Manual Penalty Removal & Recovery - Part 4 - When to Disavow Links


If you’ve been following this series you’ll now have a strong understanding of the varying types of manual action, and have gained insights into the factors that form a link penalty - and hopefully you’ll now have enough knowledge to be able to differentiate between what is or is not a low-quality link.

Disavow Good Bad

The next question that may be on your mind is when to disavow those links identified throughout your link auditing process? The obvious answer may be to disavow immediately, instructing Google to disregard those rogue links ASAP; but not all circumstances will warrant an immediate disavow.

Unfortunately I cannot tell you when or when not to process your disavow request as it will ultimately depend on the extent of your penalty and your own individual circumstances; but I can provide a couple of reasons why you may want to hold fire, at least momentarily while you consider your next steps.

1. Understand/Monitor the Organic Search Reach

Whether you’ve been the recipient of manual action from Google or suffered as a result of an algorithmic Penguin penalty, understanding where you currently rank for keywords affected by the penalty (and the knock-on impact) is incredibly important if you want to accurately measure the result of your link clean-up efforts.

Link auditing and link removal shouldn’t be considered as a magic bullet: Even if you manage to successfully remove a manual penalty, you may not see an immediate uplift as a result; and recovery from algorithmic penalties is often more difficult to quantify. So understanding organic search rankings and search traffic is extremely important, as is the ability to monitor these metrics throughout this process.

So before you go all out disavowing those pesky links make sure you truly understand your search performance. Take some time out to analyse the full impact of the penalty, benchmarking organic search rankings and organic search traffic ahead of any further action. That way when it comes to removal and disavowing you’ll gain a better understanding of the impact of your link removal efforts.

(By the way if you’re looking for intuitive software for accurate tracking of ranking data combined with an intelligent crawler then I’d recommend intalyse.)
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2. Make an Effort to Remove Links

Arguably more important than disavowing links is making an active effort to remove those links inflicting damage upon your campaign. Removing bad links will resolve the problem at the source rather than relying on disavow processes to disassociate your website from those links.

Google’s guidelines for disavowing clearly state:

“If you’ve done as much work as you can to remove spammy or low-quality links from the web, and are unable to make further progress on getting the links taken down, you can disavow the remaining links”

Submitting a disavow list without first making an effort to remove links is the lazy approach – which in all fairness can often have the same impact! But try not to be lazy and make an effort to outreach to those in control of the rogue links and request a resolution.

Requesting the removal of links in itself can be a skilled process (and one which I won’t go into in this post) but note; I can reference it as ‘resolution’ as opposed to just ‘removal’. Removing links is often the immediate reaction but is certainly not the only option.

Other solutions may include requesting a change of anchor text or the addition of the ‘nofollow’ attribute to the link. The important thing is to open a dialog with the webmaster and discuss your options. Let’s not forget that in many cases the presence of a low-quality or harmful link may not be a direct fault of the website owner therefore going in heavy-handed with a “remove my link or else” style approach that may not aid your success. Approach the webmaster in a friendly manner and see if you can come to an arrangement.

Money IconOf course there are those webmasters out to make a few quid who will charge a fee for link removal, some may be legitimate fees while others may not. In my experience web directories are by far the worst for charging link removal fees so I would definitely advise a level of caution. It can sometimes be a judgement call whether a removal fee is deserved or not, but as a general rule I do not pay for link removal, especially where directories are concerned.

I have even seen cases (quite frequently in fact!) where malicious webmasters revive directory databases on alternative domains in an attempt to lure companies into paying for link removal, time and time again (N.B lookout for web directories registered to ‘Vikas Kumar’ or ‘Ashwani Kumar’ – these are renowned worst offenders of the directory revival in my experience).

Once you have exhausted link removal efforts then it’s time to move on.

3. Outweigh with Quality Links

Google’s Penguin algorithm evaluated links on an aggregated level meaning that if your link profile is ridden with low-quality links you are susceptible to penalisation. However it is possible to tip the balance without the need for removal or disavow, through acquisition of stronger, more credible, “higher quality” links.

This is something which Google’s John Mueller reiterated in an End of Year Google Webmaster hangout on 30th December 2014.

Of course this is predominantly more effective for algorithm penalties as opposed to manual action, but if you’re filing for the removal of a manual penalty through a reconsideration request then the ability to show signs of quality link growth may be beneficial.

4. Phase the Disavow Based on Severity

My final piece of advice would be to ensure you adopt a phased approach to link disavowing, rather than going in all guns blazing, and submitting your entire list. Again there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and your approach will likely depend on your own individual circumstances.

No matter how thorough you have been with your link audit - or how confident you are - there are not cast iron guarantees that the links you have selected are the true culprits. Incorrectly disavowing links can potentially be disastrous! Back in 2013 Cyrus Shepard did a test disavowing all 35K links to his website. Needless to say the effects were not good! Of course you’re not going to go to that extreme if you’ve followed this tutorial, but it just shows that if you do inadvertently disavow credible links, you can inflict damage upon your campaign.

In the previous post in this series we looked at methods of link scoring based on varying metrics and link severity. It may now be pertinent to split your disavow request into a series of submissions based on your perception of link severity, taking adequate time to measure the impact on rankings and search traffic between submissions. With Penguin now rumoured to be a rolling update as opposed to manually triggered it should, hopefully, be easier to measure the impact.

Once again this will ultimately depend on your circumstances and the extent of your penalty. With an algorithmic penalty the effect of your disavow efforts may be easier to recognise, whereas disavow efforts may go unnoticed if a manual penalty is in effect. I would always recommend a gently, gently approach unless you’re 100% confident in efforts to disavow – you certainly don’t want to worsen your search visibility!


So hopefully you now have a thorough understanding of the considerations that may influence your decision on when to disavow. This should hopefully provide all the ammunition you need to fire off your disavow request(s) and maximise the impact of your efforts. Now there’s potentially only one thing that stands between you and freedom from Penguin – your reconsideration request!

If anyone needs any further explanation, help or advice please leave a comment below and I’ll endeavour to help!

Part 1 - Understanding Manual Action
Part 2 - What Constitutes a Link Penalty?
Part 3 - Performing a Link Audit
Part 4 - When to Disavow?
Part 5 - Reconsideration Request Best Practice - coming soon

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