Misconceptions about Google Search Algorithm Updates and the Disavow Links Tool

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In 2012, Google released significant search algorithm updates that have changed SEO practices forever. Many websites have been penalized by different algorithm updates. For some webmasters and website owners, it was hard to know which penalty affected their website.

We have recently been contacted by several prospects who wanted help recovering from Google penalties using the new “disavow links tool,” even though their website was not penalized by any unnatural links penalty.

Some of the clients who contacted us wanted to disavow their links even though they were enjoying top rankings for many of their keywords. The only reason they want to use the disavow links tool is because they have been experiencing fluctuations in some of their desired keyword rankings.

There appears to be a huge misconception circling through the blogosphere that many webmasters and some SEOs are falling victim to. They are failing to understand which penalty has affected their website (if any), and what steps should be taken in order to achieve a successful recovery.

In response, we thought we should put together a post to openly discuss each of the updates and put these misconceptions in the webmaster and SEO communities to rest.

Let’s start with an understanding of each of the algorithm updates:

If your website has been penalized in 2012, then your website was most likely hit by one of the following three types of updates.

Domain Level – EMD is Most Likely

The EMD algo update was announced by Matt Cutts on September 28, 2012. It was designed specifically to target sites with exact match domains (EMDs). In other words, if your site was named after a keyword, instead of a brand, it may have taken a hit. For most sites affected, this wasn’t necessarily a penalty so much as the removal of a special boost you once had because of your site’s name.

However, if your site was over-optimized around that keyword, this update would have hit you much harder and would have felt much more like a penalty.

If your website has been hit hard by EMD, you need to start looking for low-quality, junk, or duplicate content, keyword stuffing, or tons of backlinks containing exact match keywords. You need to get all these issues solved to recover.

Remember: EMD has no relation with Panda/Penguin. Here is the proof:

However, if your entire domain was hit, it is also possible that this was the result of a link penalty, which we will discuss under the “Penguin” section.

Content Level – Panda

If your website is penalized under one of the Panda updates then the primary issue you should be focusing on is on-site content. Panda affects sites that pass a threshold for low-quality or duplicate content on their site. If you are hit by Panda, you need to remove or replace any content that is redundant, badly written, or that doesn’t do a good job of solving problems for visitors.

Panda does not attack sites directly because of links. If your own site has only high-quality content and it is affected by a Panda update, this is because a large percentage of your links came from sites with low-quality content. In other words, the sites that linked to you were hit by Panda, which made those links less valuable. 

Links level – Google Penguin and Related Updates

Penguin was formerly known as the webspam algorithm update. Google itself clarified that Google is targeting the websites that are spamming the Web and it is more or less throwing them out of the search.

There are some cases were you can be impacted by these updates without being completely removed from the search results. This generally happens if you are linked to by spammers, but not considered a spammer yourself.

How to check whether you’ve got a penguin/unnatural links penalty?

1. Unnatural Links

Google sent out over 1 million notifications to webmasters saying that they had unnatural links on their website. So, if you have received this notification in Google Webmaster Tools, there is a very good chance you were hit by the unnatural links penalty.

2. Google Penguin

This was almost certainly the cause if you noticed a dramatic drop in traffic on or near one of these dates:

  • April 24, 2012
  • May 25, 2012
  • October 5, 2012

In this case, your site lost rankings because of suspicious links that either came from untrustworthy sites, the ratio of over-optimized anchor text was too high, it looks like you have been buying links, or something else was excessively artificial about your link profile. If your site is penalized because of links but you don’t receive any notification from Google, this is because an algorithm update like Penguin.

3. Updated Unnatural Links (Specific Unnatural Links Devaluation)

Google sent out a second round of notifications notifying webmasters that they had unnatural links. This time around, they specified that the update would target specific pages or keywords that you built unnatural links for. This time around, Google would merely remove or devalue the unnatural links, essentially treating them like “no-follow” links that offer zero search engine benefit. As before, the update was meant to remove links that violated Google’s quality guidelines.

