Yesterday, Google announced the introduction of its disavow links tool, which will allow sites to dissasociate themselves from questionable links. 

I’ve been asking some SEO experts about the thinking behing the new tool, the threat sites face from ‘unnatural links’ and how useful it is likely to be…

According to Google: 

Today we’re introducing a tool that enables you to disavow links to your site. 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.

Why has Google felt the need to introduce this tool? 

Nichola Stott, Founder of the media flow:

Large swathes of the web have bought large quantities of poor quality links, from unsuitable, irrelevant or machine-spun word rags. First, manual identification and notice of detection was sent to webmasters via Webmaster Tools, then Penguin was introduced to identify these meaningless links and “reward” accordingly.

To get back to business a webmaster would need to remove the suspect links, which is extremely difficult to do given that the link sellers may act via brokers; may have long gone, may have allowed the sites to decay, may not give a stuff.

Additionally, perhaps the links were not knowingly purchased by the webmaster or someone acting on their behalf (e.g. a competitor deliberately trying to sabotage.) “Unnatural links” were therefore a death sentence, which may not have been entirely deserved.

Introducing the Disavow Tool, is like a clean slate for those who were misguided, targeted by competitors or want a fresh break.

Rishi Lakhani, Search Strategist:

This tool could have been launched as a “fix” to all the attention negative SEO has gained since the Penguin update.

On the other hand it could be another tool in Google war chest against links – first they crawled a set of known link networks and killed them, then they randomly killed a lot of sites rankings causing widespread panic among site owners who tripped over themselves handing in re-inclusion requests outing a number of their networks. This obviously gave more data to Google.  

Now the Disavow tool would be another way for site owners to say ” These links are bad”. They get fed in and Google has more data to burn more sites. 

Either way, it is too soon to judge what the value of the tool would be till we start seeing some recovery from Penguin sites with the help of it. 

Mark Edmondson, Senior Analytics/SEO Consultant at Netbooster:

I’m surprised Google responded to the SEO community requests for this tool, but in my opinion the principal reason has been in response to “negative SEO” industry that has sprung up after Google become more transparent in what links it was ignoring to your website.   

This tool will also provide an excellent way for Google to crowdsource help from web masters to identify paid links, since the web masters will be tagging websites that may be shared by websites still benefiting from them, escaping Google’s spam detection algorithms.  If they have missed any paid or spammy links, this tool will help catch any websites that have slipped through the net. After all, if Google was 100% confident in its spam link detection, they wouldn’t need this tool at all. 

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at LBi:

Google has been making efforts to be more transparent with site owners and this is a good initiative which should be supported.

One key new feature of this transparency push has been to email sites when Google is worried about the quality of inbound links and when action against the site, a drop in rankings, is likely. Site owners and brands quickly discovered that they were not always in a position to do anything about these low quality links. 

In a reversal of link building, some SEO agencies and in-house teams have had to engage in link unbuilding – emailing bloggers, forum owners and other third party webmasters to ask them to remove links.

These email approaches are not always successful; it is not always possible to work out who owns a site, some sites and email addresses are abandoned and in some instances brands were facing charges from third party site owners in order to remove links. 

Do you welcome it? Is it something you are likely to need?

Nichola Stott:

Yes, we absolutely welcome it.We specialise in creative content and PR-led linkbuilding strategies so we have had new clients come to us, looking for help cleaning up their backlink profile and for direction and strategy for a creative earned-link strategy.

Rishi Lakhani:

I do. Any tool is useful, especially if Google’s intent is genuine. I have had two sites tank because a competitor threw network links at them. A reinclusion request didn’t do the trick, nor did contacting the network. I am hoping that this tool *may* help. But I doubt it. 

Mark Edmondson:

I welcome it personally, since never before has there been a way to test what links to your website work and which do not. Only a small percentage of websites I believe actually pass SEO value, and this tool will help test which links from websites are worthwhile that look legit now but have had a poor Google history.

Andrew Girdwood:

I welcome the tool. Anything Google does to give more control to site owners is a good thing.

Oddly, control is not always welcomed by the SEO community. Despite being very useful the “nofollow” attribute for links was not popular but in that instance the control was not delivered to the hands of the SEO but to bloggers and other site owners who could link.

The link disavow tool is different as it falls firmly into the realm of the SEO. I predict there will be some concern but that the tool will be broadly popular. 

I see the need for the link disavow tool. There is a strong trend among brands in the US, UK and much of Europe (especially the north) to move firmly away from the black hat tactics of yesteryear and towards safer and increasingly more effective white hat content strategies.

As a result, SEOs who never dabbled in paid links or similar find themselves with new clients with a legacy of poor quality links they cannot easily remove. The disavow tool will be extremely useful.

The Penguin algorithm updates, which tackle some SEO issues, can take a dislike to links created by sites scraping content produced at a time where article marketing was more popular. The decline in article marketing as resulted in a decline in the quality of some article sites which has compounded the problem.

How big a problem are dubious links for some sites?  

Nichola Stott:

For many businesses this is a huge problem. A contact of mine (an Australian Psychotherapist) was badly advised by his previous SEO agency and has since lost all first page rankings, with no sign of recovery.

He’d been spending valuable time cleaning up his backlink profile and submitting three or four reconsideration requests; (such time being much better spent seeing patients) before asking for my advice.

I think for the thousands of small and local businesses like this, with small marketing budgets who find themselves tempted by these cheap SEO firms selling crap that this disavow tool is exactly what they need to help them resurrect their business.

Rishi Lakhani: 

Fairly big in competitive niches. And very very important for newly launched sites. The sooner a new site gets hit with loads of bad links, the higher its chances of tanking. Big, established sites, especially brand site dont need the tool as much.

Most people who have lost rankings in particular due to bad links may rush to use it. 

We are hoping that the tool would help combat Peguin inspired penalties. This tool is most probably not going to help you. If you read everything google said about the tool, you would only use it as a last resort: 

Note the reference to “manual spam action” in the Google quote above. 

  1. Penguin is algorithmic. 
  2. You can only use this if you have a manual penalty, and or if you have unnatural links warning on your Webmaster Tools account. 
  3. Google reserves the right to make a judgement, so if you havent handed in a re inclusion request, highlighting bad links, OR made an effort to clean up your profile yourself, they may not use your Disavow request.
  4. Use with caution. Only include links that you are certain are hurting you. You may accidentally wipe off a seemingly spammy link that was driving your rankings. 

Mark Edmondson:

As Matt states several times in the video, this tool is not necessary for the vast majority of websites. Only websites that feel they have taken part in bad link strategies in the past or have an obvious Google SEO penalty now should use it.  

Link image credit: Yandle via Flickr CC