You Don’t Want a Google Disavow Links Option

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Do you really want a disavow links option? I don’t.

With the recent Penguin update, the SEO community has been talking a lot lately about negative SEO and disavowing links. (For the record, negative SEO doesn’t just refer to links, but for this article, let’s assume it does.)

SEOs afraid of getting penalized for “bad links” have been screaming to Google, asking for a way to disavow links that they claim they didn’t create. They say that it’s the only way to regain ranking drops from Penguin, and that it’s necessary to prevent negative SEO. (Note: Simply disavowing links probably won’t help you recover from Penguin. You’ll most likely have to create lots of new links to make up for the ones that used to count.)

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want a disavow links option at all.

Sure, it seems like the cure-all solution for negative SEO, the only way to truly prevent somebody else from harming your site with links you don’t control is to add a way to remove them. Or is it?

But what else would a disavow links option add?

It Might Make Spamming Easier.

This is the common argument. If I can instantly tell Google about all my bad links, what’s to stop me from going crazy with ScrapeBox, buying XRumer blasts, and setting up intensive link wheel blog networks? If I get caught, I can claim “It wasn’t me,” disavow the links, and start over.

Maybe others will systematically disavow links in an attempt to better understand the algorithm and how it weighs things. I wouldn’t waste my time there, but I guarantee somebody will do it, and then we’ll all overreact to their anecdotal findings like usual.

But is that the only downside?

Could a disavow links option actually make negative SEO easier?

The Penguin update did a good job of finding bad links (or so we think); however, it didn’t find ALL the bad links out there. I won’t divulge any spam techniques here, but there’s still lots of types of automated link building that still work pretty damn well. Trust me on that.

The assumed way this tool would work is that webmasters would log in and tell Google, “Hey, here’s the URLs of pages that are linking to me that I don’t approve of,” and then Google would factor those out of the algorithm for your site.

But would they do anything else with that data?

See, most sites that are considered spammy by Penguin don’t just include links to one site. They include links to lots of sites. What about those other links?

If I were an engineer at Google, I wouldn’t use the disavow links tool to simply take your word for it. I’d want to make Google’s results better, so I’d use those sites you submit to find other shady links and discredit them, too. In fact, it could even be a neural network signal about spammy sites that could feed back into the main algorithm. Chances are good that a disavow feature would be more than a negative SEO failsafe and that it would actually evolve into another way to train the algorithm.

In their hurry to disavow anything remotely questionable, how many SEOs would shoot themselves in the foot by disavowing links that weren’t hurting them? 

My guess? Many will do more harm than good to their sites with such a tool.

But what about all those other links on the pages you disavow?

By disavowing your own links, you’ve also essentially outed countless other webmasters, and isn’t outing frowned upon? If so, then why is everybody demanding Google build what is essentially an automated outing form? I don’t get it.

It doesn’t just stop there though…

Negative SEO could soon involve building links to my own site.

Say what? No, I’m not crazy. Think about it. If Google did, in fact, use the data from the disavow tool, then we could see a radical shift in the idea of negative SEO. Instead of building spammy links to your site, a competitor could theoretically achieve the same result by building links to his own spam site. He’d simply look at your link profile and start building links to his spam site on as many pages that link to you as possible. Then he’d disavow all the links to his spam site, bringing down all your unpenalized links with it. (Note: This could make a great Mechanical Turk or Fiverr job. Another note: That’s just a simple example. This could get way more complicated, too!)

Put simply, I’d much rather prefer there be one Google algorithm trying to find shady links than thousands of SEOs taking it upon themselves. There’s just too many ways we could screw it up.

Is this really what we want? A feature that would lessen the consequences of spamming, provide SEOs an automated way of outing other SEOs, AND introduce a new form of negative SEO that we haven’t even thought of yet?

I don’t want that. I don’t want that at all.

Ryan Jones
By day Ryan Jones works at SapientNitro where he's a manager of search strategy & analytics and works mostly on fortune 500 clients. By night he’s either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world – which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones or visit his personal website:
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  • Dennis Jenders (@djenders)

    If one of the reasons to not have a disavow tool would be “outing” others, then it just confirms what many lay marketers think about the SEO community – that there is too much black hat stuff going on.

