Q&A With Google’s Matt Cutts On How To Use The Link Disavow Tool

It’s been almost two weeks since Google launched its link disavowal tool. Some have been busy diving in and using it, but others have had more detailed questions about it. We’ve got some answers, from the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts.

Question:

How do people know what links they should remove?

Answer:

When we’re taking targeted action on some specific links, the emails that go out now include examples of bad links. We provide example links to guide sites that want to clean up the bad links. At the same time, we don’t want to help bad actors learn how to spam better, which is why we don’t provide an exhaustive list.

Question:

Why not list the bad links?

Answer:

That’s related to the first question, of course. We don’t want to help bad actors learn how to spam better, which is why we don’t provide an exhaustive list.

Question:

Who should do this?

Answer:

The post [Google's announcement post last week] says anyone with an unnatural link warning. It also mentions anyone hit by Penguin, but I keep getting asked about this. I’m going to reiterate that if you were hit by Penguin and know or think you have bad links, you should probably use this too.

Question:

What if you don’t try to remove links? Given what a pain it is to get links off the web, why wouldn’t someone just use disavow? I know Google recommends requesting link removals, but from a technical standpoint, if they don’t do that and just disavow, it’s pretty much going to work, right?

Answer:

No, I wouldn’t count on this. In particular, Google can look at the snapshot of links we saw when we took manual action. If we don’t see any links actually taken down off the web, then we can see that sites have been disavowing without trying to get the links taken down.

Question:

How are you dealing with index files? Do you have to remove all variations, such as like this:

http://badsiteiwanttodisavow.com

http://badsiteiwanttodisavow.com/

http://badsiteiwanttodisavow.com/index.html

Answer:

We tried to cover this in the last two to three questions [of the announcement post]. Technically these are different URLs, so if you want to be ultra-safe, then you would list the URL variants.

Practically speaking though, Google normally canonicalizes such URLs to a single URL, so if you’re going off the backlinks that you download from google.com/webmasters/, then you should normally only need to list one url.

Question:

If you download and reupload a disavow list, is it still a several week delay between when the fresh upload is acted upon, even if you upload a fresh list the same day, perhaps after catching a mistake?

Answer:

I would count on it potentially still being a several week delay. If you have URLs A and B and you download the file and edit it to add a new URL C then it shouldn’t really affect A and B, but it will take time for disavowing C to go into effect.

Question:

How long will it take sites to see any potential improvement? It seems like potentially months.

IE, say you upload a file. It takes several weeks for that to be read. Then you might wait several weeks for the next Penguin Update, until the change would be reflected, right?

Or when you say multiple weeks, do you mean that really, the file might get read right away, but the changes might not be reflected until some Penguin or other update can act on those changes?

Answer:

It can definitely take some time, and potentially months. There’s a time delay for data to be baked into the index. Then there can also be the time delay after that for data to be refreshed in various algorithms.

Question:

Just to double-check, reconsideration should only be done if they’ve gotten a message about a manual action, correct?

Answer:

That’s correct. If you don’t have a manual webspam action, then doing a reconsideration request won’t have any effect.

Question:

Do manual actions specifically say if they are related to bad links?

Answer:

The message you receive does indicate what the issue with your site is. If you have enough bad links that our opinion of your entire site is affected, we’ll tell you that. If we’re only distrusting some links to your site, we now tell you that with a different message and we’ll provide at least some example links.

Question:

What about the www prefix? It sounds like to be safe, you should do this:

domain:badsite.com

domain:www.badsite.com

Answer:

You only need the first line. If you do domain:badsite.com, then that also ignores all links from www.

[NOTE: I'm pretty sure this also means Cutts is saying that if you only disavow from a domain with the www prefix, and it also has a non-www variation, those will still be counted. But I'm double-checking on this].

Question:

What prevents, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but seemingly inevitable concerns about “negative negative SEO?” In other words, someone decides to disavow links from good sites as perhaps an attempt to send signals to Google these are bad? More to the point, are you mining this data to better understand what are bad sites?

Answer:

Right now, we’re using this data in the normal straightforward way, e.g. for reconsideration requests. We haven’t decided whether we’ll look at this data more broadly. Even if we did, we have plenty of other ways of determining bad sites, and we have plenty of other ways of assessing that sites are actually good.

We may do spot checks, but we’re not planning anything more broadly with this data right now. If a webmaster wants to shoot themselves in the foot and disavow high-quality links, that’s sort of like an IQ test and indicates that we wouldn’t want to give that webmaster’s disavowed links much weight anyway. It’s certainly not a scalable way to hurt another site, since you’d have to build a good site, then build up good links, then disavow those good links. Blackhats are normally lazy and don’t even get to the “build a good site” stage. :)

Question:

One last try on something I asked when the tool launched. Why not simply discount links so there’s no need for people to disavow, rather than considering some links as negative votes capable of harming a site?

