On October 16, 2012 Google introduced a new tool that makes it possible for you to disavow links to your site. As link pruning has become an important part of the recovery from the Penguin algorithm update, many sites that used to charge (or maybe not charge) for adding links, have discovered a profitable business in charging ( $20 – $32 per link in our experience) for removing those low quality, spammy links that are hurting sites. Getting rid of these links is even more time consuming, costly and difficult than building links. Jason White wrote about his experience with analyzing and cleaning up links in his post “Link Building Strategies of Yosemite Sam Meet Google’s Disavow Tool.”
One of our clients, who came to us after they got hit with both Panda and Penguin, was excited to jump in and have us use the Google disavow tool. After some explanation and education, they realized that this tool should not be our first step. It is not a shortcut.
Google has stressed repeatedly (see the video below and on their blog), as have others in the industry, that the disavow tool is powerful and should be used cautiously. Make sure you do everything you possibly can to remove spammy links first. Only after you’ve exhausted those efforts should you turn to Google’s disavow tool.
In other words, it’s best to remove bad links from the web; don’t rely on Google’s tool to discount them. I tend to look at things that are controlled by others very cautiously – that if someone else controls something, you shouldn’t fully depend on them. What if one day Google decides that they will now treat things differently? Google always reserves the rights to treat anything in a way they see fit.
The canonical tag, which can help with duplicate content management, is often used as a band aid for poor information architecture. Similarly, I feel that people need to be careful not to use the disavow tool as a quick fix for not cleaning up their low quality links.
Even if Google discounts your low quality links, the links are still out there. If people, including your prospects, find them they will reflect very poorly on your brand, which could affect their trust in your business. In addition, think about other search engines (present or future) and how your bad links could affect your visibility in them.
Assuming you are in business for the long run, you need to think about the long term implications and the probability that search engines will likely change how they operate. You want to prevent them from taking negative actions in the future because of your questionable link profile. Google is constantly testing and experimenting with the goal of improving searchers’ experiences. They roll out 500 to 600 updates a year in an effort to constantly evolve.
As a result, the only constant in our industry is change so we need to accept, embrace and always be ready for change. As the famous quote, that was never actually written by Charles Darwin but is often attributed to him, says:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
The Penguin algorithm update (which we wrote about and its affect on exact-match domains) and the need for the disavow links tool is an example of how things can change for all of us when Google decides to change the way they treat something. Having lots of links with exact match anchor text was the Holy Grail not that long ago, but Google changed the way they treat them and now site owners need to not only change how they get links, but they also need to invest into cleaning up their link profiles.
Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, prepared the video below, in which he discussed the disavow link tool and repeatedly stressed to be cautious about using the tool.
The first step is to assess your backlinks. Then, move on to clean up spammy back links, blog and comment spam, guest post spam, low quality articles, over-optimized keyword-rich anchor text, site-wide links, etc. Google may have sent you an unnatural links message if they saw an indication of paid links or other link schemes.
The main recommendation is to remove as many low quality links from the web as possible. Write to people asking them to remove those links. Sometimes it’s not possible to get in contact and you cannot remove a certain fraction of those links – that is when you can use the tool. Documentation is key: you need to show Google that you tried to clean up your act. The link pruning you do needs to show how many attempts you made to contact them, that you elevated the method of contact (i.e. email first, phone call) and that ultimately the site was either unresponsive or removed the link.
To use the Disavow Links Tool, decide which links to disavow. Go into Webmaster Tools and now you can download your recent links sorted by the date Google discovered them. Look at the most recent links and pay attention if you received any unnatural links warning. Google is looking at ways to include up to three examples of the sorts of links in the warning message that they think are questionable. Keep in mind these are just examples, and not a comprehensive list.
There are disclaimers when you load the tool. Cutts and Google have been emphasizing that most people do not need to use this tool. If you haven’t done any “outrageous SEO,” acquired paid links, and engaged in other link schemes, you should be OK according to Matt Cutts. However, people who claim they have not engaged in “outrageous SEO” have still been impacted. Sometimes, it’s not the most obvious cause.
Disavowing backlinks is a two-step process:
Once you have your list, you’ve analyzed, and done everything you could to remove them from the web, you now have a list of links you need to disavow… here are a few things to know:
According to Cutts, only a very small number of people are getting the unnatural links warning messages. It is possible to shoot yourself in the foot by using the disavow tool so he encourages everyone to do an audit to get an idea of the spammy links and the links that should count.
Throughout the video, Matt Cutts stresses that people should be approaching the disavow links tool with caution and that you should only turn to this tool after you’ve done all the spammy link cleanup you could do. Good advice.
It can be months. Your list of disavowed links will need to be crawled and indexed and there will be a time delay until the next algorithm update is rolled out.
Let me know if you need help with any of this or, how it goes when you clean up your bad links using these methods!