How Google’s Disavow Links Tool Can Remove Penalties

Can using Google’s link disavow tool help remove penalties? Yes, the company says. But when it comes to manual penalties, disavowing links alone isn’t enough. With algorithmic penalties, there may be a time delay involved. Below, more about how both methods work.

Over the past few days, I’ve encountered a couple of cases where people are confused about how the link disavow tool works to remove penalties. So, I figured a clarification post was in order. Here’s the situation, all of which I reverified with Google yesterday.

Disavowing Links: “Don’t Count These Votes!”

If you submit a disavow request, Google will automatically process that request and tag those links pointing at your site in the same manner as if they had the nofollow tag on them, in other words, as if they aren’t actually pointing at your site for link counting and analysis purposes.

disavow link toolThis is something that came up again in a Google Webmaster Central hangout video yesterday:

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In short, if links are votes, using the link disavow tool effectively tells Google that you don’t want any of those votes counted, for better or worse, toward your rankings.

This all happens automatically, and Google says it still takes several weeks until the disavow request is processed.

Removing Algorithmic Penalties

Now let’s take a situation where you’re hit by an algorithmic penalty related to links, such as the Penguin Update. “Algorithmic” means an automatic penalty, one that involves no human review at all. Rather, Google’s computers have ruled that your site has done something wrong.

To remove that penalty, you need to clean up your links. That’s where link disavow can help. Let’s assume you use it to correctly disavow bad links that were hurting you.

That’s step one, cleaning up the links. Step two is waiting for the disavow request to get processed. That, as I’ve said, may take several weeks.

Step three is that you have to wait until the next time Google runs your site against whatever part of its algorithm hit you. For many, that means Penguin. Even if you’ve cleaned up your links with disavow, you have to wait until the Penguin Update is run again before you’ll see an impact.

For example, let’s assume you were hit by Penguin 3 last October. You used the link disavow tool to clean up your links soon after that. You still have to wait until Penguin 4 happens before you should see a change (and Google has said that more Penguin updates haven’t yet happened).

Now take the same situation, where you file the disavow request just a few days before a Penguin Update. Even though the request went ahead of the update, you still might not get cleared because by the time it’s processed (several weeks), the latest update will have happened. You’ll have to wait for the one after that.

Eventually, if you’ve used the tool, you should see a change. It’ll just take time. But if it was an algorithmic penalty, then it should automatically clear if you file disavow alone (or clean up your link profile in other ways).

Removing Manual Penalties

The situation is different — and potentially much faster — if you were hit by a manual penalty. That’s when some human being at Google has reviewed your site and decided that it deserves a penalty. In virtually all of these cases, it also means you would have received a notice from Google that this has happened.

If the penalty involves bad links, the link disavow tool can help you disown those. However, the penalty won’t automatically be removed because it was placed manually. You have to also file a reconsideration request. This will prompt a human being at Google to check on your site. They can see that the link disavow request has been filed, and if that’s enough, then the manual penalty may get lifted.

You have to do both: disavow links and file a reconsideration request, which Google has said before. And really, you have to do a third thing, which is make a good faith effort to remove links beyond just using link disavow, which Google has also said before (see our Q&A With Google’s Matt Cutts On How To Use The Link Disavow Tool for more about this).

There is one caveat to the above. Manual penalties have expirations dates, Google reminds. This means after a period of time, perhaps a few weeks or a few months, the penalty against your site should expire naturally. That’s why you might see an improvement even if you do nothing. (But note from the comments below, some penalties can go on for two or three years before they expire).

Doing nothing, however, may leave you subject to an algorithmic penalty in the future. In short, if you get a manual penalty, take that as a solid warning you need to fix something, lest you face a longer-term algorithmic penalty in the future.

For more about the link disavow tool and how to use it, see our related articles below.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Disavow Links Tool | Google: Penguin Update | Google: SEO | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Adam Crutchfield

    I got our site out of a penalty after using the disavow tool and hearing about it from Matt at PubCon. I wish I could thank Google for finally giving me a way to deal with negative seo.

  • Glen Craig

    So is this saying it’s ok to use the disavow tool if you haven’t gotten a warning message in Google Webmaster Tools?

  • piers Ede

    Personally, i think Google is now clamping down so hard, all the smart site owners and marketers are simply moving away from Google as a source of traffic. Their methods are so self-serving, so unfair to any but massive brands, it’s simply not worth it anymore. We have seen fantastic sites run by passionate brands fall afoul and never recover, as much as black hat sites thriving. The playing field is not just uneven, it’s no longer fun to be in the game…

  • Terry Van Horne

    “For example, let’s assume you were hit by Penguin 3 last October. You used the link disavow tool to clean up your links soon after that. You still have to wait until Penguin 4 happens before you should see a change (and Google has said that more Penguin updates haven’t yet happened).

    Now take the same situation, where you file the disavow request just a few days before a Penguin Update. Even though the request went ahead of the update, you still might not get cleared because by the time it’s processed (several weeks), the latest update will have happened. You’ll have to wait for the one after that.

