Want To Disavow Links In Google Now? 404 The Target Page

Jul 13, 2012 • 8:44 am | comments (43) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine Optimization

404A Google Webmaster Help thread has one webmaster convinced that links are hurting specific pages or sections of his site from ranking well in Google. Yes, he wants to disavow the links but Google's tool is not yet live.

Google's John Mueller said that if you have bad links you know are hurting your ranking, you can 404 page not found the page, remove the page the links are pointed at and Google will disavow those links.

John explained that you can even move a whole subdirectory to a new subdirectory if you feel the subdirectory was hurt by links and you can remove those links. John added that most of the time, Google won't penalize a site for bad links, and Google does a good job of ignoring the links. So going this 404 route is a step most webmasters probably shouldn't do.

Here is what John had to say:

In general, if you remove the page that is being linked to (such as a spammy forum thread) and make sure that it returns a 404/410 HTTP response code, we'll ignore the links to those pages. If these links are primarily pointing at threads that you've removed, then there's no need to move the whole forum to a new URL. If you find that there's a significant number of problematic links that you can't remove which are linking to general parts of your forum (eg the forum homepage), moving the forum to a different URL might be a possibility (but I'd only recommend doing that if you're absolutely sure that these links are causing problems -- we're pretty good at ignoring spammy links). If you choose to move the forum, then StevieD has some good suggestions on how that could be done (make sure that your 404 page is useful to users too).

This is not exactly new, John said links to a 404 page won't hurt you but this is the first time he went into the topic in such detail. At least as far as I know.

Personally I think, this is an extreme measure and 95% of webmasters probably should not do this.

Forum discussion at Google Webmaster Help.

Image credit to BigStockPhoto for 404 image

Previous story: Google Webmaster Tools Now Adds Crawl Error Alerts


SEO Consult

07/13/2012 12:56 pm

The only problem I can see with this is that if the links were to the homepage (the domain itself to be more specific), then you wouldn't be able to disavow those links by making it a 404 because there is only one homepage. Andy @ SEOConsult.com

Praveen Sharma

07/13/2012 12:59 pm

I don't think its feasible. Why will you remove your page from your website, and make it 404? Suppose your page is linked to a bad link, but that same page is giving you lots of traffic. What will you do then?


07/13/2012 01:15 pm

This probably applies just to smaller pages like blog posts, you usually dont want to remove your homepage or your secondary level pages and start all over.

Kevin Gerding

07/13/2012 01:30 pm

This whole negative SEO stuff is nonsense. I've seen a number of link removal requests come my way with some offering threats in their first contact. Communicating with these people takes me away from my core business, and to be honest, I'm really starting to get annoyed at Google. When Google does create the disavow link option, I can look forward to wasting even more of my time monitoring and disavowing links - taking me yet farther away from my core business. Considering there are many webmasters, how many millions of man hours will be lost staring at trillions of links pointing to sites? Talk about giving productivity a kick between the legs. Google has really made life more miserable for the webmaster when they have the capacity to simply null suspect links.


07/13/2012 01:57 pm

Have a client right now with this problem, someone ( and he claims it was not anyone in his biz or he hired to do it, and it smells a lot to me like a competitor or someone wanting to hurt his site was involved in this, linked back in ways and from sites that Penguin determined were bad and he got burnt up in that penalty) yet his site is so large that the penalty primarily took down his home page, and other key pages that were directly linked too, there are literally 1000's of these bad link backs on hundreds of spammy websites, he has spent a month and $1000's of $$ paying a person to contact and remove the links but of course that does not work very well as over a 1/3 of the sites linking to him do not even have a contact page. He seems trapped in a vicious circle that he can not get out of, I recommended from the start that based on what I read and researched and Google's responses to this problem it would probably be best for him to just start over with a new url but that is near impossible for him as he has a legitimate well connected and referral based business (he is brick and mortar) that would get dead ended from legit links, vendors, affiliates, and client / vendor favorites folders, etc .... Google is not accepting the work done so far (as of now) and is responding with demanding more links be removed ... the bad thing is most of the sites who did remove their links ... Goog had either not re-crawled yet or has blacklisted them to not crawl ?? so those links are not being removed from his link list, then to top this off in a perfect storm he had shut down an old site (this is where much of bad link issue came from) and 301 forwarded into the new one (which is standard practice) and all those links got transferred over to the new site just before Penguin and are now "stuck" in his link data on the new site, the old site was 404'd as soon as the Penalty issue surfaced (over 6 weeks ago now) and yet those links will not go away - Goog was contacted about this problem but they do not respond on it ... so basically what I am saying is getting these links removed and how Google handles them on a 404 is real sloppy and not very predictable in some situations.

