The link disavow tool was introduced by Google in October 2012 in response to the Penguin algorithm update from May 2012. The Penguin update caused a lot of chaos in the search marketing community because it stopped the practice of buying and selling links.
Getting paid links removed was a huge pain for because they had to request removal from every site, one by one. There were so many link removal requests that some site owners started charging a fee to remove the links.
The SEO community begged Google for an easier way to disavow links and in response to popular demand Google released the Link Disavow tool on October 2012 for the express purpose of disavowing spam links that a site owner was responsible for.
The idea of a link disavow tool was something that had been kicking around for many years, at least since 2007. Google resisted releasing that tool until after the Penguin update.
Google’s official announcement from October 2012 explained:
“If you’ve been notified of a manual spam action based on “unnatural links” pointing to your site, this tool can help you address the issue.
If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool generally isn’t something you need to worry about.”
Google also offered details of what kinds of links could trigger a manual action:
“We send you this message when we see evidence of paid links, link exchanges, or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines.”
disallow all links from that site in your file. If some site is selling PageRank by selling text links or blogrolls, those are the kinds of links that can get your site into trouble if someone complains to us."
In a Google Webmaster Help thread, John Mueller was asked what options are available when the disavow feature is unavailable for domain properties. Mueller responded that if you have domain level verification in place, you can verify the prefix level without needing any additional tokens.
Mueller then added a comment about the proper way to use the link disavow tool, saying that it should only be used for situations where you actually paid for links and can't get them removed afterwards. He cautioned against using the tool for random links that look weird or that some third-party tool has flagged as being spammy or toxic.
According to the text, many people believe that they can improve their website's ranking by simply removing any "toxic" links. However, the author suggests that this may not always be the best solution. In some cases, the real reason for a ranking drop may be something else entirely.
For example, the author describes a case where someone came to them with a supposed negative SEO attack. Upon inspection, the author found that there were hundreds of low-quality, spammy links with exact match anchor text pointing to the person's website. However, these links were on completely unrelated topics - not just adult ones.
The moral of the story is that you shouldn't always believe anecdotal evidence of toxic links - sometimes there could be another explanation for why your website's ranking has changed.
In 2012, Google's Panda algorithm caused a lot of sites to lose their rankings. The trigger for Panda was low quality content. Often, when a site owner sees their site lose rankings, they assume it's because of negative SEO attacks. This was the case for one site owner who contacted a Googler privately.
The Googler confirmed that the real problem was the low quality content on the site, not negative SEO attacks. This is something that John Mueller has also said - that disavowing links flagged by tools is not a good use of time. You can listen to Mueller say this at the 1:10 minute mark in the Google SEO Office Hours video linked below.
The news category on Search Engine Journal covers the latest in SEO and search engine news. Recent articles discuss Google's new mobile-first indexing, the future of SEO, and tips for improving your website's ranking.