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Home » Case studies » How Disavowing Unnatural Links Helped Improve This Site’s Rankings

How Disavowing Unnatural Links Helped Improve This Site’s Rankings

When a website has a lot unnatural links, there is a high chance that it will get penalized by Google. In this article, we will discuss how to clean up these links and perform the process of disavowing them.

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How Disavowing Unnatural Links Helped ImproveDisavow the bad links and get your website's ranking back !

When a website has a lot unnatural links, there is a high chance that it will get penalized by Google. In this article, we will discuss how to clean up these links and perform the process of disavowing them.

Everyone wants to get the most relevant results when they search for something on Google. To make this possible, Google constantly improves its search engine results by updating its algorithms.

One of the most well-known algorithms is Penguin. And if you are updated on search engine news, you will know that Penguin has recently been updated. When the update was rolled out, a lot of websites were penalized by Google due to unnatural, low-quality links; and with this penalty, website rankings were affected too.

Joe did a great job writing this case study. It's a good guide on how to spot unnatural links and get rid of them quick and easy, using the right SEO tools.

Christoph C. Cemper



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Table of contents

    • What Happens When You Get Penalized By Google?
    • Ways To Identify Unnatural Links
    • Integrating Google Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools) With LinkResearchTools (LRT)
    • How To Use LinkResearchTools To Classify Links
    • Steps For Link Removal
    • How to Use the Disavow Tool
    • Make Google Aware of Your Disavow File
    • How Website Xyz Was Affected By Google’s Algorithm Updates And How Disavowing Low Quality, Unnatural Links Helped Improve The Site’s Rankings
    • What Happens When You Get Penalized By Google?

      Let’s make an example scenario. Say your site got penalized by Google. Before it was penalized, your site may have had a really high rank, always appearing on the first page of search results. As seen on the illustration above, your ranking should be positive.

      But, after getting penalized by Google, instead of going back to a neutral ranking, your site gets a negative ranking. This means that your ranking keywords are gone and can result in you having a hard time getting your site back to its place in the search results.

      Getting penalized also results in your traffic dropping significantly. It’s only when you start fixing these issues do you get back to point 0. And since you are back to 0, you also have to start all over again in order to bring back what was lost – your ranking keywords, traffic, etc.

      To lift your penalties and go back to your ranking, you will have to clean up unnatural links. It’s going to be a challenge doing this since some site owners who have links pointing to your site can be unresponsive when it comes to you requesting for links to be removed. If none of your efforts are acknowledged, your last resort is to use the Google Disavow Tool.

      Google’s Disavow Tool was released in 2013 and is used by site owners when they don’t want certain links from external sites to be counted when Google assesses their website. Before using the Disavow Tool, you need to make sure that you have exhausted all efforts to clean up low quality, unnatural links. If you don’t know how to identify unnatural links, below is a list of some of the ways to do it.

      Ways To Identify Unnatural Links

      1. When you visit the site that has the link, it contains content that is irrelevant to your niche. For example, your site promotes diamond jewellery but the link is on a home repair website.
      2. When the articles on the site have virtually the same template and they don’t make any sense. They read like they were written with no clear thought and were created solely for the purpose of having links.
      3. Check the IP address. It’s fairly obvious that a lot of websites which link to a domain multiple times from a single IP address are built to manipulate Google’s search results. At this point you should manually audit the site(s) and ensure they are not built for the purpose of manipulating Google SERPs.
      4. Check if the website has been identified for selling links. Posting on a site known for selling links can affect your site’s rankings. Since they are already identified for receiving money in exchange for links, the links will easily be considered as unnatural.
      5. Some websites also belong to a private blog network. These are websites owned by different bloggers who link content to each other’s website. If you have links from these websites, it will also affect your rankings on Google.

      Ways To Identify Unnatural Links

      Before disavowing links, you should first try to remove these low quality, unnatural links manually. If your website already has plenty of links from other websites, you may have a hard time finding them.

      LinkResearchTools can help you find all those bad links that you certainly don't want to have pointing to your website. They pull backlink data from 24 sources and also allow you to connect your google Search Console account and use it in the reports as an additional backlink source.

