July 25, 2014

Google's disavow tool revisited

By Lynn Evans

About a year ago, I submitted some suspicious links to Google’s disavow tool – against the strident advice of several friends and colleagues. Almost everyone I spoke to warned me against doing this. But I went ahead anyway – with a surprising result.

The usual argument against using the disavow tool is that it draws attention to dodgy links that you might have planted yourself – and therefore risks a penalty. I never understood that. If Google thinks the links are spammy, it will ignore them or penalize you in any case. The disavow tool is your chance to tell the search engine that you are not responsible for the links. Another reason not to use it is that you might inadvertently remove reputable links that are helping your rankings. That sounds more plausible to me.

In my case, the site had attracted several thousand links over the years. But about 900 of these were coming from what was clearly a link farm. I don’t know how or why they got there – it was certainly none of my doing. It was these links that I wanted to disavow.

Now, I stress that the site in question is just a hobby for me – a means to share certain information among like-minded people. I don’t rely on it for my income, and it wouldn’t be a disaster if its rankings suddenly fell. I could therefore afford to experiment.

So I went ahead and submitted the suspicious links. And nothing happened.


Up until that point, the site had been generating about 2,000 impressions per day in Google’s search results, with about 60 to 100 click-throughs. Those figures stayed more or less the same after I submitted the links. So I forgot about the disavow tool, and turned my attention elsewhere.

Three months ago, I revisited the site in order to see if I could do any SEO tweaking on it. I realized that the disavowals were still in place. So, for no very good reason, I decided to remove them.

Google Webmaster Tools showed a sudden surge
about three weeks after I revoked the disavowals.
Again, nothing happened – for a while. Then, about three weeks later, traffic from Google suddenly surged. Impressions per day shot up to 6,000 to 8,000, and click-throughs increased to around 250 (see chart). Those figures have held steady in the two months that followed.

So did that improvement come about because I cancelled the disavowals? If so, I would have thought there would have been a drop in ranking when I originally used the tool. Or did some other factor cause the recent surge? Was it just coincidence that it happened after I revoked the disavowals? I’m certainly not aware of any other changes that could explain the improvement.

I don’t know what conclusions can be drawn from this experience. If you are thinking of using the disavow tool for your own site, I can only repeat the standard advice: don’t do so unless you have a good reason to (such as having received an “unnatural links” warning from Google). In my case, the net result was positive, but that won’t necessarily be the same for anyone else. As with all SEO matters, proceed with caution.

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