Andrea Pernici

07/13/2012 02:03 pm

If you have a problem in traffic drop caused by bad links probably you are not receiving search engine traffic so you can remove the page.


07/13/2012 02:06 pm

amen. subject nailed down.


07/13/2012 02:12 pm

Well stated, Kevin!

Tony Stocco

07/13/2012 02:19 pm

Which is exactly why Google would implement such a tool - to keep SEOs from ranking sites. With every hurdle Google throws at SEO, their PPC business grows. Expect this trend to continue.

Praveen Sharma

07/13/2012 02:20 pm

but search engine (Google) is not only the traffic source available with us, there can be many other mediums like social media sites or may be other search engines (except Google).

Dave Fowler

07/13/2012 02:37 pm

This effectively assumes that the page you are encouraged to 404 does not also have a whole bunch of quality, editorially-given links pointing at it. You wouldn't want to lose the value of these if the facility to disavow specific links is around the corner. If the backlink profile to a page is overwhelmingly bad then the option to 404 sounds much more sensible. But until Google catch up with Bing, the better option is surely going to be to send removal requests to the site(s) pointing bad links at your own. Only if this option is exhausted and recovery not forthcoming should you consider throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Alistair Lattimore

07/13/2012 02:38 pm

I'm glad Google are speaking a little more about this topic. When I first noticed Gary Illyes mention that error documents can't accumulate PageRank, I have subsequently recommended to a number of people that as a last resort recovery tactic for a spammed internal URL that they could use a 404 to free themselves from spam burden. A little reassurance or clarity about a topic is always welcomed from Google!

Andrea Pernici

07/13/2012 04:04 pm

So you don't need google search traffic? If you don't need it there's no reason to remove the page. I doubt your page if is not a fresh content can have continuos traffic from other sources than search engines. In any case you can make your page return a 404 only if the SE is Google.


07/13/2012 04:12 pm

This is getting really annoying, every Google engineer tells you a different thing.


07/13/2012 04:19 pm

This is probably the dumbest thing that has come out of Google in a long while. From personal experience, every Google engineer seems to have different opinions/ideas/recommendations, most of them are completely different. Anyone who is doing this whole 404 thing is being taken for a ride, seriously this must be a joke. Are you telling me that I have to take some of the most important pages of my site down because some brat has done negative SEO on my site? Seriously John? Is this the official line from Google?

Alec Rippberger

07/13/2012 04:34 pm

Huh? What if these links are pointing to a page with legitimate links? Are you just supposed to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Codex Meridian

07/13/2012 06:21 pm

What an irony that Google is always recommending that webmaster should create website that is extremely easy to use and makes your readers happy yet Google is making the life of a webmaster more difficult than hell. That's how legendary is their customer service.

Codex Meridian

07/13/2012 06:26 pm

Yes they should not enable this tool. They have the data from the index. They are the ones mining the data.. They should fix the problem with their own data. Its not the job of the webmasters to devalue links. Its their job. If the rankings screwed because of this, blame Google. And if users are not happy because honest/great sites are way down because of this, blame Google. There is still Bing, hope is not lost. Our only job as a webmaster is to create content, make readers happy, interact with other related sites, nothing more. It seems today that that Google is trying to push some heavy burden to webmasters, that's crazy , that unacceptable.


07/13/2012 06:28 pm

it's solution to set for the bad-own-url the 404 page to the same document, but send 404 code?

Codex Meridian

07/13/2012 06:32 pm

Agreed. Nonsense advice. Who is at the right mind to 404 a top earning traffic for their site because of this. I would not even 404 a low quality content and always make sure the reader lands on a relevant content to read, so I always 301. Better user experience isn't it? And if Google passes the "bad karma" juice from that bad links ,I don't care. Its there JOB to sort this out, not me. And if my rankings screwed, I don't care also. I have traffic from other sources, and if people realize Google search results are starting to get screwed they switch to Bing.. Now they will be ones to experience some karma on this. This advice from John at Google webmaster thread is a very bad advice for me.


07/13/2012 10:59 pm

John Mu is psychotic to even suggest 404 is a good solution. Though he does reference the concept that if the page linked to is spammy, then 404 it. Except we all know full well that the problem lies in bad links pointing to really important content. Content you NEED indexed and ranking in the search engines as often as not. Seriously. 404 is NOT a solution. It's a cop-out.


07/14/2012 02:52 am

John has given the most potent and easiest weapon in the hands of competitors ..... keep posting links to your competitors in spammy threads and force your competitor to 404 all his site's pages .... one by one. This is not right ..... you should not be held responsible for things you haven't done. Even if you did post your link into a thread that went spammy after some time .... what can you do about it? I suggest that Google build a section in Webmaster Tools to own or disown all backlinks.

