Dodging Link-Based Penalties: How to Disavow Backlinks Right

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Link building and SEO go hand in hand—one can’t truly reach its full potential without the other. In fact, out of the 200 ranking factors in the Google algorithm, link building is considered to be confirmed by Google itself.

This is why having a solid backlink profile is the backbone of great SEO performance. You can’t populate the SERPs and gain better SEO rankings if you don’t obtain a vote of confidence from high-authority sites. 

However, keep in mind that not all backlinks are equal. Not every website that links back to your site does you a favour. So, what exactly do you do when you have several spammy or low-quality backlinks on your end? Is there a way to get rid of them to prevent hurting your ranking?

This is where disavowing backlinks comes into play. But even the leading SEO agencies in the industry will tell you to take it easy, since Google can penalise you if you overuse this strategy.

In this article, we’ll talk about everything you need to know about disavowing bad backlinks. Let’s get started!

What It Means to Disavow Backlinks

Let’s first look at the dictionary definition of the word ‘disavow’. According to Collins Dictionary, to disavow something means openly declaring that you are in no shape or form connected or responsible for it. 

In the world of SEO, this is equivalent to telling Google or other search engines that you don’t acknowledge the value of an inbound link due to specific reasons. You might have acquired these links through black hat SEO tactics, or because they are spammy and low-quality.

The question is, why should you disavow backlinks if their main purpose is to improve your search engine rankings, Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA)? Not to mention that acquiring them requires a lot of patience and resources. 

Acquiring backlinks is usually a cause for celebration. Finally, after months and years of waiting, someone shares your content with their audience. However, some links can actually do more harm than good to your site’s SEO. 

Let’s look at the main differences between good backlinks vs bad backlinks to help you decide which backlinks to disavow:

Good Backlinks

Backlinks are considered good and relevant when they are outbound links to a reliable, authoritative site. They are acquired from websites that are authentic, have organic traffic and do not belong to sketchy industries. 

Good backlinks are also obtained through white-hat SEO strategies such as publishing quality content, doing guest blogging and creating infographics, among others.

Check out their common characteristics:


One of the most influential considerations in differentiating good backlinks from bad ones is their relevance. It refers to the context of the page or website that is linking back to you. 

It’s simple. For example, if you’re running a digital marketing agency, earning a link from a real estate business won’t be topically relevant to your expertise like a link from an established SEO platform. 

Keep in mind that relevance is a significant factor in determining backlink quality. It sends a message to the algorithm that the backlink fits perfectly into your content and adds value to your pages, making you qualified to talk about the subject. 

Search engines have become more advanced in understanding connections between things online. For instance, Google uses semantic SEO to apply search intent, conceptual meanings and the overall context in providing responses to search queries.

Simply put, confusing the Google algorithm won’t help you rank better. Always aim for backlinks from relevant sites!

Natural Placement

When search engines weren’t as advanced as they are today, SEO experts would hide external links on their pages by stuffing backlinks into footers. Lots of links with awkward anchor texts are inserted into the middle of the sentence to artificially boost rankings.

But now, Google dedicates half of its resources to trying to prevent SEO experts and link builders from manipulating the algorithm. It has since de-valued footer backlinks and started evaluating backlink quality by link placement. 

So, when your link placement looks forced, Google crawlers will likely ignore it. You can also suffer from a Google penalty:

unnatural inbound links explanation

Image Source: Search Engine Land

Rich Anchor Text

Hyperlinking to a page using clear, straightforward anchor texts helps users and search engines better understand the context of your site. 

Writing precise anchor texts will let users know which page they’ll land on if they decide to click on it, while search engines will determine the main topic using the keywords on the anchor text.

Below are examples of anchor texts. Which of them do you think is written better?

  1. Read more!
  2. Let’s further explore why SEO services are important in boosting your company’s brand.

If you went with number two, then you’re one step closer to gaining great backlinks. 

Bad Backlinks

Don’t be convinced when someone tells you that any backlink is a good backlink; it’s not entirely true. Bad backlinks are almost everywhere, and more people are paying for them in the name of higher rankings and authority.

Let’s take a look at their most common characteristics:

Links From Link Mills

Also referred to as paid link schemes, link mills have existed for almost as long as search engines—ever since someone discovered that backlinks are a part of ranking factors.

The way it works is pretty clear-cut: links are sold to website owners (either alone or in a package) to quickly shoot up the rankings. Sounds tempting, right?

Be careful, search engines have gotten better at making their algorithms manipulation-proof. Since they are user-centred, they don’t want the top position to go to whoever has the most backlinks. 