Sometimes, it may happen that Google does not send any type of notification even though your site clearly appears to be penalized. Provided this isn’t the result of low-quality, on-site content or an exact match domain, it is usually because some of your links have been deemed unnatural and have been devalued by Google. This results in a negative impact on your rankings. Again, if you received no notification from Google, this is the result of an algorithm update like Penguin; it is not a direct penalty.

Misconceptions About the Disavow Links Tool

We all are aware of the new Disavow Links Tool from Google, which allow webmasters to disavow unnatural or unwanted links that they are unable to remove or control.

There was a lot of discussion in the community about whether you should use Google’s Disavow Links tool, as well as sources saying that this is the best spam reporting tool ever launched by Google. You need to know everything about Google’s new Disavow Links Tool before using it.

Should you use the Disavow Links Tool if your website was penalized for Unnatural Links?

Yes, with a caveat. Originally, the Disavow Links Tool was introduced for webmasters who were unable to control or remove unwanted links pointing at their website.

Condition: You should only use the Disavow Links Tool if you have already tried everything else to remove the links. It should be clear that you have spent enough time and have done hard work to get as many links removed as possible. After all of this, if certain links are not controllable in any way, then you should go ahead and use the tool.

Should you use Disavow Links Tool if your website penalized under Penguin?

No. I repeat: NO.

In Google’s words own words, “If you’ve been notified of a manual spam action based on ‘unnatural links’ pointing to your site, this tool can help you address the issue. If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool, generally, isn’t something you need to worry about.

(Please read the above words carefully.)

If you never received a notification from Google, you were hit by Penguin or a similar algorithm update. If this occurs, you need to focus on getting quality links, reducing over-optimized anchor text (either on-site or off-site), and reduce the ratio of other artificial elements in your link profile.

Should you use the Disavow Links Tool if your website was penalized under the updated unnatural links notice (the specific unnatural links devaluation)?


If your website is pushed down in Google’s rankings for particular keywords, then there is a possibility your website is not penalized. Instead, specific links built on those keywords have been devalued by Google. You just need to start building quality links to see your rankings back.

Now, under the updated unnatural links notice (the specific unnatural links devaluation), many webmaster thought that they had been penalized by Penguin, Unnatural Links, or Panda even though their website is enjoying top positions in Google for many keywords, while they no longer rank for specific keywords.

We have recognized a lot of webmasters started using the Google Disavow links tool if their website is only pushed down for specific keywords.

It doesn’t make sense to remove or disavow links which have been already been devalued by Google.

Again, the Disavow Links Tool is designed for advanced webmasters only, so if you are not  aware how and when you use it, then you should not think about using Disavow links tool and instead you should try these alternatives.

Think smart, analyze, and, if needed, hire an expert to help you understand what’s wrong and then take action.

Bonus Tip:

Question: I have done all the link removals to recover from Penguin or an Unnatural links penalty, and I have updated my website content to make sure I am safe from Panda. My site still hasn’t recovered. What should I do?

While it is possible for bad links to hurt your rankings, what most people don’t realize is that, if their site was affected, it is usually because their links were merely devalued. Manual penalties and algorithm updates are designed to hurt sites that sell links or spam the web in other ways. This has an indirect affect on sites that received links from these sites. Since those links are no longer valuable, your rankings suffer. It is rarely because such links actually hurt your rankings.

Rather than focusing on removing low-quality links which have little affect on your rankings, you should focus on building quality and relevant backlinks, keeping the quality of your on-site content high, and thinking long term.

Remember, it’s not just about ranking today, it’s about pushing the envelope and ensuring success in the long run. It’s harder to get high-quality links, but they are far more valuable than thousands of easily identified spam links.

Have you run into other misconceptions about the updates, penalties, and the Disavow Links Tool? Please pass this along if you liked it.

