Google has done it again. The search giant has managed to shake the world of webmasters and SEO’s everywhere with the release of the disavow tool in October. This new tool fulfills the dreams of many webmasters who may have ever struggled to clean up a less-than-sparkling back-link profile in the wake of the latest Penguin update.
A short history: in the past, many a web development company and SEO's would boost the rankings of websites by building links on irrelevant sites, particularly by submitting their domain to a link directory. When Google cracked down on irrelevant and spammy links last April, many sites that relied on these directories for rankings were hit hard and their rankings plummeted. Now many webmasters are trying to clean up the mess.
Easier said than done. Many illegitimate links and link directories will simply ignore responses to remove a link. Many sites don’t include contact information. Some will even make you pay for link removals! What if your site got attacked by a negative-SEO campaign and now you are being penalized?
It needs to be mentioned on the outset that, since this tool is still relatively brand new, the full of effect of it is not yet known. It can take up to six to eight weeks for the effects of the tool to be seen. Since it came out only four weeks ago, results are still speculative. However, that doesn't mean people can’t jump right in and start the process. If you’re rankings are so bad and you feel they couldn't get any worse due to a link campaign, what have you got to lose by test driving this feature?
The first question, of course, is always, “Does this apply to me?”
How's your backlink profile?
In order to know if this tool applies to you, find out if you have any links that need to be disavowed in the first place. How you find this out? Dissect your backlink profile.
- 1. Find all the links!
Open Site Explorer in SEOMoz is our favorite tool (but since no tool is 100% accurate, it is good to try to use multiple tools. Ahrefs and Majestic also work. If you aren't registered, get a free community account. Enter the URL of your site, and then change the settings to look like this:
This will show you any live link from an outside site to any page on your domain. Voilà! Your backlink profile.
- 2. Create an Excel spreadsheet.
Export all of the links into an Excel spreadsheet so that you can work with them easily. The most important columns to keep are the linking domain, the anchor text (the text which contains the hyperlink), and the URL landing page (the page on your site the link is pointing to).
- 3. Open all the links!
It’s true. “But I have about 3000 backlinks!” Do a quick scan. If you see anything along the lines of submityoururl.com or freeseodirectory.com, you know it’s a bad one. Go a bit deeper on ambiguous ones but overall, try to be as thorough as you can. You don’t want any slippery links to stay hidden in there. It is time consuming, but will be so worth it in the end!
- 4. Sort links into 3 categories: good-to-go, sketchy, and come back later.
Color code them, if necessary. Here’s a sample:
The green signifies an awesome link from a relevant site that could only be doing us good. This will include blogs with consistent content creation, any reputable news site, etc. The yellow signifies something I might want to come back and check on later. Perhaps the domain was down for a time but it might be up later and still pumping negative juice into your site. The red indicates sites that are nothing but sketch. These sites are honestly pretty easy to pick out. They might look something like this:
Look for sites that have no content besides scores of web links on them. (Hint: If it says “SEO friendly,” it probably is not…) Also, if there is a button that says, “Submit Link”, we have a winner!
Is this for me?
Once you have performed this backlink analysis and you are intimately familiar with your site’s link situation, ask yourself which of these categories your site fits in:
- Solid. Great links from great sites with great content. You've got lots of green lines. That’s awesome! Now walk away. This disavow tool is not for you. If you have numerous great links but aren't ranking, something else is a problem.
- Maybe 1 or 2 or 100 directories squeaked in there. Maybe you had an SEO who used some black-hat tactics in the past. Maybe you got a bit excited about the bright lights of a free directory. We’re not here to judge. But it’s important to come face-to-face with the fact that, even if you’re not certain that specific links are hurting you, having a spammy directory connected to your site is never a good thing. Some are speculating that the disavow tool is dangerous because you run the risk of disavowing links that might look sketchy but are actually helping you. I personally think that Google, who is on a never-ending mission to deliver relevant.content and weed out illegitimate sites, will ultimately find that link and you won’t be happy with the result.
- So bad that Google sent me an email telling me to clean up my act. While it is never good for Google to be mad at you, hallelujah! The disavow tool is for you. Now is your chance to prove to Google that you are working hard to make things right.
It has to be known, however, that the disavow tool is not a magic wand and it is not diet pill. You still have to do the work. Google won’t respect you or your site for saying, “Thanks for the disavow tool, Google! Could you clean up my mess for me?” Guess again. Google wants to see that you have gone to great lengths to provide the best experience possible to searchers by providing the most relevant site by the most reputable means possible.
This is where the real work begins. All those red links? You need to contact them. Multiple times. The agony! There’s no way around it. This is time consuming and a bit of a pain. But so worth it. I’ll say it again, Google is not going to clean up your mess for you. You need to prove that you tried very hard to clean it up yourself. Go grab some coffee, turn on some good music, and email some link directories.
- 1. Create a new list in Excel of all the links you want to target for removal
- 2. Keep a record of when/how you contacted them. Be exhaustive. Contact everyone twice, at the very least. If they don’t have contact info on their site, try contacting their site sponsor. Keep a record of their contact info, how you contacted them and, if you weren't able to, why. Here is a sample email you could send:
Hi, <link directory>-
I have noticed recently that your site contains a link to my domain on the following page:
I kindly ask that you please remove this listing from your site. The anchor text is “click here!” and the target URL is www.mydomain.com.
I appreciate your understanding.
(Some directories might respond to you saying that the request for removal must be sent from the same email the original listing was submitted through, or an email affiliated with the site.)
Before you get your hopes up of conquering all of these link directories, I should warn you that, while you might hear back from a few, you will most likely not hear back from a majority. Either they are going to ignore you or there is not a human anywhere near that directory. Either way, the very important point of this whole exercise is to be able to show Google that you tried.
After sufficient time and energy has passed, the moment has arrived.
Using the Tool
It’s getting’ serious. Now we’re getting down to the question of how to present your information to Google.
Take that gorgeous contact page you have with all of the times you contacted each page and the reasons why they need to be on a disavow list.
Use Notepad++ or some other basic text editor to build your disavow file. On each line that you want to communicate something to Google, put a “#” at the beginning. For each link you want to disavow, just plop it in there.
You can also submit an entire domain for disavow as opposed to just one link. You would do this by just including that domain as opposed to the full URL.
This can be helpful if you have numerous links scattered throughout a sketchy domain, but if you have one listing up on one or two pages of a directory, this is a bit extreme. In most cases, just including the one page URL will be sufficient.
Be as detailed as possible. Actual human beings at Google will be reading this. Include all the pertinent information in an organized fashion.
Once you’re ready, go to the Disavow Tool from your Google account, select the domain you want to submit the file for, and follow the easy instructions. Google will just ask you to upload the file and then you’ll be done!
Work very hard to ensure that the file is correct before you upload it. But, if for some emergency-type reason, you need to change the file, you can go back to the disavow tool and re-upload the document.
What happens next? That remains to be seen by multitudes of SEOs with bated breath. Supposedly, the results can take 6-8 weeks to go into effect, so be patient! If you don’t see a positive impact right away, don’t worry. Make sure to add an annotation in Google Analytics indicating the day you submitted the disavow list and then monitor your analytics closely to see if there are any changes moving forward from that date.
And that should get you started. Let us know about your experiences with the disavow tool in the space below or Tweet us @BFMweb. We'd love to hear from you.