I Disavowed Every Link To My Website. Here’s What Happened

By Cyrus Shepard
Updated 2 days ago

Warning: Do not try this at home. I am a trained idiot SEO professional.

Nearly two months ago, I disavowed every link to this website listed in Google Search Console and every link listed by Ahrefs. Trust me, it was a lot of good links.

Links from high-authority sites like Moz, Ahrefs, Semrush, Backlinko, and more were all disavowed. You can see the file yourself here.

Over 10,000 links from 1,473 unique domains in total.

Here’s what it looked like when I uploaded the file.

Google Disavow Tool Upload

Why would I do such a thing?

The disavow tool aims to help site owners recover from manual penalties for unnatural links. Some site owners use it even if they don’t have a penalty.

Google says that for any link you submit to your disavow file, they “will typically ignore those links.”

But no, I haven’t engaged in shady link-building nor received a manual penalty. I love my links!

Google even warns us against using the Disavow tool incorrectly.

Google Disavow Warning

In truth, I performed this same experiment many years ago. (Unfortunately, a major Google update rolled out around the same time muddied that experiment.)

Regardless, it was time to see if anything changed.

How The Disavow Tool Impacted My Traffic

Google has implied that the disavow tool can take time to kick in. Presumably, it needs to process all of those links one by one.

So I filed the disavow and waited. 

And waited.

Here’s what happened to my traffic in the nearly two months since.

Google Disavow Traffic Result

Apparently, nothing. Nada.

Not a damn thing.

Aside from a perplexing slight increase in traffic right after filing the disavow, traffic to this site was never really harmed. (Actually, traffic going up isn’t all that surprising, as I regularly update the site and regularly gain new backlinks.)

Okay, saying “nothing” happened isn’t entirely true. Because one thing definitely did happen – the number of links reported by Search Console went down, at least before going back up. 

After filing the disavow, this number of reported links in Search Console decreased, from 2,700 to only around 100 links within a few weeks.

I thought this was evidence of Google’s Disavow tool working. But as Glenn Gabe noted, it was simply a bug in Google’s reporting. Ugh, the timing!

Eventually, the bug was fixed and the number of links back to normal.

It’s like nothing ever happened.

Why Didn’t The Disavow Tool Impact Traffic?

Some people in the SEO community might argue that Google’s Disavow Tool simply doesn’t work. Some think it’s a ploy by Google to either 

  1. Placate webmasters or 
  2. Trick site owners into reporting paid websites

Conspiracy theories aside, I don’t believe that’s what’s happening here.

Theory 1: Google Didn’t Trust The Disavow File

Take another look at the chart above. You can actually see a small decline in traffic about four weeks after the disavow was filed. (The rise seen the week after is likely attributed to a new post I published.)

Here’s what I believe happened: Google didn’t trust this disavow file.

From the beginning, Google has said that the Disavow works more like a “suggestion” or hint than a command. Google has always reserved the right to “trust their own judgment” when it came to disavowing links.

Many SEO signals work only as “hints” to Google including canonicals, hreflang, and nofollow. The list goes on and on.

And trust is a big thing.

Google’s Gary Illyes recently revealed that Google has a flag to indicate whether they trust “lastmod” declarations in your sitemap files. 

“it’s binary, or at least was last time I checked. we either trust it or not.”

Google also seems to have safeguards to keep dumb sophisticated SEOs like myself from shooting ourselves in the foot.

So I speculate that Google did process the Disavow file but stopped trusting it, at which point they simply ignored it.

Theory 2: The Disavow Needs More Time To Work

SEO Brent Payne offered an alternative theory on Twitter, suggesting it may take months for a disavow file to work.

In a way, this makes sense.

If you’ve ever built links to your site, you know they can take a couple of months or more to impact traffic.

Perhaps the reverse is true as well. If it takes two months for links to “work,” perhaps it takes a couple of months for links to stop working via the disavow.

My disavow was in place for 7 weeks. Next time, I’ll keep it in place longer.

Theory 3: I Didn’t Disavow Enough Links

After publishing this post, many SEOs noted that they could find 10s of thousands of additional links (through tools like Link Research Tools) that weren’t in the disavow file.

This is true. Every SEO link index reports different numbers and links, and it’s not always apples to oranges.

Many “large” indexes are large because they report dead links, lost links, historical links, etc., whereas other indexes focus on “live” or verified links.

For this experiment, I focused on all links reported by Google and Ahrefs, as I trust both indexes. I also trust that they capture most of the big, valuable links Google is likely to consider for ranking purposes.

So, while a larger index might catch more links, you would certainly expect to see “something” with the high-value links included in the file.

Take 2 – Filing Another Disavow File

I would really, really like Google to trust me. (I’m fun at parties, good with kids, and can talk endlessly about John Williams’s movie scores.)

So, this week, I removed the old disavow file and replaced it with a lighter, hopefully more trustworthy version.

Gone from the disavow are links from Moz, Ahrefs, and all the other “good” links. 

What’s left are lower-authority links, scraper sites, and spam. Hopefully, there are still enough “good enough” links in the disavow to measure an impact.

New Disavow File

I’ll also keep this file in place for a longer time period, up to 2-3 months if necessary.

Watch this space for updates…

Google To Remove The Disavow Tool Entirely?

John Muller from Google recently tweeted that he’s sure Google will remove the Disavow tool at some point.

While I can understand Google’s logic (and I agree with them that the tool is far overused) it does give site owners a degree of both comfort and control over their Google Search performance—something they desperately desire. 

I hope they don’t get rid of it.

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Zyppy started optimizing websites for Google traffic in 2009, led by me, Cyrus Shepard. From my time at Moz until now, I run dozens of SEO experiments per year, so I'm comfortable with our data. My experience allows me craft successful SEO strategies for startups to Fortune 500 companies, and my mission extends to educating the public on SEO best practices. Learn more about Zyppy SEO. and our best services.

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