      Integrating Google Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools) With LRT

      Google Search Console provides you with a list of backlinks, but it does not show all links, and especially not all links you need for a fast Google Penalty Recovery. In order to see all your backlinks in one place, you have to use a professional SEO tool alongside Google Search Console.

      LinkResearchTools supports an integration with Google Search Console. They automatically grab those extra links and include them in your report. This integration really saves a lot of time. The links will still come from Google Webmaster Tools but you will no longer have to undergo the manual process of exporting the links from Google Search Console and uploading them to LinkResearchTools every time you want to start a new report.

      Download this free eBook
      Find out more about the benefits of integrating your Google Search Console account with LinkResearchTools.

      Google Search Console Integration With LinkResearchToolsHow To Use LinkResearchTools To Classify Links

    • Go to your LinkResearchTools toolkit. Type in your credentials and login. If you don’t have an account yet, you can easily sign up and choose a plan that will fit your needs. Choose the project you want to work on and go to Link Detox. This is the tool that you will be using to classify the links.
    • Go to ‘Analyze Links Going To’. After entering the correct domain, as shown in the previous step, scroll down and go to ‘Analyze Links Going To’. Choose ‘Domain’. It will evaluate the links to the whole domain.

Link Detox Site Audit Analyze Links Going To

    • Ignore No Follow Links. Just below the ‘Analyze Links Going To’ section, you will see ‘No Follow Links Evaluation Mode’. Choose ‘Ignoring No Follow Links’.

site audit ignore No Follow links in Link Detox

  • Scroll down to ‘DTOX Mode’. Choose Link Profile Audit (Classic Mode). This will check existing links as well as the links from Google Webmaster Tools.

Link Detox - DTOX mode

    • Run the tool. Scroll down below and click on ‘Run Link Detox’.

start link detox report website audit

    • Go to the Reports page and select your report.
    • Check the recommendations. Scroll down and go to ‘Summary of Link Audit Priority recommendations’. You will see a table indicating the percentage of links that are classified as High, Medium, or Low. You will also see which links were previously disavowed and those that were ignored. Click ‘Show me these links’ to view the links for each classification. The goal here is to see which links are classified as high.


    • Export all data. After clicking ‘Show me these links’, you will be redirected to a table containing the links classified as High Risk. Export the data into an Excel filelinks classified as High Risk

NOTE: There are high risk links that can sometimes fool the tools. These links are classified under Medium risk although it doesn’t necessarily mean that all links tagged as Medium risk are bad links. Still, it would be best for you to review those links.

    • Save the file you exported. Make sure you save the file exported as this is essential to the link removal process.

Steps for Link Removal

  • Take note of the links that you want to remove. For those who have automated this step, use the data you exported from LinkResearchTools. The data you exported from LinkResearchTools should be in an Excel spreadsheet and should look like this:link audit priority link detoxOnce you have the complete list, you can begin with the next step which is to have these links removed.


  • When removing links, you need to contact the website owner. The data you exported from the LinkResearchTools contains the email address of the site owner. Use that email address to contact the site owner and inform them about your request for link removal. When sending an email to site owners, make sure that you include the exact URL as to where the link is located; this makes it easier for them to find the link and remove it.See to it that you explain your reason for wanting to have these links removed as there are some site owners who might wonder why the link has been identified as unnatural. Ask for link removal in a polite manner and don’t make any threats so as to avoid a misunderstanding with the site owner.


  • Wait for a few days to a week for their response. The site owner might have other work to attend to so always give them enough time to respond to your request. If the site owner does not reply after the given time frame (let’s say, about 2 weeks), send them an email again with the same request.Note: Always keep a copy or a screenshot of the emails you have sent. You can use these as proof that you have tried your best to contact the site owner to have the links removed. Include these copies when sending your reconsideration request to Google.


    • If the site owner is still unresponsive to your requests, you can now start with the Disavow process. You have to be cautious when using the Disavow Tool as you might end up doing more harm to your website than good. Only use this tool when the site owners with links to your site are still unresponsive. This tool should only be your last resort when taking links down.