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder of E2M, a digital marketing agency and Preceptist.com, an executive branding & content marketing agency. Pratik has been featured on... Read Full Bio
Pratik Dholakiya
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  • Gary Taylor

    Ok, so here’s one for you

    Just taken on a client from another agency who had built 63 directory links all with the same anchor text to the home page. The client actually has a page dedicated to the type of product that the anchor text relates to (for example purposes lets call this “blue widgets”

    They also have a duplicate content issue using SiteCore CMS and as a result their Blue Widgets page is not ranking at all for the term “blue widgets” and the home page is. Albeit way down on page 7…

    They have not had an unnatural links email so I believe they should disavow all 63 links to the home page and just start again with quality links to the Blue Widgets page whilst at the same time rectifying the duplicate content issue. The site it DA 70 on SEOMoz so should rank very well.

    Would love to hear people’s comments on this.


    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hi Gary,

      Here’s my take.

      1. First you shall get the content revised for the “blue widgets” page and get the new content indexed in Google as soon as you can.

      2. Rather than disavowing those 63 directory links I would suggest to find a way to get them removed manually. As long as you’re getting success with some of them, that’s great.

      3. Because you don’t want the home page to be ranked again and your focus is “blue widgets” product page, you can focus on building links to the build widgets page once the content is revised (as you stated above)

      4. No matter how many directory links you’re able to get removed/edited manually, I don’t recommend to use disavow tool for the home page specifically. (Why?) – Because your new target is “Blue widgets” page and not the home page right? So it’d be better to start focusing on your new target page. What you can do for the home page is, create some potential/quality backlinks on the Brand Name (instead of any keyword) and balance/improve quality of your link profile.

      How this will benefit?

      1. By building links on Brand Name, you’ll add a word anchor in your anchor text profile and that is needed nowadays.

      2. By updating new content in that “blue widgets” product page, you’ll get fresh and unique content benefit.

      3. And once you’ll start building links for “blue widgets” term, you’d hopefully be able to start seeing your new target page ranking somewhere.

      At the end, as we all know that Google is not giving priority to directories and bookmarking links, (in fact, they’re devaluing) you should instead focus on creating high quality links for your home page as well as for the new target page. This would help more.

      I hope my two cents would help a bit. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      • Sahil

        That’s really a great piece of advice Pratik. As you pointed out, Google is these days mainly looking for links to a site with brand name and its name as an anchor text as they look more natural and are organically linked. I really can’t understand why people still haven’t come out of getting article submission links, directory links, blog commenting links, link wheels ,link exchanges and links in many odd and unnatural ways (grey and black hat). Stop this and start providing quality content to the users and do an intense promotion on social media and other places to get users to engage and interact with the content.

  • Andy Morley

    Hi Pratik

    Thanks for this post, it’s has helped clarify how to deal with the algo penalties, where I should start looking…

    I have a new client who I picked up from another agency (a really well known one here in the UK, who shall remain unnamed), the site owner has complained about being panda slapped, and sure enough after I put the algo update “dates” into Google Analytics annotations it was clear which update caused the drops in traffic.

    Panda seems to be the beast! The website content is pretty low quality, very few words per page, and being eCommerce there is also a lot of duplicate content. This website is in the process of being redesigned at the moment, so I will make sure I work with the designers on developing better content.

    Hopefully then we might see some improvements….

    Thanks for clearing up the misconception with the disavow tool… Much appreciated.



    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hey Andy,

      Glad to hear I could help.

      If you think your client has been penalized under Panda update then you’re on the right path. As mentioned in the article, it’s all about low quality/duplicate/junk content. You need to take care of everything in line with the same.

      Feel free to hit me up in case if you need help anytime. I’d love to jump in and help you out.

      Sincerely, Pratik

      • Andy Morley

        That’s awesome Pratik thanks for the offer, I can always use help / guidance from more Experienced heads.

        I do think Panda is to blame, I am going to give the design team a call in the morning to discuss a full review of the content.

