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Backlinks are often referred to as one of the most important factors of SEO.

Having authoritative links from relevant websites is crucial for good SEO performance.

However, not all links are good links, in fact, some links are bad and can actually seriously negatively affect your SEO and, indeed, your entire online visibility, as a number of companies have discovered when hit by a Google Penalty.

For more information on Google Penalty removal, please see our blog about Removing Google Penalties.

So What is a Bad Link?

In its simplest form, a bad link is any link that is not relevant to the page that it is linking to or is unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative, i.e, it may be a paid link or one acquired by participating in a link scheme.

Examples of other bad links might be from sites which look or are very spammy, where there is little content, where they are from very unnatural looking directories or sites which you don’t think reflect your sites values, for example sites promoting hate or extreme political views.

What to do with Bad Links

This leaves many with the question, what should I do if my site has bad or toxic backlinks coming from unnatural, paid, deceptive, artificaial, irrelevant or  spammy websites? 

This is an important question to consider, and you need to think whether your bad/toxic links have come from past poor/black hat SEO tactics that previous SEO’s might have used or if there is another reason why you might have thousands of these detrimental links, such as Negative SEO.

In this article, we advise on how to identify bad or toxic links, what to do and if and how you should remove or disavow bad backlinks.

How Do I Know if I Need to Create a Disavow File?

Submitting a disavow file to Google is only a request and, in any case, should only EVER be used as a last resort.

In lazily submitting a Disavow File, not only could you actually remove valuable link juice passing links which could seriously affect your sites visibility, but it is not a good idea to waste Google’s time by requesting the removal of links that you could have done and, really, you don’t want to flag up to Google that you’ve been breaking the rules unless you really have to.

So before you go gung-ho into submitting a disavow file you need to follow these steps.

Step 1 – Identify problem links

One of the easiest ways to analyse the quality of the backlinks to your site is by using the Inbound Links Analysis tool from Moz.

This inbound link analysis tool will crawl the backlink profile of any given domain and show you the page authority, the domain authority scores and, the spam score of the links.

You need to look out for links that feature:

  • Low page authority
  • Low domain authority
  • High Spam Score

By using these three backlink metrics from Moz, it is quite easy to quickly analyse how relevant the linking source is to your page and whether Google may consider it to be a bad or spam link.

Here are the Spam Score breakdowns from Moz:

  • 1-30%- Low Spam Score
  • 31-60%- Medium Spam Score
  • 61-100%- High Spam Score

From these numbers we can see that any links with a 60%+ spam score might be considered bad and you need to look at these closely.

Spam scores within the 40-60% range should be also analysed manually, and you should use your own judgement to determine whether that page/site is relevant to your website.

Because of the way that backlinks are identified and crawled, you should always use, at least, two alternative resources to analyse your backlink profile. We always use Ahrefs as we believe it is possibly one of the best backlink profilers and Google Search Console, however we also tend to use, in addition, Bing Webmaster Tools, SEMRush, Majestic and Searchmetrics, who have recently improved their link analysis software, depending upon the size and complexity of the project.

Step 2: Manually Check Those Links

Using the tools outlined above will save you a lot of time and work in the initial stages, however you still need to sense check these links yourself.

In many cases, links which look bad in the analysis might actually be a good source of relevancy or traffic and vice versa, so check and make sure what these links actually are.

If they are dodgy, then you can save time in the next stage by identifying contact details for the bad link site owner whilst you’re doing this.

It is important to very carefully consider what links you will disavow, as once you have had a link disavowed by Google it will be much harder to get that link recognised by Google in the future.

If you disavow links that have genuine quality and relevance to your website, it can be extremely detrimental to your SEO performance, so be really careful…

Step 3: Manually Clean Up Your Link Profile

This is the hard part! The previous two stages were a walk in the park, by comparison. Google are quite explicit that this is something they expect you to do and if you haven’t, then don’t expect any help from them.

In fact, on the first page of the disavow tool they remind you:- “You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.”

