Complete Guide to Disavowing Backlinks

If you’re suspicious of a competitor purposefully creating a flurry of harmful backlinks to your website, you think you are going to be penalized by Google, or you would like Google to disregard these links, then it is important to disavow these links that point to your website. Follow the guide below to learn about disavowing backlinks.

Keeping harmful links in place could have a negative impact on your SEO which could eventually lead to a manual action and or deindexing of your website.

With the help of this guide, you will learn about the importance of disavowing backlinks and how to do so with your own website.

What is a harmful backlink?

The Google Penguin update back in 2012 introduced positive changes by Google and its sole purpose was to reward high quality websites and penalize those that used link schemes and keyword stuffing strategies.

It is now super important to ensure that your backlinks are relevant. In turn this would mean that Google recognises your website as relevant, and that you are providing high quality relevant content to your users and target audience. I’m sure you can tell that link relevancy is the key here.

Of course, we will never fully understand the link criteria that Google use to flag links as spam but looking at historical data we can certainly have an insightful guess.

Below are short summaries of some of the methods that are used to spread potentially harmful and unnatural links:

Growing a successful website certainly is not a straightforward task and your SEO should never be overlooked or ignored. It is important to regularly audit your backlinks as well as your positional data to ensure that you are not missing out acquiring on potential visitors.

Quantity over quantity, right? Not really. As mentioned above, Google is in search of relevant links to rank your website.

Link networks generally operate by ignoring relevancy or quality links and solely focus on spreading as many backlinks as possible, across as many websites that they own. They do this in hope of manipulating the Google search algorithm to increase positioning in search engine results pages.

These networks of websites don’t have the goal to pull traffic into their websites but to manipulate Google into thinking that you have relevant backlinks.

This method of link building remains effective for short periods of time but is generally recognised as high risk, as it is easy incredibly easy to spot a website that has used this ancient tactic, see graph below.

The effects of black hat link building.
Transparency of link building to manipulate search results.

Unfortunately, there are still some SEO agencies that offer link network services to unknowing clients in order to make an effortless fortune, and the work that they carry out could eventually harm the client’s website and business overall. Don’t buy links.

Google generally consider forum links to be spammy if they do not have any context or are posted without relevancy.

Creating fake user profiles, signatures and threads with a link to your website is considered spammy and is an easily identifiable pattern that can be picked up by Google.

Look at the thread below for example, writing a dissertation about a Nike shoes scam website on a modified cars forum looks quite unnatural, does it not? This is what the general forum post spam tends to look like.

Example of forum link post spam.
Example of a clear attempt to spam links across an established forum.

On the other hand, having real users naturally discuss your website in a forum is a fantastic source of traffic and will help your website rank on search engine results pages. You don’t need to force it though.

Blog Comments

If you have ever owned a blog, you are probably aware of this irritating method. Blog comment spam has been around forever, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

There are many tools freely available for spammers to use in order to find blogs with comments enabled, they trawl the web and automatically spam websites with keywords and website links in order to try to gain a higher ranking in search engine results pages.

This type of spam nowadays is not regarded as harmful if your blog has been configured correctly. It remains very irritating for those aiming to keep a relatively clean backlink profile.

Sticking with the Nike theme, see a blog comment below promoting a scam website. This example also shows an example of anchor text spam.

Example of blog comment post spam.
Blog comment and anchor text spam example.

WordPress, Wix, Squarespace are just some of the platform that ensure that the comment section of the website is strictly a nofollow zone, this means that the websites linked are to be disregarded by Google.

However, if your platform is self or custom built you should absolutely check that this section is a nofollow zone, otherwise it could be detrimental for your website and its search rankings.

Anchor Text Spam

Used in the correct way, anchor text can be a very powerful method to acquiring visitors. It sends a signal to search engines and allows them to determine the relevancy and intent of your website or linked page.

If we created a link with the anchor text “Free SEO Advice”, then the search engine would expect that the target page or website would offer “Free SEO Advice” – we are telling the search engine what the linked page or website is about and how relevant it is.

Keywords which are used in the anchor text tells search engines what the content of the link website is. Sticking to the theme of this article, it is incredibly important that anchor text remains relevant to the target website and its content.

