Search Marketing

Google Launches Disavow Tool to Battle Link Loopholes

October 19, 2012

We have reached an apex in Google’s battle against link spam. This week, Google launched the much anticipated disavow tool, allowing webmasters to take action against “unnatural” incoming links. The announcement should interest marketers who have engaged in link development or have attracted undesirable links over the past decade.

Matt Cutts, Head of Google Webspam, provides an overview in the video below:

Google’s own success generated link loopholes

So, how did we get to a place where Google requires cooperation and policing of hyperlinks pointing back to domains within their index? It starts with Google’s key advantage as a leader in algorithmic search relevancy.

Most marketers already know that Google’s PageRank (link voting system) is central to its natural search algorithm. It calculates the importance of billions of link relationships across the web and remains a key ingredient in Google’s ability to rank web results. Yet, the success of PageRank spawned a decade of link building and a culture in which marketers sparred toe-to-toe to gain an advantage through both legitimate (and sometimes) artificial links.

On the opposing side, Google’s algorithm and Webspam team continued to educate, recalculate and discount links deemed as “unnatural.” Since the dawn of Google’s search dominance, marketers have continually sought opportunities to influence how the engine calculates links in order to outrank competing domains. Many tactics have been perfectly acceptable, yet others smack of spam.

Have you received a notification from Webmaster Tools?

A first major step Google took to create transparency into its algorithm was the launch of Webmaster Tools and the debut of a site verification process. As one of the many ongoing updates to Webmaster Tools, Google launched a “messaging” feature through which the engine can send messages that are relevant to a specific website.

This messaging includes notifications to webmasters whose sites might be receiving “unnatural,” “artificial” or unwanted links. Earlier this year, Google sent out such warnings to some webmasters; a larger batch of notifications was released in July. These messages can be separated into two classes:

Site-wide penalty notifications

This means that a website will lose rankings and traffic due to manipulative paid links being detected. The disavow tool will be needed for any websites that have received this type of message.

Informational messages

These communicate that “unnatural links” were detected, but no penalty was actually levied against that domain. Instead, any link credit to the destination will be ignored/disavowed and/or the source linking site will be penalized. In this case, webmasters are not mandated to use the disavow tool.

Google suggests that future messaging will provide specific URL examples and explain whether inbound links appear to be of low quality or a paid link.

About the disavow tool and process

Most brands won’t ever need to use the disavow tool unless they are participating in aggressive link schemes or paid linking activities.  The tool is geared to help webmasters who have received critical notifications from Google (e.g. a “site-wide penalty” notification).

The first step before using this tool is to do everything possible to clean up unwanted back links through direct outreach. If that is unsuccessful, leverage the Disavow Links section within your Webmaster Tools to submit a specific list of inbound links that still linger. If you are a brand unfortunate enough to have landed in this situation, an additional “reconsideration request” will be a key step in the process after outreach cleanup and disavow submissions have taken place.

Within the Disavow Link section, Webmasters will be prompted to upload a file containing any links they want to disavow. The format is basic, a plain text file with one URL per line. Any lines that begin with a pound sign (#) are considered comments and Google ignores them, but can offer context about any steps the brand has taken to remove those links by contacting that website and on what date.

Next steps: Site-Wide Notification

If you have received a site-wide penalty notification from Google, you’ll want to start researching your link graph and assess all inbound link relationships to their domains. Once a full list of domains and URLs has been established, you’ll want to categorize “quality” or groupings.

We anticipate Google will soon provide more categorical examples of “quality violations,” which will provide more context to webmasters. Once you’ve aggregated a list of infringing domains and URLs, the next step is to contact those sites directly and politely request removal of the link. Document any feedback during your outreach.

Next steps: Informational Message

If you received only informational messaging, you’ll want to get proactive and start the research process around back-links now, developing an ongoing list of suspect links across the web. To begin inbound link research, Google offers an area called “Links to Your Site” within Webmaster Tools, enabling brands to download hundreds or thousands of link addresses that point to your pages. After downloading, brands should sort and categorize these relationships into quality or infringement groups.


Once the disavow tool has been used, the impact could take several weeks to see the impact. In that time, Google will assess the submissions and take them as an indication that those links should be ignored or treated as “no follow,” thus cancelling their significance.

If your site had a site-wide penalty, you’ll begin to see the improvements after the cleanup, disavow and post reconsideration request. However, for those brands simply doing their due-diligence (e.g. proactively responding to an “informational message”), the exact benefits are unclear and the expected outcome should be monitored through keyword rankings and Google natural traffic metrics.

Webmasters are advised to regularly audit inbound links discovered through link analysis tools, and Webmaster Tools data. Continue monitoring rankings for any trends in your own rankings or those from your competitive set that might be impacted.

Closing thoughts

Google is pushing an alternative path for brands to building a search engine from the online presence through Google+ product. The disavow tool promises great benefits to marketers, but is simultaneously more difficult to manipulate than the link graph by being tied to actual identities. We expect Google to gradually weigh factors originating from Google+ (the +1 button and following, for instance), more heavily — and this greater social vision is where marketers should shift their focus.