Google: You Don't Have To Disavow Off Topic Links

Mar 3, 2014 • 8:37 am | comments (44) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine Optimization

arrow bentA Google Webmaster Help thread has Google's John Mueller responding to webmaster concern over off topic links.

Off topic links are when sites that are unrelated to you are linking to your site. In the link craze these days, Webmasters are afraid of getting link penalties and thus, they are concerned with off topic links.

Google's John Mueller went on record saying:

Just to be completely clear on this: you do not need to disavow links that are from sites on other topics. This tool is really only meant for situations where there are problematic, unnatural, PageRank-passing links that you can't have removed.

So not all off-topic links are problematic or unnatural.

Forum discussion at Google Webmaster Help.

Previous story: Google Menus Now Officially Live But No Details For Webmasters


Ben Heligman

03/03/2014 01:47 pm

If it is a natural link there are very few reasons for it to be off-topic. This point seems null to me.


03/03/2014 02:09 pm

Not true, John Mueller. Google penalty notices have given me explicit examples that are off-topic links that it deems "shouldn't be linking to me" and asks me to make "good will" efforts to remove these links or have them disavowed. I'm talking about directory links (off topic directories), blog comments, forum profiles, blogs that have nothing to do with the content they link to. I've collected 50 or so of these link examples for various penalised sites that Google have cited as examples of unnatural links that they want removed, and none are on-topic (btw, of which I never built one of those links, but that's for another thread). If John Mueller was correct, 90+% of sites that have penalties today would not have penalties. My advice is to not listen to Mueller's advice and disavow anyway.


03/03/2014 02:16 pm

In your cases they should be cleaned up/disavowed because the site is penalised and they are spam, not because they're "off-topic". The linked case is not a penalised site. Good luck to anyone following your advice. They'll need it.


03/03/2014 02:50 pm

Yes....penalised for the very off-topic links that the article says are no problem and we don't need to disavow. The original poster is just concerned these links will wind up with his site getting a penalty. I've had sites with no more than a handful of links pointing to them - the very kind of links that are apparently no problem (don't need disavowing)....until they gain you a penalty, then they do need disavowing. As to anyone "following my advice", they're simply disavowing links to be on the safe-side, rather than wait for those very same links to possibly penalise them in the future. Disavowing the links can't harm your site, leaving them there....well, let's just say that from my experience, irrelevant links are the kind of links that Google's own penalty notices have told me they require removing (and that's sites with under 30 links pointing to them...!).


03/03/2014 03:23 pm

The latest trend is for link spammers to include "authority" or somewhat authoritative links randomly in their articles. These spammers are creating many off-topic links daily as part of their randomization efforts to make their posts look natural. There are a few different ways that websites get traffic. Search engines, social sites, direct type ins and referrals. I'd say Google is abusing their dominance by targeting links that provide referral traffic. Has anyone other than me seen significant year over year traffic declines from referral traffic? It seems that Google only wants traffic to be controlled and routed through one of their many properties.

PM Fiorini

03/03/2014 03:58 pm

Just the fact that people *do* have to worry about this is ridiculous. Anyway, I would not trust John Mueller's judgement anyway. He does not appear to be the brightest bulb in the shop anyway.


03/03/2014 04:10 pm

John Mueller gives out more and better information than anyone else at Google.


03/03/2014 04:20 pm

I think you are interpreting what he said wrong. He may be talking about links on high quality sites that are not about the exact same topic. Example: Your cooking site has a link from some technology blog talking about how they cook your pizza recipe with a new gadget. It is not on topic but it is natural and high quality. You are talking about junk links that people built themselves.

PM Fiorini

03/03/2014 04:24 pm

Well, I'm glad you feel that way. I don't. I find much of his "better information" (as you call it) is misleading or simply incorrect. IMHO.