        Some of the product descriptions on the site literally have a short sentence to describe a product… Shocking for many reasons! But I assume such low quality content is going to feel the Panda Pain!

        It is often thought that you need a pretty substantial amount of copy (200 words at least) for the page content / topic to be picked up by search engines, however if this content is full of repetitive words and “junk” it could be as bad as having very little copy!

        Panda has shown that writing copy which is high quality and engaging is the way forward, in that respect Panda concentraits more towards “on-site” SEO factors, and reviewing these has got to help.

        Thanks for your reply, prepare to be followed on Twitter!


  • Ina

    Great article!! Very well explained and useful information. I have 2 questions for you: 1) If the spammy links have been devaluated by Google, would they still appear in the Google Webmasters under links pointing to your website? 2) I know exactly why my rankings dropped – a lot of footer links pointing to my blog from sponsoring WP templates – should I use the Disavow Tool to notify Google to remove these links?

    Thanks very much for the great information on these topics.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hi Ina, thanks for the comment and glad to hear you enjoyed this piece.

      For Q1 – Most probably not. Google will remove those links from their database.

      For Q2 – I would suggest to get rid of as many links manually as possible rather submitting in Disavow tool. + If you have received any “unnatural links” notification from Google then you can probably think of using the tool after all the hard work of removing those links manually. Because you need to show Google that you’ve tried enough to remove those links yourself and the remaining are the ones that aren’t controllable at your end.

      I hope this helps.

  • Kevin

    “Should you use Disavow Links Tool if your website penalized under Penguin?”
    No. I repeat: NO.”

    The statement you quote from Google doesn’t actually say it can’t be used if hit by Penguin. In fact, in the very same article you quoted from, Google says that it CAN be used to disavow bad links that may have caused a Penguin issue.

    You should probably correct this article, because it gives BAD ADVICE. I repeat: BAD ADVICE.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment. To make it clear that this is the personal opinion as well as the advice to the readers to avoid using Disavow tool as much as possible unless you’re clear with what penalty has caused you. I read that disavow post multiple times before drafting this piece and I felt that using the tool there’s a risk if done wrongly. Hence there’s a “No”.

      If you’ll check the posts written so far about the Disavow tool, then you’ll find that majority of experts denies using it unless you know what you’re doing.

      It is not at all easy to recognize the penguin penalty even though you’ve monitored all the updates. Google states in the same post that “If your site was affected by the Penguin algorithm update and you believe it might be because you built spammy or low-quality links to your site, you may want to look at your site’s backlinks and disavow links that are the result of link schemes that violate Google’s guidelines.” (You probably need to read their words carefully as they are ONLY recommending)

      The main thing here is, if you’ll submit tons of links in the disavow tool then you’re reporting all your SPAM links to Google either created intentionally or unintentionally, so again there’s a risk.

      I hope this makes you clear with my recommendations above. (I don’t think helping someone to protect their business online can be called as BAD ADVICE)


      • Jon

        “If your site was affected by the Penguin algorithm update and you believe it might be because you built spammy or low-quality links to your site, you may want to look at your site’s backlinks and disavow links that are the result of link schemes that violate Google’s guidelines.”

        So which is it? Hit by Penguin then do or don’t disavow in general?

  • Sammy

    Thank you! A very informative blog

  • Gaurav Soni

    Very Useful article!! Very well described and useful details. It clears some of my doubts

    Thanks for the great information on these topics 🙂

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You’re welcome Gaurav, glad to hear this post helped you clearing your doubts.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Dexter

    Thanks for this thorough explanation about these google algorithms and thanks for giving some tips as well. I hope to be able to implement this very soon.

    I have read somewhere that Panda is on its 20th version, is that true?

    There is this program called Panda Breakthrough and so far I am having good results following what the presenter have to say. I’ve been following the tips on thee course and one of my websites that was hit by Panda and maybe Penguin that was on page 7 last month, bounced back and is now on page one.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hi Dexter, thanks for your comment.

