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Misconceptions about Google Search Algorithm Updates and the Disavow Links Tool

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.

Category SEO
Pratik Dholakiya Founder at Growfusely

Pratik is the Founder of Growfusely, a content marketing agency specializing in content & data-driven SEO. Pratik has been featured ...

Misconceptions about Google Search Algorithm Updates and the Disavow Links Tool

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