Answer:

As part of our efforts to be more open about manual actions, we’ve been providing more information to site owners, about when links to their site are affecting our opinion of their site. Because of that additional information, webmasters have been paying more attention to their link profile and trying to move toward higher quality links. That’s a good thing.

But we understand that migrating toward higher-quality links also means that some sites feel the need to clean up previous spammy or low-quality links. Right now it can be a difficult task to clean up a site’s backlinks, and from listening to the SEO community we wanted to provide a tool that could help after site owners had already taken substantial steps to try to clean up their site’s backlinks.

Question: Any last thoughts, comments or perhaps warnings of mistakes you’ve seen people make?

I have gotten a couple people asking “If I disavow links, do I still need to do a reconsideration request?” We answered that in the blog post, but the answer is yes.

We want to reiterate that if you have a manual action on your site (if you got a message in Webmaster Tools for example), and you decide to disavow links, you do still need to do a reconsideration request.

We recommend waiting a day or so after disavowing links before doing the reconsideration request to give our reconsideration request system time to pick up the disavowed links, and we also recommend mentioning that you disavowed links in the reconsideration request itself.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Disavow Links Tool | Google: SEO | Google: Webmaster Central | Link Building: General | Link Building: Paid Links | Top News

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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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  • http://twitter.com/THallmeier Tom

    There’s some contradiction.
    He recommends using it for sites that got hit by Penguin without bad links message. Then he says reconsideration request only makes sense for manual action. And at the end he says disavowing and reconsideration request should go hand in hand.
    Any thoughts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017530032 Rifat Rashid Adnan

    Great post from Danny Sullivan . My question is Google allowed few selected seo experts to use this tool from its beta stage. Still we don’t see much successful recovery case study. Does it mean that this tool may not be useful to recovery from penguin hit?

  • Kevin

    IF you have the “bad links” message, you need to clean/remove as much as you can, THEN disavow the rest; THEN file a reconsideration request.

    IF you’ve been hit by Penguin, cleanup/remove as much as you can, THEN disavow the rest; THEN wait for the next Penguin fresh.

    What’s so hard to understand ?

  • Sebastian Miśniakiewicz

    “No, I wouldn’t count on this. In particular, Google can look at the
    snapshot of links we saw when we took manual action. If we don’t see any
    links actually taken down off the web, then we can see that sites have
    been disavowing without trying to get the links taken down.”

    Danny, sorry – It is not clear to me. So Google can withdraw our request (disavow tool) seeing that we did not try to remove bad links?

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Apparently, so, if it wanted to run some type of a double-check to see if there was a good faith effort.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I don’t know that any of the firms started long enough ago to have that type of a case study to offer. Right now, this is one of the ways Google says you should use for Penguin issues.

  • http://www.disneymovieslist.com Jason Forthofer

    This is just so frustrating. If you have a site that doesn’t do link building because it doesn’t need to, it’s a natural reference site and get links naturally…yet, you get a bad link message, now we are supposed to look into these bad links? Now we have to dedicate time into this when we never needed to for link building. Seems like a bad way to reward those who made great content and didn’t need to link build.

  • http://twitter.com/marcusbowlerhat Marcus Miller

    Interesting read from a UK site that had access to the disavow tool and has seen some recovery on the site in question: http://www.davidnaylor.co.uk/disavow-tool-beta-test-recovery-laid-bare.html

  • http://twitter.com/marcusbowlerhat Marcus Miller

    Hey Jason, that’s really unfortunate, but must represent such a tiny minority of the punished sites. I would attempt to deal with that via the reconsideration request rather than by any kind of link removal if that were my problem.

  • Chris Koszo

    Kevin summed it up very well for me actually. I can see how several questions and answers are a bit contradictory here, but I think its because it was transcribed directly from the conversation with Cutts, and Cutts was trying to avoid this discussion going in that direction (how to essentially manipulate the algorithm with the link disavowal tool). By the way, thanks Danny for transcribing the Q&A directly, it helps to catch the vibe and tone of the conversion and we are free to interpret it each as best as possible.

    Okay now to try and answer you Tom: By all indications, the link disavow tool works both for manual and algorithmic actions that are lowering your site’s rankings. Of course, Cutts is promoting the use of the new tool to help with reconsideration more so than to use it to get out of penguin by manipulating the algorithm (which apparently it can), so Cutts’ wording and stance on this completely make sense. This new disavow tool was created to help webmasters more than it was to help Google, and Cutts doesn’t want:

    A) Webmasters to think that this is a magic bullet for all rankings/link-related problems and get disappointed when it doesn’t work (there has to be safeguards put into place ensuring that this tool is not abused or over-used).