Nicholas Chimonas

03/03/2014 04:25 pm

I would be leery of extrapolating that takeaway from this story. If you read the thread, this is a very specific and unique situation where disavowing quality links that have *become* irrelevant is not necessary. In this situation specifically, the owner of the site once geared the domain towards gardening information. She acquired quality links from other relevant garden sites, but over time switched the focus of the domain to spirituality. This renders the garden links from a long time ago slightly irrelevant to the new focus of her domain. John is saying that those *quality* links from so long ago shouldn't be causing her any problems, and disavowing them would be unnecessary. In most any other situation in which a domain has a large quantity of links from completely irrelevant sites you DO need to remove / disavow those links. Especially if your site has experienced a loss of search visibility, or the intent behind those irrelevant links was spam for the purpose of artificially influencing your search ranking. There is a big difference between attempting to remove / disavow quality links your domain acquired a long time ago when it had a different content focus, versus removing links from irrelevant domains that you spammed with links because you were trying to rank better.

Marie Haynes

03/03/2014 04:46 pm

I think that the title of Barry's post might confuse some people. It sounds like he's saying that if you're doing a backlink audit (i.e. for a link penalty or Penguin issues) and you come across a link from an unrelated site you don't need to disavow it. But really, if the link is an unnatural one - self made with the intent of increasing your pagerank, then it needs to go whether it is related or not. I think that the question probably came about because people were wondering about whether they needed to disavow natural links that came from websites not closely related to theirs. If it's a naturally earned link, Google does not need you to disavow it.


03/03/2014 04:56 pm

Who gives out good actionable information at Google then in your opinion?

Rameshwor Dahal

03/03/2014 05:24 pm

Let me answer on his behalf: Matt Cutts


03/03/2014 05:36 pm

I'm simply taking his words at face value - no "interpretation" necessary. He never mentioned high quality sites at all, just off-topic links. Why are you talking about high quality links? Even the OP didn't mention high quality links - just links from old sites that are no longer relevant. Also, another thing you've misunderstood is that I was talking about links that people built themselves. I never mentioned that all. I'm talking about off-topic links regardless of whether you (the site owner) placed them there or not. I mentioned this because Google's own penalty notices highlight such irrelevant links as "problem" links.

Raphael Cohen

03/03/2014 06:06 pm

what about a domain that was purchased and has links from a different subject from the original owners?


03/03/2014 06:22 pm

What has Mueller said that was misleading or incorrect?


03/03/2014 06:27 pm

Your answer is in your comment! Those forums, directories, blog comments are the type of links you would probably want to disavow, especially if you got an unnatural links notice. They don't get a free pass because they are irrelevant. The point is that you don't need to worry about links from "irrelevant" sites that don't have any other problems like being paid links, otherwise spammy or artificial. If the links are spam, they don't get a free pass just for being from irrelevant sites.


03/03/2014 06:52 pm

So in other words, it's a highly equivocal issue. For example, you mention paid links. What if a site that links to you engages in a bit of link selling and gets penalised by Google? Your link will be assumed to be paid for (even though it isn't) - and of course, you didn't build it yourself or had control over it. In the end, you're not the arbiter that decides a link is irrelevant-and-toxic, or irrelevant-but-not-toxic. I personally don't think it's an issue to include all irrelevant links in a disavow to be on the safe side (no harm done anyway).

Some Guy

03/03/2014 07:53 pm



03/03/2014 08:25 pm

Now you are getting into a whole other area with worries about someone else selling links and its possible effect on your site. Google is on record somewhere saying that links from sites that sell links are not counted. Never heard of a penalty for an unpaid link from a link selling site. That also has nothing to do with the issue of disavowing links from irrelevant sites. The whole point here is that links from irrelevant sites are not automatically "bad" so they don't need to be disavowed - and this is the important part: unless they are causing problems in some other way. As far as irrelevant-and-toxic vs irrelevant-but-not-toxic goes, "irrelevant" is irrelevant. It is the "toxic" part you should be thinking about when disavowing. Relevancy comes into play a bit more when it comes to the value or "link juice" you might get from links that actually are counted. If all other things are equal, a relevant link would be worth more than an irrelevant one. But that doesn't mean the irrelevant should be automatically disavowed. It probably wouldn't hurt anything to disavow links from irrelevant sites "to be safe", since those irrelevant links probably don't count very much anyway. But since they aren't drawing a penalty or algorithm filter simply because they are irrelevant, you might be disavowing links that were helping you. If it isn't broken, don't "fix" it. It is really much more simple than you are making it. Just use the disavow tool as it is intended: to disavow links that may be causing problems and are not under your control.