      Panda is on it’s 23rd version. You can take a look this infographic for further help. – http://www.e2msolutions.com/blog/google-search-algorithm-updates-in-2012-infographic/

  • Sheldon Lobo SEO

    Exactly the need of disavow tool doesn’t mean increasing the site rankings.Its only for those people who really got penalized.

  • josh bachynski

    Sorry but John Mueller (Google webmaster help admin) has specifically stated that the disavow tool WILL help with penguin.

    My research into recovering from SEO penalties (Panda, Penguin, Manual Action, EMD Update, and more) shows that you are mostly correct – most people DO not need to use the disavow tool – make sure you have bad links first before using it or you are just negative SEOing yourself. Get a good SEO who knows how to identify these bad links.


    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Hi Josh,

      You’re right about John Mueller’s words but please read my feedback above to “Kevin”.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Appreciate your comment.

  • Toni

    Hello, great article, accept my congratulations. Many detailed and understandable information presented. This article can help many people who are trying to find an answer to the question: What happened to my site? Why vanished from results of Google?

    I have a question. Recently noticed in GMT many links from a site to my blog. I do not know where it came from. Apparently, this site creates a very non-existent pages and somehow my blog has gone there. Was 6000 the link to my blog. I was worried. Apparently it was some kind of spam and worried not punish me Google. For several days in GW links missing from Google removed them alone.
    Should I use Disavow Links Tall and removed all links from this site?

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      First I would recommend to contact the blog owner which is sending bad links to your website and try to get your blog/website removed from there. If there’s no feedback then you can disavow those links through the tool. But make sure to mention in the comment (when you submit file in disavow tool) that you tried to get removed those links even though they haven’t been created by you but it looks like these are uncontrollable. This way you’re clarifying that you haven’t created those links but gave your best try to get them removed.

  • JMaz

    Great article. It is not BAD ADVICE… Anyone who thinks what they read on Google Webmaster Tools are correct 100% time, probably have not been around long enough.

    I have just went to your website contact us to ask for a specific issue.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks for appreciating mate and clarifying that this is not the BAD ADVICE 🙂 – Appreciate it.

  • eashan

    Pratik Sir ,
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the recent google algorithms and updates…
    I am new to Seo .I was working on a optimization of a website for the past 6 months .The website was ranking on the first page of google for all the keywords.Suddenly I have noticed that all the ranking keywords have disappeared from google serp and the google webmaster tool is showing decreased page impressions.

    Sir , Kindly help me out with this problem.What needs to be done to rectify the errors and rank my website again .Your help would be highly appreciated .


  • James

    Good evening, I have just found your site and must say it is very informative.
    Now here is my question , our website was ranking extremely well, fist couple of pages for around 200 keywords , all content that we had spent a great deal of time in house crating . Within the space of 3 days a 2 websites that we hadn’t signed up to be on had sent our home page 20000 plus links ( this appeared in the webmaster) and the site had a massive drop, all keywords disapeared, we had these links removed but still nothing in the SERPS , we never had a email from goole about unnatual links and I am a little worried about what is happening here and would welcome any advice.

  • Veom Infotech

    I haven’t got any message from Google regarding my website, does it mean? I am safe.

    By the way Google Disavow tool really helped us. People did not know about EMD earlier, they use keyword as their domain name. Basically Affiliate marketer use this clever strategy. But now they are not on top.

    We should only ethical ways to promote our website on the Internet, 🙂 Cool Article

    Thanks @Pratik

  • erick

    Woah, dont use disavow unless manual penalty? That is horrible advice! If you don’t know what you’re doing then yea don’t mess with it, but if your a season expert and you have a client with a terrible back link profile its your responsibility to future proof them from getting penalized. There are such things as an algorithmic penalty you know, and I’ve seen first hand evidence that the disavow can help you get out.

    This kind of stuff makes me not want to read SEJ.