At MHC, our stance on the value of the disavow tool has changed over the years. In 2012, before the tool existed, we cleaned up Google penalties for clients by working hard to remove manipulative links from the web. From 2013 to 2016 we performed full manual link by link audits and filed disavows for hundreds of websites. We had many beautiful recovery stories. In late 2016, when Google’s algorithms changed so that the Penguin algorithm no longer demoted websites with unnatural links, but simply ignored them, our strategy changed again. We stopped recommending link audits for most cases, with the exception being sites currently dealing with a manual action for unnatural links.
In late 2018, our disavow advice changed once again. A new client came to us wanting a link audit, despite the fact that they had no manual action. When this happens, our first plan of attack is generally to recommend what we call a link overview. For this report, an MHC link auditor spends a couple of hours digging through a site’s link profile to determine whether a full manual link by link audit has potential to help. In most cases when we do this overview, our advice is that a full manual link audit and thorough disavow filing would not be worth the time and money spent. If Google is ignoring unnatural links algorithmically, why would filing a disavow to tell Google specifically which links to ignore help improve rankings?
When we finished the link overview for this client, we found that a large portion of their link profile consisted of self made links in articles, or low quality directory links, most of which were keyword anchored. Our conclusion was that if this site was reviewed by a member of Google’s webspam team, they would likely receive a manual action for unnatural links. We recommended a full link audit followed by filing a disavow through Google’s disavow tool. Our thought was that the disavow likely would not help improve traffic, but it was a good idea to file it to prevent the site from receiving a manual action in the future.
We filed a thorough disavow in August of 2018. We were quite interested to see whether this filing had an effect as it does not happen often that the only thing we do to help a website is file a disavow. We had not recommended any other quality fixes for this website. If the disavow was responsible for this growth, it is quite spectacular!
SEMrush’s traffic estimates for this site do an even better job of showing the dramatic improvements this site made after filing a thorough disavow. These improvements were not connected to the August 1 medic or other core updates. You can’t see the traffic going back as far as 2012 as it is quite low, (fewer than 50 visitors a day) compared to the growth seen following filing a disavow. This site had been trying to manipulate Google by building their own links for YEARS. We believe a thorough disavow file released this site from an algorithmic suppression.
Shortly after this happened, I, Marie, had the opportunity to attend a filming of a Google help hangout in New York City where I was able to ask John Mueller whether unnatural links could still algorithmically affect a site’s ability to rank to its full potential. His answer was that yes, it was indeed possible.
We feel that what John was talking about here was what happened with the case I mentioned above. This site had enough truly manipulative links that were made solely for SEO purposes that we feel that Google’s algorithms lost trust in their entire link profile, resulting in a suppression of the site’s ability to rank. When we asked Google to disregard a large number of these links from their algorithmic calculations for this site (by using the disavow tool), our suspicion is that the suppression lifted and this site is now able to rank to its full potential.
We have filed many disavows since then, and in some cases we have seen nice improvements. However, most recently, the only sites that we have seen improvements in following a disavow, are ones that had been building unnatural links on a very large scale.
At MHC, we do still believe the disavow tool can be helpful for some sites…but we believe that most websites will not benefit from filing a disavow in 2021.