In the field of SEO, the importance of backlinks cannot be understated—they are a critical element that can make or break your website’s search engine ranking. The exact fate of your backlink profile, though, ultimately depends on whether the link is legitimate or toxic:
High-quality backlinks can dramatically boost your site’s visibility and turn you into an authority source that people will link to organically, resulting in a virtuous cycle—further efforts will yield better results as your profile grows stronger.
Toxic backlinks, on the other hand, can do just the opposite, pulling your site into the dreaded low-rank zones or even attracting penalties from Google. If you’re looking to rank high in SERPs and get your business the visibility you know it can achieve, even a single toxic backlink can put a wrench in your strategy.
Instead of hoping Google will turn a blind eye, that you’ll receive a short-term SEO boost, or perhaps that investments in PPC will get you through, you should work on disavowing bad links expeditiously.
Therefore, this guide serves as your comprehensive resource for identifying, understanding, and effectively disavowing links. You’ll learn the meaning of disavowing, what are its tangible benefits, and what happens if you don’t disavow toxic links in time.
Read on to safeguard your website’s SEO health and maintain your hard-earned search engine rankings.
What Does Disavow Mean?
In the SEO lexicon, to “disavow” means to formally request search engines to exclude particular backlinks when assessing your site’s ranking.
By disavowing a link, you’re explicitly requesting search engines to disregard it, shielding your website from any negative SEO consequences that the toxic link might bring.
You can disavow links manually through Google’s Disavow Links Tool.
Google’s Disavow Links Tool is a feature within Google Search Console that allows you to submit a list of URLs or domains you wish to disavow.
Although some black hat SEO proponents claim that even toxic linking is better than no linking, there are plenty of reasons why you should disavow backlinks even at the slightest hint of toxicity.
How Do Toxic Backlinks Occur?
Toxic backlinks are inevitable in the growth of any business with an online presence.
Think of them as growing pains, which mostly occur due to:
- Negative PR attacks. According to research, the global PR market is set to grow to $107 billion by the end of 2023. And a large part of that involves digital PR. In this race to climb SERPs, companies often won’t hesitate to hire black hat SEO to link to their competitors’ sites on pages featuring adult content, gambling or illicit substances.
- Poor SEO execution. Many up-and-coming SEOs or overambitious business owners will take any link they get. This often results in placements at link farms, which count as toxic links you need to disavow.
- Popularity. Let’s say your blog is about digital payments, and you get a couple of pages to rank #1. Inevitably, other sites, often with spammy and inappropriate content, will use you as an authority source.
- Scraping. With the proliferation of AI tools, scraping is even easier than before. Sometimes, other sites will blatantly repost entire blogs of yours, which can easily lead to multiple toxic backlinks in one swoop.
Why Disavow Backlinks?
Modern-day business owners and SEO specialists already have a lot on their plate, so why bother thinking about who’s linking to your domain?
Although the ‘toxic’ in toxic backlinks is already telling enough, businesses should disavow links for three main reasons:
Google’s algorithms are growing more and more sophisticated, and are already capable of detecting unnatural link-building activities. This occurred over time, mainly with the following updates to the core algorithm:
- Penguin (April 24, 2012): Penguin targeted webspam and manipulative link-building practices, aiming to penalize sites with unnatural backlink profiles. This update made the quality of backlinks an essential factor in rankings, effectively tanking a large part of link-selling schemes.
- Hummingbird (August 22, 2013): While Hummingbird was more focused on understanding the context of search queries, it indirectly affected backlinks by making content relevance crucial. Backlinks from contextually irrelevant sites became less valuable, resulting in lots of unskilled link building efforts being uncovered and penalized.
- Pigeon (July 24, 2014): Primarily affecting local search, Pigeon emphasized the importance of local backlinks. Before, even mom-and-pop shops would buy cheap links on sites with foreign traffic..
- Fred (March 8, 2017): Fred targeted low-quality, ad-heavy content and consequently affected the value of backlinks coming from such sites. Websites that had a considerable number of backlinks from low-quality, content-thin pages were negatively impacted.
- BERT (October 25, 2019): BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) significantly impacted how Google understands search queries by better comprehending the context of words in search queries. While not directly linked to backlinks, BERT emphasized the importance of high-quality content and user intent, indirectly affecting the value of contextually irrelevant backlinks.
- Page Experience Update (June 2021): Google introduced core web vitals as ranking factors, focusing on user experience metrics like loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability. Although not directly targeting backlinks, this update reinforced the significance of user-centric websites, indirectly influencing site authority and possibly backlink quality.
- Spam Update (2022): Google continued its efforts to combat webspam and low-quality content, refining its algorithms to better detect and penalize manipulative link-building tactics. This update aimed to further diminish the impact of unnatural backlink profiles, focusing on improving search result quality.