    Eventually, if you’ve used the tool, you should see a change. It’ll just take time. But if it was an algorithmic penalty, then it should automatically clear if you file disavow alone (or clean up your link profile in other ways).”
    Penguin is an algorithmic action so the last sentence in paragraph 3 seems to conflict with all that precedes it in the earlier quoted paragraphs. Also, removing the link should be your priority as it gets faster action than a disavow. Disavow is not an alternative to link removal it is an alternative to **no way to contact the site**.

  • Tiggerito

    From other comments in those Hangouts I’m under the impression that the disavowed URLs get recognised as Google re-crawls them. I.e. The next time a disavowed URL is crawled its links to you are nofollowed. So the time it takes for the disavows to take hold is based on the crawling schedule.

    This means it would be as fast as getting the link physically removed or actually no followed. Which also must wait till the next crawl to be noticed.

  • Lilacor

    Hi, Ede! I fully agree with you that the game rules have changed so dramatically in the past several months that it’s almost impossible to stay on the right track. As for this article, I also wrote a tutorial on GDT: I hope you will find it a good addition to the topic.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Yes, you can use it to disavow any links you’re uncomfortable with, for any reason you like.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I was saying that if you filed a disavow request only a few days before a Penguin Update happens, the disavow request might not have been processed by the time that the Penguin update goes live.

  • Amine Rahal

    That’s what I understood from the Google Hangout video as well. This is something that hasn’t been clarified in this article though.

  • Terry Van Horne

    “You still have to wait until Penguin 4 happens before you should see a change (and Google has said that more Penguin updates haven’t yet happened).”
    My point is Penguin is algorithmic so I’m confused on why you have to wait for next update to see it clear… especially when you have this at the end of that block of text…

    “But if it was an algorithmic penalty, then it should automatically clear if you file disavow alone (or clean up your link profile in other ways).”

    Those 2 statements are what I’m confused about… Penguin is algorithmic so… seems contradictory and a little out of the norm from what I have seen in that I see improvements with no update, however that could be because we also do link removal at same time. It is also not jibing with what I understood John Mueller to be saying in hangouts… which is that Penguin relief is also very dependent on the offending page you are on getting indexed… AIUI as soon as that happens Google adjusts.

    Don’t mean to be a pest just I am being asked about this elsewhere.

  • rreich49

    Good article, Danny. However, I would disagree with you (and Google) that manual penalties have a shelf life of “perhaps a few weeks or a few months.” This coming June will mark our 3rd anniversary of a manual link which we have tried vigorously to get removed (including removing and disavowing links).

  • Danny Sullivan

    Penguin is a filter that’s run on a periodic basis. It’s automated, but it doesn’t run all the time. It runs against all the pages Google has, decides which deserve a penalty and those pages are effectively tagged that way at run time. Then it’s put away, adjusted and rerun against all pages in the future.

    These explain more:

  • Alan

    Pretty true and one day we won’t need sites like this or SMX. SEL and SMX can’t help you when Google just isn’t interested in small sites/brands.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Thanks Danny! much appreciated I didn’t think of the filter angle.

  • newyorker_1

    I am definitely moving away from Google. Trying hard to increase other sources and reduce Google traffic to less than 30%. And never again care about any algo update…

  • Lilacor

    Deric, if you’re still unsure on how to use the disavow tool, please write this article: It will throw some light on the subject. Hope this helps!

  • Vikash Khetan

    It really came handy to me when I was attacked through a Negative SEO campaign. One of my pages got links from 600 shity domains through some comment blaster etc. I have submitted those domains to disavow, hope that will take care of these shitty links in the next update.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Thanks, I added a note about that in.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Google told me it stil takes several weeks. I specifically asked about that, and they specifically responded. All I can tell you :)

  • Tiggerito

    I found a spot in a Webmaster Central Hangout where John Mueller talks about this:

    It’s about disavow and Penguin. About a minute into this question he talks about them having to recrawl the links before a new Penguin update will pick it up.

    A few weeks is probably a good ballpark figure to give for that recrawl.

  • Muhammad Yaqoob

    Hello danny,
    i’ve submitted disavow request for 94000+ links, after two weeks webmaster tools showing me 74000+ links. I just wanted to ask how much time will be required to processed all of those links?

  • Tiggerito

    disavow does not remove the links from Google Webmaster Tools reports. It nofollows them so they have no influence (last I heard).

    What would be a nice addition is if GWT reported how they classed a link: normal, nofollow or disavowed.

    At the moment you just have to guess.

  • Ryan O’Connor

    Has anyone had success getting out of the EMD update from last fall? Does that fall under the same algorithmic setup as Penguin? Meaning, you can’t get out of the EMD penalty until it refreshes. I haven’t found any good case studies of EMD recovery.

  • David

    Was also wondering about this, but I think @dannysullivan:disqus pretty much confirmed it.

  • David

    I think you are getting confused here.

    First of, if you think that your site had a manual penalty, but you received no notification in GWT then you prob didn’t have one in the first place.Don’t just make assumptions about this.

