How can I find links that I need to disavow?

Monday, March 18th, 2013 by Lee Wilson

This question is really pertinent at the moment, as the Google disavow tool has been available for a few months now.  Even more importantly, an ever-increasing number of websites have received manual link penalty messages. Their owners are desperate to find out what’s gone wrong and to identify a quick, effective fix.

I am pitching this at people who have received a manual link penalty message in their Google Webmaster Tools account and are certain this is accurate. In July 2012, for example, Matt Cutts advised: “If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic.

If you have received an accurate manual link penalty, you’ll see this directly impact your website’s traffic within five or six weeks of the notification – although the exact time in which you can expect to see the change varies on a case-by-case basis.


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Cutts’ words offered a reprieve to many website owners, but not all – since this time, sites being impacted with unnatural link penalties continue to attain new, all-time peak levels.

Let’s get practical and tidy up those links

The first step is to find all of the potentially-damaging links and manually request that they are removed before you use the disavow tool. Google wants you to demonstrate that you are doing everything possible to improve the site’s backlink profile before you use the tool. You will see more details on identifying ‘bad links’ later in this post.

The last thing Google wants is this tool to be seen as a quick fix; more like a last action when other options have been exhausted. Don’t take my word for it, though – let Google tell you about the disavow tool directly.

What is Google telling you about your links?

You will want to use all the data in GWMT to identify links to remove. In the first instance, this will include all the ‘Links to your site’ data and notably:

  • Who links the most (get a full download and manually review)
  • Your most-linked content (get a full download and manually review)

When you have downloaded all the relevant data from GWMT, you will need to manually review all the link information. Word of warning: this can take a lot of time, as there are likely to be thousands of links for you to review.  You should focus your search on the key areas that Google tell you are against its guidelines.

Focusing your energies here will help –

Focusing on key areas within your review could make the process easier/more successful. Try to target the following:

  • Paid links – adding ‘nofollow’ tags to these is important – you can either do this yourself if you have access to the sites, or contact the site owners to request they do it. Also, assess if the links add value and if they don’t, simply remove them (paid links are outside of Google Guidelines). Once as many as possible have been updated, add the remaining to the disavow tool
  • Link wheels – any/all sites that were historically set up with lots of exact-match spammy links as a group of company sites to artificially inflate authority need to be deleted. Also, sites need to be taken down if they are non-value add and/or the links should be removed
  • Forum sites – these will have lots of profile links in them which are seen as content spam (look in the GWMT files for forum, member and other associated terms). If you have any login details, you have to go into the profile and delete the signature with the exact-match, spammy terms in them. If you don’t have login access, you will have to contact the sites directly and ask for the logins (this should be pretty straightforward). Once as many have been updated as possible, add the remaining to the disavow tool if you cannot get them removed by other means
  • Foreign language sites – these can, in most instances, almost go straight into the disavow tool as it is unlikely they will respond to your remove link email unless you are able to communicate in the relevant foreign language
  • Low-quality directories – there will likely be many of these. You will need to complete online forms and request they remove all the links. Do keep sending them follow-up emails until they remove as many of them as possible. You can then add them to the disavow tool, but you will need to have contacted them first in a bid to have as many removed yourself as possible
  • Dangerous sites – sites that are irrelevant to your industry and/or that are seen as potentially damaging should be targeted. Historically, black hat SEO techniques would have made use of sites that promote pornographic material, gambling, politically extremist content or malware. Usually, these types of sites will stand out due to their URLs. Add these to the disavow tool as a priority

Unfortunately there is no quick way to clean up a backlink portfolio. It’s all about the manual work – identifying the bad and the worst links – then the legwork of finding any email addresses that exist, then sending them link removal requests. These then need to be followed up.

Remember to keep track of all actions completed on a link-by-link basis, as this is important in demonstrating to Google what you have done and why (as well as what the next steps are).

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About the author

Lee Wilson

Lee Wilson

Lee joined Vertical Leap as an SEO Campaign Delivery Manager in 2010 and heads up the SEO team after successfully managing the online and direct marketing development of a financial services company for over seven years. Lee is a certified web applications developer (Cert WAD) and a regular LinkedIn user. Follow me on Google Plus