Everything you need to know about the disavow file


Following on from Marie Haynes’ recent article on whether you should audit your disavow file, let’s get right back to basics and explore what the disavow file is, why it exists, and how and when to use it.

Links are still the number one ranking signal for a website. Staying on top of the quality of your link profile through the disavowing of low quality websites is a must if you want to remain or become competitive in organic search.

Not staying on top of your link profile, or refusing to use the disavow file due to Google’s data capture is naïve and could cost you dearly in the long run.

One caveat to the statements above and the entire article, if you know you’re not using ‘ethical methods’ and you’re performing well, do not use the disavow file.


Firstly, what is the disavow file?

It’s a tool that allows you to ask Google to not take into account specific links that contain spammy or low quality attributes when determining the quality of the websites link profile.

The key messaging from Google on this is to make as much progress with removing the link, before using this tool.

My stance on this is that the time vs. reward effort with manual link removal is very high and 90% fruitless. A full shift has been seen in the way we’ve historically dealt with sites in regards to link acquisition and removal. Historically websites would pay others for links to be placed, now they’re paying the same sites to remove them.

Why was it introduced?

Google’s official stance on this is because it understands that you may have historically built bad or paid links into your website through an old SEO company that you have and had no control over. These links violate Google’s quality guidelines and you will be punished as a result. 

Sceptical SEO’s stance on this is because Google are collating data into what the common attributes of a paid link looks like to improve the Penguin algorithm, as well as the real-time Penguin algorithm that is in development.

Furthermore, they may use this data against you and use their own subjectivity to decide whether or not they feel you warrant coming out of a Google based link penalty. 

Some people’s stance on the disavow file is to never use it as you’re submitting data to Google about your historical link building efforts and you’ll never come out of a penalty. 

This is nonsense.

When to use the disavow file

There are a few scenarios when using the disavow file is a must. 

1) If you’ve received a manual penalty warning from Google. There is no doubt that you need to use the disavow file when facing this situation. 

2) If you’ve historically put a lot of effort and links into a key page to rank well as you know it’s a vital page in regards to performance and competition. For example, ‘SEO’ is the keyword and I have a page at my own blog that I want to rank for it, I will have built a lot of links into this page. 

Is this page still performing well? If it is struggling, but used to perform well, look at the links going into this page, are they still deemed natural and do not break Google’s quality guidelines? If you believe there’s some links that you should not include anymore, you’ll need to use the disavow file. 

3) If you’re in a highly competitive niche and attempts of negative SEO is common practice, ensure you stay on top of all incoming links by using the disavow file. This can be done quite easily by running a daily, weekly or monthly incoming links report through any link acquisition tool. 

4) Is your website an authority? For example, websites like the Money Advice Service are for the ‘payday loans’ niche (have their own algorithm) who now all have to link to them as mandatory. 

As you can imagine, there’s a large number of low quality websites in this niche. We determine the difference between the low level websites that are spam and the brands such as Wonga and ensure the correct ones are included in the disavow file.

5) Have you historically been aggressive with your disavow file? If so, revisit it. Run the domains through a generic metric checker and evaluate the quality of these domains.

If you have been aggressive with disavow file in the past to get out of a penalty, it is always worth revisiting the domains you included to see if you accidentally included any gems that you could remove and feel the benefit from again. This is always a worthwhile exercise to be 100% sure about every domain you include in your disavow file.

Evidence that it works

We’ve used the disavow file on many occasions, mainly with historical manual penalties that clients came to us with. The disavow file was instrumental in removing the penalties these sites were suffering from.

Recently, we’ve been using the disavow file from a maintenance and Penguin perspective. 

A client of ours recently came to us with the idea of ranking highly for a specific keyword, that previous SEO agencies had also been briefed on. 

This keyword had high monetary and visitor rewards due to its search volume and average order value. Because of that, a lot of attention had been focused on it from a content marketing and link acquisition perspective, such as aggressive exact match anchor texts, low quality links, directories etc.