If you carefully read Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, then you know that these link exchanges can be detrimental to your SEO. Remember, backlinks aren’t about quantity; it’s about quality!

Links From Spammy Sites

Every time you hear the word ‘spam’, you often associate it with princes promising you a 10-million-dollar deal in a written email. These things are pretty easy to spot, but how about spammy backlinks?

These bad backlinks are often labelled as three Ps—pornography, pharmaceuticals and poker. Your website might be receiving links from these websites, eventually resulting in a search engine penalty even if you never actively sought them out in the first place.

If you conduct a regular SEO audit and notice that you have these spammy links, Google recommends that you reach out to the websites and ask for removal. Once done, you can use the Google Disavow tool to request the removal of these bad backlinks. 

Links From Blog Comments and Discussion Forums

Online forums like Quora, Reddit and Stack Exchange are getting more popular these days. These platforms allow them to find people with the same interests, geek out for hours about a TV series and read reviews from people who actually use the product they’re eyeing to buy. 

However, some SEO specialists tend to take advantage of these sites to manipulate their rankings. They put their links on the board when it’s not even a part of the conversation.

Due to AI advancements and natural language processing, search engines can easily detect this and penalise you.

Negative SEO Attack

Even if you’re just a beginner in SEO, then you know that purchasing thousands of backlinks will likely put you in the penalty zone. However, nothing stops your competitors from buying all these spammy links and pointing them to your domain in an attempt to knock down your rankings.

If you become a victim of this negative SEO attack, disavowing them through Google’s disavow tool is the only solution.

The Impact of Bad Backlinks: What Happens Next?

Once Google detects that there are toxic backlinks pointing to your domain, a penalty will be imposed upon your site. This will reduce your page rank, and if the penalties are extreme, the website you spent years building can be completely removed from the search index.

Take note that there are two types of penalties: one results in the full removal of a website from indexing, while the other only results in the partial removal from search results. You have to take further actions depending on the kind of penalty you receive.

All it takes is one link-based penalty for search engines to question your credibility and reputation. This is difficult to recover from, and you’d have no idea how long it would take to bring back a significant amount of traffic on your site again. 

With this, there’s a little to no chance that users will find your website, buy your products and subscribe to your newsletter. And since Google processes over 8.5 billion searches per day, this can be extremely harmful to your SEO. 

How It Works: Explaining Google’s Disavow Tool

To disavow bad backlinks, you should start with Google’s ‘Disavow Links Tool’. It is a part of the Google Webmaster Tools that allows you to tell Google to disregard certain backlinks so you don’t incur link-based penalties. 

Like the canonical tag, a disavow file is just a suggestion instead of an order. This means that Google is under no obligation to honour link disavowal requests. 

To get started, you need to submit a text file that contains the domains and linking pages you want to disavow using the Google Search Console. 

how to disavow backlinks

Image Source: Ahrefs

But before we proceed to the whole process of disavowing backlinks, let’s first discuss why Google created this tool.

Google has dedicated a huge chunk of its resources and time to fighting spammy link-building. It first introduced the ‘nofollow’ attribute in January 2005 to reduce comment spam. 

As Google updated its algorithm throughout the years, the next step the platform would take is the release of the first Penguin algorithm in 2012. It was their response to the alarming black hat link-building techniques to manipulate rankings. 

During the launch, it was believed that it mainly targeted two specific practices: keyword stuffing and link schemes. And ​​in the last quarter of 2012, the Disavow Links Tool was rolled out to give webmasters better control over the links pointing to their domain. 

Remember that the tool was never intended to act as the main defence against link-based penalties. According to Matt Cutts, it only acts as the final step after manual methods have been implemented. 

This begs the question: Is disavowing backlinks still considered necessary and important? If yes, when?

When You Should and Shouldn’t Disavow Backlinks

At this point, you might be asking why link disavowal has become a big deal in the SEO scene if it’s considered the last resort in optimising your link-building. This is because it can have negative effects on your site if used incorrectly. You can even read Google’s warning when opening the disavowal feature:

google warning about disavow backlinks

Redefine Your Marketing even suggested that businesses should only disavow links about twice a year. Because if you disavow links that do not appear spammy and you’re not at risk of a manual action from Google, you will do more harm than good.

Let’s take a look at the situations where link disavowal is appropriate vs when it’s not:

When to Disavow Backlinks

In some cases, choosing link disavowal becomes necessary during these situations:

When Your Site Receives a Manual Action

Also referred to as a penalty, manual action is given by Google to sites that implement unethical SEO practices which violate their guidelines. Once you receive a penalty, organic traffic will completely disappear and your rankings can drop overnight. 

