More threads by JoyHawkins


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Aug 23, 2014
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I wanted to ask how you guys treat the Disavow Tool. Do you regularly check clients' backlinks and disavow ones that look spammy/bad or do you only do it for clients initially who have a lot of bad links and are at risk for Penguin impacting them?
Constantly checking backlinks. I use a few tools, along with the webmaster tools section in Google to get links. Anything that looks spammy, we disavow and request removal. most times the removal doesn't get processed, but the disavow takes care of that.

Every link is checked, and if the link looks spammy, it gets flagged. If the domain itself looks spammy, then the domain gets disavowed.

Many clients end up on lists due to actions 2 or 3 years ago - but once you've gone down the road of blackhat (or your naughty SEO did), it's very hard to get out of it without the disavow. Not checking links can lead to bigger issues.

At least, that's our take on it. How about you Joy? Weekly checks, or just wait for the problem before checking?
We definitely don't wait for the problem. Recovering from Penguin is the biggest nightmare for businesses. Especially when we haven't had a refresh since October 2014. I've got a few client's competitors that I'm watching to see if they get nailed this next refresh based on the hundreds/thousands of links they've been acquiring since 2014 that are all garbage.

I brought this up because I've had a few cases where disavowing a few links for clients resulted in a slight ranking drop and I was trying to see what others thought as far as if it's necessary. These were clients that had less than 10 links that were "bad" out of several hundred so it made me wonder if it was still a good idea.

Whenever we have clients come to us with the majority of links being bad (or even over 30%), I would generally always disavow at the very beginning but brought it up recently at a meeting and had another guy who does a lot of work with clients who have penalties tell me that they don't ever disavow unless they get a manual penalty, which surprised me. I would think preventing Penguin (if possible) is a smarter move than cleaning up after it destroys you.
We had our own internal battle/debate here at our office on this too. The argument for NOT disavowing was that the client hasn't been penalized (yet), and some of the links, even though they look spammy to us, maybe aren't spammy enough to Google and could actually be helping the client.

We went back and forth on this quite a bit but finally came to the consensus that while they may not be flagged yet, they are obviously spam and will at some point get flagged, so it was better to get out ahead of it.
I have seen no evidence that Google uses the Disavow Tool as a part of their algorithm. I also have not seen any case study that show were only using the Disavow Tool improves a penguin penalty or improves rank. In the studies that I have seen they always do more than the Disavow Tool and I would conclude that it was the other actions and not the tool that caused the rank change.

It is my understanding that when a site is under Manual Review they will check the Disavow Tool to see what you have in there before making a final decision.

I would second only using the Disavow Tool in case where you have been hit with a Manual Penalty. We have found to have better success with clients having them start over on a new domain then trying to pull up a penalized domain.
I always look at it on a case-by-case basis. If the client's backlink profile is nothing but garbage and they don't rank at all, then I'll disavow. I've also been keen to also look at the Moz spam score too.

We also have to remember that it's the Internet. Most website owners have no idea how they got links from some crappy directory. Directories scrape data all the time.

Biggest thing I try to remember not too build a perfect backlink profile. Last thing we want to do is do too good of a job at building great links then get hit with an over-optimization penalty.
Google (John Mu?) has said disavowing is like putting a nofollow on a link, so if you disavow ones that are strong enough to be contributing to rankings it makes sense rankings will drop until you replace them with something... I lean towards differentiating between "spammy" as in manipulative (or appearing to be manipulative) and links that just aren't high quality because I'm squeamish about doing more harm than good... And what Blake said about making the link profile look overoptimized is always in the back of my mind, though I don't know for sure if that's a real issue.

Disavow is processed automatically (as the disavowed links are crawled) and supposed to help with an algorithmic link penalty. I submitted a disavow file for a client (compe shortly after the 10/2014 Penguin update and the client saw a small but measurable improvement following the 11/2014 Penguin update... so much for my statistically insignificant evidence :). It should be easier to judge how well it works if Penguin ever starts updating regularly.
I do a lot of disavow work. But, I don't recommend disavowing for everyone. Here are the reasons why I *would* recommend disavowing links:

-If the site has previously been involved in building their own links. Even if you've done a disavow, new links will continue to appear.
-If there is obvious evidence of negative SEO or links because of pharma spam.

I don't recommend disavowing for sites that seem to have the occasional spammy looking link in the profile but don't fit the above criteria.

If you look at the backlink profile of almost any site you're going to see links that look spammy. Google will not penalize or algorithmically demote for those. Penguin was designed to demote sites that are actively trying to cheat the system.

I have seen no evidence that Google uses the Disavow Tool as a part of their algorithm. I also have not seen any case study that show were only using the Disavow Tool improves a penguin penalty or improves rank.

I've seen plenty of sites improve by using the disavow tool and yes, I've seen Penguin recoveries with disavowing alone. I currently don't recommend actively doing link removal for Penguin unless you have links that you can easily remove. Here's one example of a lawyer's site that had a lot of spammy links. They were hit by Penguin a couple of times. Their links would have been impossible to remove so we disavowed. They saw a nice recovery with the Penguin refresh of October 2014 and they now hold #1-3 positions for most of their terms:


This site has done no additional link building. But they do attract links because they have a good site. They used to rank mid to bottom of page 1 after getting hit by Penguin and now after disavowing and waiting for Penguin to refresh, they have excellent rankings:


That type of recovery can happen, but it's not super common because many of the sites that got hit by Penguin never deserved to rank in the first place so once those spammy links are disavowed, there's nothing there to hold up rankings.

