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The Many Shades of Google’s Link Disavow Tool

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matt-cutts-speaking-at-pubcon-2012Last week’s big announcement at Pubcon about Google’s Disavow Links tool (which comes several months after Bing launched their own version of the tool) was pretty hot news that set Twitter on fire. Live in Las Vegas it actually brought cheers from the audience before Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts even said what it was Google was launching, because the audience hoped the announcement was a long-rumored link disavow tool.

As Google has become more stringent with their algorithm, taking into account poor quality or paid links and notifying site owners about those inbound links that could cause problems, webmasters have been caught in the middle of trying to clean up link profiles that were years old or were put in place by a previous SEO company.

Simply put, while paid links has been a dirty word in the SEO industry for several years, it was also pretty common knowledge that they worked and worked well, so even sites that were otherwise completely white hat suddenly found themselves penalized over a bad backlink profile.

Throw in the fact that as Google’s algorithm got better at detecting poor quality links, some less ethical SEOs were buying links and pointing them at competitors, in hopes of taking down their competitors so their own sites would rank better. And then innocent webmasters were saddled with the challenge of attempting to clean up an aggressive negative SEO campaign against them, if they were even savvy enough to identify what happened.

Hello, Webmaster?

Not surprising, some webmasters found it nearly impossible to get a response from site owners who were linking to them, despite emails and even registered mail to the whois addresses. Cutts told an anecdote of one webmaster who included a photo of the stack of letters he had mailed to webmasters in an attempt to get the links removed when he submitted his Google reconsideration request.

But if a webmaster couldn’t get a response from the site owner to get the link removed, they literally had no recourse to try and get the bad backlink penalty lifted and get back into Google’s good graces.

Finally, webmasters were simply getting burned out at all the link removal requests they were receiving, even on links that were already nofollowed (such as blog comment links) or for links on websites that weren't penalized in any way, because freaked out webmasters trying to wipe the slate clean were sending link removal requests to every site that had ever linked to them.

And not surprisingly, some webmasters simply stopped responding due to the sheer number of requests, particularly for large sites that have had an active user base over the years. Then of course, some savvy (or unethical, depending on which way you look at it) webmasters began charging a link removal fee because many just saw zero value in taking the time and effort to honor link removal requests without compensation, particularly because most of those links were originally placed there by request.

Negative SEO Exists

Google has long been towing the line that there is very little a competitor can do to affect the rankings of others in the search results, although we have known that the “very little” was alive and causing major issues for some webmasters.

Unfortunately over the last year, negative SEO has become a real problem and much more prevalent, targeting competitors or enemies in an industry. By adding a link disavow tool, Google is admitting indirectly that negative SEO is a problem and exists – but also finally gives victims a tool to clean it up.

Use With Caution

Cutts cautioned that the tool should only be used when other avenues to remove the links have failed. However you know lazy webmasters will go straight to the tool and not even bother trying to get them removed legitimately by contacting the website owners… in fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if people were submitting their lists while Cutts was still finishing his keynote.

But Wait…

But looking at the link disavow tool from the opposite side of the fence, there are some unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences that could see the disavow tool used for evil, instead of as a clean-up tool for webmasters who have no other way around it, and was probably why Cutts’ kept repeating it should only be used in extreme cases where other link removal attempts fail.

“It Typically Will Not Hurt You”

Google could definitely use the disavow tool as a signal that a site is passing bad links if there are multiple webmasters all disavowing links from the same site.

Someone asked specifically whether someone using negative SEO tactics could disavow your site in order to see it being penalized by Google but Cutts stated “It typically will not hurt you” if people submit a disavow link file containing links to your site.

Yes, it wouldn’t hurt you, but I can definitely see Google using it as a trigger to perhaps manually spam check those sites that are being flagged repeatedly by webmasters or used to detect footprints left by link spammers.

Don’t Be Evil

It also brings up the interesting question about someone abusing the tool from within a company. A bitter consultant with a client dodging bills or a fired employee who has Google Webmaster Central access could cause some serious havoc by disavowing valuable links to websites as revenge against the company (if it is hidden well enough in the interface that a less savvy SEO might not even know to look for it).

Of course, this could be remedied easily with one of the monthly messages in Webmaster Central reminding users that they are disavowing links, especially if a site is managed by multiple users.

While Cutts said it could take several weeks for the disavow file to work, he cautioned it would take even longer to reverse it, which would be a fairly big impact for any company who had a false disavow link file submitted on their behalf.

The Ultimate Disavow Link List

I suspect it also won’t take long for large “disavow links” lists containing well known link farms, known paid link sites and otherwise poor quality sites to start showing up on blogs and forums that Webmasters can copy and paste into their own disavow link file and upload it to Google.

And it would be pretty easy for someone to drop a competitor or two into the list, because you can be sure that people won’t be hand checking a list of 1,000 sites someone posts somewhere with a “use this list to disavow all these sites in Google because they are confirmed bad link sites”.

Cue the Clueless Webmasters

People who have been affected with bad links will very likely take a very heavy-handed approach to the links they disavow in their panic of seeing their traffic drop off a cliff. There is no doubt that some of those good links that are actually helping the site will end up in the list along with poor quality ones because the webmaster is either unclear about whether a link is a bad influence, or just think the starting fresh approach is the best one to go with.

So good websites could also have their sites potentially flagged as a possible bad source of links because of clueless webmasters, even though those clueless webmasters are actually making more work for themselves by disavowing links that are actually helping them.

When Bing launched their link disavow tool, we all knew it would only be a matter of time before Google would have to follow suit. But when one considers the potential downsides of such a tool, it isn't surprising that Google was seemingly a step behind while they evaluated the value of the tool and then had a select group of webmasters take the tool out for a test drive before it became public.

Will this cease the problem of webmasters trying to penalize their competitors through paid links? Of course not, because there would still be a delay between a site being penalized for paid links and the cleanup being done via emails or the disavow tool.

Conclusion

The disavow tool isn't the game changer some people are making it out to be, but there is no doubt it is a very valuable tool to a segment of webmasters who need more control over off-site issues affecting their search rankings.

Perhaps we will see further guidelines in place to prevent fallout from misuse of the link disavow tool if it does end up impacting webmasters negatively, or perhaps Google will end up evaluating the data from all disavow submissions and determine the vast majority of submitted sites are ones previously identified as poor quality link sites and there is no need to do anything with the remaining data.

And while negative SEO and paid links are all the buzz right now, this time next year there will be some new cutting edge technique that spammers will be using to game Google and with it will come new penalties, guidelines and tools from Google.


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