How to Use the Disavow Tool

  • To start with the Disavow process, create a .TXT document. This will be the format of the file that you will be submitting to the tool. You can use Notepad to create a .txt document. Do not include any other information on the file because it might result in an error when you upload it.From the CSV file that you have downloaded, copy the links which were not removed; it should be one link per line. You can also add comments by placing a # before the phrase or sentence.Disavow file commentsNOTE: If you have numerous unnatural links in a domain, you can just use
    It should be typed in that specific format.Disavow file formatThis will remove all the links from that domain ensuring that you don’t miss any unnatural links found on that website.
  • Save your .txt file. Once you are done creating the file, double check it again ensuring that all links have been included. This is to avoid the hassle of repeating the process again when your file gets rejected by the tool. Once you are done checking, save the file.
    NOTE: Only include links that you don’t want counted into your link profile. If the link has been disavowed in the past and you want to add it back, it will take a longer time before it will be back.


  • Go to the Google Disavow Tool. From the Disavow Tool, choose the website that you want to disavow the links from. After selecting the website, click Disavow Links.


  • Upload the file. Click ‘Choose File’ and select the .txt file that you created earlier. Click ‘Submit’ to upload the file.


That’s it! Again, it could take several weeks for the changes to take effect as Google will process the information you have submitted. This information will be added to their index when they assess your website. Google will have to crawl through those links and apply the necessary changes so the links will be disavowed.


NOTE: If you want to have a copy of the disavow file you submitted, you can click ‘Download’.

Make Google Aware of Your Disavow File

After the disavow process, it could take some time before Google will take your disavow file into account since they will have to crawl it first.

If you want to get it done faster, you can take advantage of the Link Detox Boost tool in LinkResearchTools. It will help speed up the process of disavowed links which will result into faster site recovery.

Before you decide to use the tool, wait for 48 hours after you uploaded your disavow files on Google Webmaster Tools. If you’ve done that already, launch the tool from LRT.

By using the Link Detox Boost Tool, you can be certain that Google will quickly take care of your disavow file. This process will surely be beneficial in speeding up the recovery of your site.

How Website Xyz Was Affected By Google’s Algorithm Updates And How Disavowing Low Quality, Unnatural Links Helped Improve The Site’s Rankings

This case study discusses how website XYZ was affected by Google’s algorithm updates. It also explains the link removal steps that were taken in order to solve the issue and improve the site’s rankings.

website affected by Google penalty

Let’s take the case of one of our clients we’ll name website XYZ as an example of how unnatural links can affect your website, especially when Google makes changes to its algorithm. In Graph 1.1, the algorithm updates noted are Penguin and Panda. To differentiate, Penguin focuses more on the links while Panda focuses on the content.

unnatural links penalty

Graph 1.2 shows that in September 2013 there were 6,130 sessions for website XYZ. But when Penguin 2.1 was implemented on October 2013, sessions went down to 4,855.

Penguin 2.1 penalty graph

As shown on Graph 1.3, starting October 2013, sessions continued to drop until November 2013.

Penguin 2.1 penalty graph disavow

October 25, 2013 – A disavow process was performed in which a total of 182 links were disavowed.
November 14, 2013 – Another disavow process was done with a total of 880 links disavowed.

Another disavow process was done with a total of 880 links disavowed

Even after doing the disavow process twice, notice how the there is still a drop in sessions until December 2013 as shown on Graph 1.5.

In order to recover from a sudden and continuous decrease in sessions, you have to check what caused the sudden drop. If it is related to unnatural links, then the best way to resolve this issue is by cleaning up those links.

In website XYZ’s case, we implemented the same process that was discussed in the first part of this post.

The first step was to get the CSV file with the links pointing to website XYZ using Google Webmaster Tools.

After downloading the file, we then checked the links to see how it could have affected website XYZ. Upon checking, we found a number of unnatural links.

We then made a list of these unnatural links and contacted the owners of the sites where the links are located. We sent them an email message explaining why we are requesting the links be removed. Included in the message was also an explanation as to why it is better for those links to be removed instead of disavowing them as this can affect their site negatively.

