In a Webmaster Hangout from January 2019, Marie Haynes asked Google’s John Mueller about the disavow tool. Many articles were written about the different things John Mueller said. But no article, as far as I know, was written from the point of view of everything that was said. Showing the full transcript helps put what was said in it’s proper context.
What John Mueller Really Said about Disavow Tool
Here is the entire discussion, all of it, so you can reach your own conclusion.
Marie Haynes asks that if Google is ignoring low quality links, should business owner’s continue disavowing? Specifically, Marie seems to be asking about links that are in the gray area, where it’s hard to know whether Google is ignoring them. It’s a fantastic question.
Marie Hayne’s question (video here):
“So I have a question about the disavow tool. So we get people all the time who want us to do link audits. And ever since Penguin 4.0, so September of 2016, where Gary Illyes said, and I think you said as well, like Google’s pretty good at ignoring unnatural links.
So my thought at that time was, well we shouldn’t have to use the disavow tool to ask Google to ignore links that they’re already ignoring, unless you had a manual action for unnatural links.
So we’ve been only recommending it for sites that have been actively, you know, building links, trying to manipulate things, things that are unnatural links.
But I think there’s so much confusion amongst webmasters because I see people all the time you know, charging tons of money to audit, uhm, to disavow links that are just, I know they’re being ignored.
So I would love if we could have just a little bit more clarification.
So maybe if I can give you an example. Like if there was a business owner who a few years ago hired an SEO company and that SEO company did a bunch of guest posting just for links. And, you know stuff was kind of medium quality, if you know what I mean, not ultra spammy.
Can we be confident that Google is ignoring those links? Or should we be going in and disavowing?”
John Mueller’s response appears to link two kinds of backlink scenarios as needing a disavow.
- When there’s a manual action
- Where you know what kinds of links will trigger a manual action.
Disavow What Spam Team Would Disavow
This is how John Mueller answered Marie Haynes’ question (watch video here):
“I think that was a good question. So from my point of view, what I would look at there is, on the one hand, definitely the cases where there is a manual action.
But also the cases where you (who have also seen) a lot of manual actions would say, well, if the web spam team looked at this now, they would give you a manual action.”
That’s two scenarios where John recommends using a disavow. Of interest is the second scenario where a site hasn’t received a manual penalty but you know the links wouldn’t pass a hand check by the spam team. John recommends proactively disavowing those links that you know would not pass a hand check.
But that’s not really addressing what Marie Haynes asked about, which is what she referred to as “medium quality” links that aren’t “ultra spammy.”
John Mueller goes on to address a different scenario, this time, apparently, about links created with link building tactics from the past.
“Kind of the cases where you’d say, well, the manual action is more a matter of time and not kind of like it’s based on something that was done, I don’t know, where it’s clearly done a couple of years ago and it was kind of borderline not awesome.
That’s the kind of stuff I’d say is no problem, that we would deal with more anyway.”
Marie Haynes responded:
That’s a reaction to John Mueller’s assertion that certain unnamed link tactics from the past are being ignored by Google. He says it’s not a problem, to not worry about those.
What kinds of links is he talking about that are “borderline not awesome?” He doesn’t say.
If I were to speculate, I’d say it could be links from link tactics from the past, like links from irrelevant sites that may have been part of a reciprocal link scheme that was discontinued years ago. At one time paid directories were considered white hat and it was a common practice to submit to them. It could be links from essentially defunct paid directories that are still out there.
Disavow it if Spam Team Would Disapprove
John Mueller continued his answer, this time circling back to looking at the links from the point of Google’s spam team.
“But the kind of stuff where you look at it and say, if someone from the web spam team kind of got this as a tip, they would take a manual action, and that’s definitely the kind of thing where I would clean that up and do like a disavow for that.”
What Old Link Tactics Does Google Ignore?
Marie Haynes circles back to the concept of old link tactics that Google already ignores.
“So something that was done a few years ago, you would probably… I know, I know you can’t talk like specifics there…”
John Mueller declines to give a timeline but elaborates on the kinds of links he’s referring to that would be ignored:
“Yeah, I think it’s hard to say if there is like a specific timeline. But in general, if the web spam team looked at this and said, like, things have moved on… this was clearly done a couple years ago, it was not totally malicious; then they probably wouldn’t take manual action for that.”
John Mueller introduces the metric of “not malicious” as a clue to describe the kinds of links he’s thinking of.
Disavowing Helps Google Trust Your Backlinks?
The following question is where the idea of helping Google algorithmically trust your backlinks came from. This is the entire discussion in it’s full context (watch video here).
