SEO Process

How to Disavow Backlinks Without Harming Your Website

Ian Howells
Last Updated: Feb. 14, 2024
How to Disavow Backlinks

Good backlinks can help your website rank higher in organic search results. However, bad backlinks can cause an entire website to lose its rankings and get penalized by Google. 

How do you distinguish between good and bad backlinks, and then disavow backlinks that you don’t want associated with your website?

In this article, I’ll explain what a toxic backlink is and how you can find all of them even if your website has thousands of pages.

Even though John Mueller mentioned that Google ignores unnatural backlinks, website owners still frequently use the disavow tool. Therefore, I’ll share my opinion on the controversial topic of link disavow and how you can quickly disavow toxic backlinks on your website. 

This article is an advanced guide for technical SEO experts. However, it will also be helpful for website owners who want to disavow all or some website backlinks. I highly recommend reading this guide before implementing any changes since they can significantly impact your website performance. 

What Is a Toxic Backlink? 

Toxic backlinks are incoming links from low-quality or spammy websites, which can negatively impact your website’s authority in the eyes of Google and other search engines. 

These links are considered harmful because they violate Google’s guidelines and can even lead to penalties or a drop in rankings. 

Google lists the following examples of toxic backlinks:

  • Buying or selling backlinks for ranking purposes 
  • Engaging in a backlink exchange activity
  • Links with over-optimized anchor text in blog posts, guest posts, or press releases
  • Links from low-quality directories or forums
  • Keyword-rich backlinks in comments

I’d also add backlinks from private blog networks (PBNs) to this list. A PBN is a network of websites that usually belongs to one owner, created to boost the rankings of another site (or multiple sites). 

PBNs have always been a popular but shady off-page SEO strategy. Don’t use it because Google heavily penalizes all websites taking part in a PBN. I’ve seen cases when PBNs and websites they’re linking to were entirely removed from organic search results. It’s not worth it! 

When to Disavow Backlinks

I once worked as an external SEO consultant at a B2B startup. When we noticed a continuous decline in organic website traffic, our in-house link builder conducted a backlink audit and ultimately decided to disavow some backlinks.

As a result, the website’s rankings almost immediately dropped. 

You may wonder why it happened if only bad backlinks were disavowed. 

Here’s the thing:

Disavowing links is risky, even if you believe you can correctly identify toxic backlinks harming your website. Bad backlinks can still help your website rank. I know it sounds confusing. However, Google uses multiple criteria to assess links. That’s why even SEO experts can make mistakes sometimes. 

I’d only recommend disavowing backlinks in the following cases:

  1. You received a Google manual action for unnatural backlinks
  2. A large number of unnatural, poor-quality backlinks were suddenly added to your website

If you notice a Google penalty in the Google Search Console, you must disavow bad links to get your site out of the penalty.

GSC Manual Actions

How to Find All Toxic Backlinks on Your Website

You can check all linking sites in the Links report of your Google Search Console account if it’s verified. 

For example, you can see one suspicious domain in the screenshot below: hhhtkhdq.com. It’s essential to assess all backlinks from this domain and potentially disavow them.

GSC Backlinks

This method is a good starting point. However, it’s unreliable and includes too much manual work. 

I recommend using Semrush’s Backlink Audit Tool to quickly analyze your website’s backlink profile and discover toxic backlinks. 

Semrush uses over 45 toxic markers to assess backlink quality and determine the toxic score from 0 (non-toxic) to 100 (toxic). 

If your website has a lot of backlinks with a high toxic score, such as 50+, I recommend conducting a thorough backlink analysis, including:

  • Anchor text
  • Domain rating (DR) 
  • The backlink acquisition rate of the referring domain 
  • The percentage of follow and no-follow backlinks of the referring domain
  • Topical relevance of the backlink
  • Country TLDs domain

Backlinks with spam anchor text and a domain rating close to zero are generally considered harmful. Even though Google ignores them most of the time, a spike in such links can lead to manual actions from Google. Therefore, monitor your backlink profile regularly and disavow toxic backlinks if you find any. 

Semrush Backlinks Analytics

Follow These 2 Steps to Disavow Backlinks

You’ve already done the hardest job at this point — you’ve identified toxic backlinks to disavow. Now all that’s left is to arrange all backlinks in a .txt file and submit it to Google. 

Here’s how to do it step-by-step.

1. Create a List of Backlinks to Disavow 

You can manually create a .txt file or use software like Semrush to automate the process. 

I always encourage automation since it saves you time and helps avoid file formatting errors. 

What I like about Semrush is that it automatically generates a disavow backlinks list suitable for the Google Disavow Tool. 

Here’s how it works.

Run a backlink audit in Semrush to check all incoming backlinks to your website along with the toxic score. 

If you believe a backlink does more harm than good, click on the “Move to Disavow List” action button to add a backlink to the disavow backlinks list. Eventually, you’ll have a ready-to-download and error-free .txt file.

Semrush backlink audit

If you decide to create a disavow file manually, there are a few link formatting requirements to know:

  • The maximum file size is 100,000 lines and 2 MB (including comments and blank lines)
  • The URL length is 2,048 characters
  • The file format should be .txt
  • You should only specify one URL or one domain name per line
  • You have to use the domain or subdomain prefix to disavow an entire website
  • The file must be encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII
  • Use # to add a comment 

For example, here’s what you should write to disavow separate URLs and domain names.

# Disavowing URLs:

  • https://example.com/article-1/
  • https://example.com/article-2/

# Disavowing domains and a subdomain:

  • domain:example.com
  • domain:example1.com
  • subdomain: sub.domain.com

Remember, there’s no blank space between the “domain” prefix and the domain name.

As you can see, it’s not rocket science and the syntax can be easily learned. Furthermore, Google will notify you if your uploaded .txt file has errors. 

One more thing.

If there is an old disavow file in Google Search Console, download it first. Review it manually and remove all backlinks you no longer want to disavow. 

As a next step, add the remaining links to the new disavow file or upload them to Semrush via the “Import Disavow links” button. This way, Google will disavow all old and new toxic backlinks.

2. Upload a Disavow File to Google Search Console 

Open the Disavow Tool Page if you have a verified domain ownership in Google Search Console.

You’ll have a drop-down list to select the site property. If you manage multiple sites in one Google Search Console account, ensure you choose the right domain property. 

Submit your .txt file, and you’re done! 

It can take some time for Google to process your disavow file. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect an immediate improvement in your search rankings. 

Nevertheless, disavowing spammy backlinks can help you improve your website’s overall performance in organic search results over time. 

GSC Disavow

What If Something Goes Wrong 

If disavowing backlinks doesn’t work as planned, you’ll probably want to undo the action. 

Technically, it’s possible. You can download the disavow file, remove some backlinks from the list, and reupload the file using the Google Disavow Tool. 

In practice, it’s more challenging because Google will no longer treat those backlinks like it used to. 

Here’s what Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s webspam team, says about reviewing backlinks: 

“That will take even longer, and we might not give those backlinks the same weight if we start to allow them to be disavowed.” 

I guess the main point is pretty straightforward — use the disavow backlinks method only if you are confident that you don’t want to count on those backlinks.

Disavow Backlinks Easily with Semrush

Now you know the ins and outs of the backlink disavow process. 

You can minimize the risks of disavowing good backlinks by conducting a thorough backlink analysis. 

With Semrush, you can quickly analyze an entire backlink profile, find backlinks with spammy anchors, check the toxicity score, and automatically generate a disavow file in the blink of an eye.

Try Semrush’s Backlink Audit Tool for free!