    At the end of the day you should know which of your links are bad/paid by doing a proper analyses and see where they originate from and then decide based on that which ones to disavow.Google is not gonna tell you this.This is of course if you think that it could improve your site’s performance.

    And believe me you will know if you had any bad links, by way of Google notifying you in GWT.What you should do is then, to do what I said above and then do a reconsideration request if you did get a manual penalty.

    Once again double check the links that you want to disavow, since it could be ones that actually is not bad at all and could have a disastrous effect on your site’s rankings.

  • Sean Brattin

    They often use the wording “can take up to” a few weeks. I’ve disavowed links from a known link seller and saw improvements in less than a couple weeks. The links were also removed from Links To Your Site section of GWT around the same time. Furthermore, the particular keyword those links were optimized for went from an average position of 140 to 16 in a two week span immediately following (March 2013).

    On the other hand, I’ve disavowed really crappy links on awful domains and the links are still showing in Links To Your Site. I believe that it may indicate those disavowed links have not been processed which means Googlebot has not recrawled those urls (usually very deep, some orphaned). Can anyone give me any suggestions for getting those urls crawled? I’ve already tried (ask Google to crawl a URL on a site you don’t own), however have not seen any result from a test set I submitted a month ago. Thanks!

  • Rob Maas

    Actually the Disavow tool will not have worked for most of us. The Tool was officially introduced Mid-October, and the last run of Penguin was Beginning of October. If you see changes it is most likely the result of some manual action. (after a manual penalty) Also see:

  • Mathias Burmeister

    I also keep thinking that it’s no longer viable for a small timer like myself to compete against big budget brands and organisations on google. I would be interested to know what alternatives there are though. I try to drive a lot of my traffic through social media platforms (primarily FB, twitter, stumble) but it’s simply not enough. Any suggestions?

  • Rob Maas

    That is rather odd AI G, because your experience is the exact opposite of what John Mueller told us about the disavow files this week (11 and 12 April 2013!)

  • Junior Biell

    how to find out which links are bad?

  • Al G

    Can you be more specific about what he told.

    My experience is from last year. That was without using the disavow file. I found a way to contact Google directly and advised them about how penguin affected my site and requested them to ignore a bunch of poor quality badlinks.

    Within a couple of days of contacting them, most of those links disappeared from WMT. Maybe it was an exception.

    If Google decides to deindex poor quality sites that have your backlinks, they won’t show up in WMT anymore. This may happen after you upload a disavow file.

    I haven’t read about what John Mueller said. Feel free to let us know about what you know and/or share links where we can read more about what John Mueller said.

  • Rob Maas
  • Joe Youngblood

    Even before the major changes that are clearly designed to demote
    smaller websites, it was never best practice to have Google Organic as
    more than 50% of your traffic. Frankly I pick 1 day a month to estole
    the values of an alternative search engine and encourage my friends and
    family to use them. Most recently I tweeted out a typo query that Google
    gets incorrect but that Bing, DuckDuckGo and Blekko get right. Ask your
    friends and family to try a switch, it doesn’t matter to who, but just
    for a day to change their default search engine. After a while the
    difference gets really hard to spot. Hopefully soon we can return to the
    days of diverse search experiences like the early days of Meta Engines
    when Northern Lights, Alta Vista, Excite, Lycos, and Yahoo! split up the
    market providing a different experience. Search engines have become a
    modern must have, like the light bulb or the automobile, there’s no
    reason that the offering to consumers shouldn’t be more diverse and that
    we as SEO’s shouldn’t see that as a positive for our industry and for
    all of society.

    Consumers are also finding information from a diverse group of sources, breaking into the dominance of the search market. Mobile apps, social media, and niche vertical engines all offer consumers more than one way to obtain the information they desire.

    If you want to stay in business plan for the long haul. Try to diversify
    your traffic sources, encourage diverse sets of search engines, all
    while keeping Google’s (hopefully waning) needs in the back of your mind
    so as not to lose traffic and sales in the short term.

    Here’s a slide deck with some ways to help diversify your traffic sources:

  • Billy Gee

    We have been penalized by Penguin (no manual penalty) for having a high percentage of keywords using the same anchor text. I believe I should either be manually deleting links or perhaps using the disavow tool to rectify this.

    Does any one have any positive feedback about the disavow tool after the May 2013 Penguin update?
    Instead of deleting or disavowing links could one also change the anchor text in the inbound links – would that help preserve the link but dilute the overuse of certain anchor text?

  • Allen Smith

    this is such a nice tool that we people have been searching to get out from peguin.. Thanks to Google and you also ..

  • waqas

    Wao…..wonderful….keep it up dear
    Make Money Online

  • Gargi Banerjee

    The disavow option is a great way to get rid of poor links from your website, however one must explore this option only as a last resort. Google has in numerous forums warned people t make frivolous use of this tool. So, all webmasters who are troubled by poor links bringing down your page rank, be cautious.

    Here’s a bit more details about Google’s Disavow option.

    Hope this helps!

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