Does the disavow tool work and will it aid recovery from penalties?

Scepticism has been coursing through the veins of SEOs everywhere since the inception of Google’s spam-beating disavow tool.

There was, needless to say, controversy aplenty upon its launch, with the most prominent question unsurprisingly being: does it actually work?

In our experience, we’d insist that ‘yes’ is the answer. The disavow tool is a great way to aid recovery from a penalty. It is not, of course, the only road to recovery but, as long as it is used wisely along with a few other simple procedures, a penalty-ridden website will be back on the straight and narrow in no time. If you want to know how to use the tool read our post here.

If your website is suffering from a recent algorithm update or manually placed link penalties, the disavow tool can, despite some opinions, help you recover. Three case studies of high profile websites with large amounts of traffic recovering from a link penalty are outlined below, so let’s explore the benefits of the tool and how you can use it to help you recover, too.

Why did we need a disavow tool?

The unnatural links messages and the Penguin update were obvious markers that Google has detected unsavoury links, so it created the disavow tool in response to enlist the help of SEOs everywhere in the on-going battle against link spam.

Some issues have been raised about this apparent crowd sourcing, mainly in the vein of misappropriation of the tool, but two rebuttals stand out here: (1) Google can’t simply ignore bad links and (2) Google alone can’t remove every single one of them. Moreover, there is little chance of SEOs abusing the tool to report good links because that is the last thing you want to do if you are trying to recover from a penalty.

At the end of the day, the tool is designed to give link profiles a spring clean and rid the internet of spam, so no irrational fear of it being abused or moral standpoint against Google’s SEO crowd sourcing should stop you from using it.

The disavow tool works, if it is used for what it was supposed to be used for – the following examples are evidence of that:

Case study 1 – Manual Link Penalty

This site was hit by a link spam penalty towards the end of 2011. It received the unnatural links message in July this year and by August 95% of its spam links had been removed.

Its reconsideration request was, in fact, rejected but then it endeavoured to remove the remaining bad links with the disavow tool and subsequently submitted another reconsideration request. Ten days later, the site’s rankings returned.

Case study 2 – Manual Link Spam Penalty

This particular site received the unnatural links message in March and had removed around 80% of its spam links by June. It submitted reconsideration requests on numerous occasions, only to have them rejected every time.

However, when it ran its remaining bad links through the disavow tool, it filed another request and received a notification that a manual spam penalty had been removed. Its rankings returned with a week.

Case study 3 – Algorithmic Anchor Text Filter

Similarly to above, this site received the unnatural links notification in March and went on to remove 60% of the links that were deemed as spam. It was rejected a reconsideration again and again until it used the disavow tool. Once the rest of its bad links had been removed, it received a response to another request stating that no manual penalties were in place.

Its rankings automatically recovered through the algorithm around three weeks later.

The visibility data (obtained from Searchmetrics) in the above case studies illustrate how useful the disavow tool can be in a quest to recover from a penalty.

Below is an explanation of how you can utilise the disavow tool to help your own site recover:

The importance of a link audit

It is absolutely vital that you undertake a full link audit before you even go near the disavow tool. This will essentially allow you to manually assess all of your links and categorise them in terms of quality so you know exactly which ones you want to disavow. Moreover, this will also allow you to identify which links you definitely don’t want to disavow.

To start, use Majestic, Search Console and Open Site Explorer to undertake a fully inclusive audit of all your links. Once you have collated as big a sample as possible, you can begin to manually sort them into groups of quality. We recommend the following three categories:

1)       Good link

Of course, you’ll want to leave these links alone as these will form a stronger backbone for your new backlink profile once the bad links have been removed.

2)       Good site, but with obviously aggressive anchor text

If the anchor text for each of these links appears unnatural, contact the sites to get them either changed or removed.

3)       Bad site, bad link

Prepare all the bad links you find in a text document for the disavow tool.

A link audit should always be a prerequisite of using the disavow tool. It will save you time as well as your best links when it actually comes to using it and it will ensure that your very worst links are removed. Even if you don’t have any particularly good links after the audit, you’ll have a clean slate from which to work after you’ve utilised the tool.

Disavow and reconsideration

Once you’ve prepared your bad links, you can use the disavow tool to take action on them. In addition, if it turns out that you have been subject to a manual penalty, you will need to submit a reconsideration request as this is the only way you can have it removed.

There have been two types of recent link penalties, but bear in mind that you may be suffering from both of them. If you follow the steps outlined above, Google will contact you to inform you which penalty, or penalties, you have with any of the messages illustrated below.

1)       Manual penalty for unnatural links

If you receive this message from Google, you can look forward to recovering in 10 days.

2)       Algorithmic anchor text based penalties

You could receive one of two messages if you were hit with this type of penalty:

This could mean that you have been hit by Panda, which will require further investigation, or that your problem is purely algorithmic, which means that it can be relieved by submitting bad links to the disavow tool.

This message is another indication of an algorithmic issue, which can in part be solved by the disavow tool, but remember that you could be suffering from both so be sure to submit a reconsideration request.


It is of the utmost importance that you cover every square inch of your backlink profile to stand the best chance of recovering from a penalty.

Don’t simply remove the bad links and hope that you’ll recover your rankings and, likewise, don’t just build good links on top of bad ones with an abundance of viral marketing and social activity and assume that this will heal the wound. This would be nothing more than a temporary bandage on a permanent wound.

At Branded3, we have seen positive results with the disavow tool, which goes to show that it is definitely working. If you are having difficulty recovering from a penalty, please get in touch today – we’re more than happy to help.

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