One of these penalties is the ‘Unnatural Links’ warning. It means that Google has detected linking patterns on your website that attempt to manipulate PageRank. This can also mean that there is an unusual pattern of outbound links, giving Google the impression that you’re leading a link scheme. 

This is where link disavowal plays a huge role. Visit Google Search Console and click the Manual Actions section in the left menu to check if there are any manual actions you have to address. Here’s an example:

manual actions on google search console

After fixing the problems identified in a manual action, make sure that you submit a reconsideration request under GSC. 

When There’s a Drastic Drop in Rankings and Traffic

big drop in search visits

Image Source: Cognitive SEO

Seeing a massive drop in rankings and traffic will permanently set the alarm off. There is obviously an issue that you’ve overlooked, but rushing to disavow backlinks shouldn’t be the first step you take. 

Disavowing unnatural backlinks can harm your rankings even if you have good intentions, so you should take it seriously. Make sure that this is the main issue before using the disavowal tool!

We highly recommend manually weeding out the toxic backlinks before opting for link disavowal since the disavowing process might take a bit longer than expected.

When The SEO Experts You Hired Used Black-Hat Link-Building Tactics

If you’re a business owner who’s only starting in the SEO scene, then you’re probably outsourcing a digital marketing agency. You have a team of professionals that diagnose issues on algorithmic penalties, lead social media marketing and optimise lead generation

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luck to choose the right agency. Some businesses have made the mistake of hiring SEO experts who use unethical link schemes to boost their website visibility. 

This results in a penalty, which is difficult to recover from.

Once you find out that your SEO agency is building spammy links or buying backlinks in bulk, the Disavow Tool is at your disposal. Just make sure that you don’t massively disavow backlinks if you haven’t received any penalties yet!

When a Linking Site Has Viruses

Another situation that calls for the Disavow Tool is when the linking sites have malicious software and viruses. 

However, if these links only take up less than 1% of your total links, then link disavowal is not advised. The only exception is if that 1% means hundreds of thousands of links, which can be interpreted as a negative SEO attack.

When Not To Disavow Backlinks

Don’t mess with the disavow tool immediately! Here are the situations where you need to avoid this feature altogether:

When You’re Not Certain If It’s a Penalty

A study conducted by Kissmetrics has found that only 5% of penalised websites submit reconsideration requests to revive their rankings. This is partly because algorithmic penalties don’t come with notifications, unlike manual penalties which are clearly stated on Google Webmaster Tools.

Make sure that you assess the period when your organic traffic began to seriously decline. If the traffic significantly dropped the day an algorithm update rolled out, then the latter is to blame.

However, if you made several changes around the time your rankings dropped, these changes might have caused the algorithmic penalty.

When There’s A Small Drop in Rankings

No matter how great your SEO strategy is, you will face roadblocks that can affect your rankings and traffic in the process. Since ranking algorithms change, SEO is always going to be unpredictable. 

So, when you notice that there’s only a small drop in rankings and you haven’t received a penalty notification from Google, don’t panic. You might just have low-quality links pointing to your site. 

Remember that you shouldn’t quickly remove or disavow these links; the solution here is to focus on building higher-quality links instead. 

When You Just Want To Test The Disavow Tool

You might be tempted to test Google’s Disavow Tool, especially if you have never encountered it before. But have you ever heard of the proverb, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’? If yes, then this saying applies to link disavowal as well.

Let’s give you a real-life example. Cyrus Shepard, the founder of Zyppy, conducted an experiment to better understand how the disavow tool works. He disavowed every link (a total of 35,000) on his website. Nothing much happened for almost two months. His site even ranked for competitive keywords like ‘SEO blog’.

But things went against the tide when Google rolled out Penguin 2.0, causing his rankings to drastically drop. His rankings never seemed to recover even if he removed the disavow file. 

The biggest lesson you can learn from this experiment is this: Listen to Google’s advice. Disavow links at your own risk.

It’s also important to note that it’s possible to undo a link disavow. You have the option to delete a disavow file you upload, but it’s not revealed whether Google keeps the copy of the list or they instantly reinstate them to influence your rankings.

A Step-By-Step Guide: How To Identify and Disavow Bad Backlinks

If you want to carefully evaluate your backlinks and confirm that they are spammy or toxic, check out this step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Conduct a High-Level Link Audit

To determine whether a link disavowal is required, conducting high-level link monitoring can be helpful.