    B)Webmasters to give up on doing manual link removals, because that would make it too easy for them and wouldn’t merit the granting of a reconsideration request by Google.. Google still wants to make you work for a reconsideration and wants to be sure you learned your lesson. This tool makes the process easier it seems, but by how much is anyone’s guess.

    Now regarding algorithmic factors lowering your site’s ranking, keep in mind that the new link disavow tool might be just one out of many scoring factors used within Penguin, and it might not get you out from Penguin instantly. It most likely plays a major role however, and combing it with manual link removals sounds like a good bet. Of course you will have to wait for Google to crawl and index all the locations of your old links that were removed and disavowed, plus Google will most likely want to re-index your own site (on-page spam is a factor of Penguin too, don’t forget), AND you will have to wait for the next algorithm refresh, Penguin, and maybe a few others, to kick in before your place in the SERPS are restored.

    All-in-all, Cutts wants to shut down spammers and to essentially force webmasters to clean up anything that is questionable, and this is what he’s been doing all year. Webmasters/SEOs paying more attention to their site, cleaning up their links and doing a reconsideration will really benefit Google because they’re essentially doing some of the work for them. There will of course be collateral damage (most of which is already realized), but Google is a for-profit company and I think these moves make sense for them and is a reasonable effort on their part to get better results in their search engine and drive ahead their business for the next couple of years.

  • http://twitter.com/THallmeier Tom

    He said you should disavow and file a reconsideration request at some point but says that a reconsideration request is useless for algo penalties like Penguin. I get the point but there’s some contradiction. No need to be harsh man.

  • Nick

    Jason, if you have a site that gets natural links and has quality content then you don’t need to look at the disavow tool.

    This tool is not aimed at you – it’s aimed at people who have portfolios built largely of unnatural and spammy links. A small proportion of bad links aren’t going to negatively impact your site’s rankings.

    I’m assuming that your site didn’t have manual action taken against it – I would find that hard to believe if your content is of genuine quality, shareable and organically linked to.

  • http://twitter.com/kensingtongreen Arvid Linde

    Well, he did say he received an unnatural link message in GWT, didn’t he? Althouhg the tool indeed is not aimed at good webmasters, way too many good webmasters are caught in this spam war.

  • Nick

    In almost all cases this isn’t manual action but instead an automated message from Google that algorithmically detected a slightly dubious link profile.

    I can’t recall a case where manual action was taken on a site that didn’t use bad practices.

  • http://www.cobwebseo.com/ Ajay Jhunjhunwala

    This post will definitely clear many doubts. People hesitated to use it. Now they could do experiment with this tool. I didn’t got any warning or spamming or unnatural link message from Google, so i didn’t use it. But best of luck for those who got warning message for google.

  • http://www.v2interactive.net/ Josh

    Very good share, thank you for this. It’s interested to read Cutt’s text and analyze what he’s emphasizing and what he’s ignoring.

    Personally, I’m going to give this tool a few more weeks before I would play with it. There seems like there’s a lot of ‘gray’ area around this low quality link debate and the credit Google gives/doesn’t give a site for them…

  • http://www.tastythailand.com Reeves

    LOL, why bother. As fast as you do what Google wants, they change what they want. It’s a losing battle and any webmaster could spend 24 hours a day trying to catch up.

    Me? I run a few websites, a couple got hit by Panda, most didn’t. I write all my own content and I update several times a day. I get backlinks where I can but I have never bought them, or used shady means of link building and never will.

    My main focus? Providing what my readers want. Other than that…..feck Google. It’s a losing battle and I for one don’t have time. Let the rest of you run around spinning your wheels. :)

  • Laura

    Don’t waste your time using the disavow tool… it’s a
    complete waste of time…. we spent a few hours going through our backlinks
    (after spending almost a year trying to have the bad/spammy links removed) and
    creating the .txt file…. We followed all of the directions exactly and
    then uploaded and submitted the .txt file … after that we filed a
    reconsideration request (as matt cutts states we should have) and about a week
    later we get the same generic webmaster tools response that our request for reconsideration has been denied blah blah blah…. it’s such a waste of time trying to always do what officer google wants, thank god bing is cutting into the market share
    each and every month! Have you all tried the bing challenge!?!? I highly recommend it!

  • ollie

    I’m with you brother!

  • Winston

    Did you not read the numerous places where Cutts and others have said it will take several weeks? I would have waited at least week or two before doing the reconsideration request. Also, in the request, did you outline what you were able to remove or tried to remove?

