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The disavow file, do we still need to use it?.

The author

Malcolm Slade

Head of Technical SEO

Sometimes I don’t think we in the search industry realise just how hard it must be to be a public voice of Google like John Mueller or Gary Illyes. They both have to put themselves in uncomfortable situations all of the time, where they have to be careful what they say due to everyone hanging off every word, and some looking solely to cause unnecessary kafuffle.

Gary presented three sessions at Pubcon Las Vegas; an open question panel with several other Googler’s, an early breakfast Q&A and a keynote session. Each was filled with difficult questions that often put him and other Googler’s on the spot and under fire.

Combine this with live tweeting, and it’s basically a powder keg.

To disavow or not to disavow? That is the question.

During the first session, Gary was asked; “do we need a disavow file?” to which he responded; “If you do not have a manual action, then you do not need to submit a disavow” – and the SEO world went crazy…


Obviously, this wasn’t the end of the conversation. Gary referred to his own site, the fact that Google is really good at devaluing the low level stuff and commented that if you have been, or are doing anything dodgy; the disavow file is your best friend.

He was mainly referring to the fact that for a normal site (probably untouched by an SEO during the period 2008-2014) you don’t need to put much effort into disavowing links.

But alas, the tweet buttons had been hit; the 140 (or 280 if you were lucky on that day) characters were out there for all to see, absorb, and pass on.

So, do we need a disavow file?

Over the last five years, the SEO – and specifically, the link-building industry – has matured considerably. We now talk about creating engaging, link-worthy content, PR and influencers and often, achieve great things.

But not everyone has changed. We still all hear about PBN’s, link buying and mass comment spam and most of us are still contacted about cheap links on various sites daily. All of this stuff still happens and Google is still actively implementing fixes to counter it.

Below are a few different common cases relating to the need for a disavow file:

You have done/may have done, something dodgy.

If you’re doing, or have done, anything that could be construed as against Google’s guidelines, then at Epiphany, we would recommend you have a thorough disavow file.

If you can see an obvious footprint, such as commercial anchor text when looking at your backlinks using something like Majestic, then you can be pretty sure that Google can.

It may be helping you, it may be harming you. Either way, if it is an attempt at manipulation then it is a ticking time-bomb that if left to detonate, could cost you a lot of money.

Someone seems to be doing negative SEO at my site.

If your livelihood is dependent on Google rankings and organic traffic, then at Epiphany we would advise constructing and submitting a disavow file. Yes, Google is a lot better at filtering out low-level links which most negative SEO attacks seem to be based on at scale, but, on the flip side, most attacks have patterns that can be audited quickly and disavowed, so why risk it?

But other people are saying disavow files are pointless...

Yes, they are. Good for them. Are they in the same circumstances you are? Are they referring to a multi-million-pound ecommerce business, their affiliate network or their own personal blog? If their site tanked would they have to explain it to shareholders? Would their site disappearing from Google be noticed by anyone?

For every “I removed my disavow file and traffic doubled” story, there is a “I didn’t bother with a disavow file and now I am penalised” story.

Everyone has unique circumstances and it is important to work out what is right for you; question everything you can.

What about updating your disavow file?

Here again, if you have done something potentially manipulative in the past, then I would actively monitor my link profile (we mainly use Majestic combined with Kerboo) and update my disavow file as needed.

Even if you haven’t done anything manipulative, the Majestic and Kerboo combination would be my recommended way of monitoring a backlink profile. Would I obsess about it? No, as Gary has said; “there are often better things to be doing with your time”.

What does Epiphany do?

We audit and if necessary, we disavow. The reason we disavow is because we have a slick process, backed by internal and external tools and we know that the work we carry out benefits our clients.

The statement I sometimes hear that “link reviews and disavowing are simply a way for agencies to make money from unnecessary work” doesn’t resonate with me one bit. If I felt the activity we carry out wasn’t necessary and didn’t carry benefits, we wouldn’t be doing it.

Until someone from Google states that the disavow file is 100% void and this statement is confirmed by at least one other Googler, we will keep disavowing.

Hear it from Google

It has taken me a while to get this post published and in that time @johnmu has answered this very question within a Google Webmaster Hangout, so here it is at 2:49 :)

To conclude

Thanks for taking the time to read this post; in honesty, it was written as a bit of therapy for me as I was a little annoyed at how the whole situation played out; but now I can move on to some sweet technical posts I have planned!

If you’d like to comment below, please do; I’ll leave you with a response I gave while this was all starting to gain traction…