For example, you can use Ahref’s site explorer feature to get an in-depth look at your backlink profile and organic traffic. Once you have input your domain name, take a look at the following reports:

Referring Domains Graph

This report is extremely useful in identifying a sudden spike in links, which is usually an effect of link spam or a negative SEO attack. 

referring domain graph on Ahrefs

Image Source: Ahrefs

CTLDs Distribution Map

Another way to evaluate a backlink profile is through the country code top-level domain (CTLD) map. Take a look at this example provided by Ahrefs:

CTLDs distribution map

The example above is for a SaaS provider that mainly has a client base in the United States. However, as you can see, its most common CTLDs are from Russia, Libya and Colombia. 

Anchors Cloud

You can view the Anchors Cloud report to check if your links seem overly optimised. Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co., for example, uses branded terms in every anchor:

anchors cloud

Image source: Ahrefs

When your anchor text is brand-heavy, you give the impression that the link profile is natural and high-quality.

Step 2: Perform a Full Link Audit

If a high-level link audit doesn’t get rid of your suspicions, it might be time for a full link audit. 

Make sure that you export your Google Search Console data for your backlink analysis. You can also use Ahrefs by opening Site Explorer, entering your domain name and viewing your backlink profile.

To get started on link evaluation, look out for the following metrics:

  • Low DR (domain rating)
  • Unusual TLDs (top-level domain)

Keep in mind these don’t guarantee that a backlink is toxic, but they can provide a great start in sorting links. Sort them by DR (low to high) or take advantage of the built-in filters to identify specific TLDs.

Once done, flag domains for disavow in the spreadsheet. But if you think certain links fall into a grey area, label them as ‘questionable’ to help you assess whether it’s up for link disavowal or not. 

Step 3: Upload Your List Using Google’s Disavow Tool

Format your list of domains or pages that you’d like to disavow in a text file. Make sure that you only specify one URL or domain per line; you’re not allowed to disavow an entire subpath. The file size must also not exceed 100,000 lines (this includes comment lines and blank lines) and 2 megabytes.

Here are other link file formats you should use:

  • Prefix a domain you want to disavow with ‘domain:’.
  • The text file should be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII and ends in .txt.
  • The maximum URL length is 2,048 characters.

Here’s an example provided by Google:

online disavow tool

Once you’ve accomplished the instructions above, you can upload your list using the disavowal links tool page. Bear in mind that Google might take a few weeks or more in incorporating your list into its index if the upload is successful!

Try annotating the disavow file using Google Analytics and monitor your site regularly. 

Read Google’s complete instructions on disavowing links to your site so you don’t miss out on anything important!

Final Thoughts 

You are not obligated to disavow backlinks most of the time, especially if you don’t have a manual action from search engines. This is why learning about link disavowal, what it means and the dangers associated with it is extremely necessary.

There’s a reason why Google highlights the importance of being cautious when using the disavow tool. If you run the risk of overdoing it, your rankings and traffic will suffer in the long run. Recovery isn’t guaranteed, either. 

The safest way to use disavow backlinks is if you have already exhausted removing bad backlinks through traditional methods. If you’re confident that you’ve tried everything manually, then link disavowal is worth the shot.

Whatever happens, Roots Digital is here to lend a helping hand in reviewing your backlink profile. If you think you have toxic backlinks scattered around your web pages, our team on SEO service has you covered. We will perform a comprehensive SEO audit, manage issues and address manual actions on your end. 

Give us a call and let us proactively monitor your links, hand in hand. 


Should I disavow bad backlinks?

No, you are not required to disavow every bad backlink you can find. Google is becoming better at identifying toxic links and not counting them to evaluate your rankings, so link disavowal is only recommended if you receive manual actions. 

What is the best way to disavow a link?

The best way to disavow a link is by uploading a disavow text file through Google Search Console. Just make sure that you’ve carefully identified the links you’re going to disavow!

What does Google’s link disavow tool do?

Considered a part of the Google Search Console, Google’s Disavow Tool allows webmasters to dodge link-based Google penalties. By using this tool, you send a message to Google that you don’t acknowledge the value of an inbound link because they are spammy, toxic, etc.

Looking for a trusted SEO agency in Singapore? Schedule a consultation with us today.

About Roots Digital

Roots Digital is an award-winning digital marketing agency and SEO agency headquartered in Singapore, specialising in eCommerce Marketing and lead generation.

Some of our core digital marketing services include SEO servicesSEM services, Google Ads management servicesGoogle Analytics services and more.

Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in working with us. Connect with us via our service enquiry form. You may schedule a call for more information and to know more about our digital marketing services.

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Picture of Ian Ong
Ian Ong
Marketing Director @ Roots Digital, a digital marketing agency in Singapore. Aka the guy responsible for growing the digital marketing agency.
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