Marie Haynes asks:
“And I’m assuming you probably can’t answer this, but, is there any way that like let’s go and say we didn’t get a manual action, or they didn’t get a manual action. Can those links hurt them algorithmically?
Because we feel like we’re seeing some improvements in some sites, you know, after disavowing. So, again, I know it’s always… it’s never black and white.”
This is the part that is often quoted to show that Google will trust your backlinks more if you disavow bad links:
“That can definitely be the case. So, it’s something where our algorithms, when we look at it, and they see, oh, they’re a bunch of really bad links here, then maybe they’ll be a bit more cautious with regards to the links in general for the website.
So if you clean that up, then the algorithms look at it and say, oh, there’s kind of, it’s ok. It’s not bad.”
So yes, Marie Haynes is right that disavowing obviously bad links is a good idea, John Mueller confirms it.
The exchange continues (watch video here):
“It’s still good to disavow to prevent a manual action, correct?”
John Mueller responds:
“I think if you’re in a case where it’s really clear that the web spam team would give you a manual action based on the current situation, then that’s what I would disavow.”
Audience member repeats what Mueller said:
“So it’s good to think like at Google’s, like someone in the Google spam team, just think like, you know, they look at this, what would they do if they do… ok.”
John Mueller affirms what was said:
As you can see, the context about helping Google trust your backlink profile is with disavowing obviously bad links that Google’s spam team would issue a manual action over.
In my opinion, Google’s spam team would probably not issue a manual action over scraper links. Scrapers are sites that are created from small snippets of content “scraped” from other sites.
However John Mueller appears to be talking about things like excessive keyword rich anchor text in articles paid for the site owner, as opposed to the random links created by content scrapers.
What About Gray Area Links?
Marie Haynes brings up the idea of business owners who may not know what the spam team would think. That’s a fair question to ask and it’s good that Marie Haynes followed up with that.
Marie Haynes asks the question (watch video here)
“The problem is, though, that most people don’t know. I mean the average business owner…”
“…which links the web spam team would… I mean there are guidelines but it’s very, you know hard to interpret those.
So I think, I mean, I have a couple of concerns. But my main concern is there’s people spending tons of money on link audits that I think are not worth it.
On the other hand, we may be not doing link audits and disavowing for some sites that could benefit from it.
So I’d love to, you know, I think what you’ve said has helped a lot so that we’ll… you know, that’s good.”
John Mueller’s answer:
“Yeah, I think for the vast majority of sites that kind of have that normal mix of things where it’s like you followed some bad advice in the past, and it’s like you moved on and things are pretty natural now, then they really don’t have to do that.”
John Mueller Says Google Discourages Disavowing
John Mueller went on to explain that disavowing links is not something he or Google encourages. He explains that Google purposefully and consciously hides the disavow tool in Google Search Console in order to discourage its use.
Something that has become lost in time is that Google did not invent the tool on its own. The disavow tool was suggested by the SEO community after the release of Penguin. Google declined to release such a tool. It was only after the SEO community kept asking for the tool that Google reluctantly created a way to disavow bad links to help sites penalized by Penguin.
Viewed with this historical perspective, it makes sense that Google continues to discourage the use of the tool, especially now that Google devalues links rather than demotes pages. Google has been consistent about discouraging the use of the tool since the day it was announced.
John Mueller ended with the following:
“That’s kind of the goal with all of this. And that’s why the disavow tool isn’t like a main feature in Search Console, you kind of have to look for it explicitly. That’s all done on purpose because for most sites, you really don’t need to focus on links that much.”
John Mueller outlined what he liked about the disavow tool:
“What I do kind of like about the disavow tool though, is that if you’re worried about this, you can still go there and go like Ok, I know here is like these handful of things
that we did a couple of years ago, and I’m really worried about that. Then disavowing them, from my point of view, is not a problem.
I wouldn’t go out and specifically search for all of those bad links if you had nothing to do with their creation. But, if you know about it, and you’re really worried about it, then you can kind of take care of it.”
If the client is responsible for the links or you’re unsure, then the disavow tool can help identify if the links were not the problem. If nothing changes after a few months then you know for sure that it’s not the reason why a site has lost rankings. But you lost a few months in the process.
If disavowing links does not solve the problem then the real problem to explain the drop in rankings is likely elsewhere. And it usually is elsewhere if the client has no responsibility at all for the links.
- Too Many Links: Strategies for Disavow & Cleanup
- Should You Disavow a Link That Sends Lots of Traffic?
- Google: Focus on Search Console Data When Disavowing Bad Links
- Google’s John Mueller on How to Use Disavow Tool – Two More Times
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