The Low-Down on Google’s New Disavow Tool

In case you haven’t heard the news, on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012, Google’s Matt Cutts announced a new tool for disavowing links.  What does the tool do?  Very simple – you can submit a text file to Google to tell it you don’t want it to count certain links towards your website’s rankings in its search engine results pages (SERPs).

Think Before you Act

Before throwing your arms up in the air in triumphant jubilation and running out the door, requesting those bad links you think you have disavowed, keep in mind you can seriously impact your search engine rankings by having just a few links disavowed.

Google’s intent with this tool is of course to help you control the quality of back links to your website, but keep in mind they just released the tool, and when things are first released, they work imperfectly, even when they do come from a great company like Google.  If you unknowingly disavow some links that are actually very valuable, you could cause your site to crash in the SERPs, wasting months, and sometimes years of hard work.

When Should You Use the Disavow Tool?

Unfortunately, this is never certain (just like SEO in general).  However, there are some situations in which you can be pretty sure (not positive) you are using this tool to disavow certain links without incurring disastrous consequences on your search engine rankings:

  1. You have received bad link warnings in Google Webmaster Tools.  Google only offers one direct signal you are doing something it doesn’t like, and this is it.  But, you have to also be sure you know which links are causing problems.
  2. Your site has received a manual penalty.  This is more of an art than a science.  If there’s one of these points you should have an SEO professional check, this is the one.  Your site could have received a penalty if you experienced a big traffic or rankings dip around the time the Panda (February 2011) and Penguin (April 2012) updates were released, respectively.
  3. Reconsideration was denied.  If you have asked webmasters to remove spammy links, and some or most of them have complied, then you can file for “reconsideration” if your site has experienced penalties as a result of those spammy links.  Google, however, doesn’t take to reconsideration lightly, and webmasters aren’t always responsive to inquiries.  As a result, disavowal may be your only option.
  4. You can clearly show you’ve been affected by Penguin.  If you had a clear traffic drop after April 24, 2012, then you were probably hit by Penguin.  Penguin’s goal was to reduce the rankings of websites it considered “over-optimized.”  To Penguin, “over-optimization means using unnatural anchor text.
  5. What does that mean?  The best guess is that somewhere around 10 – 30% of the anchor text of your links should exactly match the keywords you are targeting.  Go any higher than that, and you risk a penalty.  Your best bet is to build more links and diversify the anchor text, but if that doesn’t work, you can just disavow some links.

This is how you can make best use of the Disavow Tool, but keep in mind it’s probably best to talk with an SEO professional first.