Steering Clear of Manual Penalties: How to Disavow Links using Google Webmaster Tools

LEARNING THE HARD WAY

In early June came news that popular consumer service website Thumbtack.com had been penalized by Google for having unnatural external links pointing to its web domain. The reason? Thumbtack had gotten professionals who listed on the site to verify their accounts by pointing links back to Thumbtack.com on their business websites. Not only that, those links were hyperlinked with keyword rich anchor text such as “commercial cleaning” – an example that was shown by one user on the Moz Q&A Forum.

In the eyes of Google, this is a manipulative way to achieve links that pass along pagerank power, otherwise known as “link juice”. If Thumbtack received any short-lived rankings increases from the scheme, it definitely came back to bite them after the site’s co-founder, Jonathan Swanson, reported a “huge decline in Google referrals,” according to a report from Search Engine Land.

In order to successfully appeal the penalty, Thumbtack was required to show Google that it had reversed its manipulative actions. The site began the process by requesting that business websites either remove the links or add “nofollow” attributes to them. And while Google has since reversed the manual action, it presents the question: What if not all the websites you ask to remove your link abide by the request? If you’re facing the a manual penalty, that’s where a disavow may come in handy…

PERFORMING A LINK DISAVOW

We’ve carried out a number of link disavows for clients – a measure that asks Google to disregard external links that point in towards client websites. Most of these links are low quality and were either built by a former SEO firm that used black hat tactics that no longer work, or were the result of negative SEO attacks. Below are just some of the types of links you’ll want to consider disavowing:

  • Links appearing on low quality web spam directories (i.e. directory-listingsnow.org)
  • Reciprocal links resulting from link exchanges
  • Links on forums hyperlinked with keyword rich anchor text
  • Links on low quality websites that aren’t relevant to your site’s subject matter

Disavowing such links either allows the site to recover from a manual penalty, or avoid the penalty before Google catches on. Here are the steps you’ll want to follow:

  1. Find your backlinks – To do this, you’ll want to log into Google Webmaster Tools and find your site. Select “Search Traffic,” then go to “Links to Your Site.” This will show you which sites link to you the most. Select “more” to view a full list. From there you can export the list either as a CSV file or directly into Google Docs.
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  2. Decide which backlinks to get rid of – You may have just a few, or you may have hundreds. Whatever the case, you’ll need to vet each and every site you have a backlink on. Under where it says “Who links the most,” you can click “more.” This will display all the domains that link to you, and exactly how many links from each domain are pointing in to your site.
    Hovering over each domain will generate a preview of the homepage. Clicking on the domain will display which webpages on your site that domain is linking to. From here, you can click on your webpage(s) and see exactly which URLs on the domain are linking to you. You can also use the hover over option again – allowing you to preview sites without actually having to open them up in the browser (this comes in handy because some backlinks may be sketchy and/or contain viruses). Meanwhile, another option is to vet your site through the CSV file:
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  3. Contact web admins – Google wants you to first ask web admins to remove your links manually before you actually submit a disavow request. However, this doesn’t always work as most of the websites you’ll want to disavow are likely abandoned. If you don’t hear back, it’s time to move on…
  4. Create a .TXT file with the links you want to disavow – There’s a method to the madness and Google wants you to follow it accurately. Using the pound sign (#), you’ll want to tell Google when you contacted the sites requesting them to remove the links. You’ll also want to tell Google if you received no response. Organize websites to disavow using the following format:
    *Important note: If you don’t wish to disavow all your links from one particular website, make sure to specify exactly which pages you want to disavow. Instead of adding “domain:example.com”, you can do this by instead adding the entire URL in its place – I.E. “http://www.example/com/page/example2.com”.
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  5. Submit your list to Google – You’ll want to head on over to Google’s Link Disavow Tool, select which of your sites you want to disavow links for, then click “Disavow Links.” Once you’ve done that, you’ll receive a warning from Google cautioning you that you should only disavow links when they’re unnatural and/or spammy. Click “Disavow Links” again and you’ll be able to select your file, upload, and submit it. Congrats, you’re on your way to Google discounting those spammy backlinks!
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  6. If you’ve already been penalized… – Sure, you may have been spammy link scheming monster yesterday, but you’ve since changed your ways and Google wants to see how before they remove the penalty against your website. Go back to your penalty notification, click “Request a review,” detail your cleanup efforts, and then click send. If and when Google lifts the penalty, they’ll let you know.

THE VERDICT

High quality websites that are relevant and link to you can help your site’s rankings – but low quality sites that are spammy can have the opposite effect, often times resulting in manual penalties. Make sure to self-audit yourself regularly to stay aware of which domains your web address has been added to.