Gices Abraham

07/14/2012 05:52 am

The disavow tool would enable webmasters to discredit link pointing to their sites themselves, therefore you shouldn't get any more requests to remove links from your website. That is why everyone is waiting eagerly for it as it will make life easier.


07/14/2012 12:10 pm

Expect a lot of changes going on. Google run for the money and whether we like it or not, we just have to adapt to this changes and do what Google wants so we won't be penalized.


07/14/2012 12:39 pm

Tony, I would have to disagree with you. I believe the disavow tool's main purpose for Google is not to help webmasters rank websites. The primary purpose of the tool is to give Google legal cover from lawsuits. When offsite factors are calculated and negatively impact ones ranks, Google may be culpable in some cases. Particularly in cases of negative SEO, which I believe will become more common in the future, Google's sheer dominance as the starting point to many eCommerce transactions places large responsibilities on them. And as we can see by the many legal/anti-trust actions being taken against Google globally, I would have to say Google has largely failed in their responsibilities to the public. When one company has so much control over a one trillion dollar a year industry, it raises many questions about a company that's first order of business is to please shareholders.

Carlos Fernandes

07/14/2012 08:40 pm

I don't believe John Mu was saying it was a good solution. I think he was just answering my question from a technical / theoretical perspective. I was asking him about a site that had a Forum. The Forum has not got many good links coming into it. All the good links into the site in question come to her home page and to her articles. The question therefore arose because the Forum was the problem (at least that's what I thought) and she was ready to give up on the entire site. 404-ing otherwise would be a cop out I agree I just wanted to re-affirm my thoughts as to getting all the possible options for her as opposed to letting her think the whole site was now a total waste of time since the traffic is down 50%. When I posted to John my own research had not uncovered the work of a previous SEO. I now know that there are spam forum links to the root domain that were placed over a years ago. A much bigger issue than I ever thought and one I am not sure if I can resolve for her now.

Carlos Fernandes

07/14/2012 08:48 pm

People are going off on all tangents here. He never gave it as advice. The post on webmaster forums was placed a few days prior and I had a few conversations on G+ to him about the site. These were spam posts on a forum. Not even low quality content pages. I was trying to gather information just from a technical perspective since the owner of the site was all ready to give up on the site. He was saying something was a good decision or a good thing to do - he was stating an answer to a question with some facts.

Top Five Awards

07/14/2012 11:29 pm

I wish it was that easy. When the links point to your main page, there's no 404 option.

Chris Rempel

07/15/2012 02:08 am

Yeah, but aren't you forgetting something? NegSEO typically happens at the root domain level. Have fun 404ing your index page... All of these hurdles they're throwing at us.. honestly guys - why bother with white hat? Stay portable and keep costs low. Until the dominant search engine (whoever that eventually becomes) comes to their senses and doesn't pass negative value through external factors. In fact, in this climate, I'd say you're insane if you don't diversify, and spread the net a bit with different traffic channels (and I'm talking about SEO, not "social media"). Just keep it all separated, and you'll be fine. If Google's willing to "chuck" your site at a moment's notice, based on factors you often can't control - then you're insane to invest anything substantial into a "great content" or a "good UX" if your primary traffic ref is from search. Just roll out BH/GH exact-match minisites in batches of 10 and rake it in. It's literally safer.


07/15/2012 11:36 am

Guys, you 404 the url. Not the content.content ranks. Move the content

Paul Madden

07/15/2012 08:44 pm

And what would you know?

Claude "CodeAngry" Adrian

07/16/2012 09:13 am

So you 404 an entire directory killing both bad links and good links in the process... You have got to be stupid to do something like this. SEO people are willing to shoot themselves in the foot to kill the tiny bug that's crawling on it. DARN! After Google using FUD tactics made SEOs out their own / others' link networks, now they make them kill their own ranking. But the truth is, if you would do this (even for a slightly legitimate site)... you diserve it. ...::: LONG LIVE COMMON SENSE & INTELLIGENCE :::...


07/16/2012 02:28 pm

This is nonsense. Google need to sort out their own house first. GMail is the favourite service of forum spammers because it has a multi-email creation facility, from only one registered email. Most of my forum spam comes from Gmail. They also advertise a Chemist who is selling banned drugs in the UK such as "Reductil". They have given a Page Rank 4 to link directories advertising pills and meds. Have they any right to tell us about standards ?.


