaged in such link schemes 3-5+ years ago, it’s not likely to impact your search performance now. However, if you are actively doing this today you should perhaps rethink your strategy.

It is more than possible that at some point, Google will take the same stance towards this and release more information about what needs to be included in a disavow file, and what doesn’t – or even sunset the feature altogether.

For now, we’d still advise that if you have engaged in somewhat shady practices over the years that directly go against Google’s Search Essentials, you disavow those links to ensure performance is not impacted.

If you would like our experts to dive into your backlink profile and get you ranking higher on search engines reach out today.

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