Anchor text spam is the action of knowingly repeating a specific set of anchor text across several websites with the sole aim to gain links. This practice is unnatural, as linking websites will not typically all use the same anchor text when linking to your website – unless it is your brand or website name, this is the only exception.

  • Spam – 718 external links with the anchor text “The Best Ecommerce Advice Website”
  • Not Spam – 391 external links with the anchor text as “NetBusinessTalk”

This method of gaining backlinks is easily detectable by Google and other search engines, anchor text spam is clearly an unnatural way of link building.

Deceptively hiding text or links in a web page in order to manipulate your position in search engine results pages is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Any text or links that are solely on the web page for search engines rather than visitors can be classed as a hidden link. Common methods to hide a link can be seen below.

  • Styling the text colour to match the background colour.
  • Positioning text behind an image.
  • Using CSS to negatively position text off screen.
  • Setting the font size to zero.
  • Character linking, such as a comma or a semi-colon.

Fortunately, not all hidden text is considered hidden with intent to manipulate. Implementations that improve the accessibility of your website are considered positive and could give your website a boost in the search engine results pages. This includes features such as image alt attributes and noscript tags.

Adding links to the footer of a website is an age-old technique to manipulate the position of a website in the search engine results pages. This technique is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and is an express ticket to get your website gets penalized.

Adding footer links remains a popular technique in the black hat world. If you have purchased several cheap links from a website, then you can almost guarantee that you will have a bunch of footer link spam on a website somewhere.

What makes this technique incredibly troublesome is that because your website has been added to the footer of a toxic website, it is visible on each page, not just the one, this results in more backlinks from a single referring domain.

Relevant footer links are not a problem and Google will recognise this so don’t panic if you’ve just built a website for somebody and have included a “Designed by John Smith” link in the footer, this is relevant.

It’s super easy to spot footer links added in with the purpose to manipulate the SERPs (search engine results pages).

For instance, you wouldn’t expect a gardening website to have a link about printer ink in the footer, would you? It’s not worth it. Keep your links relevant.

Web Directories

Making use of web directories can be very useful and a great method to acquire new users. It is important to list your website on the well-established, trusted web directories considering they have hundreds of thousands of visitors per month – some of those users could be genuinely interested in finding your website.

However, it is a good idea to steer clear of the shady web directories to ensure that they don’t harm your SEO as they will likely be not trusted by Google and or be recognised as a toxic domain.

Example of a shady web directory.
Shady website directory example.

Focus on high quality directories and forget the unknown ones, you do not need hundreds of web directory links.

It’s also super important that you apply NAP consistency across both global and local web directories.

Local directories and citations remain incredibly beneficial to local businesses and can make a huge difference to your local SEO. Make sure you cover as many of these as possible.

Disavowing a Toxic Backlink

Before you take any action of disavowing backlinks, it is super important that you have considered every link and its destination.

Check and check again that the destination is not of high quality and does not appear to have any relevance to your website.

All things considered; you can now move on to disavowing backlinks.

  1. Assemble your list of links to disavow.
  2. Open a blank text document.
  3. Specify one URL or domain to disavow per line. Note: Domains must be specified with the “domain:” prefix. Example:
  4. Include comments with a “#” prefix. Example: # This is a comment.
  5. Save the file in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII format.
  6. Go to the Google disavow links page.
  7. Select your website. If your website is not listed here and you have not yet added your website to search console, you can follow our guide.
  8. Click “Disavow links”.
  9. Click “Choose file” and select your recently created disavow list.
# This is a comment.
# Two domains to disavow below.

# Two pages to disavow below.

Promptly after you have uploaded your disavow file to Google, you will receive a confirmation email similar to the one below.

Google Search Console Disavowing backlinks confirmation email
Google Search Console Disavow list submission confirmation email.

Congratulations! You have just submitted a list of links you wish to disavow to Google and you have learned about disavowing backlinks.

It is important to take note of the following when uploading a list of links you wish to disavow:

  • Uploading a new disavow list will replace all previously uploaded disavow lists.
  • It can take a few weeks for Google to process the information that you upload. Your list will be incorporated into our index as we re-crawl the web and reprocess the pages that we see.
  • Disavowed links will continue to be shown in the Links report.

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