In the last few years, some of the sites I work with were hit by the (in)famous Google’s manual link penalty. The recovery process involved, among other things, the submission of disavow files to “fix” the links I was unable to remove manually. Here are some simple conclusions I came to about the disavow tool and a brief recap on its functioning.

1. It works

As I stated in a previous post, from my experience this long-awaited tool is an effective way to deal with unnatural links penalties. Use it with caution but don’t be afraid of it, because it’s one of the few concrete instruments provided by Google to help webmasters fighting spam.

2. It’s useful for both manual and algorithmic penalties

Disavow files are processed automatically and Google treats disavowed links basically as nofollow links.

John Mueller on disavowed links

That’s why the disavow tool is “universal”, and it’s good for both manual and algorithmic penalties.

If you are hit by a manual spam action, you have to remove the unnatural links under your control and disavow the remaining ones, then you can file a reconsideration request. I assume that nofollowed links are somehow “marked” to exclude them from a (deep) manual check by the spam team. So, if John Mueller told the truth, disavowed links too could have that sort of mark, that tells the Google’s spam checkers not to consider them anymore (within certain limits… more on this later on). Just be sure to give the engine enough time to process the disavow file, so wait some days to submit your request after uploading it.

If your unnatural links penalty is an algorithmic filter – which likely means it’s Penguin-based – the recovery process is pretty much the same, except that you don’t have to file any reconsideration requests: you remove/disavow the bad links and the algorithm takes care of the rest. The problem here was that Google Penguin worked like an “add-on” and was rolled out only few times per year, so you probably had to wait a long time before seeing the result of your efforts. Now things are going to change, since some Google’s guy revealed to Search Engine Land that Penguin will be updated much more frequently. A big chance for penalized SEOs looking for a faster recovery (I’ll keep my eyes on this topic).

3. It’s not enough

So, is the disavow tool the solution to all our problems? Not at all. When you’re going to upload your disavow file, Google shows a message that says:

You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.

Believe it or not, this means that the Google employee who will read your reconsideration request won’t be happy to see 1% of bad links removed and 99% of them disavowed. I don’t think you have to demonstrate your effort with some spreadsheets (as many experts say), the effort itself should be enough: Google definitely must be able to quickly check if the links they consider spammy have been removed or not, without you telling them the whole story.

Which ratio between removed and disavowed links could be acceptable? Impossible to say, since it depends on many factors:

  • your country
  • your business
  • your competitors’ behavior
  • your particular link profile
  • your previous removal activities
  • the Google’s spam checker good/bad disposition (remember, he is a human just like you)

Anyway, one thing is sure: while dealing with a manual spam action, you can’t rely only on the disavow tool.

And what about algorithmic filters? As reported in some recent articles (like this one on Search Engine Watch), the scenario is different. A machine doesn’t care how you take care of the problem, as long as you fix it. So, if disavowing links is really like nofollowing them, you could hypothetically add all your bad backlinks to the disavow file and wait confidently for the next algorithm refresh.

But this is definitely not an option. Why? Because disavowed links still show up in Webmaster Tools (and every other backlink checker tool) and are not discounted in your link profile, that keeps looking unhealthy and artificial. This could lead to a manual spam action in the near future: in case it’s not clear yet, algorithmic and manual penalties often go hand in hand.

4. Don’t exaggerate in disavowing domains

Face this fact: uploading a disavow file you could recover from a manual penalty, but you’ll lose the algorithmic value of many backlinks – and many of those are probably not even considered spammy by Google. How not to waste too much link juice?

Despite everyone’s advice to disavow almost only entire domains, I’d rather go through a slightly deeper analysis. Disavowing domains is safer, because it prevents you from being penalized for “hidden” links (like backlinks from indexed archive pages), but sometimes it’s a very drastic measure.

Assume that you or your client bought, in the past, some article marketing links on an authoritative domain, that in the meantime has been publishing original and spontaneous content with links to your brand: citations are good, but are you sure you want to lose the SEO value of those natural links? If the answer is no, you have a long way to go.

While checking your link profile, spend most of your time on linking domains with medium-high domain authority: consider them carefully one by one to understand which ones can be worth your effort, then – if numbers are reasonable – check manually the single linking pages, and disavow the ones that contain suspicious backlinks, being sure to check also pages like tag, category and date archives. Not safe, not time-saving, not easy, but definitely worth it if you want to make the best use of the disavow tool.

5. It’s unclear when the file is processed

There’s not a clear waiting time between the uploading and the processing of a disavow file: it mostly depends on what kind of penalty hit you. Let’s make some important distinctions.

  • Manual penalty: according to some studies, what triggers the processing of a disavow file is the reconsideration request. I don’t think this is totally true, since once you upload your “blacklist” Google must take it into account and maybe put it in some sort of queue. A reconsideration request, though, will likely accelerate the process.
  • Penguin penalty: in this case, the recovery is authomatic but requires a new Penguin update by Google for the file to be processed. Luckily, as said before, we’re going to see more frequent rollouts in the next months.
  • Other algorithmic filters: link-based algorithmic penalties existed long before Penguin. The real-time Google algorithm too is able to detect some kinds of unnatural link schemes, so the recovery time here should be shorter.