Disavowing Toxic Links: How To Protect Your Site From Negative SEO Attacks

Backlinks are a vital part of any SEO effort. As a general rule, you want as many backlinks as possible from as many different sources as possible—high-authority pages, low-authority pages, and everything in between.

What you don’t want to do is violate Google’s terms of service. Here’s the problem: Even if you’re not buying spammy links, if it looks like you are, Google might penalize your site, leading to ranking penalties and unlisted pages.

Disavowing links can help you avoid these penalties—but it’s not an action that should be taken lightly. 


Disavowing Links: What It Is, and Why You Should Do It

You can’t control which websites link to yours—as we’ll soon see, that can lead to a lot of negative hat tactics (tactics that break Google’s TOS, are illegal, or are otherwise unethical) from competitors. 

Fortunately, you can disavow links. This process allows you to tell Google that you do not want specific links to affect your rankings. Links that you disavow successfully will not affect your ranking—for better or worse. 

According to Google, you should disavow backlinks only if:

1. You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site


2. The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site

When links meet both of these criteria, you should disavow them using Google Search Console’s disavow tool. We’ll teach you how to use that tool later on in the article. First, we need to establish exactly what the disavow tool should be used for; it’s not just for any spammy, low-domain authority links.


How Spammy Links Affect SEO

Backlinks are an essential part of Google’s algorithm—they help determine how well a site should rank. Both the quantity and the quality of backlinks your site receives can affect your site’s ranking.

In the early days of SEO, people used all kinds of tactics to build links, and even purchasing links became incredibly popular. Nowadays, Google has a host of different built-in protocols to detect when sites are purchasing backlinks—and it will penalize those sites until the purchased backlinks are removed.

Today, private backlink networks or private blog networks (PBNs) are the more popular shady backlink-building tactics. These networks use a number of different sites that are all owned by the same entity to build authority and link to each other, as well as to the main sites the PBN was built to help rank.

PBNs also violate Google’s quality guidelines, and if your site is caught with a lot of links from PBNs, you may be penalized. 


Negative SEO Attacks and Bad Hat Tactics

No self-respecting SEO agency is going to use PBNs or spammy link-buying schemes—it’s too easy to get slapped with a penalty from Google. What some less-than-scrupulous webmasters will do, however, is use these schemes and point the toxic links as competitors’ websites. This can lead to serious penalties—it’s known as a negative SEO attack.

These attacks are incredibly rare because you need a competitor who:

  1. Knows enough about SEO to conduct a negative SEO attack
  2. Feels like such an attack would be a good use of resources
  3. Believes that you don’t have the resources to counter a negative SEO attack

The third point is particularly important because if you’re outranking a competitor with enough knowledge to conduct a negative SEO attack, it’s very likely you have the SEO skills (or an agency on your side) to counter the attack. For this reason, negative SEO attacks are very rare.

Nonetheless, negative SEO attacks do happen, and the best way to counter them is—you guessed it—to disavow the unnatural links that are part of the attacks. 


How Google Handles Spammy Links

Most spammy links aren’t from attacks—sites of all kinds have plenty of incentive to link to good content. When your content ranks well in the SERPs, you’ll start getting links from all kinds of strange sources; many of them may look spammy or come from low-authority pages. Some of these may even look like unnatural links, even though you’ve earned them organically.

Generally, you should not disavow these links. Google is incredibly good at finding spammy links and handling them on its end, not allowing them to affect your ranking. In fact, according to Google’s John Mueller, every SEO agency’s favourite public-facing employee:

“Essentially—if you weren’t buying links, don’t disavow.”

There are exceptions to this (like the negative SEO attacks we saw earlier), but it’s a good rule of thumb. You should almost never disavow links, and Google will handle most organically earned spammy links appropriately without needing any manual intervention. 


Manual Actions: The Best Reason To Disavow Links

Google’s algorithm may automatically flag websites suspected of being engaged in link buying, PBN schemes, or other black hat tactics. When this occurs, a Google employee will manually inspect the site to see if there’s evidence of wrongdoing. This is known as a “manual action”.

You can find manual actions in your Google Search Console. Most business owners will never see a manual action on their site; as such, the manual action report in GSC should look like this:

Occasionally, however, you may see the following:

When this occurs, you should disavow all of the unnatural site links that are causing the issue. Once that process is complete, you should request a review; doing so may remove the manual action and restore your rankings.

Spammy links and unnatural links aren’t the only reason you can get a manual action against your site—spammy schema and content can do it, too. Only disavow links in order to remove manual action for unnatural links—it won’t do anything to solve other manual action-related issues. 


How To Disavow Links Using Google Search Console

Step 1: Find Spammy Links Pointing to Your Website

This is, without a doubt, the trickiest step. In order to create a disavow file, you need to find toxic links to disavow; determining which links are toxic and which are simply low authority can be quite difficult. How can you distinguish an unnatural link or a toxic link from a low-quality one?

Tools offered by companies like Semrush can help, but they’re far from perfect. John Mueller has gone so far as to say that:

“Ultimately, if some random tool can tell you which ones to disavow, they’re probably already being ignored.”

That’s a pretty strong indication that the folks at Google feel confident its algorithm can catch any toxic backlinks that an all-in-one SEO tool can. Nonetheless, these tools give you a good starting point.

Do research on the domains with links that you want to disavow. See if other webmasters and business owners know about these sites, and try to understand if the toxic backlinks are coming from PBNs or other shady sources. Once you’ve got a list of toxic backlinks, you can move onto the next step: 


Step 2: Put the Toxic Links into a Text File

Fortunately, you don’t need to disavow toxic backlinks on a per-URL basis—you can disavow entire domains. You’ll need to build a text file (.txt)—you can use Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or basically any other text editor, as long as you save the file as .txt.

Your text file needs to be in a specific format:

  • Each domain needs to be on a separate line
  • Each entry should begin with “domain:” (without quotations).


Here’s how your .txt file might look:

  • domain:example.com
  • domain:example.net
  • domain:example.ca


You can target specific URLs in your disavow file, but there’s almost never any point in doing so—disavowing the entire domain is just faster and allows you to disavow toxic backlinks that may appear from that site in the future. 


Step 3: Disavow the Links Using Google’s Disavow Tool

Once you’ve assembled your disavow file, you’ll make your way over to Google’s Disavow Links tool. Navigate to the property you want to disavow toxic backlinks on and upload your list to Google (or replace your existing list). Google should accept the disavowal within a few days—though it can take longer, and it’s not guaranteed that the links you add will be disavowed. 

Note that the Google disavow tool does not work for domain properties—you’ll need to create a URL prefix property to use the tool. This may mean you have two properties within your Google Search Console for the same site—one with a URL prefix and the other as a domain property. 

Use the URL prefix property for tools like disavow links but the domain property for traffic, performance, and other Google Search Console features.



Most sites should never have to disavow links. When you disavow a link, you risk hurting your backlink profile—you should be extremely sure that spam links are hurting your website’s performance on search engines before disavowing them. 

Here at First Rank, we can help you determine whether or not paid links or other spammy link profiles are hurting your website’s performance. Get in touch with us if you have any questions! 

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