November 2023 Google Core Algorithm Update Rolls Out

The disavow tool is a contentious topic in the SEO community.

Some SEO professionals swear by it and say that it has helped client websites to recover from negative SEO attacks and get things back on steady footing.

But what’s the truth about disavowing toxic and spammy backlinks?

It’s been more than a decade since Google added the Disavow Tool functionality. And since then, they have slowly removed its prominence and even advised webmasters and SEOs that it isn’t worth their time.

If the tool still exists and is accessible (although difficult to find) is it actually worth using and can it help to alert Google of any unscrupulous negative link attacks coming to your website? Here’s what we know about the disavow tool in 2024 and whether it’s worth disavowing negative or toxic links from your backlink profile.

Table of Contents

What is a Toxic/Spammy Link?

Toxic links or spammy links are links which are deemed to be low-quality and have the potential to damage the SEO rankings of a website.

Types of spammy and toxic backlinks

There are two keyways that someone will acquire a spammy or toxic link:

1. They will be the victim of a negative SEO attack (uncommon, but it still happens)
2. They or an SEO cowboy working on their behalf has acquired cheap, low-quality links that are flagged as toxic or spammy.

When we see links that are genuinely spammy or toxic – 99% of the time it is the result of misguided link building practices. Unless you’ve really got under someone’s skin, it’s unlikely that you’ll be the victim of a negative SEO attack.

What is the Disavow Tool?

The disavow tool is a tool that is provided by Google that allows SEOs and webmasters to notify Google of any poor-quality links pointing to their website.

When to use the disavow link tool

The tool is intended to let Google know that these links are not the by-product of Blackhat SEO, instead, they have nothing to do with that website and should therefore not be considered towards the way that Google evaluates and ranks their website.

Google’s disavow function was first introduced way back in October 2012 to help combat rampant link spam:

“Today we’re introducing a tool that enables you to disavow links to your site. If you’ve been notified of a manual spam action based on “unnatural links” pointing to your site, this tool can help you address the issue. If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool generally isn’t something you need to worry about.”

It’s important to remember, the disavow tool is not a magic fix for any site that has been handed a manual link penalty. It’s also worth considering that Google has been actively telling SEOs not to use the disavow tools for more than a few years at this point. The fact that the tool is now more than a decade old and Google has been actively telling SEOs that it’s not worth their time for years is a good indicator of its efficacy.

What Google’s John Mueller Says About Disavowing Links

“The disavow file definitely makes sense if you have a manual action that’s based on link issues and you can’t clean those links up.”

“With regards to sites that don’t have a manual action for link issues. We do try to kind of take those links out of the equation automatically when we can recognize them. In general that’s something we’re pretty good at. We have quite a bit of practice doing that, so most of the time we can get that pretty well.”

It’s important to remember that John Mueller said this back in 2017. Since then, he’s come out multiple times and said that SEOs and webmasters should not be using the disavow tool. Gary Illyes of Google has also said that websites are more likely to do harm than good by using the disavow tool.

So, basically, if you’ve got a manual action from Google relating to links, then it may be worth using the disavow tool. Updates as recently as the Google Link Spam Algorithm Update back on July 26 2021 are a further indication that Google continues to tackle link spam in new ways.

If your website does not have a manual action, then Google should be able to determine that any spammy/toxic links will not be counted towards how you rank.

Our 2c on Negative Links & Google’s Disavow Tool

Toxic links and negative SEO attacks were a big thing at one point (circa mid 2010s). At Safari Digital, we helped more than a few clients to recover from negative link attacks back in the early days.

Truth be told, back in 2018, the disavow tool was a godsend for a few of our clients. A couple of them had been victims of a negative SEO attack, however, in most cases they were simply the victim of a shoddy SEO agency. In most cases, we were disavowing a high quantity of low-quality links with extremely rich anchor text which resulted in an improvement in rankings and traffic.

In 2024, we’ve been tasked with helping websites that have been slapped with soft penalties from their previous SEO efforts or SEO Agency. In most cases, their site traffic followed the same trajectory as the SEO agency that they were working with. There are two decent-size SEO companies in Australia that are constantly riding the algorithm update waves because of their shoddy link building efforts.

In those cases, we have worked with clients that have been caught out by those updates when those agencies employed the same link building traffic.

In the cases mentioned above, the disavow tool has done nothing to soften the blow. When these websites have been slapped with soft penalties, they are very difficult to rank.

In most cases, they do not move and it’s a waiting game for the next algorithm update to come through to provide some respite and reverse the impacts of a previous update.

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