Disavow: A case study

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Previously, Google updated their Penguin algorithm to include a continuous update cycle. With this in mind, we thought it was time to discuss disavows.

The internet has been awash with confusion over the effectiveness of disavow files, the time they take to impact a site and the value of disavowing over link removal.

While we do not have exclusive Google insights about the inner workings of this misunderstood tool, we do have a compelling study into the impact it has had for one of our clients.


Our client operates a brochure site within the B2B retail sector. The brand aims to generate business leads and provide information for those interested in the company. While the site had not received a penalty, a slow slide of rankings prompted us to carry out a full backlink review to ensure all links met Google’s quality guidelines.


First of all, we needed to collate a list of the clients’ backlinks. We downloaded links from multiple sources, including Google Webmaster Tools, Moz, AHRefs and Majestic.

After removing duplicate links, we checked each domain individually, looking at the overall viability of the domain as a trusted linking source. Checking sample links was also an important part of this procedure, as we discovered a number of otherwise healthy domains with links pointing from footers in forums, all with very similar anchor text.

Spending extra time checking sample links was well worth it to weed out these bad links from good domains.

How do you track it?

Now we have our disavow file compiled and submitted to Google, the next question is how do we track the impact it has? We considered using traffic levels but ruled this option out, as external factors can cause the levels to fluctuate too greatly to provide a meaningful conclusion.

As such, we decided the only real way to provide insight was to track ranking positions over time and analyse any trends that emerged.

Off the back of this decision, we collated as extensive a list of relevant keywords for the client. This included all keywords we had previously tracked, as well as looking at sources such as Searchmetrics for additional suggestions. We ended up with a list of around 200 keywords, which we proceeded to track weekly for a period of 2 months.


The first week of data was certainly not ideal. 77 keywords had improved their ranking positions from the benchmark, but 62 keywords had dropped positions and we had seen a net loss of 237 positions. This improved weekly however, up until week four, at which point we had a net gain of 4 positions. By this point, we had appeared to have prevented the rankings from continuing to drop, which was our primary goal.

As of week eight, things had improved drastically, even from week four. Looking at the latest statistics, we had improved 102 keywords positions within the SERPs, which works out as 54% of all tracked keywords.

Our net gain by week eight was 824 positions. We have included our week-by-week tracking of these metrics below.

Week No. Keywords Improved Keywords Dropped Static Keywords Net Position Gain
Week 1 77 62 51 -237
Week 2 82 63 45 -287
Week 3 78 60 52 -3
Week 4 76 67 47 4
Week 5 89 56 45 206
Week 6 95 63 32 696
Week 7 94 59 37 736
Week 8 102 52 36 824



So what can we draw from this data? Firstly, it is important to note that this is an isolated case study and, while we have been extremely satisfied with the impact the disavow process has had, we cannot promise this can be replicated across other sites. We also acknowledge that link removal is a more effective method to these ends, and a combination of link removal with a disavow process is the optimal way to regain rankings.

We have, however, been able to say with a reasonable amount of certainty that disavow files both work and work fairly quickly. We were able to bring our rankings slide to a stop after 3-4 weeks and improve hugely in the weeks following.

What we have not been able to conclude is the amount of time it takes the disavowal process to take full effect. Our clients’ rankings are still improving after 2 months, with no signs of slowing down. We will continue to track these rankings for the foreseeable future and, if we manage to glean further insight from this, you’ll be the first to know.

Has your site suffered a drop in rankings? Got questions about the disavow process? Don’t hesitate to contact us.


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