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To disavow or not? Getting it right, 10 years later.

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To disavow or not? Getting it right, 10 years later.


Google’s disavow links tool launched nearly a decade ago, on October 16, 2012.  As we approach the tenth anniversary, webmasters still have confusion and disagreement regarding how to approach a link analysis and properly use backlink data when considering a disavow.  A lot has changed since 2012!  

Whether you’re disavowing as a preventative measure or a means to recover your rankings, we’ll review current-day approaches to take based on our experience disavowing links over the past decade.  

Let’s begin by answering who likely doesn’t need a disavow, and that’s most of you.  If you’ve stuck with natural link acquisition and SEO traffic is on the rise, a link disavow is unlikely to help.  This is especially true if your site already has a relatively small number of backlinks or is in a less competitive vertical.  Submitting a disavow can even hurt the rankings of otherwise healthy websites if the tool isn’t used wisely.

Consider analyzing your backlinks and submitting a disavow if:

  1. You have an “unnatural links” notice in Google Search Console and corresponding manual action.
  2. You know unnatural links were acquired to your website, either recently or at any time in the past. Even links from years ago can come back to bite you as Google continues mapping out artificial link networks.
  3. You’ve experienced unexplainable traffic/ranking loss or traffic loss near the time of a known Google link-based update or core algorithm update. Similarly, traffic may be flat over long periods of otherwise strong on-page SEO and content creation initiatives, and you suspect off-page factors may be the reason why.
  4. You see a lot of new spammy links pointing to your website regularly and may be the target of a negative SEO attack.
  5. You don’t fully trust the algorithm and want to get a better understanding of your current link profile and level of risk.

Links from scrapers and other obvious spam are likely to get filtered out and ignored by Google, providing no value but also not counting against you. Nearly all websites have them, and you can usually ignore these yourself or include them in your disavow if you’re worried. But links from known link sellers and link networks can become a big problem. Frequent link-building tactics necessitating a link disavow include:

  • Buying guest blog posts or “sponsored content” without the appropriate link attributes. 
  • Buying links with a guaranteed minimum level of “authority.” 
  • Buying links from a list of sites that have varying pricing for placement.
  • Obtaining keyword-rich anchor links pointing directly to SEO landing pages. 
  • Buying links at all, for that matter, especially from anyone offering pre-selected placements.

Compiling your backlinks & properly analyzing them

For an advanced SEO looking for the most comprehensive look and their link data, merging multiple datasets (Google Search Console, Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic, Semrush, and so on) will paint the most complete picture of your backlink profile.  For the rest of you, hiring a professional to help is the best path forward for the rest of you – a second reminder that disavowing can do more harm than good if not fully confident in your approach. Should you choose to do it alone, downloading the links provided in Google Search Console will likely suffice, even if they’re only showing a small “sampling” of your overall link profile.

Once your link data is obtained, you’ll have to make some decisions on how to analyze your backlinks. Most webmasters take shortcuts, relying on software to tell them how “authoritative” or “toxic” a link might be. This is a quick but dangerous way to compile links for your disavow.  

Although convenient, we do not recommend relying on:

  1. Third-party link metrics from SEO software listing the “authority,” “trust,” or “rating” of your links. These scores better represent a site’s ability to rank itself than its ability to pass link equity (or harm) to you. None of the companies who provide these metrics are Google, Google doesn’t use their data, their scoring is based on their unique & often limited crawl, their data and link values all vary from each other, and they generally don’t consider if a website which links to you has disavowed any of its own links or has been penalized by Google for selling links. Ironically, many penalized sites will receive a high “authority,” “trust score,” or “rating” due to the quantity of their (spammy) backlinks, and these are certainly not sites you’d want a link from!
  1. Blindly pasting any software’s “toxic” or “spam” link list into your disavow. We’ve seen webmasters rely on this all too often, leading to further traffic loss. A third reminder: a disavow can do more harm than good if completed improperly.
  2. Making decisions based on a linking site’s traffic levels. A link can be natural and relevant, even from a town library, local nonprofit, or hobbyist website. These sites likely have low traffic levels since they traditionally don’t rank for large amounts of commercial phrases. However, links from them are still natural & freely given to support your overall link profile. Don’t disavow these!

Instead, ask yourself:

  1. Does the site linking to you appear to be a good resource, put online to provide value to its audience? Is it maintained by someone who has subject-matter expertise or a strong interest in the topic at hand? Are they linking to you in a natural way, as an extension of their own content and compiled resources?  If so, this is likely a great link to have and one you won’t have to worry about causing issues.
  2. What does the linking site’s link neighborhood itself look like? Are the backlinks natural, or do they appear manipulated for SEO purposes?  Are the external links throughout the website there to provide more information about the topic being discussed and consistent with the site’s theme? If the site’s internal & external links pass the smell test, you’re likely safe to exclude this link from your disavow file.
  1. Is the website linking to you filled with varying content and many unrelated external links? Is it a blog you’ve never heard of with articles about everything, always linking out to a commercial website within each article?  Links from sites fitting this pattern are likely in a link network or database, can potentially be harmful to your SEO performance, and were a primary target of Google’s link spam update last summer. You’ll want to consider links from websites fitting this mold for your disavow, especially if they’ve never sent you any direct traffic via someone actually clicking on your link.

Preventative or reactionary analysis & disavow frequency

Like most SEO efforts, staying on top of your link profile is rarely a one & done initiative and more often resembles a game of cat & mouse, depending on the scenario. If your website and its traffic levels are healthy and growing, revisiting your backlink profile can be done on a less frequent basis. Semi-annually or yearly may be appropriate depending on your level of concern.