07/16/2012 03:22 pm

this is true and what I see, but if you do have a nefarious or other type source neg SEO your site with spammy back links 1) content issues: it takes several weeks to months to get the site back up and indexed properly and if not done exactly right or something unforeseen issue occurs you could end up with the new url (with the old content) flagged for dup content or even worse stolen, indexed and ranked on their site. 2) good affiliate, vendor, trade industry link backs: they get 404'd and lost as you can not 301 the bad url or you will just pass the penalty on to the new site ( I have seen this happen ) 3) if the links and thus penalty did occur outside your control the probability if it occurring to the new url is very high as neg SEO tactics now are known to work to harm a competitors site and bottom line in the man hours and costs to tackle the penalty ... the real solution was, is and always will be the search engine disallowing any links they determine are not valid. That was the whole point of automated systems like this - otherwise is this not really is fundamentally a manual directory service for the top 30 returns ? long term stategy .... The real craziness to this is any thinking person can see the direction of the returns page for Google is moving to 100% monetized (at least in the view area) - that is just about completed on "local search" and goog has just began to implement this focus change in the last 1.5 years ... they have 3 to 7 years of dominance ahead and will probably go over 1 trillion in revenue from all the assets they maintain in search and mobile and other sources wrapped in and around their original search product branding ... this is corp boardroom strategy at it's best - they really are aggressive and nearly genius level in how they work it, but for small biz there will need to be and will come into the market other resources needed for us to show up on the web - the web has changed and is being captured and monetized by very powerful, large and well connected sources - look at the legislation that is being relentlessly promoted though Washington on all levels - in almost every case it benefits them (the big corps and money interests) and not the little guy or the original development and intent of the web - their are many of us who saw this coming 10 years ago ... but it is painful to see it and realize in the end there will be little done to stop it. Think old time tv where there really were only 3 to 4 channels people could watch - think what it cost to get in that mix - this is where the web is going.


07/17/2012 01:41 am

Google is using so many metrics, why should the owner of a website responsible to block bad links? If a site is receiving a lot of bad link by a competitor, it could be hard work to notice and report all bad links


07/19/2012 03:31 pm

We have spent the past 3 months sending email after email asking for links to be removed. Some we knew about but many are scraped onto blogs or placed in directories that have scraped our lidting in DMOZ etc. Our second request as just been turned down. Google appears hell bent on make life as difficult as possible. This business is over 12 years old involved in overseas travel and back in the day it was natural and a potential source of business for us to appear on all manner of travel sites. Now this has all of a sudden changed. Google results are now full of pages from one or two sites for all sorts of searches and they have perhaps tried to be too clever and I have even started to use bing for the first time.

Terry Van Horne

08/16/2012 02:50 pm

ok... I have ranked many sites and am not seeing any of these problems... why is that? Ummm cuz I future proof... I don't assume because it works... I should do it....why? because only a fool didn't see that AM was just distributing shit content meant to manipulate rankings.... why would any self respecting SE enable that to be the foundation for ranking. It was far too easy to just disregard the site entirely... which IMO, will be the final outcome....most of those links will do nothing Very few sites in the SERPs are actually ranking based solely on the content on the site. I build for users and an audience I looked at most foundational link building as a waste of time because it seldom drives traffic or sales DIRECTLY so the only reason to do it was to manipulate rankings...IMO, not a long term SEO solution or even a reasonable short term solution (much like PPC as an alternative to SEO). IMO, Google has been too slow in doing what it is doing now....it is going to FORCE a change in SEO's attitudes about how you get to the top. So far that old attitude is alive and well... unfortunately some still won't get it after yet another good slap upside the head. They will cry crocodile tears about how hard Google is making it...and blame them for the fact they can't rank when the real problem is the content they produce does not even deserve to place based on the value add to the user! This is just another step IMO, the Mayday, Panda, GooPLA, Penguin, each is just another refinement of something that likely started in January of 2011. We do a lot of disaster recovery and in January 2011 we had a few Ecommerce sites come to us with penguin like symptoms where in almost every case there was an identifibale footprint containg a contextual link. We often find many ecommerce site got these hits and likely wrote it off as just a bad month or two until around late february.... well you know how this ends ;-)


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Saurabh Saha

12/03/2012 01:09 pm

Thanks! I was using WP Multisite and now downgraded my site so there are a lots of 404 links of my previous URL structure. Can I block all of them by getting their URLs from Google webmasters and then uploading to Disavow?


01/29/2013 08:21 am

The threat to use Bing makes no sense whatsoever. The webmasters may get pissed off to death by Google, but that wouldn't impact the preference of the users. And from user perspective the Bing is less popular. So just take a gut to admit that there aint much you can do.


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06/02/2013 12:58 am

Can anyone verify that


02/27/2014 08:46 am

ok, good job.

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