  • Laura

    I did read that… However, i got a response that my reconsideration request was denied (you know the typical response, forgot the exact words)…. And Matt Cutts states that you should follow up your disavow request with a reconsideration request advising that you used the disavow tool (did that)…

    In the recon requests, we gave specific examples of sites that have been pulled down altogether, as well as sites that still exist and removed our content, and also sites that just didn’t respond.

  • Laura
  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    I did read it, and exactly as Winston said, you’ve not given it the time Google said, that it would take several weeks before the changes would take place. It is odd that you’re getting an answer back to the reconsideration request before that could happen. Google hasn’t said to wait about submitting those. So, I’ll check on that.

  • http://creatinglifestyle.com/ Mike Smith

    Life can get a bit complicated with all you need to do to run an online business.
    The only question I have is how do you go about getting rid of poor backlinks, can a non technical person do it?. Thanks for the article Danny

  • Peter Watson

    Matt Cutts: “and we also recommend mentioning that you disavowed links in the reconsideration request itself.”
    I submitted my last reconsideration request around the 8th Oct, but the disavow list wasn’t submitted until two weeks later (when it was released). Do I need to do another reconsideration request????

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamintheodoreseaver Benjamin Seaver

    Is there any chance that Google is going to re-send the link warning message to give the webmasters who have already received the warnings the three example links? Otherwise that doesn’t do much help for the websites that have been trying to recover for months.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustinjwilliams Dustin J Williams

    Are you sure that spammy links are what caused your website to lose rankings? Did your drop in Google organic search traffic correspond exactly with the date of the Penguin update (or one of the refreshes)?

    I only ask because I have experience with a website losing rankings around the time of the first Penguin update. The owners of the site thought it was hit by Penguin and we removed all the spammy links that might have caused the site to lose rankings. We then submitted a reinclusion request and got Google’s generic response saying it was denied because some or all the pages didn’t meet their quality guidelines.

    I have since dug into Google analytics deeper and discovered the drop in traffic is only on very broad keywords and didn’t correspond with the date of the Penguin update. My conclusion was that the links which helped the website to hold top rankings, got deindexed when Google went to war against articles, blog networks and other low quality content links. We have been focusing on getting links to try to recover what was lost and we are now starting to see are rankings slowly come back.

    So I am convinced that Google sends those generic replies to reinclusion requests without even looking at the website.

  • seowebconsulting

    Very frustrating. The disavow tool may or may not apply/work with every scenario. I’ve been approached by site owners that, unbeknownst to them, had been victims of the unscrupulous practices of lame-ass SEO vendors. And since these vendors have not responded to multiple requests, it has left them with little-to-no recourse to get the links removed.

    So seriously, when Google reviews the snapshot of the previously delivered WMT warning message, they will most likely not do anything when they don’t see links removed?? WTF?

    Will Google make the adjustment for the smaller percentage of sites that don’t fall into the norm? I seriously doubt it… especially with the rush (and misuse) of the tool and sorting all the data. Call me cynical.

  • http://twitter.com/lordofseo Lord of SEO

    What a complete idiot this guy is, he would be a good politician.

  • Shawn Hilt

    What happens when someone maliciously posts bad links on a competitor’s website to try and effect the positioning?

  • http://www.facebook.com/issac.baller Issac Baller

    HERE IS AN IMPORTANT QUESTION: Do we need to do a reconsideration request after the disavow if we have only been hit by penguin, that is we have “not” had manual spam action message?

    (WILL LOVE TO GET AN ANSWER ON THIS)

  • http://www.facebook.com/filth13 Jamie Filth

    i submitted a re inclusion request over 3 weeks ago, a week or so after disavowing a number of poor links to my clients sites. I have removed the best part of a couple of thousand links, but there is still a number left which have never replied to me. Anybody had success with the reinclusion as we have been deinied at least 3 times and now we are just waiting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/filth13 Jamie Filth

    Has anyone has any success with the disavow tool ? i have spent many many mo

  • Eldon

    I’m not clear whether I need to disavow or not. I have one particular blog that was highly ranked for the topic’s major keywords for over six years. This remained consistent through all Google updates over time – until Penguin. On that day, it dropped out of sight. Now, keywords that are dead on with the focus of the content (ones that used to be in the top 10-20) are now buried at 200+ in the ranking. The blog is still indexed (almost all the pages and posts) but it’s just buried in Google and I no longer get any Google traffic. New posts that normally would get ranked in the top 50 at least without any backlinks are just way way down there every time now.

    I never got a message through Webmaster Tools about unnatural links or anything else. I’m unclear whether this is a penalty or mark that I can never recover from, or not?

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