    So called SEO experts got themselves into this mess, I think a disavow tool would be great and Google shouldn’t have waited this long!

    • Steve Wiideman

      @Dennis, I’m a fan of options too. However, I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to building my online reputation as a white hat SEO. I’ve written articles featured in prominent magazines and newspapers, and have been asked to contribute to numerous publications where the editor him/herself gave me a link without even having to be asked. It’s been humbling and rewarding all at the same time.

      To have all the links I’ve earned naturally from authoritative marketing destinations and business publications suddenly count for nothing would be like throwing every award on my wall in the trash, including my degree in E-Business Management.

      Why on Earth would I, or any other reputable SEO, do such a thing?

      But I agree that if one wanted to, they should be able to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over. I’ve wanted to do that numerous times for some of the recent clients I’ve been working with who didn’t know any better. The countless hours of clean-up work are a nightmare. 🙂

  • Ryan Jones

    As somebody who’s played on the dark side of SEO (never for clients, or for good websites, or anything shady – hey it’s fun to learn and see what’s out there though right?) I would welcome this tool because I honestly think it would a.) make spamming easier and b.) open more potential abuse.

    Also, I haven’t seen a case of a site clearly harmed by links their competitors placed. (Dan Theis is NOT an example, he himself claimed other factors at play)

    I think we as a community are so over-reacting to what people have claimed about the penguin update that we’re asking for solutions to problems that don’t exist. We should spend that time solving actual problems.

  • jim

    How do I remove backlinks if I have not created them. I can see more 70 links from a site which I never visited, I don’t know know who did it ? I can see many of my post copy/pated on that website.
    I tried to search for contact details of the site owner but that is not available on the site as well as Whois lookup. Don’t know how to contact such site owners and request them to remove backlinks. This is just one example.
    My website is about technical information about wireless networking,
    And my answers are used on many other websites as a referance.

    My articles are copy/pasted on article directories and bow they are listed above my pages.

    My site was hot badly by penguin. I am not a webmater or SEO expert, But after 24th Apr, I started learning about SEO and penguin update.

    I don’t know what to do to recover from penguin update.
    In webmaster tool, it shows 2468 backlinks, 300 backlinks from which is again a question answer site.
    Is there any free tool to know which link is bad and which one is good.

  • Autocrat (Lyndon NA)

    Negative SEO is a real factor – G have known about it for Years.
    Bad Links is one of the methods that may be deployed.

    This means G have several options;
    * They can up the work they have been doing to identify such things, and nullify them on the quiet.
    * They can simply devalue/derank sites they think are intentionally spamming, and devalue/anull the links for those that look innocent.
    * They can Slam everyone who looks dodgey.
    * They can sit back and do nothing.

    At the end of the day – the “get out of jail, free” is a real issue for me.
    I hate the fact that someone can spam it up, rank high, cream the earnings, then get off scott free.

    Yet – the idea that someone who is innocent … either the victim of a nasty campaign, or that has been unlucky to deal with an amature/scammy/scummy SEO … suffer when it isn’t really their fault, disgusts me.

    I don’t think G will give too many “free rides”. You’ll likely find they give you one or two chances, and that’s it.
    Further – they have all that data, and will acquire more. They will then be able to better identify intended and external attempts.

    I couldn’t give a flying frog about “outing” or “brotherhood”.
    The industry has been told for years the right/wrong of it.
    Time to clean up.

    • Ryan Jones

      maybe one or two free rides per site/account – but google emails are free and plentiful, and domains / hosting are cheap. The good spammers won’t use the same google WMT account domain or anything else the 2nd time.

      • Autocrat (Lyndon NA)

        And then you have to respam and reclaim the position.
        All the while G will be compiling data on trusted sites vs untrusted sites,
        refining the link graph signals,
        monitoring the niches hit and retargeting etc. etc. etc.
        Spammers aren’t the only ones playing the attention and speed game.