Fede Einhorn

03/03/2014 08:59 pm

No one does. They need to keep us "informed" and "lost" at the same time. They NEED people trying to crack their algos, or all of them would be unemployed and Google would only be a plugged machine.

Michael Martinez

03/03/2014 09:22 pm

"So not all off-topic links are problematic or unnatural." Yup.

Michael Martinez

03/04/2014 05:15 am

"What has Mueller said that was misleading or incorrect?" Indeed. I find what he says to be very clear and confirmable. Let's see some examples of John Mueller's dimness.

Michael Martinez

03/04/2014 05:16 am

Give it a rest, people. The abusive marketing tactics came first. Anyone wants to point fingers, start with yourselves.


03/04/2014 08:32 am

Again, you raise a number of highly equivocal points. You are not the arbiter that decides a link is harmful or not, even though you seem to think you can decide on behalf of Google. An irrelevant link you're not sure about? - my view on disavowing such irrelevant links doesn't pose a risk and it's using the disavow tool as intended - disavowing a link you're just not sure about (the disavow tool isn't just for penalty-lifting). I don't want my site associated with a link that makes no sense pointing to my site. It's not helpful for anyone. Your own view suggests you can determine what links Google deem "ok" and "not ok". Three things: 1. Your assumption is that Google think the way you do. 2. Not only that, you think they never get it wrong. 3. Google are changing the way they look at links constantly, so today's "safe" irrelevant links are ones that penalise your site in 6 months' time and you need to request-to-remove/disavow them after-the-fact (and wait probably 6 months for a partial recovery) rather than pre-emptively.

Jawad Latif

03/04/2014 11:09 am

Confuse me more Google.


03/04/2014 04:05 pm

Clearly you are going to believe what you want to believe, regardless of facts. This article is about whether or not irrelevant links hurt and should be disavowed simply because they are not relevant. Google says they don't hurt, and there is no evidence to support the belief that they do. Therefore, they do not need to be disavowed. You don't want to believe what you have been told by people who know much more about it than you do. No, I am not the arbiter of what Google thinks is a good link or bad. Google is. And they explain it very clearly throughout the webmaster guidelines and elsewhere. I am guessing you never read those guidelines. If you had, you would not be so confused about penalties vs the importance of relevancy. Sure, irrelevant links are not all that useful sometimes. But sometimes they are. So again, if it isn't broken, why try to fix it? The Disavow Tool really is for penalties and algorithmic filters that a webmaster believes to be problematic. Says so right in Google's description of the tool: "We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you." What did you think it was for? Perfecting your link profile so it is exactly as you'd like? That would be "unnatural", no? You have some irrational fears based on misinformation and what you believe Google might do in the future. Sometimes that is prudent - but only when those fears have some basis in fact. I suggest you read or re-read Google's Webmaster Guidelines so you can be more informed.


