Google’s Disavow Tool – Case Study

Author’s Note: This post was originally published on the Covario blog in November 2013

Recently, Covario was given the opportunity to work with a client that was hit hard in both Google rankings and referrals back in May 2012 – the first month the Penguin update was pushed live.

The client did not have a Google Webmaster Tools account set up at the time, so there is no record of “Link Warning” or “Manual Penalty” messages in Google’s Webmaster Tools. There have been no messages received since the beginning of 2013, and the site appears in Google’s index. However, both traffic and rankings fell off a cliff in May 2012 and did not recover.


The website was not a high priority project, and so languished in its post-Penguin state until it caught the attention of a senior executive early this year. By late spring, we were given the challenge of regaining natural search traffic and rankings for the website, while using a minimal and conservative approach. The approach and results are outlined below.


On-page Optimization:

Our first step in the recovery process was much like any other new SEO project; we worked to remove technical obstacles, cleaned up the source code where we could, researched keywords, and made content optimization recommendations based on our research. When on-page optimization was complete, a total of 248 keywords were tracked for the top 50 organic search positions. Once this step of the process was complete, no other on-page changes to the website were made in an effort to isolate the effects of using the Google Disavow Tool.

Backlink Analysis:

The next step was to complete a full backlink analysis of the website. The tools used for the analysis included Google Webmaster Tools, Link Research Tools, and manual checking of the links thought to be the most egregious of the bunch. Backlinks were sorted by risk level, ranging from “Deadly” for the riskiest backlinks to “Very Low” for the backlinks with the lowest risk. The backlink profile broke down like this:

Risk Level Links %
Very Low 575 27.6
Low 478 22.9
Moderate 922 44.2
High 88 4.2
Very High 11 0.6
Deadly 11 0.5

Surprisingly, considering the sharp drop in traffic, the percentage of links in the “Deadly” and “Very High” categories was rather low. Because a conservative approach was requested, the decision was made to remove the lowest 22 backlinks.


Armed with these 22 links, the next step was to contact the webmasters. After a few hours of research, it was evident that all of these backlinks were indeed the worst of the worst. All of the websites had been abandoned by the webmaster and initial efforts at obtaining contact information were fruitless. Any effort at contact seemed to be a fool’s errand and so a decision was made to use the tool without contacting the webmasters.

Disavow Tool Round 1:

Aug. 28: Eleven URLs with the “Deadly” designation were uploaded to the Google Disavow Tool.

Results of Round 1:

Although we saw an increase in ranking, Google referrals stayed flat for four weeks after the initial batch of disavowed links.

Week Google Referrals Cumulative Rank Change
8/19 – 8/25 571 0
8/26 – 9/1 544 218
9/2 – 9/8 601 130
9/9 – 9/15 597 458
9/16 – 9/22 544 406

Disavow Tool Round 2:

Sept. 24: Eleven DOMAINS with a “Very High Risk” were uploaded to the Google Disavow Tool. This time, instead of disavowing individual URLs, entire domains were disavowed.

Results of Round 2:

The first week after the second batch of domains was disavowed we saw only a slight increase in Google referrals.

Week Google Referrals Cumulative Rank Change
9/23 – 9/29 548 310
9/30 – 10/6 750 309
10/7 – 10/13 1621 2589
10/14 – 10/20 1753 2788

By the second week, Google referrals more than doubled (up 116.1%) week over week with a 183.9% increase from the baseline numbers. During the same time period, Google rankings increased by 2,280 positions (737.9%) week over week and 2,589 positions over the baseline. In the third week, Google referrals increased 8% week over week, more than tripling (up 207%) the baseline numbers. Google rankings increased and additional 199 positions for a total gain of 2,788 positions.


The case outlined above is unique in that the Disavow Tool was used when the client’s website had not been given link warnings or a manual penalty, and so the results should not be considered typical. If you are considering using the tool, the following actions are recommended to ensure the best results.

  • Make an effort to remove spammy links prior to using the Disavow Tool. While it’s true that in our case we were not able to contact webmasters prior to disavowing links, Google clearly states that webmasters need to make an effort to remove spammy or low-quality links from the Web.
  • Use the Disavow Tool with caution. In our case, the website had not received notice of penalty from Google. As a result, only the worst offending backlinks were disavowed. Google has not been completely open about the tool and how the information is used on disavowed URLs and domains. At the very least, we can be sure that Google is using this data to improve its methods for finding and recognizing spammy websites.
  • Disavow entire domains. It’s likely if a domain has one bad link pointing to your site, then all the links from that domain are also bad. In our case, results were seen only after disavowing entire domains.
  • Follow the directions carefully. Google has provided detailed instructions on how to use the Disavow Tool. Highlights include:
    • File type must be .txt and encoded in UTF-8 or 7-bit ASCII.
    • List one link per line.
    • To disavow a domain, use “domain:”.
    • Uploading a new file will replace previously uploaded files.
    • If there is an error in your file, Google will not notify you. The request will simply be ignored.
  • If the website has been given a penalty, make sure to reference both the outreach for link removal and the links disavowed in your reconsideration request.
  • Additional questions? Follow Google’s guidelines at