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7 Things You May Not Know About Google's Disavow Tool

marie-haynes
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Link PruningAre you completely obsessed with understanding and getting the most benefit out of the Google Disavow Links Tool?

This tool has been a mystery to many since it was announced in October 2012, and several misconceptions surround its use.

Here are seven facts that you may not know about the disavow tool.

1. Disavowed Links are Still Seen in Webmaster Tools

I will commonly see people asking in forums why the disavow tool isn't working for them. "I disavowed thousands of links, but I still see them in my Webmaster Tools backlinks!"

When a link is disavowed, the next time that Google crawls that link they essentially add an invisible nofollow tag to the link. There is no external evidence of this. Just as your nofollowed links are listed in WMT, so are your disavowed links.

In this webmaster central hangout Google's John Mueller said, "Disavowed links stay in Webmaster Tools" and in this hangout he said, "When you disavow links we will still show them as inbound links in Webmaster Tools."

2. There is a Size Limit to the Disavow File

The disavow file has a 2 megabyte size limit according to Google employee Aaseesh Marina. This is still quite large though.

Two megabytes of text is essentially the same 1,000 full pages of text. Even my largest disavow files have come nowhere near this size limit.

3. The Webspam Team Doesn't Read Comments in Your Disavow File

The official documentation for the disavow tool is a bit confusing when it comes to comments. They give the following example:

sample-disavow-links-file-google

This makes it look like we should put an explanation in our disavow file for every single link that we disavow. But really, the comments in the disavow use are meant for your own use to make the file easier to understand if you need to edit it in the future.

Once again, here is a quote from Mueller in a hangout: "The disavow file is something that is processed completely automatically. If you put a lot of text in those comments in the disavow file, then nobody will be looking at them. Those comments are essentially for you, to help you understand the file a little bit better and those comments are not used by the webspam team".

I tend to use comments to help me classify the different types of links in my disavow file and when they were added. Here are some examples of comments that I will use in my files:

  • # Added Mar 1, 2014: These are domains where we tried to remove links but did not succeed.
  • # Added Mar 1, 2014: These are sites we did not visit to evaluate because they gave a malware warning.

4. You Don't Need to Include Nofollowed Links in the Disavow File

A nofollowed link doesn't carry PageRank and won't affect your Google rankings. Here is more information on what Google says about whether to include nofollowed links in your disavow file.

"You don't need to include any nofollow links...because essentially what happens with links that you submit as a disavow, when we recrawl them we treat them similarly to other nofollowed links," Mueller said. "Including a nofollow link there wouldn't be necessary."

5. Disavowed Links Can be Reavowed

If you have added a link to your disavow file in error, or if you change your mind about disavowing a particular link, you can remove the link from your file and reupload it. The next time that Google visits that particular link, they will see that it is no longer in your disavow file and will start counting that link toward your PageRank again.

If a link you reavow was indeed one that Google had considered unnatural, removing it from your disavow won't do any good and actually could do you harm. A client of mine got penalized a second time by Google by reinstating links that they had previously disavowed. When you get penalized a second time, Google makes you work even harder to get your penalty lifted!

A good example of a situation where you might want to reavow a link would be the case where you have disavowed an entire domain, but now have a truly natural link from that domain. Let's look at an example.

Let's say you had an unnatural links penalty and a good portion of your unnatural links came from keyword anchored links in a widget that was embedded by a large number of sites. Perhaps a high quality site had embedded your widget and you had disavowed it at the domain level. But now, that high quality site has actually mentioned your business and linked to you. Because the entire domain is disavowed, that natural link won't count.

What you would do in that situation is remove the domain:example.com directive from the disavow and insert the url on which your widget is listed. (This is assuming you couldn't get the link from the widget removed.) If you do this, be careful to include every URL that could link to this widget as the link may exist on:

  • example.com/widget_page.html
  • example.com/category/widgets/
  • example.com/archive/page2.html

...and so on.

The next time that Google recrawls this site, they will only disavow the specific URLs that are in your disavow file and links on other pages of this domain will be reavowed to your site.

Here is Mueller explaining that links can be reavowed:

Links are essentially only disavowed as long as they are in the disavow file. So, if you remove them after some point, then essentially when we recrawl and reprocess those URLs ... then we will treat those as normal links again. If you remove them, then essentially you are returning them to their normal state. If they were problematic links in the past then they would be problematic links again."

6. A Disavow May Not Work Through a 301 Redirect

Let's you've got bad links pointing to Site A and you disavow those links. You then institute a 301 redirect to Site B. A redirect passes close to 100 percent of the link equity associated with that link and will also pass unnatural link signals as well.

You would think that disavowing the links pointing to Site A would essentially nofollow the link break the flow of PageRank through to Site B, but Mueller said, "Generally speaking, I'd use the same disavow file on both of the domains if you are redirecting from one domain to the other one so it's [the link] kind of taken out from both sides."

This is an iffy point. It sounds to me like with a straightforward redirect you are probably safe to just disavow the original source. In the example that Mueller was talking about, the site owner was asking about multiple redirects and canonicals and the situation was muddy. Still, if I was redirecting pages from one site to another and the original site had bad links, I would also add those bad links to the disavow file for the second site.

7. Disavow Data Isn't Used Against the Site Being Disavowed

This is a contentious point. You will find a good number of people who thoroughly believe that Google is crowdsourcing the data obtained by the disavow tool and using it as a mass spam reporting tool.

When I write to webmasters and request link removal, I will often get replies back saying, "I removed your link. Please don't add me to your disavow file!!!" The site owners are obviously concerned that if I disavow their link then I am reporting their domain as a spam domain to Google.

Here's what Mueller said about this thought:

When it comes to the disavow links tool, at the moment we are not using that data in any way against the sites that are being disavowed because there are just so many reasons why a link might be disavowed. It might be that it's a perfectly fine site but for some reason the ads on that site are passing PageRank and maybe the webmaster is not aware of that and that's not something that we would say, "Oh, this is a spammy site", because some of these ads are passing PageRank. Or maybe they have comments on a blog or on articles that they publish and people have been spamming those comments. Just because those links are in someone's disavow file, it doesn't mean that the content on that site is necessarily bad."

I find it interesting though that Mueller said that they are not using the disavow data against other sites "at the moment". It is perhaps possible that Google is gathering this data to help improve their algorithms in the future provided they can find ways to weed out the false positives. But, at this point it's not like using the disavow tool against another site is the same as filing a spam report.

This video has a similar discussion about disavow data, and Mueller also said, "It's not that we are using this [the disavow tool] as a spam report form. So, when you get a message saying, 'You should remove this link to my website or else I'll put you on my disavow file', that's not a threat for your website. It's not a problem to have your website on a disavow file."

Summary

There is a reason why Google tells webmasters that the disavow tool is an advanced tool and should be used with caution. Using it improperly has the possibility to do harm to your site.

Google has been very vague with their explanations to webmasters on how to use this tool. In fact, in one hangout, Mueller was asked why there is no link directly from Webmaster Tools to the disavow tool and his was response was to say that Google doesn't want webmasters to use the tool if they don't know what they are doing.

Hopefully these tips have helped you to better understand the disavow tool.

Do you have any additional tips to add? If so, leave a comment below.


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