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Google and Bad Links: Delete or Disavow?

Image courtesy of [Stuart Miles] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When Google introduced the Penguin algorithm update in the Fall of 2012, one of its goals was to eliminate the search engine manipulation that had been going on with backlinks.

The company set out to eliminate any benefits stemming from unnatural links, i.e. those that have been placed purely for search engine optimization purposes, often on low-quality sites, just to improve search ranking. Since SEOs had been using this practice for a long time, and their clients had been benefitting from it, it was quite a rude awakening for many sites.

Since then SEOs have had two choices to ensure their clients’ listings on search engine results page don’t tank. They can have the unnatural links manually removed, or they can disavow them.

Now that we have had some time to get used to Penguin 3, and see what it means for SEO, it’s time to tackle the question of which approach is better.

Removing Unnatural Links

There are several ways you can remove unnatural links from your pages. The downside to this process is that it’s extremely time consuming, and there is a chance you could miss some, which means your SERPs will continue to tank.

There are a number of options you can use to remove links. Here are the three most preferred methods:

  • Manually removing the link by contacting the site and asking them to take it down. This is a labor-intensive process, and you will not always get the answer (“sure, no problem!”) you are looking for. Plus sending out hundreds of emails is tedious even if you use tools.
  • Removing the page from your site that has the bad links pointing to it. Google’s own John Mueller said this is one way to go about getting rid of the unnatural links. It will result in a 404 for the link, but it will not penalize your site in any way.
  • Add a “rel=nofollow” tag to the unnatural links, as suggested by Google on its unnatural links page. You don’t have to remove the pages on your site this way, but Google won’t take the links into account when calculating your rankings.

The Advantage of Removing Links

There is one main advantage to using these methods rather than disavow. SEOs are suspicious of the disavow tool. There have been instances where it does not appear to work as advertised, and websites are seemingly hit with penalties despite disavowing the unnatural links. If you do not want to risk this, even though disavowing is somewhat easier, then manual removal may be the better option.

Disavowing Unnatural Links

Disavowing unnatural links is sort of like asking Google not to count the ballots in the ballot box. If every time you receive a link to your site, that person is “voting” for you, disavowing
takes away their ability to vote.

It’s a pretty simple process to disavow a link. You go to the disavow tool in Webmaster Tools, then upload all the links you want to be disavowed. Google essentially adds an invisible “rel=nofollow” to those tags so that you are not penalized for webspam.

You can include notes to yourself about what you are removing by using the # sign. This can also help remind you which sites you have already removed. Webmaster Tools can help you track down the spammy links too, so that you’re not trying to do it from memory.

The Disadvantages of Disavow

This sounds like the simpler method for sure, but as mentioned above, there are many SEOs who are suspicious of the disavow tool. Right on the page with the description of the tool, Google admits that disavow is a “strong suggestion” rather than a directive, and the search engine reserves the right to ignore the suggestion when it feels action is warranted.

Some SEOs also think Google may be using disavow as a means to gather information on spammy sites, and they do not want to be a part of such reporting, though Google denies this. Because of this, sites that have run your links are generally scared to be hit with a disavow and would prefer you ask them to remove the link yourself before involving Google. If you are having a hard time getting a removal, the threat of a disavow report could help your case. Google suggests that you try to remove the links yourself before resorting to disavow.

Many people are also worried that when they use disavow, they will make a mistake. They might, for instance, upload a URL with perfectly legitimate links, an action that will hurt their SERPs. Or they may overlook subdomains or similar domains where unnatural links appear. Google has a pretty good Q&A at the bottom of its disavow tool explanation that can help with these problems, but the fact is it is a fairly complicated undertaking no matter whether you choose to disavow links or remove them.

The Bottom Line

It is always difficult to adjust to the latest changes made by Google. Many people are confused by the disavow tool and whether using it will penalize their site or tip Google off to webspammers. Of course, if Google had a better relationship with SEOs, such tension might not exist.

Should you use disavow or removal? The safest bet seems to be to try removal first. If you can do it without involving Google, then good for you. But that will not be possible for every site, and the disavow tool is a good backup for those who have put time into trying removal but are not getting the results they want.

About the author


Adrienne Erin

Adrienne Erin writes twice weekly for SiteProNews about online marketing strategies that help businesses like KS Tooling, Inc. succeed. Follow @adrienneerin on Twitter to see more of her work or get in touch.


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  • How do you know that websites are seemingly hit with penalties despite disavowing the unnatural links? How do you know that it’s the unnatural links causing the problem because SEO is all about guess work isn’t it?

  • Here, no luck with the disavow tool, it appears to do NOTHING at all ( tried it on many cases, 0 effect ).
    best way is to just DELETE completely the link. that is the most effective recipe to fast recovery.

  • We have over 5000 people linking to us. We have never once solicited links.
    Whether they are good, bad or indifferent there is NOTHING we can do about it.

  • Great post about Disavow. Removing bad link is good for website health. Today’s SEO strategy is tough to understand.

  • I’m always using disavow, but it takes lots of work each month to affect my site, although it’s easiest way to get rid of bad links.

  • According to Google, they have not run the Penguin update data for over a year so anything anyone has done would have changed nothing so far anyway, so I don’t think you can tell yet if Disavow worked or didn’t work.