- November Reviews Update (November 2023): Google introduced the standalone November Reviews Update, indicating a shift towards continuous evaluation of review content quality. This update underscores Google’s commitment to ongoing assessment and improvement of review-related information.
With more and more updates targeting the content on a page, avoiding the long arm of the algorithm is more important than ever. Even if you do link exchanges safely, you must always analyze the other party for toxicity.
If your site is flagged for an abnormal number of toxic backlinks, you run the risk of Google sanctions, which could range from a demotion in your site’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page) ranking to a complete de-indexing.
Your website’s backlink profile significantly impacts your SEO strategies. While high-quality backlinks can augment your SEO efforts, toxic backlinks can effectively nullify them.
Given that SEO is a composite of numerous elements—ranging from on-page optimization and quality content to social signals and user experience—allowing toxic backlinks to tarnish your backlink profile can be a death blow to even the most intricate strategy.
Imagine spending months, if not years, to find a content strategy that works, and a single Google penalty causes that to come crashing down. That’s why maintenance is the best way to prevent toxic backlinks from sticking.
Toxic backlinks often originate from low-quality, spammy websites or those that are entirely unrelated to your industry. Such links can cast aspersions on your site’s credibility and may deter potential customers or clients from engaging with your brand.
Toxic backlinks are those inbound links that have a negative impact on your website’s SEO performance. While the term ‘toxic’ might seem dramatic, the repercussions of these backlinks can indeed be severe.
They usually originate from websites with poor domain authority, those penalized by Google, or those involved in dubious or unethical practices such as spamming. You can pinpoint these risks by the following characteristics:
- Origin: They often come from sites that have been penalized or that have low domain authority.
- Relevance: Such backlinks are usually from sites that have zero relevance to your website’s content—this lets search engines know they were likely not gained naturally.
- Anchor text: Over-optimized anchor text or text that doesn’t align with your site’s content can be a red flag.
- Follow vs. noFollow: While NoFollow links generally don’t pass SEO value, a toxic link that is a DoFollow link is particularly harmful as it passes on negative SEO value.
- Site behavior: If the linking site engages in suspicious activities, has an abnormal number of pop-up ads, or its main purpose is affiliate linking, a link from them will likely be toxic.
How to Find Bad (Toxic) Backlinks
To be able to find toxic backlinks, you need to know how they’re made—and for that, we have to discuss black hat SEO techniques.
It’s the term used for unethical or deceptive practices aimed to trick search engines and gain higher rankings. Black hats skirt the rules and algorithms, looking for any way to boost their site in SERPs without incurring a penalty. They mostly rely on the following notorious black hat SEO techniques:
- Keyword stuffing: This is one of the oldest black hat tactics. It involves filling a webpage with target keywords to the point where it no longer offers value to readers. This is done in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results.
- Cloaking: With this approach, the content presented to the search engine spider is different from that presented to the user’s browser. This is done by delivering content based on the IP addresses or the User-Agent HTTP header of the user requesting the page.
- Link farming: This involves creating communities of pages that reference each other to artificially inflate a website’s popularity. A link farm is a form of spamming the index of a search engine, and it’s something that search engines look out for and penalize. Excessive mutual linking also falls into this category.
- Hidden text and links: Some sites use the same color for text as they do for the background, effectively hiding keywords and links. While this text is invisible to the user, search engines can still crawl this content.
- Article spinning: This involves taking an existing article and using paraphrasing software to rewrite the content. The new article is then published as unique content. However, these articles are often of low quality and offer little to no value to the reader.
Determining whether you should disavow a link can be a complex process, in which you must rely on the following factors:
Source Website’s DA/DR
Websites with low domain authority (DA) or domain ranking (DR), collectively known as DA/DR are often breeding grounds for toxic backlinks. Tools like Moz and Ahrefs can be used to check the DA/DR metrics of the linking site and see if the site is a worthy link source.
A backlink from a website that has nothing to do with your industry or content is a strong candidate for disavowal. For example, if you have a website about pet care and you receive backlinks from a gambling site, those links are likely toxic.
The overall quality of the linking page should also be considered. Is the content well-written and valuable, or does it appear spammy and poorly constructed?
Poor quality content is a hallmark of toxic backlinks, and if a site has every page looking like this, you should disavow links as quickly as possible.
Rate of Link Acquisition
A sudden, unexplained spike in backlinks can be a red flag for spammy or automated link-building tactics, especially if they’re from the same site.
Even if you’re confident it’s the result of a new product release, you should still check every batch of new backlinks for toxic ones.
Anchor Text Distribution
If the anchor text—the clickable text in a hyperlink—is overly optimized or doesn’t appear natural, Google will treat the linking as manipulative. More specifically, having a large percentage of your backlinks with the exact match anchor text for a keyword you’re trying to rank for can result in a penalty. But what does getting a Google penalty really mean?