There were site owners who responded quickly and were able to assist in the removal while there were some who were not responsive at all despite the emails and reminders we sent them.

Since these site owners were unresponsive and the links were still there, we used the Disavow Tool to have those links removed.

Disavow process Google penalty recovery graph

January 14, 2014 – The first disavow process for 2014 was done.

disavow process GRAPH 1.7

Notice how website XYZ’s sessions increased gradually after disavowing the links. There was a little decrease in sessions on February 2014 but by March 2014, there was already a consistent increase in sessions.


On May 2014, Panda 4.0 was rolled out and although this update didn’t have a negative effect on website XYZ’s sessions, we still improved on content in case there might be changes in Google’s algorithm in the future.


June 30, 2014 – A total of 840 links were disavowed.
July 29, 2014 – There were 856 links pointing to the site that were disavowed.

disavowed linkd google penalty recovery monitoring

On September 2014, as shown in Graph 1.10, website XYZ’s sessions decreased. This may have been due to the implementation of the Panda 4.1 update. To fix the issue, we checked the site’s content and improved it.


September 15, 2014 – Aside from the content, we also checked the links. Another disavow process was performed and there were a total of 1000 links that were disavowed.

When Penguin 3.0 was implemented on October 2014, we saw an increase in website XYZ’s sessions. This is a result of improvements that we made to the site’s content and links. On November 2014, the sessions may have decreased a little bit but this did not have any negative impact on the website.

In December 2014, Google announced that they would be making continuous changes to Penguin rather than doing irregular, major changes to the algorithm. Content and link improvements were still done to avoid any negative impact in case Google decides to update its algorithm.

Last January 2015, website XYZ’s sessions increased to 6750. This was higher than the sessions from January the previous year of 4284.

Ever since then, website XYZ’s sessions has been constantly improving. There have been months where the sessions decreased but efforts were made in order to improve it.


March 11, 2015 – The latest disavow process has been done for website XYZ. This is done to continue the increase in sessions as well as maintain quality. There were 1097 disavowed links within this month. This case study is just a discussion on how cleaning links and improving content can help improve the rankings of your website.


Doing regular clean-ups of your links is good practice to avoid getting penalized by Google. This is also a way to ensure that your website has high quality links.

The disavow tool is a convenient way of removing high-risk links. It will no longer be a hassle for you to remove links from sites owned by unresponsive owners. Through this tool, you can ensure that all links placed in the site (which the site owner may have missed from removing) will be removed.

Don’t forget that, when you’re cleaning links, only use the Disavow Tool as a last resort. It’s a powerful and effective tool that should only be used when truly needed as it might cause more harm to your site than improve it.

This case study was written by Joe Ryan, Founder & CEO of Digital Search Group.

A word from Christoph C. Cemper

LRT Certified Professional
You have to monitor constantly your backlink profile to avoid getting penalized by Google or to spot a negative SEO attack before it's too late. Joe did a great job showing how to find and clean up bad backlinks and how to disavow them properly.

Joe's case study is a good guide on how to spot unnatural links and get rid of them quick and easy, using LinkResearchTools smartly.

Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our LRT Certified Professionals and Xperts are key to achieving this goal.

I look forward to Joe Ryan’s future work, and I recommend working with him whenever you get the opportunity.

Joe Ryan Certified LinkResearchTools Professional

superhero smallWith the Superhero Plans you can perform link audits, link cleanup, link disavow boost, competitive research, professional SEO and backlink analysis for your own or your competitor's sites.

You can fix or avoid a Google Penalty! Learn more about how you can Recover and Protect with LRT.




Joe Ryan

Joe Ryan is the Founder & CEO of Digital Search Group. He consistently delivers top-notch digital marketing services for his clients' sites making sure they get the highest possible return on investment. He has also helped numerous websites recover from Google Panda/Penguin related issues. 


  1. Rick Lomas on September 9, 2015 at 21:28

    Hi Joe, well done getting certified. You chose to ignore No Follow links which is something I do not do. what’s your thoughts about No Follow links?