The problem though is that there is no way for me to prove that this site recovered without us removing links. Any site that has spammy links will show link loss when looked at on a tool like ahrefs, because spammy domains die. But, I've yet to see a site that recovered from Penguin by doing nothing. If losing spammy links because a bunch of them died were enough, then we should see spontaneous Penguin recoveries. In this case (and in several others that I have) we disavowed only and we still continue to disavow any old remnants of spammy links that pop up to this day.

But back to the original question - Do I regularly recommend disavowing for all clients? I do think it's a good idea to spend some time each month perusing the backlink profile but unless there is an obvious influx of links or a history of past spam, then no, I do not do this regularly.


Wow! Thanks so much for the detailed reply Marie!
I think the Disavow Tool is like do you like Ford or Chevy better. What every or believe you mind is made up. Marie when I look at your graph it looks like to me that the site was already dropping before Penguin 2.0 ran and at the lowest point it looks like some type of ads were then introduced. Then again it looks like the site started the uptrend before Penguin 3.0 ran. I would conclude that the increase in user metrics had the positive effect on that site more so than the Disavow Tool. That along with the natural deletion of spam sites which would be taken into account by the algorithm.

In a hangout John Muller was asked the following:

“OK. I'm not really in that situation. Again, it was just a hypothetical. I was mainly curious from a technical point of view. I mean, would the penalty actually get removed if the majority of the percentage of low-quality links diminishes? The actual Penguin penalty-- would it be removed?” - Question in Google Webmaster Central Hangout

And he responsed:

“Yeah. That's something that our algorithms would take into account-- where if they look at the site overall and they see that this is essentially improving, if it looks like things are headed in the right way and the important links are really good links that are recommendations by other people, then they'll be able to take that into account and modify whatever adjustment there was made with that change there on that website.

So they would take that into account. I wouldn't say that you have to have more than 50% and then the algorithm will disappear for your website. Let's say there are lots of shades of gray involved there, where the algorithm could say, well, this looked really bad in the beginning. They worked a lot to kind of improve things overall. Things were improving significantly across the web with lots of good recommendations for this site. So it's kind of headed in the right direction. So it wouldn't be that it disappears completely, but maybe it'll kind of step-by-step improve.”

I would conclude that Penguin takes into account more of what you have done to the positive from the last run than what negative factors you have removed. But the truth is only Google know what real effect that tools has and we are only left to guess. Ultimately we are judge on the results that we provide to clients and if the Disavow Tool is part of your tool box and you get results, then who is anybody to argue with you.
Marie when I look at your graph it looks like to me that the site was already dropping before Penguin 2.0 ran and at the lowest point it looks like some type of ads were then introduced. Then again it looks like the site started the uptrend before Penguin 3.0 ran.

This is why Penguin "recoveries" are so hard to document as, as you pointed out, there are so many factors at play. In this case, there were obvious drops in ranking that happened coincidental with Penguin refreshes or updates and obvious gains that happened with Penguin as well.

There have been so many discussions on whether or not the disavow tool works and I think it's impossible to prove the point for either side. I have a number of sites where I feel that we've had significant improvement after disavowing alone. But, many of these sites did not return to #1 rankings as they never really deserved to rank well. Many improved from something like page 6 to page 2 but is that a recovery? Analytics won't show much improvement there.

But for many cases we've done a combo of disavowing plus removing what we could easily remove (i.e. paid links, self made microsites, etc.) and seen recovery. So, it's hard to find a good case study to demonstrate that a disavow alone should do the trick.

With that said, I really do think we'll have an answer to this question after we get our next Penguin update. In the last couple of years there are a lot of sites that have done just disavows and are waiting for Penguin to update. I feel that the refresh we had in October of 2014 was severely flawed. Many sites that should have seen recovery did not. (Now, that's just my opinion. I don't claim to know everything about Penguin, but I really do feel that there are sites that have been stuck under Penguin for years that truly do deserve to rank.)

I thoroughly believe that the reason why Google keeps delaying the next Penguin update is they want to get it right. They want to make it so that sites that have earnestly tried to clean up are no longer suppressed.

As such, I really think that when the update happens that we'll have some awesome case studies of disavow vs remove to discuss.
I'm anxiously waiting for the next update. I have a few competitors of some of my clients that I'm watching to see if their ranking tanks. Now that I have a ranking tracker that takes daily screenshots it's going to be way easier to show :)
It?s quite interesting to read everyone?s comments about disavowing links. There is a time and place for everything and this includes disavowing.
@Joy - mind sharing the daily rank tracker you're using? I haven't found one I like yet, though it's been a while since I did some looking around.
Hey James,

For sure. We use Bright Local and I strongly recommend them. If you reach out to them tell them I sent you :)
Interesting, I used them in the past and they worked well, but that makes two cool features for them I've learned from you this week (Google local wizard for competitive category research being the other). There's so much to learn and I generally only set aside about an hour a day to learn what I can. I should probably set aside more time to fully learn the tools I'm already paying for...

Thanks Joy!
I've used disavow successfully a couple dozen times now.

I have also had clients recover without disavowing after a period of time.

I look at the link profile. If more than 10% of the links look spammy - I go to work.

If more than 10% of links have commercial anchor text - I go to work.

I like cognitive SEO'S tool.

Sent from my SM-G900V using Tapatalk
Hey James,

For sure. We use Bright Local and I strongly recommend them. If you reach out to them tell them I sent you :)

I do too. I track changes with their rank tracker on a weekly basis and it works very well. I use their citation tracker also.

Sorry I am not sure what you are asking?

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