Google Penalty: Understanding the Consequences
A Google penalty is essentially a punitive action taken against your website for violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. These penalties can manifest in two forms—manual and algorithmic penalties.
These can manifest in two forms:
- Manual penalties: This occurs when a human reviewer at Google has determined that pages on your site are not in compliance with Google’s guidelines. A manual action can result in the de-indexing of your website or a significant drop in rankings. In that case, Google will notify you through the Google Search Console, and you’ll also be provided with a way to fix the issue.
- Algorithmic penalties: These are automatic penalties that occur when Google updates its algorithms. For instance, the recent August 2023 Helpful Content update resulted in a lot of sites tumbling in the rankings, due to some pages being suddenly deemed irrelevant. Unlike manual actions, you won’t receive any notification from Google. To stay up to speed, you’ll need to monitor your site’s performance to detect any significant changes.
Recovering from a Google penalty often involves identifying and disavowing toxic backlinks, enhancing on-site SEO, and improving site content. Let’s take a look at how it’s done.
How to Recover from Google Penalty
If you’ve been hit by a Google penalty, the road to recovery is often long and arduous. The good news is that it’s not impossible. Even seasoned SEO experts can’t grasp PageRank or Google’s standards fully, which means anyone can get penalized. If this ever occurs to you, you can mitigate the issue by:
- Identifying the type of penalty: The first step in recovery is understanding the type of penalty you’ve received. Check this by looking through Google Search Console for any notifications or simply by evaluating the timing of the traffic drop with known dates of algorithm updates.
- Conducting a backlink audit: Use tools like Google Search Console, Ahrefs, or SEMrush to conduct a comprehensive backlink analysis. Identify the links that are likely causing the penalty and list them in a spreadsheet. Then, you can analyze them more closely later on.
- Contacting website owners: Before taking the disavowal route, it’s a good idea to reach out to the owners of the websites providing the toxic backlinks and request removal. This is often a long process and not always successful, but it’s a recommended step.
- Using Google’s Disavow Links Tool: For backlinks that you can’t get removed, use Google’s Disavow Tool to inform Google that you’d like them to ignore these links when assessing your site. It’s the best preemptive tool, as well.
- Submitting a reconsideration request: If you’ve received a manual action, once you’ve cleaned up your site, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request through Google Search Console. This is your opportunity to explain to Google what went wrong and what steps you’ve taken to fix it.
- Monitoring your results: After you’ve taken the above steps, closely monitor your site’s performance to see if your efforts are paying off. No matter how slow it takes, just remember that recovery is possible and be patient.
Google Search Console Disavow Links Tool Guide
Create a List
Before you can use the Disavow Links Tool, you’ll need to create a list of URLs or domains you wish to disavow. This should be a text file that you create manually, often after conducting a thorough backlink audit. To complete this, you need to:
- Compile all backlinks: Use SEO tools to compile a list of all backlinks pointing to your website.
- Identify toxic kinks: Go through this list to identify the toxic or low-quality links that you want to disavow.
- Format the list: Google requires a specific format for the disavow file. Make sure to follow this format carefully to avoid any errors.
Upload the List
Once your disavow list is ready and formatted correctly, it’s time to upload it to Google Search Console. Here’s how:
- Log in to Google Search Console: Log into your account and select the specific property (website) you’re looking to disavow links for.
- Navigate to the Disavow Tool: Find the Disavow Links Tool under the ‘Security & Manual Actions’ section.
- Upload and submit: Upload your disavow file and hit the submit button. Google will then process this file and should eventually ignore the disavowed links when assessing your site.
Can I Undo Disavowals?
Yes, undoing a disavowal is possible but not straightforward. To undo, you’ll have to access the Disavow Links Tool, download the existing file, remove the links you no longer wish to disavow, save the new file, and then re-upload it.
This process can take time to take effect, as Google needs to recrawl your site and update its index.
When to Disavow Backlinks
Timing is crucial when it comes to disavowing backlinks. If your website has been hit with a manual action from Google, immediate action is required.
In other scenarios, such as a suspected algorithmic penalty or a preventive measure, the timing can be more flexible.
However, regular audits of your backlink profile are recommended to identify and disavow toxic links proactively. Don’t wait until you get a penalty.
While backlinks are the lifeblood of a long-term SEO strategy, a few toxic links will slip through the cracks. This can be due to a number of factors, but the important thing is to act proactively and disavow them as soon as you see changes during your routine backlink analyses.
If a penalty occurs, make sure to clean your backlink profile as soon as possible.
However, the best solution for disavowing links is to lean into white hat link building, which will allow you to acquire links from legitimate publications and, ultimately, lead to blogs offering to pay you for their links to appear on your pages.