Performance Analysis

SEO: Stop Using The Google Disavow Tool For “Toxic” Links

By on 9th July 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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Stop Using The Google Disavow Tool For Toxic Links

Over the years as freelance SEO consultant, I’ve been added to the Google Search Console accounts of hundreds of clients, which means I receive GSC updates on a regular basis.

I received one today that I’ve not seen in a while, but one which when I do, a little bit of me dies inside.

This one:

Disavow Email

I immediately contacted the client to tell them this wasn’t a good idea and they should revert this and delete the file they’d uploaded.

Before I explain why exactly, here’s a bit more about disavowing and how it all started.

A Brief History of the Disavow Tool

The Disavow Tool is a feature provided by Google that allows website owners to request that Google ignores certain backlinks to their website. This can help prevent penalties for spammy or low-quality links that may negatively impact search engine rankings.

The Disavow Tool was introduced by Google in October 2012 as a response to growing concerns over spammy backlinks and their impact on search engine rankings.

Before the introduction of the Disavow Tool, some website owners and SEO practitioners engaged in creating or acquiring spammy backlinks to manipulate search engine rankings. These links often came from low-quality or irrelevant websites.

In response to widespread manipulation of search rankings through spammy links, Google introduced the Panda and Penguin algorithms. Panda focused on content quality, while Penguin targeted manipulative link practices, penalizing sites with poor-quality backlink profiles.

As a result of the Penguin updates, many websites with spammy or low-quality backlinks saw significant drops in their search engine rankings. This created a need for a way to clean up backlink profiles.

The Disavow Tool allowed webmasters to submit a list of links they wanted Google to ignore. By doing so, they could disassociate their sites from spammy links and potentially recover from penalties.

Upon submission, Google would process the disavow file and discount the specified links, which could help improve the site’s search engine rankings and recover from penalties.

Over time, Google’s algorithms have become more sophisticated, and the need to manually disavow links has diminished. Today, Google automatically disregards many spammy links without the need for webmaster intervention.

Currently, the Disavow Tool is primarily useful if a site has received a manual penalty or if there is a significant concern about specific links that might be harming the site’s ranking, as stated by Google’s John Mueller:

A tweet from John Mueller

There are indications that Google may eventually phase out the Disavow Tool entirely as their algorithms continue to improve in identifying and ignoring spammy backlinks on their own, again, as stated by John:

Another tweet from John Mueller

So Why Do People Still Use The Disavow Tool?

Basically, because 3rd party tools, in this case study SEMRush, provide a back link audit tool as part of their services.  And this has a tool will review your links and classify them as toxic, potentially toxic and non-toxic.

Here is a review of my domain’s links:

Organic Digital's Links

If I was paranoid because I’d seen a drop in traffic, I might think that it’s because 23.2% of my back links or toxic or potentially toxic.

If I was really paranoid I’d go ahead and disavow them.

But SEMRush does make folk believe they might have an issue, here’s my site alongside some others within the same account:

SEMRush's link audit tool

And it was because of this, I know of someone who did go ahead and disavow a high proportion of their links.

This was a client of a client who a  was worried about a drop in rankings and so carried out a back link audit.  As you can see from the below, they disavowed all the toxic links reported as they were concerned this number had been rising.  They did this between December and January:

SEMRush toxic link report

As you can see, no more toxic or even potentially toxic links in January.  So that would have helped them recover, right?

Well no, because as you can see from GSC performance data after what looks like the familiar seasonal drop off in December, things didn’t recover in January, they got worse and clicks continued to drop to April.

GSC data drop

We can see that the number of disavowed domains went from 910 to 1581 in January.  When things hadn’t improved by April, they went and disavowed a load more, bringing the total to 5,889 as you can see from the big drop:

Disavowed domains

and confirmed here:

Disavow Update

You can probably guess what happened next.

And it was all too easy to do this because SEMRush will also generate and upload the disavow file for you.

Not cool.

So that is why I wanted to put this blog post together and get it out there, to reiterate the message loud and clear.


If you’re concerned about a drop in visibilty and not sure what has caused it, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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