  • @kirby, it is my understanding that Google is penalizing sites that have UNnatural links pointing to it. You say you have over 5000 people, i assume you mean sites, linking to you, but have never solicited any of them. Unsolicited, or natural links, are all ok, even those from sites that dont relate to yours, because they are natural. We cant control who links to us naturally. But if you pay for links, ive seen banner ads even now trying to sell backlinks from PR7 sites etc., paid links are no good. Just my non-SEO opinion.

  • Great article @adrienneerin, I personaly would disavow links that are unsuitable and are causing harm than any good.
    But it takes ages for this to have any positive effect

  • My opinion is that you should not do anything. Google has mechanisms to fight spam. They have invested millions to give good results. Therefore, we must do nothing. I agree that this is a google trick.


  • Very Interesting.
    Even though Google is Google.
    If Google can command that much from businesses across the web…Google has way too much power.

  • Hello,
    I actually did a little test regarding this subject on an old site that was penalized by the first implementation of Penguin, back in Oct. 2012. Fast forward to 2014….nothing has changed, the site is still obviously under a penguin penalty (I know this part for a fact because it tanked on the SAME DAY that Penguin 1.0 was launched).
    Okay, so test time. I removed as many “self-placed” links as possible (i.e. blogger, wordpress, and other web 2.0 type content submission sites) and then I Disavowed the ENTIRE LIST OF BACKLINKS TO THAT SITE. That’s right, we simply disavowed every single link and/or domain in Google Webmaster Tools account, plus other sources (ahrefs, majestic, etc.).
    Months later and nothing at all has changed. No rankings down, no rankings up. This suggests, but certainly doesn’t prove, that Google pays very little attention to the disavow links submitted unless they have other reasons for taking a second look at the site. That is my personal experience and the result of my little test.
    However, when combined with a manual removal effort documented well, and a well written and explained reconsideration request, that same disavow tool will be given weight by Google. I did this with a MANUALLY penalized site I have. And therein lies at least part of the problem: you cannot submit a reconsideration request (or they will just trash it) if you are algo penalized, only if you are manually penalized…with the WMT notification and all.
    Well, hopefully this information helps someone or saves someone some valuable time.

  • I did the Disavow of 600+ backlinks!! Someone or a set of folks who wanted to put me out of business or hurt my website in a revenge tactic did hurt me when Google did a Update in July or August of 2013 I lost almost ALL my traffic {I still have NOT recovered either}! Come to find out those links were spammy and from Porn sites and sites from other countries! I was so mad because I would not personally post my baby boutique store on those type of sites nor would i hire someone to do so! Its outrageous you can NOT stop it! Makes me very angry! Why Should I be punished for others trying to kill my business!! its not right!

  • Stacy, I am afraid web sabotage exists and it’s named “Negative SEO”. Ethic professionals will never take such jobs, but I assure we have people knocking our door for these matters…

    About the background of the article, I am one of those truly believing Google takes disavows to a pre-blacklist which will somehow be integrating into any loop of their algos.
    If you have your domain disavowed once, may be you’re safe, but being deisavowed a number of times (at domain level) may trigger a reaction, I am sure not a happy end if you’re over threshold.

  • Penguin first hit in the spring of 2012, not the fall.

    Attempting to remove bad links should be your first effort, and disavowing should be only used if there is a penalty or filter involved.

    At Remove’em, we’ve experimented with a lot of different strategies for recovery, but ultimately, you have to make the effort.

  • I have an website which affected by the last Google update. And also delete my links. My website totally affected.

  • Many people now think they know lot of about SEO but I am not be too sure. I just want to know how many pages that are not optimized take up alot better places than page which is optimized. Sometimes I’m not so sure about all this and about….

  • Thanks for the good read. I, myself, work occasionally with disavows. I think everyone seems to have their own methods of if it is appropriate to disavow backlinks, and if so, what kinds of backlinks should be disavowed.

    I completely agree that a manual removal is the best approach, but unfortunately sometime people purchase those thousand backlinks packages from places such as fiverr and then they can’t manually remove them, themselves.

    I do have to say, I did like one of the techniques that you had mentioned with considering removing a specific page that the bad backlink is pointing to. However, if your website has just a few pages, that definitely wouldn’t be helpful, compared to a website that may have hundreds of pages. Another thing I think people would need to take into consideration is how the traffic may be effected.

    Have you considered writing an article about strategies of identifying backlinks that should be disavowed? I would find that an extremely helpful read. Once again, thanks for your article!

    @Curtis – My understanding is that disavow files are typically considered when penguin updates are updated.

  • I don’t really think that disavowing links helps much in terms of rankings.
    I have disavowed links on 3 of my websites and although the link structure was better than before, the rankings didn’t pick up.
    I don’t know if it was just for me or not, but I didn’t see any improvements!

  • Well written article. Thanks man. I use the disavow tool, with some trepidition…This article has at least helped me understand the “ins and outs” of the disavowing much better than I did before. Thanks! Keep up the good work.

  • I have been dealing with a sneaky issue where someone created a forum profile and then did the same thing hundreds of other places. All of the sites are just little sites and they have no idea there is porn spam all over their sites. I have deleted the forum on my end but the linking this person did is crazy. There seem to be about 500 of these type of links. I am sure that each of the other sites has the same deal. Somehow this person is making money wasting everyone’s time. I have been contacting these sites but wow it takes a few minutes. I spent almost 8 hours today…