A preventative disavow may make sense in this situation; if troubles arise, Google is months behind on reconsideration requests, and that’s not a situation you want to find yourself in.  Always remember that links are really hard to get and a primary part of Google’s ranking equation, so being conservative with a disavow here is usually the best approach.

On the other hand, webmasters may find it worthwhile to review their backlinks and update their disavow files more regularly if they’ve been affected by manual action or link-based updates in the past, or they suspect they are being targeted by a negative SEO campaign. More frequent revisions can help ensure you’re ahead of the algorithm when disassociating yourself with links that have the potential to cause issues in the near or long term.  

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Final thoughts

From its early days a decade ago, Google’s disavow links tool has remained an often misunderstood part of its Search Console for webmasters. From initially being needed solely as a response to 2012’s “Penguin” algorithm rollout and as a way to resolve manual actions, its use cases have evolved for both preventative and reactionary scenarios. Likewise, the way webmasters review their links for a variety of purposes has changed over the past decade. 

Regardless of your need to visit the disavow tool, it’s important to keep in mind how earning natural, trusted links can be one of the biggest SEO growth drivers, directly contributing to traffic and ranking increases over time. Safe & effective link earning reduces risks in your backlink profile and helps avoid the need for disavowing at all. 


About The Author

Internet Marketing Ninjas is a leading digital agency specializing in SEO strategy, link building, content marketing, and site speed optimization. Led by industry veteran Jim Boykin since 1999, IMN’s team of 50 is based in Upstate New York and brings nearly 400 years of combined experience helping their clients improve search rankings and increase organic traffic from Google.



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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

Having worked at several organizations and dealt with many more vendors, I’ve seen my share of client-vendor relationships and their associated “gotchas.” 

Contracts are complex for a reason. That’s why martech practitioners are wise to lean on lawyers and buyers during the procurement process. They typically notice terms that could undoubtedly catch business stakeholders off guard.

Remember, all relationships end. It is important to look for thorny issues that can wreak havoc on future plans.

I’ve seen and heard of my share of contract gotchas. Here are some generalizations to look out for.

1. Data

So, you have a great data vendor. You use them to buy contacts and information as well as to enrich what data you’ve already got. 

When you decide to churn from the vendor, does your contract allow you to keep and use the data you’ve pulled into your CRM or other systems after the relationship ends? 

You had better check.

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2. Funds

There are many reasons why you would want to give funds in advance to a vendor. Perhaps it pays for search ads or allows your representatives to send gifts to prospective and current customers. 

When you change vendors, will they return unused funds? That may not be a big deal for small sums of money. 

Further, while annoying, processing fees aren’t unheard of. But what happens when a lot of cash is left in the system? 

You had better make sure that you can get that back.

3. Service-level agreements (SLAs)

Your business is important, and your projects are a big deal. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a prompt response to a question or action when something wrong happens. 

That’s where SLAs come in. 

It’s how your vendor tells you they will respond to questions and issues. A higher price point typically will get a client a better SLA that requires the vendor to respond and act more quickly — and more of the time to boot (i.e., 24/7 service vs. standard business hours). 

Make sure that an SLA meets your expectations. 

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Further, remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for. So, if you want a better SLA, you may have to pay for it.


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4. Poaching

Clients and vendors alike are always looking for quality people to employ. Sometimes they find them on the other side of the client-vendor relationship. 

Are you OK with them poaching one of your team members? 

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If not, this should be discussed and put into writing during the contract negotiation phase, a renewal, or at any time if it is that important.

 I have dealt with organizations that are against anti-poaching clauses to the point that a requirement to have one is a dealbreaker. Sometimes senior leadership or board members are adamant about an individual’s freedom to work where they please — even if one of their organization’s employees departs to work for a customer or vendor. 

5. Freebies

It is not unheard of for vendors to offer their customers freebies. Perhaps they offer a smaller line item to help justify a price increase during a renewal. 

Maybe the company is developing a new product and offers it in its nascent/immature/young stage to customers as a deal sweetener or a way to collect feedback and develop champions for it. 

Will that freemium offer carry over during the next renewal? Your account executive or customer success manager may say it will and even spell that out in an email. 

Then, time goes by. People on both sides of the relationship change or forget details. Company policies change. That said, the wording in a contract or master service agreement won’t change. 

Make sure the terms of freebies or other good deals are put into legally sound writing.

Read next: 24 questions to ask ABM vendors before signing the contract

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6. Pricing factors

There are many ways vendors can price out their offerings. For instance, a data broker could charge by the contact engaged by a customer. But what exactly does that mean? 

If a customer buys a contact’s information, that makes sense as counting as one contact. 

What happens if the customer, later on, wants to enrich that contact with updated information? Does that count as a second contact credit used? 

Reasonable minds could justify the affirmative and negative to this question. So, evaluating a pricing factor or how it is measured upfront is vital to determine if that makes sense to your organization. 

Don’t let contract gotchas catch you off-guard 

The above are just a few examples of martech contract gotchas martech practitioners encounter. There is no universal way to address them. Each organization will want to address them differently. The key is to watch for them and work with your colleagues to determine what’s best in that specific situation. Just don’t get caught off-guard.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


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About The Author

Steve Petersen is a marketing technology manager at Zuora. He spent nearly 8.5 years at Western Governors University, holding many martech related roles with the last being marketing technology manager. Prior to WGU, he worked as a strategist at the Washington, DC digital shop The Brick Factory, where he worked closely with trade associations, non-profits, major brands, and advocacy campaigns. Petersen holds a Master of Information Management from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Brigham Young University. He’s also a Certified ScrumMaster. Petersen lives in the Salt Lake City, UT area.

Petersen represents his own views, not those of his current or former employers.

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