A couple months ago, we covered a pretty ridiculous story (well, most inbound marketers thought it was ridiculous) about a webmaster who was threatened with the long arm of the law if she didn't remove an outbound link on her site. You know, despite the fact that it was a really high-quality link. I mean, most people jump for joy when they naturally acquire inbound links ... 'sup with the lawyers?
Well, this kind of story isn't an anomaly. People send requests to webmasters to remove links all the time. In fact, we just got one the other day -- and we complied, despite the fact that it was actually a really good link to their site with awesome anchor text. Whatever. As you wish.
And if there's anyone who knows a thing or two about these link removal requests, it's the fine folks over at Google. As post-Panda marketers, we all know that Google doesn't look kindly on sites engaging in sketchy link behavior, and as such, many of us have gotten pretty vigilant at ensuring we don't have a bevy of spammy links coming in to our site. It's for this reason (and a few others, perhaps, which we'll get into later in the post) that Google launched its newest tool, 'Disavow Links,' at the PubCon conference, which we heard about through Powered by Search. Let's break down what this Disavow Links tool is, how to use it, and of course ... whether you should even bother.
What Exactly Is the New Disavow Links Tool?
The Disavow tool is a Google Webmaster Tool that lets you ask Google to not consider links to your website that you think might be harming your site's ranking. By "not consider," I mean that by putting these links into the tool, you'll tell Google, "Hey, I know this is a sketchy link and I wish it wasn't linking to me, can you please not ding me for it when you're figuring out where to rank me in the SERPs? That would be amazing!"
This is particularly important for low-quality links you've acquired over the years -- for instance, if you've ever purchased a link (tsk tsk!) and want to remedy the situation before Google finds out and smacks you in the tush with a SERP penalty. Now, if you've already been dinged for those low-quality links in the past, it doesn't work retroactively. But you can try to get ahead of Google by asking not to get in trouble. Here's what the tool looks like:
How to Use Google's Disavow Links Tool
Sounds pretty legit. How would a fine marketer like yourself use it? Like so:
Step 1: Log in to your Google Webmaster Tools account. When logged in, you'll see your website in the gray box. Click the red box that says, 'Disavow Links.'
Step 2: Click 'Disavow Links' again. Google wanted to have time to give you a warning (which they'll give again in the next step) that using this feature incorrectly can harm your site's performance in the SERPs. Because, obviously, disavowing links that are actually good can dry up that positive SEO juice.
Step 3: In this step, you'll actually upload the file of links that you want to get rid of. Click 'Choose File' and upload a plain text file (you can create this in something like Notepad) with a list of links that you want to disavow. Only include one URL per line.
Then click the blue 'Submit' button. And, of course, 'Done.' Because you're done.
If you'd like to disavow an entire domain, you can do that. Alternately, you can disavow just one link. If you'd like to add any notes to this document explaining why you've disavowed any links or domains, you can do that, too. Here's what your final document might look like according to Google:
In this example, the three pound signs are simply comments that Google ignores, but might help you with your record keeping. That line that says "domain:spamdomain1.com," however, is an indication to Google -- because of the keyword "domain" -- that you want to disavow all links from that particular domain. Those last three URLs you see in the example above, however, are examples of a request to only disavow those three specific links, not all of the links that come from spamdomain2.com.
Google only supports one disavowal file per site. If you want to update the file in the future, you'll need to download the existing file, modify it, and upload the updated one. The file size limit is 2MB. Hope you don't need all of it -- that's one messy site.
Is it Worth Your While?
Meh. Depends. Do you know what you're doing? Do you have a shady history of link building? Are you actually at risk of being dinged in the SERPs from low-quality inbound links? Like, for real? Here's the thing:
Let's start with the fact that using this tool doesn't automatically mean Google will disavow the links. You're asking them to, but it doesn't mean they will -- it's simply, as Matt Cutts at Google puts it -- "a strong suggestion rather than a directive." They probably will follow your suggestion, but it's not ensured.
But even if they do listen to your suggestion, are you sure you want them to? You better be. Absolutely. Positively. Sure. Like I alluded to in the introduction to this blog post, there are tons of cases of people requesting high-quality inbound links to their site be removed. Whether this stems from a lack of information on how inbound linking works or misinformation from a site crawler or other SEO tool telling them links are bad (that aren't), it is a huge bummer to lose the link juice from high-quality links. Don't use this tool -- as Google warns you multiple times before you are allowed to officially disavow links -- unless you're sure you have some harmful links coming in to your site.
Now, if you do accidentally disavow links that turn out to be good, you can undo the process by downloading the file and re-uploading a new one with those good links removed. Just keep in mind that the initial disavowal proces could take a few weeks, so you might not notice a ding in your search rankings immediately upon uploading your disavowal file. And as such, reuploading the cleaned up file might not have an immediate effect on your search rankings -- that could amount to a month or two of lost search rankings if you hastily upload a disavowal file.
Bottom line? Let's default to Google. When asked, "Will most sites need to use this tool?" they responded by saying, plainly, "No." They offer some sound follow-up advice, noting, "If you're not sure what the tool does or whether you need to use it, you probably shouldn't use it." If you are considering using this tool, I recommend you read the entirety of the Q&A with Matt Cutts on this tool to ensure all of your bases are covered.
What do you think of this new Google 'Disavow Links' tool? Will you be using it to remove links to your website?