We disavowed a lot of these links to see how the page reacted, it improved, but only slightly and not as much as we’d hoped. This showed that the tool worked. 

We disavowed at domain level to include all links from these low quality domains and saw a huge uplift across the website, as these websites didn’t only link into this one product page.

The image below shows how the website has trended upwards across the board since the implementation of the disavow file.


Another example of successfully using the disavow file was through a client’s website having a manual penalty. Due to extreme time constraints, we skipped the link removal process and dived straight into using the disavow file. It worked.

This client had a case of legacy link acquisition methods through prior SEO agencies and had attracted a full manual penalty in the process.

The blue arrow below shows the significance of the drop through the penalty, the green arrow shows the removal of the full manual penalty to a partial, the red arrow shows the full removal of the penalty and recovery to very nearly where they were prior.


Something a lot of people aren’t aware of, and Google aren’t clear about, is the partial penalty. 

The messaging when removing a full manual to a partial implies it is fully removed, it’s not. Always check in Google Search Console to make sure it’s fully removed. If you have a partial penalty, further clean up work is required.

How do you determine what links go into the disavow file?

We have used the disavow tool a lot in the past for all of the scenarios highlighted, and for each case we’ve used the following methodology. 

Google’s subjectivity makes it harder to have a strict guideline to follow as you have to put your brain into ‘if I was a Googler’ mode to capture everything, especially when in a manual penalty process. This is because Penguin is an algorithm reviewing your links, so it has to meet certain criteria. 

With a manual penalty, it’s a human review. This means if they don’t like a link, they don’t like it and will penalise you for it. Criteria goes out of the window a little bit.

There are two main questions to consistently ask yourself when creating a disavow file using the criteria below.

  • Has money or product passed hands in the acquisition of a link? Is it obvious? If not, keep it
  • Be subjective, is it natural?

Criteria for a link to be included in the disavow file:

  • Exact match anchor text
  • Large difference between Trust Flow and Citation Flow values. For example: TF 5 CF 35
  • Hacked website/links
  • Low quality directories
  • Press releases
  • Sidebar links
  • Redirect links, do not 301 redirect low quality/penalised domains or URLs to your website, cut them off or include them in the disavow file

How do you use the disavow file?

Step-by-step process:

  1. Create a text file in notepad for Windows, or textedit for Mac
  2. Use a # when you want to make a comment to be able to remind yourself about specific things, Google DO NOT read this
  3. To disavow at domain level, use ‘Domain:’
  4. To disavow a specific URL, enter the full URL, other links from the domain will not
  5. Save the file as ‘disavow.txt’
  6. Go to disavow links from the account you want to upload a disavow file for
  7. Select the domain from the dropdown
  8. Select and upload the disavow file 
  9. Submit the file


(image courtesy of Kerboo) 

Google does not acknowledge the upload of a disavow file, nor does it read the comments that you submit. 

If you want to add more URLs or domains to the file in the future, simply download the existing file (or edit the existing one from your machine) and add to it.

Things to remember

It’s best practice to constantly keep on top of your link profile to ensure it’s in good health and using the disavow file is a must. Spend some time each week doing this and export a weekly batch of new links through Ahrefs or Majestic. If you do this intermittently, it becomes a much bigger job.

Literature from Google and other SEO’s state that nofollow links do not need to be included in the disavow file, but we do nonetheless. This is because if the website removes the nofollow tag, it will suddenly become damaging and you have no control of when this could happen.

If you have to disavow websites from your link profile and your profile is small, you will feel an impact nonetheless due to removing a higher percentage of your referring domains than a large brand with a large link profile. 

Remember that Google can be behind still on identifying the low quality links in your profile and subsequently devaluing them, so at this moment in time you could be removing a good link that will eventually be penalised.

Don’t always do link removal, it’s exhaustive in both time spent and budget, as some sites will ask for a fee. If the number of sites is small, run one round of link removal and create a disavow file regardless.

Comments aren’t required to show Google that you’ve tried, they don’t read them, they’re for your reference.


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