03/04/2014 04:45 pm

"Clearly you are going to believe what you want to believe, regardless of facts." What facts? You still can't discern between an irrelevant link that is harmful and one that is harmless. If you believe that "all irrelevant links are harmless", then you assume that your entire backlink profile consists of two types of links: on-topic, valuable links and off-topic, irrelevant and harmless links. Pre-April 2012, you would have largely been correct to think this. Since Penguin, clearly you are wrong - regardless of how you've misinterpreted a single sentence by John Mueller. "No, I am not the arbiter of what Google thinks is a good link or bad. Google is." EXACTLY RIGHT, and this acknowledgement cripples your argument. By acknowledging this salient truth, you can't then just decide that all irrelevant, off-topic links pointing to your site are harmless. You've acknowledged this, so no need to counterargue yourself! Regarding the use of the Disavow tool, Matt Cutts disagrees with you when you say you should only use Disavow tool for penalties / damage-already-done:- - to quote:- "If you’re at all worried about someone maliciously doing negative SEO to harm your site, or you have reason to believe someone has already done so, Matt says this would be a great time to use the disavow tool as well. Matt says there’s no reason to worry about disavowing links even without receiving a message about them in your Google Webmaster console. If you have been proactive in monitoring your backlinks and you see a strange pattern arising, then Matt says feel free to go ahead and preemptively disavow those links. To sum it up, if you’re at all worried about links pointing to your site that may cause you to get hit with a spam penalty, just go ahead and disavow them" you are wrong about the usage of the Disavow - Matt Cutts himself said it's a tool that can be used pre-emptively - which is exactly what I've been recommending people to do, and there's no harm in that (crazy that you're arguing for complacency that can ultimately cause harm, and I'm arguing for vigilance that does no harm!). You say it's "unnatural" to update your disavow file regularly - Matt Cutts says it's "proactive" :) - as for me, once every 2 months should suffice. I have better things to do with my time, but at the same time, I don't want links I have no control over harming my sites. Anything I'm not sure about, I disavow. But carry on as you are - just don't be upset like other people who get hit with toxic links they didn't build >>

Chittaranjan Sarangi

03/05/2014 01:42 pm

If i will be the CEO of Google, i will first terminate this old man jhon muller - who is always confusing things.

Nick Ker

03/05/2014 04:28 pm

"What did you think it was for? Perfecting your link profile so it is exactly as you'd like? That would be "unnatural", no?" You nailed it:


03/05/2014 04:44 pm

You need to relax and try to comprehend what you read, or at least stop pretending I said something I did not say. I did NOT say that all irrelevant links are harmless. I said that they are not harmful simply due to their lack of relevancy. And that is exactly the point that John Mueller was trying to make. I also didn't say it was "unnatural" to be proactive in disavowing bad links. I said using the disavow tool for "perfecting your link profile so it is exactly as you'd like", meaning that you seem to want to disavow any links which are not ideal but are not necessarily harmful - which is a whole other thing. You received a warning and those links were from irrelevant sites. They were also from forums, comments and other known spammy sources. Did the warning say anything about "irrelevant"? You didn't say if it did, but I suspect it did not. You want to claim it was because they were not very relevant, despite all the evidence that points to all the other reasons those links would be flagged: "directory links (off topic directories), blog comments, forum profiles..." Apparently YOU are unable to tell a good link from a bad one. Do not assume the rest of us are so simple minded. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to spot an unnatural link. But you go right ahead and disavow all of the links to your site that you don't think are perfect if it makes you feel better. Like I said before, it probably won't hurt since they probably aren't helping much. But to chase after them as if they are the problem when you know you have confirmed bad links where relevancy is not even part of the problem is just kind of silly. You don't even have to believe me. You can get it straight from Google: 'Today, Google's John Mueller is strongly suggesting you do not use the disavow tool to disavow links that "fall low on some arbitrary metric."'


03/05/2014 06:29 pm

So it seems you are back-peddling from your original comments now. Your previous point suggested we ignore ALL irrelevant links because irrelevancy isn't a factor in harmfulness. Now you're saying otherwise and effectively agreeing with the idea that regardless of whether a link is on- or off-topic, you need to judge each link on its own merits (which is all I'm saying, hardly a revelation). Somewhat ironically - irrelevance is....irrelevant when judging a link's potential harm. To say "irrelevancy in and of itself can't harm your site" is not very helpful since the vast majority of harmful links just happen to be irrelevant. Therefore, a tell-tale sign of a toxic link is irrelevancy, even if the irrelevancy in and of itself isn't the thing that makes it harmful. Tell me a situation where you gain relevant, but harmful links that you didn't build? I can't think of a single situation. I CAN think of many situations where irrelevant links (that you didn't build) point to your site that happen to be harmful. I've seen this situation unfold. And as Matt Cutts said in my previous link, it's a good idea to take pre-emptive action on those. I think you've now just become a contrarian to my comments. My main point is just a common sense outlook regarding links you can't control - keep an eye out on them - any you potentially think may be harmful, just disavow them. Matt Cutts recently said the same and I linked to his comments. Feel free to NOT disavow such links that you think are harmful. I'll do the opposite while not causing any harm to my site in doing so, and it's a once every 2 months job.


