By Paul Parcellin, Staff Writer
March 12, 2015

It used to be that the backlinks were like bits of Manna from heaven. The sheer quantity of them weighed heavily on your site's Google ranking. Lots of links meant that you got pushed up closer to the top of the search engine results page, and that brought you more traffic.

But there was a flaw in the system. Ideally, links should point to good content that users want to share with others. But webmasters figured out that they could game the system by loading their sites with unearned links - trading links with other sites, linking to unrelated content, adding links to spammy pages and other similar tricks to get a better Google ranking.

The Downside

But Google started getting smarter about detecting questionable links. It wasn't long before the search engine no longer increased a site's ranking due to large quantities of backlinks - especially those that tried to increase a site's ranking through trickery. In fact, bad links became a detriment when Google began to check link validity and penalize sites when backlinks proved questionable.

In theory, that's a good idea. It closes off one avenue used by practitioners of black hat SEO techniques, and it probably helps provide a better user experience. It makes it harder for the system gamers to fool the search engine, and may help increase the rankings of sites that deserve to appear at the top of search result pages.

The trouble is, you may not have a lot of control over who links to your site, and if irrelevant content, or worse, seedy pages - spam, adult material or online gambling - link to your site, then your Google ranking may suffer, and you'll find yourself a victim of guilt through unwanted association.

A Clean Sweep

So, how do you get rid of those bad links that can ruin your standing on the Web?

Google supplies the Disavow Tool, which can help you sweep away the cobwebs and free your site from unwanted backlinks.

With the Disavow Tool, you can ask Google to disregard certain URLs and domains so that the bad links are not factored into your site's ranking.

All you have to do is create a .txt file that lists the domains and URLs that you don't want to be associated with, and send the list to Google.

Handle with Caution

Google cautions that the Disavow Tool is an advanced feature, and it should be used with care. Misuse of the tool can result in damage to your site's performance in Google search results. Use the tool to disavow backlinks only if there are a significant number of artificial, low quality or questionable links pointing at your site. Also, be reasonably sure that the links are causing you problems.

It's important to make an effort to remove unwanted links through the usual channels, such as emailing a removal request to webmasters, before using the Disavow Tool. Indiscriminate use of the tool is liable to flag some perfectly legitimate sites along with the less reputable ones. Over time, that will likely degrade the effectiveness of the tool for all users. Plus, it will likely inundate Google with enormous numbers of manual reviews to perform.

When to Indulge

You should use the Disavow Tool if your site receives a manual penalty - that's receiving a penalty after a manual review of site, and for webmasters they're considered the mother of all Google demerits. Your site could be de-indexed, or it could remain in Google's index with a lower ranking. That might mean that your site turns up on page 7 instead of page 1 in search engine results for certain keywords. Furthermore, after being penalized there's no way to improve your site's standings through SEO tactics.

You'll also want to use the Disavow Tool if you receive an algorithmic penalty, that is, your traffic drops off due to a Google algorithmic change, and it's probably the result of some bad links pointing to your site.

This is not as bad as a manual penalty, but you'll still want to clean up the problem.

Checking Under the Hood

The Disavow Tool can also come in handy when performing a routine check for undesirable links. You probably do periodic checks of your links profile to ensure that no bad links are dragging your site down. That's a good time to clear away the toxic links that have attached themselves to your site like barnacles to a ship's bow. Regular maintenance can keep your pages free of these annoyances.

If and when you decide to use the Disavow Tool there are some guidelines you should keep in mind.

• First, send a request to webmasters that the links be removed.
• If your request doesn't work, use the Disavow Tool.
• Keep records of your link removal requests. You might want to keep a spreadsheet and record information on every link, date and email associated with your efforts. Also include all contact information for each webmaster you contact.
• Try using Google Webmaster Tools to audit your backlinks. With it, you can research links and find webmaster contact information.

Post Script

The Google Disavow Tool is most effective when you create accurate text files by following Google's instruction on how to do so. Do that after efforts to have the link removed have failed.

When you contact a webmaster to request that links be removed, wait about a week, and if there's no response send another request. If that still fails to produce the results that you want, move onto using the Disavow Tool. 

That can be the best way to help keep your site free of undesirable links and ensure that your site ranking doesn't slip. It may be a somewhat tedious process, but it will likely pay off for you.

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