Google’s Disavow Links Tool: First Impressions

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Google’s new, much-anticipated, and long-awaited disavow links tool for webmasters has drawn a thoroughly mixed response. Matt Cutts announced the tool at the PubCon, which was followed by a detailed listing of what the tool is, how it works, and when you should use it. Essentially, it’s a tool designed in the wake of Penguin that’s intended to help webmasters indicate to Google which inbound links are unwanted.

Shortly after Google Penguin was released in April 2012, SEOs realized that the primary mechanism by which Penguin worked was by analyzing and penalizing inbound link profiles. This realization spawned a whole new subsegment of the SEO industry: link removal campaigns.

For months, link removal became the new link building. SEOs and webmasters spent countless hours manually and tediously combing through their backlink profiles and contacting webmasters, asking as politely (or as threateningly) as possible to remove links.

In many cases, this was a futile effort. I headed up a link removal service and recorded success rates, on average, of between 10 and 35 percent for each of my clients. I explained to them that this was better than nothing, and that some effort to remove links was necessary to get back on the good side of Google and Penguin.

But I believe that the days of link removal campaigns have come to end with the rollout of Google’s disavow links tool. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Google’s Disavow Links tool begins with a large warning. This is important because similar warnings are issued everywhere; Matt Cutts is very specific about webmasters not using the tool if they don’t understand how or why it works. Cutts tagged the official post under “Webmaster Level: Advanced” despite the simplicity of its usage.

Personally, I feel that this is an indication of how powerful the tool has the potential to be. It’s often difficult to fully understand how far-reaching the consequences of algorithm updates can be, but when you see so many consistent warnings, it’s probably smart to heed them.

Google states:

A typical use case for this tool is if you’ve done link building that violates our quality guidelines. Google has sent you a warning about unnatural links, and despite your best efforts, there are some links that you still can’t get taken down.

Basically, Google is finally throwing webmasters and SEOs the tool they’ve been waiting for to assist with the link cleanup effort.

Using the Disavow Links Tool

Even though only advanced webmasters are advised to use the link disavow tool, its usage is simple. Start by logging in to your Webmaster Tools account, then choose the website you want to use the tool for.

After clicking on ‘Disavow Links’, you will be prompted to upload a text file. The content of the text file tells Google which domains/websites or URLs to ignore when analyzing inbound links to your website.

The official post also explains how to indicate the URLs.

You can either disavow links completely from a particular website (domain:spamdomain1.com) or simply indicate the pages you want Google to discount (http://spamdomain2.com/contentA.html). Any statement followed by a # is treated as a comment and Google will ignore it.

Once uploaded, Google states that it could take several weeks to recognize and apply the changes. For webmasters who are waiting to remove bad links and send a reconsideration request, this is Google’s recommendation:

If you have a manual link penalty and submit a disavow file, wait 2-3 days before sending in your reconsideration request.

A Dubious Enterprise?

Some questions regarding the tool:

1. This is what the Penguin was built for. Why is Google making webmasters do it manually?

Many people aren’t exactly happy with the new tool. Some webmasters complain that the responsibility of discovering bad websites is Google’s. According to Cutts, the tool is specifically designed only for those cases where you are absolutely sure that the website linking back to you is undesirable.

The official blog post about the tool informs:

Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive—Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example—but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.

Google typically takes your suggestion, but reserves the right to act upon it.

2. What happens if I accidentally add a domain in the file? How to remove it?

This issue is addressed clearly, but it’s not something SEOs will be happy about. If you ‘accidentally’ add a domain which you did not intend to be on the disavow list, you will have to remove the domain from the file and re-upload it. Again, it will take several weeks for Google to recrawl and reindex.

3. If I disavow links from a website, would that indicate to Google that the disavowed domains are spammy?

In the next few days, the debate on this topic is going to mushroom. Neither Cutts nor the blog post doesn’t go into detail on this part, but it’s reasonable to expect that Google will be monitoring its data, and if many people people indicate one particular domain in their link disavow file, Google might just begin to notice the pattern.

Again, it’s debatable.

4. What happens if someone adds my website to their link disavow file? Will Google think my site is bad?

Matt’s answer to this question isn’t really satisfactory. In my opinion, if someone adds your website to their disavow link file, that doesn’t mean your website will automatically be flagged. Your website is always judged as a whole, considering more than 200 pieces to the algorithmic puzzle.

This is not guaranteed, but it’s unlikely that a few disavowals of your website will damage your website’s ranking. However, a large number of disavowals could potentially flag your domain for manual quality inspection. If it fails manual quality inspection, you could drop in the rankings and receive a manual penalty.

You can get more of your questions answered here.

Less Work for Google?

A look at some of the harsher comments from concerned and affected webmasters and SEOs shows a lot of allegations. Some have the opinion that Google released this tool to let webmasters help them find bad, spammy, or toxic websites.

In my opinion, this reduces Google’s workload in some areas, but increases it in others. For example, when domains pile up on the disavow lists, I imagine Google is going to need to assign manual quality raters to review each domain. If it doesn’t, then it’d be too easy to tank competitors out of the rankings by submitting thousands of fake disavow link lists containing competitors’ domains. If this becomes possible, then SEO will turn into even more of a mercenary game, and negative SEO will reach a new level.

Reactions Across the Web

The reactions across the SEO world have been mixed.

Many people are happy about Google introducing the tool because they’ll finally be able to remove associations with the websites from which they haven’t been able to remove backlinks.

On the other hand, a large number of people are unhappy. Some allegations have gone as far as saying Google is trying to save money by making webmasters do Penguin’s work.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m excited about the link disavow tool and think it was an important and logical step for Google. What do you think about it? Leave a comment and let us know!

Resources & Further Reading

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Jayson DeMers
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or... Read Full Bio
Jayson DeMers
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