Preemptively avoiding a Google penalty and disavowing

Disclaimer: These are my personal findings and  should not be taken as advice or directions. I don’t normally offer a disclaimer for my blog posts, but for this topic I just wanted to say something being that if you do follow through with what I’ve written below, it may or may not have an effect on your rankings, traffic, and even revenue. I also don’t want to get yelled at by Bill Slawski on Twitter 🙂

Also note that Google makes it very clear that disavowing links could potentially harm your site.

disavow warning
If you’ve owned a website for more than a year or so, chances are a ton of menacing links have started to pile up.

Even for the whitest of white hatters out there, a website will start to accumulate 10’s, 100’s or even 1000’s of bad links over time.

Others think they have been on the receiving end of negative SEO and want to preemptively disavow links to avoid a penalty. There isn’t a lot of info out their on this specific topic, but I did find this discussion from Webmaster World that talks about preemptively disavowing after detecting negative SEO.

Then there are the bad links that creep up over time. Example: one day last year we had an interviewee that came in and wanted to impress us, so he built 100 bad backlinks to one of our sites and sent us a “report.” Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. This immediately sent a wave of anxiety through my being, and got me thinking about preemptively avoiding a Google penalty.

Risk Management & Google Penalties

Risk management is the identification and assessment of risks followed by an application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability and/or impact of unfortunate events.

If you take your website seriously and you get a significant amount of your traffic from search engines, you may want to apply some principles of risk management to your website.

To start, identifying and assessing potential risks in this case would be to take a snapshot of your current link portfolio. From there, its all about going through the links one by one. Sure, there are programs out there that can assist with doing a disavow, but nothing beats opening each URL up and giving it a firm “yes or no.”

The next part in the risk management process is to apply resources in an attempt to minimize, or in this case monitor and control the probability of unfortunate events. The possible unfortunate event in this case, would be a manual or algorithmic action by Google.

Preemptive google link disavow

Removing, no-following and disavowing

If you do feel as though your site has accumulated enough bad links to warrant an algorithmic or manual action, it might be a good idea to mitigate those risks.

Start by grabbing the list of “bad” links you’ve made from Google Webmaster Tools. Go through them and put them into categories:

I won’t go into an entire guide to disavowing and removing links. There are a number of guides out there already on this topic. One of my personal favorites is Cyrus Shepard’s post about disavow. There are several others out there as well. Just be aware that a lot of them are written with the purpose of pushing a particular product or service so keep an eye out for that.

The point is, you want to get rid of them one way or another. The only links worth keeping that might be against Google’s guidelines such as widget links, footer links, or guest blog post links should be no-followed. A lot of times these links are still valuable due to the amount of traffic they bring in. For instance, I recently went through this process and no-followed footer links in lieu of removing them because we receive a decent amount of referrals from them.

Matt Cutts on Preemptively Disavowing

I dug up this Google Webmaster video from Matt Cutts from last year which talks about preemptively disavowing links if you are worried you might have a penalty. One key piece from the video:

If you are all stressed and worried and not able to sleep at night that Google might see it and get a SPAM report about you…I would feel free to disavow those links as well.

Personal Findings

I’ve hinted at the fact that I’ve disavowed, removed and no-followed links myself within this article and yes, I did a few months ago. I wasn’t really worried that we were going to get a penalty, but I was aware that some bad links were Google Penguin Penaltyadding up.

So what happened?

I disavowed about 30% of our links, no-followed about 10% and removed another 10% of our links.

It has now been about 2-3 months and we haven’t noticed any drop in rankings or traffic from search engines. In fact, we’ve actually seen an increase.

Please keep in mind that we are also regularly writing content with multiple authors, doing a lot on social media, and are linked to regularly. So it is possible that the fresh signals that are coming in are cancelling out the disavow / removal.

Note: if you want to see a copy of our disavow file, let me know.

Why disavow if no penalty?

This has been the source of dispute within our office and on many Skype chats for the past 6-12 months now.

I suppose it comes down to what type of person you are, and what your goals are for your site.

Personally I am a really cautious and paranoid person. I’d rather have some traffic than no traffic.

I’m also trying to build a business long-term. I want our website to be here in 5, 10 even 20 years so to me its almost like clearing dry rot out of the foundation of a house.

The choice is really up to you. Please keep in mind that I’ve done a lot of research on this subject over the last year, but I could also be terribly wrong.


Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe is the founder and CEO of Elite Strategies Llc. Patrick takes a hands on approach to managing Elite Strategies and loves to get involved with technical projects relating to clients inbound marketing needs.
Patrick Coombe
Patrick Coombe
Blog SEO
  • Written by: Ashir

    I’ve been on the fence about dooing this for a while now. What would you say to someone who has only 3-4 bad links out of a few 100?

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Hello Ashir –

      Thanks for stopping by and checking us out. It is really up to you, and it depends on a lot of personal factors. Personally if it was a site I cared about I would disavow. Just always know that by disavowing it could potentially cause a drop in rankings / traffic so always heed that warning before disavowing.

      Good luck and any more questions don’t hesitate to contact us!


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