03/05/2014 11:38 pm

No. I am not back pedaling at all. What part of "The point is that you don't need to worry about links from "irrelevant" sites that don't have any other problems like being paid links, otherwise spammy or artificial. If the links are spam, they don't get a free pass just for being from irrelevant sites" did you not understand? I haven't changed my position about that from my first comment at all. I understand it can feel uncomfortable to be wrong in a public setting, but please don't pretend I said something I did not in an attempt to save face. On the other hand, you seem to want to adjust the discussion so that your original argument is forgotten. Now you are saying "keep an eye on them", where before you were saying Mueller is a liar and "Google penalty notices have given me explicit examples that are off-topic links that it deems shouldn't be linking to me..." and ignored that those links had all kinds of other things wrong with them. Google did not flag your links because they were irrelevant. They flagged them because they were spam, for other reasons. If I am wrong about that, please post a screenshot of Google's message stating they flagged the links because they are not relevant. Otherwise, there is no rational reason to believe that your links were flagged for irrelevancy. Some final thoughts before I just write you off as a stubborn troll who is just dying to be right, for once: You say: "the vast majority of harmful links just happen to be irrelevant. Therefore, a tell-tale sign of a toxic link is irrelevancy, even if the irrelevancy in and of itself isn't the thing that makes it harmful." Your logic is broken. While most harmful links are probably irrelevant, that does not mean that all irrelevant links are harmful. Therefore, like Mueller said, you don't need to disavow them just because they are irrelevant. Think really hard and you might understand that Google is probably ignoring those irrelevant links, or at least not giving them much weight - but they are not harming anything. Now the tricky part you still refuse to listen to: Some of them may be harmful, but not because they are irrelevant. It is because they are spam. You ask how a relevant link could be harmful. How about if you have a site about SEO, and years ago you got a bunch of blog comment links on SEO sites that had "SEO" as the anchor text? And you can't remove them because the sites are not under your control, and the admins have ignored your emails to asking to remove them. Relevant sites, but could be harmful. There. Was that so hard to wrap your brain around a simple idea? Be a big boy now and find something valid to rant about.


03/05/2014 11:53 pm

How many times does it have to be explained, and how many people have to explain it to you before you understand it? Your links were penalized for being spam, not for being irrelevant Even though they may have also been irrelevant, that isn't why they were marked as spam. Directories, forums, comment links... all things that are likely to be spam, as anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention would know.


03/06/2014 12:00 am

In your last 3 or 4 comments, you've resorted to personal insults and I've resisted (and continue to resist) replying in kind. In fact, it doesn't interest me to reduce our conversation to an exchange of insults. I have no emotional investment in this conversation, but it seems you do. I just reply to you again: I use a common sense approach to my websites - in the era where links that point to my websites can potentially harm my rankings, I evaluate each link, and if I deem a link to be potentially harmful, I simply want no association with it and disavow it using Google's disavow tool. Clearly, you are unhappy and troubled with my approach. So be it. We're all different. I have no problem with that.


03/06/2014 12:08 am

What facts? Everything posted in this discussion by anyone but you. Why do you think nobody can discern good links from bad? If you really can't tell the difference between comment spam and a good citation in an article on a reputable site, then you should really stop trying to build links. You do an awful lot of tap dancing around the fact that you thought your links were penalized for being irrelevant when that is just not how it is. Google gave you examples of your spam links that were from directories, profiles, comments and other things that were publicly declared spam years ago. Could it be that the spam links Google showed you are indeed impacting your rankings in a bad way because... they are spam? Yet you want to find some other reason. The simplest answer is often the most correct. Google "Occam's Razor" for the exact wording of that.


