At Matt Cutts emphasized in a nine-minute video, this is an advanced tool, and should not be used unless you’re absolutely certain that spammy links sit at the root of your rankings problems. I lost track of how many times he reiterated this point, and stated that your typical site owner won’t need to use it – in fact, only those who are really comfortable with the technical aspects of their site should even consider using it.
In fact, what I got from the video is that this tool is not intended to help websites recover from Penguin. Rather, it’s meant to be used by those who have actually received warnings from Google via their Webmaster Tools account that the search engine has detected links it considers unnatural. Refreshingly, Cutts stated that Google will start including in these messages examples – up to three, perhaps – of links to your site that it considers “unnatural.” It won’t be an exhaustive list, of course, but at least now you’ll have a clue of where to start and what to look for.
Google intends for you to use the disavow links tool after you’ve received a manual notification and tried to remove as many of your spammy links as possible. You may reach that point pretty quickly, by the way. In a recent SEO Chat thread on the subject, forum member Dr.Marie noted her own experience helping her clients remove bad links: “on average I get 15-20% of [bad] links removed using extensive email/contact form outreach. For some reinclusion requests that is enough, but for others it is not.”
So how exactly does this tool work? First, you need to have admin status for your website in Google Webmaster Tools to use it; this should help avoid a lot of potential abuse. If you own multiple websites for which you’re using GMT, pick a site, then go to the tool. You’ll get a warning screen that states “This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.”
Next, you’ll need to upload a text file that contains ONLY the links you want to disavow, one per line. You can use the hash tag indicator (#) in front of a line to “comment it out” if you want to add notes for yourself that explain what you’re doing and why. SEO Round Table gives a fuller description of the procedure.
So how long after you’ve submitted a disavow links request will it take for Google to update your site’s standing? According to Cutts, it could take weeks, because they will need to completely recrawl your site and check those links. You see, you can tell Google to disavow the links, but the search engine sees this as a “strong suggestion” and will come to its own conclusions as to whether it agrees with you that those links should not be a factor in your standing in the SERPs.
Incidentally, this is part of the reason Google considers disavow links to be an advanced tool; it’s far too easy, if you’re not extremely careful, to accidentally disavow a link you wanted to keep. You can go back to your text document, update it, and upload it again if you’ve made a mistake, but according to Cutts, it will take even longer to fix these errors.
Responses to the tool have been mixed. Some SEOs seem to think it might be the best thing since sliced bread. Others, however, see a Google conspiracy. Barry Schwartz, for instance, describes it as “the best spam reporting tool Google has launched to day. Suffering webmasters point fingers at their competitors and friends and blame them for poor rankings, which Google can use.”
Schwartz is hardly the only one who’s suspicious of Google’s motives in launching this tool. On the other hand, with Bing launching its own disavow links tool at the end of June this year, Google may have felt pushed into offering something equivalent to help it stay competitive. Either way, you now possess a new tool in your arsenal to help you recover from certain kinds of issues in ranking your website. Do you think you’ll ever use it? Feel free to answer in the comments section.