Thinking about disavowing a bunch of links? Before you do please take five minutes to read this post.

A bit of background: The Disavow Links tool was launched by Google back in October 2012, as a way for webmasters to address the issue of unnatural, low-quality links pointing to their site/s.

Almost two years down the line and the jury is still very much out on the tool, mainly due to the fact that results are still, for the most part inconclusive.

Yet despite this, and Google making it very clear that the disavow tool  is an “advanced feature” that “should only be used with caution” , it’s a resource that is taken far too lightly by a lot of site owners.

Used in the correct way, the disavow links tool can be incredibly powerful, but in the wrong hands it’s usually ineffective, even harmful.

So before you think about submitting a disavow file, consider the following points.

 When to disavow

There are three situations which might require the use of the disavow tool:

1) You’ve received an algorithmic penalty – your rankings have dropped to some degree following an algorithmic update, most likely caused by your link profile. The only way to turn the situation around is to clean up your links.

2) You’ve received a manual penalty – your rankings have dropped off a cliff and your links are definitely to blame. You’ll need to work very hard to clean up your link profile to the very best of your ability and submit a reinclusion request. More advice about recovering from a penalty here.

3) You’ve tried to remove unnatural links manually, but failed – there are instances when you might want to disavow links even if you haven’t received a penalty. Matt Cutts explains all here.

Disavow is not a get out of jail free card

The disavow proposition sounds incredibly tempting doesn’t it; being able to undo years of spammy link building work and boost your organic search visibility at the flick of a switch. I’m sorry to disappoint you but it’s not quite as simple as that, as you’ll need to put in some hard graft first.

Disavowing should be a two stage process:

1) Try your damned hardest to remove as many spammy links as you can manually.

This can be a soul destroying, and sometimes costly process, but if you’re serious about cleaning up your site’s link profile then it’s something you need to do with 100% commitment.

If you won’t take my word for it, then take Google’s, ”First and foremost, we recommend that you remove as many spammy or low-quality links from the web as possible.”

2) Only then, once you’re certain that you’ve done all you can to remove any offending links should you consider using the disavow tool.

 Analyse links carefully

Google makes it very clear that “If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results.”

This is because you may be disavowing links which, despite appearances may hold some value.

The issue here is subjectivity: one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Having a bad feeling or not liking the look of a site is no grounds for removal – you need someone on the case who can make informed decisions about links, based on how they fair in relation to Google’s quality guidelines. Anything less is guesswork, and that won’t end well.

 Disavowing links will not make your link profile better

There’s a misconception that after submitting a disavow file your site’s search visibility will automatically improve, and your work is then done.

Wrong again I’m afraid. At least for the majority of cases.

Remember, disavowed links still exist in a physical sense and it’s up to you to remove them. But more importantly, you need to think about how you’re going to build some better links to replace them.

If you’re not careful you could find yourself in a position where you have no links at all, and that’s not a good place to be in.

 The bottom line

Treat the disavow tool with extreme caution. If you’re not 100% sure what you’re doing then leave it well alone and call in some experts who do.

For further information, and for guidance around creating and submitting a disavow file, check out the Google support page > https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/2648487?hl=en

Cover image credit: dcJohn via Flickr