03/06/2014 12:09 am

I don't think he's going to understand, nor does he care to. But you gave it a good try.


03/06/2014 12:12 am

Well, firstly, my sites were penalised in April 2012. We're talking about a fairly long time ago (in internet terms, and especially in Penguin terms). I'd never built links for these sites but a loss of rankings is a pretty obvious thing to notice when it happens to your site, and a penalty message confirms it. That's what happened to me, but 3 of the 4 sites have recovered since then due to my disavow efforts. I consider myself quite lucky considering other people's stories and am thankful Google have a disavow tool. I don't really see a point to your post other than an attempt at admonishment or sanctimony. I hope for your sake it's neither. Read my very first post in this thread - I say to people: use the disavow tool. The worst that can happen is you disavow irrelevant, useless links and Google....disavow them. No harm, no foul. I've seen recoveries from using it. I see no sense in ignoring such potentially damaging links pointing to your site.


03/06/2014 12:17 am

Most people don't like it when you put words in their mouth. You kept ignoring what Gwyneth was saying and pretending she said something else. Where I am from, that will get you thrown in the river rather quickly. She would have been justified in calling you plenty of names for that, but instead she kept trying to reason with you. The few things she said about you personally were spot on and quite justified, given how obstinate you have been with everyone who tried to help you understand. I think you owe her an apology.


03/06/2014 12:18 am

"If you really can't tell the difference between comment spam and a good citation in an article on a reputable site, then you should really stop trying to build links." You describe the difference between black and white, but I'm talking about much subtler shades of grey. If you didn't grasp that from my comment, then I'm afraid that's not a fault of my own, but yourself. I specifically mention discerning between irrelevant comments that are harmful and irrelevant comments that are harmless. Yet, you missed that, which is a failing on your part. You say a "good citation" - which clearly is not an irrelevant link - be it harmless or harmful. "Google gave you examples of your spam links that were from directories, profiles, comments and other things that were publicly declared spam years ago" If you read my original comment, you'd see that I mentioned these were links I had not built myself, yet the way I understand your comment, you hadn't actually comprehended that fact. That's a failure on your part. Please re-read my comment, then respond once more, then I'm happy to respond to the ammended comment you make. Otherwise, your current comment is simply invalid as it hasn't taken into account everything I have said.


03/06/2014 12:21 am

Right. The part where you said "Not true, John Mueller. Google penalty notices have given me explicit examples that are off-topic links that it deems "shouldn't be linking to me" and asks me to make "good will" efforts to remove these links or have them disavowed" And then you bristled at everyone who tried to explain to you that irrelevant does not always equal spam. Maybe I am sanctimonious, and perhaps I am trying to admonish you for being a prick to so many people who were trying to help you. I doubt it will make a difference, but I had a few minutes to spare.


03/06/2014 12:25 am

Whether or not you built them has nothing to do with it at all! That is why I made no mention of it. You thought they were a problem because they were irrelevant. They were a problem because they were SPAM. Not much more to discuss no matter how much you wish your first comment wasn't way off the mark.


03/06/2014 12:36 am

Winston, we're getting to the regrettable stage where two people are happy to direct insults to a single person, and I think we're in the realms of a very regrettable situation. Perhaps we can - all 3 of us - actually talk about the topic at hand and exchange points rather than insults. I'm happy to do that. If you want to wade in and insult me though, we're getting to a point where none of us are really going to feel comfortable. Your comment directly above this is nothing but a thinly-veiled insult. Keep it up and I will feel grounds for some kind of action.


03/06/2014 12:40 am

Wow, are you drunk right now or something? You don't call someone a "prick" without losing control of your senses in this kind of discussion. Seriously, don't drink and post - and I hope that's the case, and this isn't your normal self. I've reported you.

blog comments powered by Disqus