        And remember the tool is primarly “meant” for legit site owners.
        G may (if they are smart) Only flag the tool for honest looking sites.
        Those with a higher Trust score, those lacking certian flags.
        If the implementation suggestions I’ve put to them are used – Spammers won’t actually get much of a chance 😀

  • Mac

    I notice that Google have not come out with a disavow tool yet, although I can build a form for them in about five minutes. Obviously, they don’t really see the need for it. And there is a good reason why: A spammer link profile is not at all the same as that of a legitimate site that was negative-SEOd. The link dates, the link clusters and the link spread are all different. Google is not hurrying out with a tool because they think the whole thing is a non-issue. They are pretty sure they can lick it themselves and discredit negative SEO without any help. So your points are valid, and maybe people ought not to even be requesting a disavow tool, but until I see Google producing one, I’d assume its not happening so fast…

    • Autocrat (Lyndon NA)


      Multiple Techs/Engineers are backing the tool.
      Many of them see a need and multiple uses for the tool.

      Not only will it permit a tiny fraction of site owners the chance to lift any negatives that aren’t of their own creation,
      it will prove G with a wealth of confirmation signals pointing to specific sites,
      which inturn helps them gather more “this is spam” sample data.

      The hold-up is caused by things like the Risk Assesment, (misuse/self harm, abuse/intentional harm),
      the Resource Consumption (Form? :sigh: the data being dredged out, filtered and displayed is the time consuming part – they are looking at Showing you Bad Links),
      and Process (once they get the reports – they then have to handle them, and have stuff in place to utilise the data).

      So not exactly a “simple form”, nor “5 minutes” work.

      They’ve been looking at this concept for some time … and like all G productions, there is the chance that it may be ditched or shelved at any point …
      … but by the accounts I’ve had, it looks liek it is going to go ahead.

  • Scott McKirahan

    I agree with others, that worrying about “outing” others is ridiculous. They’d step on your throat in a heartbeat if they knew it would get them higher than you in the SERPs. If someone is doing something wrong that puts their websites above yours, you’d be shouting about it from the roofs. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar!

    The idea about “free rides” is a good one. It wouldn’t be applied “per account” or “per e-mail,” though. I’d give one free ride per website and that’s it. It is the website we are worried about here. If it wasn’t, we’d just switch domains and start all over again.

    In the end, I don’t think Google will ever implement this. It opens the door far too wide for black hatters to dissect their algorithm.

    • Mark Hughes

      So you get one free ride and then you get hit. All that does is double the efforts of the spammer, so they have to keep going until you get the second message or ‘red card’. Spamming is cheap. If somebody is going to the effort of doing that in the first place, they are likely to continue until you get the red card. Thus the problem is not solved.

  • Alistair Lattimore


    It has a lot of similarities to what they did with the ‘block results from’ in the search results.

    After rolling out that feature, I recall Google stating that there was a very high overlap of sites that people blocked and what they ended up penalising with Google Panda.

    I can easily see that they could leverage the data to improve their algorithms to find more of the automated link building strategies that make mention of that still work.


  • Michael J. Kovis

    Spot on Ryan. Spot effing on.

    A tool in GWT to “disavow” links would be detrimental. I don’t see the need for this tool outweighing the bad that could come with it. All I see is another way for spammers to exploit. Period. It is foolish to think that the small percentage of people who truly “need” such a tool to regain their visibility in Google makes this a viable solution.

    I’ve been arguing about this tool and the recent comments from Matt Cutts suggesting such a tool in the near future for the past few weeks. Absolutely stupid.

    For those of you who examine your GWT backlink profile like a hawk and get picky about a few domains creating some links to you, out of thousands, you might want to start utilizing your time better. If you are good at what you do in this industry, and pay close attention to your domains keyword rankings, then it is pretty obvious to spot problems, especially when you visualize the data.

    Once again, cheers Ryan. I’m glad you posted this. Been enjoying your tweets the past few weeks as well revolving around this subject. If I ever get the chance to meet up with you, I’m buying drinks.