Create a file where you list all of your target bad links that need removal. We think a Google Doc is best which you can share with Google to show them your process. Create separate columns to record your attempts to contact the site owners to ask them to remove these links, their response, the dates you contacted them, followed them up and so on.

This is very important. If you telephone them, document it, if you email record it. Make every attempt to get the bad linker to remove or change his link, e.g. by suggesting adding a no follow tag to the link.

You need to follow up and provide an adequate time for people to remove the links, bearing in mind that they will generally be removing links as a favour to you, so this generally will not be their priority. Please also be aware that some people will want to charge you a fee for removing links, so you will need to think about a budget.

Once you have contacted all the site owners, followed up at least once, allowed time for them to remove the links, checked these links and documented all of this in a shareable document, you are now ready to prepare your disavow file.

How to Create a Disavow File

When creating a disavow file, be aware that there is no guarantee that Google will complete your request and remove all of the selected bad links to your site.

However, it is our job as SEOs to make it as simple and easy for Google to carry out and request and understand why we want them to disavow these links, whilst providing sufficient evidence and information that we have not solicited these links and justifying the reason for disavowing the bad or toxic backlinks.

Features of a Disavow File

  • Your disavow file should be created within a text (.txt) file encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
  • Specify the domain of each bad website you would like Google to disavow or the individual url of each bad backlink, one domain or URL per line
  • We recommend that you should include a comment on each url or domain that you are asking Google to disavow. You should do this by creating a separate line with a hash (‘#’) followed by the comment on why the link should be disregarded and what actions you have taken to contact the site to remove the link
  • It helps to include the date of when you tried to contact the site owner and then update this date for each time you retry contacting the owner
Example of Disavow File Layout

We also recommend adding a commented (line started with a # tag) link to the Google Doc with all your notes on preparing your disavow request, at the bottom of the file.

Once you have added all the links you deem to be bad or toxic links and reached out to the sites manually requesting for the links to be removed, it is time to submit your disavow file to Google to be assessed.

How to Submit your Disavow file:

  • Sign into your Google account which contains the Google Search Console Account for the website that you wish to disavow bad backlinks for. Although your Google Search Console Account interface does contain a link to Manual Actions, the link to the Google disavow links tool page is not contained in the menu, so you need to navigate to this separately.
  • Having noted the warning reminding you that this is a request and you should have made every effort to remove these links yourself, in the drop-down menu select your website and click ‘disavow links’
Google Disavow Tool Welcome
  • Note the second warning that “This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe that there are a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.” and then, with your heart in your mouth, click “Disavow Links”
  • Note the repeat of this warning on the next page, then select the disavow file that you have carefully created with the backlinks you want Google to disavow. If you (or someone else connected with the site) have previously submitted a disavow file, Google will show you the date and time of this submission and allow you to download this file. Please note that the file you upload will overwrite this, so you need to ensure that any bad links you want disavowing in this old file are also included in the new file or you could be penalised by backlinks that have previously been disavowed.
  • Click “Submit” and you’re done.

It is important to reiterate that disavowing links is not an instant process. It may take weeks for Google to consider and assess your request to disavow and then take the necessary action, so you need to monitor this over the weeks following your submission and carefully analyse movements in your rankings and search visibility, particularly for the pages on your site which had bad or toxic backlinks pointing to them.

Summary: The Process of Creating a Disavow File:

  • Carefully consider if you have problem with poor quality links and that it is these that are causing your sites rankings to suffer.
  • If you think that this is the case, use backlink analysis tools to analyse spam links to your site
  • Manually sense check all these links to see which are actually bad or toxic
  • Try to remove all of these bad links yourself
  • Carefully assess which of the bad backlinks that you cannot remove yourself need to be disavowed
  • Create your disavow file using the guidelines outlined in this post
  • If you are really sure that this is the right course of action, upload your disavow file to Google using the 6 steps outlined in this post.
  • Monitor and analyse the effects of this over the course of the next few weeks and months and, if necessary, react accordingly.

For more information on backlinks, disavowing bad links and Google Penalty Removal contact Zelst.