Should you disavow bad links to your website?

Posted on January 29, 2019


The history of online marketing can be split into two distinct eras, where the methodology of SEO (search engine optimisation) went full circle.

The first era is the age of the link builder. Many SEO companies would spend thousands of pounds of their clients’ money in renting links from other websites. It was always advised against by Google, and nobody really came out and said they did it… but they did it. We knew it, they knew it and Google knew it.

The problem was that it worked, so they kept on doing it.

Then there was the big awakening within Google, where it was suddenly able to identify all of these bad links and take action on them. Websites lost rankings overnight, and some SEO companies lost their clients and their business. What was once helping websites to rank better in search was, overnight, now adversely affecting their rankings.

We had entered the age of removing links.

The link sellers, of course, weren’t to be undone by this as they now charged SEO companies to remove links, just as they had charged them to add the links in the first place.

It was the perfect business model – people paid you to add links and then they paid you to remove them. The perfect business model, that is, for the unscrupulous.

Link audits, as they became known, were an expensive, time-consuming practice. If a website had been particularly aggressive with its link buying, it would need to spend a huge amount of time and money on getting rid of those same links. There could be thousands, tens of thousands or even more, and every one needed to be removed.

Luckily, Google provided a tool for this – the Disavow Tool. You could submit a list of links to Google that you want ‘ignored’ when taking your link profile into account. It was a way to ‘fess up’ to having dodgy links, letting Google know about them, and asking them to give you a hard pass.

Is it still worthwhile doing this, though? Do we need to go to these lengths now when SEO is a lot more holistic these days?

This was discussed on Search Engine Round Table last week.

Despite current belief suggesting that disavowing links wasn’t necessary anymore, Google’s John Mueller contradicted that opinion by suggesting that disavowing links when you have received an obvious manual action penalty for spam is worth doing. He said:

“I think if you’re in the case where it’s really clear that the web spam team you would give you a manual action, then based on the current situation then that’s what I would disavow.”

This raises the question that if it’s worth doing in instances of obvious spam links, surely it’s worth doing for every questionable or ill-gotten gained link? Why take the risk? Who’s to say what is an obvious spam link and what is a link that ‘may’ or ‘may not’ be harming your rankings? Google certainly isn’t going to tell you, so it’s up to you to make that call and take action yourself.

The best way to avoid all of this, of course, is not to acquire dodgy links in the first place. With so many new businesses cropping up after the great link awakening from Google, there should be a huge number of new websites out there that don’t have a murky link history. These ‘clean’ websites should be kept as such, and never have this problem to worry about.

This is only true as they don’t use someone for their SEO who they really shouldn’t. Remember that dodgy link building still actually works in terms of increasing rankings…in the short term. Long term, it could turn your domain toxic.

Technical Director at Engage Web
Darren is Technical Director at Engage Web, as well as being a co-founder of the company. He takes a hands-on approach to SEO and web design, helped by more than 20 years’ experience in these fields.
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