    • Ryan Jones

      THIS: “For those of you who examine your GWT backlink profile like a hawk and get picky about a few domains creating some links to you, out of thousands, you might want to start utilizing your time better.”

  • Peter Watson

    Im currently suffering a keyword penalty due to a bunch of inorganic links which Google emailed me about and even gave me 6 examples of urls I need my link removed from.

    Problem is, the webmasters are not replying my emails requesting they remove my link, which by the way I did not authorize!

    I welcome this tool! I also believe we will see it in our GWT within the coming 2-3 month, as Matt Cutts indicated.

  • Dustin Heap

    Interesting thoughts. The biggest concerns I see are someone building links on the same page but then disavowing those. But I’d say that if Google can build a tool that does this (or their current algo) then surely they could distinguish how to disavow only certain links on a page. i.e. those links requested by the user vs. all links on that page. 2nd – If G provides such a tool all the better if my competitors spend all their time carefully trying to prune a link or two from their profile while I build quality links and pass them in the SERPs!

  • Mark Hughes

    Interesting article, Ryan, and I can totally understand why Google would not want to bring a disavow tool into WMT. The primary reason being that it would enable SEOs to build questionable links, and then deny that they had any involvement in their creation if / when they get caught out. So what incentive would there be to stop building spam links? None – and so the internet remains full of the noise that Google is trying to eradicate.

    Perhaps one way Google could solve this issue would be to provide a portion of actual backlinks in WMT. This would enable webmasters to monitor their backlink profile for negative SEO on a monthly or even weekly basis. If you spot that you may have been a victim of negative SEO, you should then have the opportunity to flag this up with Google before they send you the dreaded unnatural links message. If webmasters don’t flag this up within a month or two, then they would have no grounds for complaint if a penalty is applied.

    Of course this doesn’t solve the issue of ‘outing’ but I guess that’s a separate issue. I can hear squeaky clean “white hats” (terrible phrase) tutting and saying that perhaps you shouldn’t have built those links in the first place. But the main issue here is preventing negative SEO, whilst also making it difficult for people to take advantage of the system.

    Finally, I don’t quite agree with the section saying “Negative SEO could soon involve building links to my own site”. If webmaster has flagged up a site as ‘potential’ spam, that should not mean that all other links from that site are discounted. If enough webmasters flag a site up, Google should investigate and judge for themselves whether it is in fact a spam site, not simply accept the recommendation of a few potentially clueless webmasters.

    The real issue with all this is that, by giving SEOs the option to do this, Google will make it much easier for us to find out EXACTLY what works. They don’t want to do that. Negative SEO is a problem and Google needs to find a solution. But it’s important to remember that they want to eradicate the noise, and they appear to see negative SEO as a) something that they can control for the most part (there have been few genuine reports of this working) and b) something that is a necessary and temporary sacrifice.

  • Alesia Krush

    The irony of this is that the disavow links tools already exists. In one of the form they’re sending out, Google suggests SEOers to provide a list of links the latter don’t vouch for.

    It is still unclear, thought, how Google is planning to use the data, if at all. I feel that Google is just testing the waters and trying to see how it can take more aggressive action against spammers. And their probing is creating a lot of confusion.

  • Brendan Irwn

    Great Article – problem is, for every potential solution there is a spammer with an answer….

  • Norm

    I’ve always wonder how rampant, or not, negative seo is. Isn’t negative seo costly and time consuming? I mean, if you have a budget, and you have time, why not partake in positive SEO for your own site. Knocking down someone elses doesn’t mean your site is going to improve. And are there any guarantees that negative seo won’t actually have the opposite positive effect for the site you are trying to knock down? Yes, I admit I tend to be a bit niave, but I do still wonder to what extent negative seo is really taking place, versus those who are caught with their hand in the cookie jar and now simply want to claim it wasn’t them.