    • Joe Ryan on September 14, 2015 at 07:44

      Hi Rick,

      Thanks for the congrats on getting certified – I’m very happy and plan to contribute further when time allows 😉

      We simply ignore No Follow links because these are links which are already tagged as no juice transfer, so it’s either positive or negative. We believe there is no connection between the off-page and the on-page any more in terms of link juice.

      These No Follow links work if the on-page is highly resourceful. For example, if your link was found in Wikipedia and people are checking your site and they find it authoritative, they will use your site as reference thus giving you a dofollow link from the new site post as a third-party effect.

      We believe the No Follow link objective is to have clicks to the target page and create engagement without passing juices like the situation described above.

      As we’ve practiced this method, we have observed that it is working great in terms of link clean-up and have seen tons of positive results.

      Look forward to any more feedback and reading more of your research also 🙂

      Best wishes,


  2. Matt Eve on September 14, 2015 at 14:49

    Great valuable information i would say. Disavow unnatural links is the best way to get better rankings and that is what Google loves.

    Thanks for sharing such great information. Cheers!

    • Joe Ryan on September 17, 2015 at 09:47

      Thanks Matt!

  3. Wade Cockfield on September 16, 2015 at 06:20

    Great article Joe

    • Joe Ryan on September 17, 2015 at 09:48

      Cheers Wade 🙂

  4. Scott Morton on September 17, 2015 at 02:39

    Great article and well done Joe! – looking to have Joe look my own site over…

    • Joe Ryan on September 17, 2015 at 09:48

      Thanks Scott. Look forward to working with you 🙂

  5. Paul on September 28, 2015 at 11:24

    Great article Joe, but i have the same question with Rick Lomas. Why you ignore No Follow Backlinks? Do you really think that they are not important?

    • Joe Ryan on October 1, 2015 at 11:08

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the complement and question.

      We believe that’s the reason there is a command for No Follow and dofollow because we feel that No Follow was created to stop flowing juices and dofollow is for allowing.

      There is (and likely always will be until we have 100% proof) a difference of opinion from SEO to SEO, but personally we personally stand to ignore No Follow links for the best part. Based on the process above we have lifted numerous penalties over the past 2 years and so will continue as we are for now 🙂

      Have a great end to your week.

      Best wishes,


      • somnath banerjee on September 12, 2016 at 07:53

        Awesome work !!! Writing a post like this must requires a lot of hours and concentration!!!
        I also got good result from Disavowing unnatural links and must say this is the thing that Google wants us to do.
        A novice like me can not argue with you regarding “No Follow link ” and I do not have any intention to argue , but just want to share that i have received good results from no-follow back-links earned from relevant niche . of course do-follow links are the prime things that we are all focused to earn . I wonder what is the problem if we earn some no-follow links those are from relevant niche ? Please , let us have some advice from your experience .
        Thanks in advance .

  6. Karen on October 5, 2015 at 18:34

    Hi Joe,

    First of all, this is an absolutely incredibly well written and informative piece – thank you for sharing this.

    I do have a question on the Follow/No Follow debate if you don’t mind.

    One of the most talked about things at our local SEM meetups in Dublin is how diversity in itself is becoming a ranking factor. How that a good mixture of No Follow may actually add to a diversification of brand awareness score that will work for and not against you.

    Here in Dublin, we move in circles with people who’ve worked at Google either directly or as part of an outsourcing partner and claim for this to be something that’s definitely taken into serious consideration.

    • Joe Ryan on October 14, 2015 at 05:06

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for the complement on the case study 🙂

      I believe it can work for increasing one’s brand through link connection as a relevant reference. The purpose of these links, in a none technical way, is to have a connection between the article and the reference. Even without juice passing, it is still considered as a good connection in many ways as it can increase Brand Awareness, Leads, and Engagement.

      Best wishes,


  7. Chris on March 20, 2016 at 17:14

    Great info! I just don’t get what are the risks of using the disavow tool and how can you damage your site by using it?

    • Christoph on March 21, 2016 at 16:07

      Hey Chris,
      the risk described here are that one can disavow the wrong links that are still helping.
      This is why we introduced Link Detox and also the Disavow File Audit Mode.
      Best regards

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