Some are looking to toward the Disavow Links tool to bail them out. Having worked with several companies to successfully emerge from both manual penalties and algorithmic setbacks, I can say with certainty that the link disavow tool doesn't work. At least it doesn't work the way that many people seem to think it does.
When the disavow links tool was introduced, many were expecting a panacea – a reset button to cure all ills created by a spammy backlink profile. Many were stunned, when their submission of files to the Disavow Links tool rendered – well, nothing.
In one recent test, Cyrus Shepherd disavowed every link to his website and saw no effect (initially). He shared a half dozen keyword phrases that dropped after Penguin 2.0 rolled, but this is just as likely to be correlational as causational.
One thing that we do know for certain is that Google frowns upon the frivolous use of the tool.
Matt Cutts' 2012 slideshow at Pubcon presenting the tool was less than subtle. Below is slide 12 from that presentation:
The key takeaways are in red (Google's emphasis, not mine):
- Be Careful. Don't use this tool unless you are sure you need to use it.
- Most Sites shouldn't use this tool
Cutts followed up that slideshow with this video:
Key video takeaway:
- Before using the Disavow Tool, one is expected to make multiple link removal requests on their own. Only after there is a "small fraction" of links left to remove, should one use the tool.
Google makes it pretty clear that using the disavow tool is an act of last resort. They are looking to see you put in at least as much effort into cleaning up the spammy link profile as went into creating it. Just dumping all of your links into a file and uploading it to the Disavow Links tool won't get the job done. When the tool is used like this, it doesn't work
Manual penalty recovery and Penguin algorithmic recovery are both appropriate uses of the tool. Cutts is quoted as saying "… if you were hit by Penguin and know or think you have bad links, you should probably use this tool." Keep in mind that only a manual penalty requires the added step of filing a reconsideration request.
Step 1: Conduct a Link Audit
This just got a whole lot easier. John Mueller from Google has said that you don't need to use third-party (backlink) tools and that Google Webmaster Tools (alone) is fine. Don't believe it? Marie Haynes has said that she uses WMT links exclusively to get manual penalties removed it works for her.
You'll find the links you need by going to Google Webmaster Tools and Select your site:
Select Traffic > Links to Your Site
Select Traffic > Links to Your Site > More
Select "Download Latest Links"
Export to .CSV or Google Docs
Step 2: Analyze the Link Data
You will find thorough instructions on analyzing the data by reading "How to Conduct a Link Audit". The most important consideration is that it's OK to use one of the ever expanding numbers of link evaluation tools, but in the end, a thorough manual review will be necessary to "audit" the tool's output.
Pro Tip: Google knows all – don't think you can slide something by them. If a link doesn't conform to the webmaster guidelines, it must go.
Step 3: Documentation
I'm a big fan of creating a Google Drive account dedicated to the link cleanup campaign. Record all of the details of your outreach campaign on a spreadsheet. Include the Google Drive credentials in your reconsideration request. This gives Google the option of being able to look at all of the work on your spreadsheets as well as confirm how much effort went into emailing.
Step 4: Link Removal Through Email Outreach
The most effective emails are personalized and don't require any thought on the part of the recipient. Let the webmaster know where the link is positioned on the page, the anchor text and where it points. By including those details, you will be perceived as human and make it easy for the webmaster to find and remove the link. You will find a good example of a link removal request here.
There has been a recent trend of webmasters demanding payment for a link removal. Don't do it. Simply document the demand for payment on your spreadsheet and include these sites in your Disavow file.
Step 5: Now It's Time to Use the Disavow Tool
Log into Google Webmaster Tools, then go to the Disavow Tool and select your domain.
Clicking Disavow Links prompts a menu asking you for a file containing the links you want to disavow. This is the list of any remaining links that you could not get removed manually. Upload the file and you're done.
Step 6: Reconsideration Request (Optional)
Only if you're under a manual penalty, will you need to file a reconsideration request. When filing your request, here are some key points to consider:
- Be Specific
- Confess everything – Hide Nothing
- Accept Responsibility – Explain why it will NEVER happen again
So… Just How Does the Disavow Links Tool Work?
No one outside of Google knows for sure, but my initial hypothesis, since rollout, still seems to be plausible. I think it's entirely possible that the Disavow Links tool is nothing more than a new feature added to the original Spam reporting tool. Just like the Spam tool, nothing happens after a single report. Once a certain threshold is met, then "something" happens – either a filter kicks in or a manual review is triggered.
This is consistent with an answer, given by Cutts, when asked how long it would take to see results after a link disavow:
"It can definitely take some time, and potentially months. There's a time delay for data to be baked into the index. Then there can also be the time delay after that for data to be refreshed in various algorithms".
Google isn't interested in a micro approach to fixing the web link by link and site by site. Like spam reports, I believe the Link Disavow files go directly to Google's web spam team which is charged with developing scalable solutions. This could explain the "baked into the index" comment. Once all of the disavow data is collected & categorized, it is factored into the next rollout and everyone with a Penguin issue feels the effects at the same time.
This possibility seems to be further supported by Haynes' case studies on Penguin 2.0 recoveries. Since many websites that have been slapped with a manual penalty also have some inherent Penguin issues, they are stuck in neutral until the next refresh, as well.
The Disavow Link Tool used alone isn't an effective means for recovering from a penalty or an algorithmic hit. The best way to approach a link cleanup is to do so as if there were no Disavow Tool. The tool is just one component of a recovery plan and a minor one in the overall scheme of a recovery.