    In the words of Shaggy:

    But she caught me on the counter (It wasn’t me)
    Saw me kissin’ on the sofa (It wasn’t me)
    I even had her in the shower (It wasn’t me)
    She even caught me on camera (It wasn’t me)

    She saw the marks on my shoulder (It wasn’t me)
    Heard the words that I told her (It wasn’t me)
    Heard the scream get louder (It wasn’t me)
    She stayed until it was over

  • Razvan Gavrilas

    To solve this whole thing google can just say …
    Click this button to Disavow links. (* we do not gurantee that the links you selected will be disavowed becuase we use our own internal algorithms to also clasify them. Thank you reporting the links to us).

    With this route you the webmaster will never know if a link was really diavowed or not and Google will gather a lot of data to traing their algorithms + give more to human reviewers).

    What you say in the post could have been done with nofollow links the same.

    Must my 2 cents.

  • Brad Broekema

    Way to break down both sides of the story! It would be nice to use this to ‘test’ what links help/harm your site but at the same time agree that spammers could use this for evil.

    I agree with you saying Google would probably use this to find bad link neighborhoods and improve their algorithm.

    It seems like with all that data it would help improve the search experience in the long run but it would definitely be abused for the first few months.

  • Jerry Mosher

    The idea of this tool just boggles my mind. It has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve heard come out of the SEO communities mouths.

    If someone attempted to do negative SEO to your site with spammy links how many hours would it take you do go evaluate all your links and decide which ones to disavow. People are building these spammy links with automated software that can trump your entire staffs ability to disavow them.

    The closest you could get to keeping up with the software is to just disavow all links you yourself didn’t create which would defeat the whole purpose.

    Penalizing sites for spammy links can only work if Google is 100% certain that the site owner created those links. And even then it’s just a bad idea.

    They will discount spammy links to pass no value as if they were no followed. If your site is directly involved with the links, as in your site is participating in a splog network and creating spam links on it then you might have something to worry about.

    Such a hot topic for such a dumb idea.

  • Nikola Alexandrov

    This has got to be the most absurd article ever written. There are thousands of cases where I can point out websites that are stuck beneath the Penguin mechanism and can’t get out. These are websites that never did any link building at all, but due to their model of existence , or simply way of working, they have a strong legacy of links which overnight became “bad”.

    Quck example, cms distributing sites. Those sites are free and the only thing that they requested was a link in the footer. Same goes for designers which did CMS links. Web design companies,…as a standard mean for marketing webdesign companies place their brand or a link int he footer of their work. It can be argued whether ethical or not, but everyone knows that’s an industry standard. Does that mean that 90% of the webdesign industry is composed of spammers or schemers? Many of those are good talented people.

    Also additional free services, free hosts, free domain registration service providers etc. There are many people out there that got hit and their only solution is to spam the hell out of their sites with new anchors in an effort to enrich the mix of anchors.

    The author of this article hasn’t got a clue of how Penguin is being combated right now. With radical link building that massively enhances the link profile of sites with generic, anchor and non money keyword anchors. I see normal sites which never did automated link building pay for services that involve blog comment blasting only because they are in a situation where they believe “it can’t get any worst”. And the funny part is on some occasions it works.

    There has to be a way for people to disavow links. It’s the only shot of people to get rid of bad legacy and move on with their sites..without further going into additional schemes.

  • James

    Well, my former seo company promised to be 100% whitehat and built 10,000 spammy links to my established site from 2500 domains. We got a manual unnatural links penalty and google dont care that we didnt build the links, and were misled by the seo firm. We subsequently spent $7000 trying to get the spam removed and got repeatedly knocked back by google. In cases like mine are you really saying a disavow tool isn’t a good idea?? As a business owner I knew nothing about seo and trusted this company to do the right thing. Now why should we have to pay for what seems to be an eternal penalty?

  • Dzianis

    I agree with you. It’s all going the “lord of the flies” way with violence escalating and people reporting each other.

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  • Vikas

    I am quite happy to see this tool I know the spammer may use it in wrong way but in case if site actually suffering from penguin updates for because of bad neighborhood links now they can get help from this tools. Even I like your point now spammers will begin bad links but dear if they are not effective so how they will be supportive for their websites. It will increase the value of natural links and remove value of artificial links. Even there is need to make more improvement in algorithm to valued a links for search engine