Warning: this post is for advanced SEO people

Google’s Disavow Link Tool is all the buzz now and I’m glad G rolled it out.

Not long after the Google Penguin update (late April 2012) sent some SEOs into a tizzy of trying to remove unnatural links to their sites, Bing Webmaster Tools came out with a tool to disavow links. Google then said they would come out with something similar for Google Webmaster Tools, and now Google has rolled out their version of a disavow link tool.

Honestly, I was shocked that G actually provided a disavow link tool because it affirms that negative SEO is taking place despite Google’s claims.

Google’s position on negative SEO has been basically this:

Matt Cutts: “Because you can’t really control who links to you and how they link to you, that’s something that, being out of your control, we try to be very careful about to try to make sure it doesn’t affect your site’s reputation or hurt your site in some way.” See the video

Even well known SEOs have defended Google’s position about negative SEO, including Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz. Fishkin issued a negative SEO challenge to take down SEOmoz or RandFishkin.com using negative SEO tactics. Fishkin issued the challenge interestingly close to but prior to the Penguin update in April. When asked in May about the challenge, Rand said, “It’s still ranking well, though!”

What most people missed with the results of SEOmoz’s negative SEO challenge is that negative SEO is a threat to smaller sites that do not have a solid link profile and reputation like SEOmoz. In fact, SEOmoz and big brands like them are largely immune to the effects of negative SEO.

But when Penguin hit in late April and sites with an unnatural link profile fell, it became clear that in addition to sites with unnatural links, some sites had unnatural links that were beyond the site owner’s control (no way to remove them at all), and indeed that affected the site’s reputation and ranking.

And although Google has not said anything officially about it…

Google’s disavow link tool proves that negative SEO is real.

Google already discounted questionable links prior to Penguin, especially links that trigger the “unnatural link” filter, but Penguin has taken the discounting or discrediting of links to such a new level that Google feels obligated to provide webmasters with a tool to help clean up link profiles (perhaps Google even believes they have gone too far with their campaign to discredit questionable links).

In other words, G’s algorithm is not capable of detecting whether a link is natural or unnatural in all cases and is dependant on webmasters to keep track of all links to their website whether natural or unnatural and to take appropriate action to either cleanup their link profiles or not.

Google provides general guidelines on what links violate their Webmaster Guidelines rather than getting into specifics. Webmasters are left to interpret those guidelines as best they can so they can clean up their link profile appropriately, but many times webmasters are left wondering which links are ok and which ones need to be removed or disavowed. As you can see, interpretation of the guidelines is a tiny bit important.

G has highly developed and intelligent algos that can take a set of sites that are known to be spammy, slightly spammy, credible or highly credible and learn all the characteristics of those sites so they can be applied to very similar cases the algo identifies – known as a machine learning algorithm. Panda and Penguin involve machine learning algos which are accurate in many many cases but aren’t accurate in every case.

Google has Matt Cutt’s Webspam Team, or whatever they call themselves now, who make accurate interpretation and judgement about natural and unnatural links every time. The algo is designed to do the same job except on a much larger scale and therefore, without as much accuracy.

In May after Bing Webmaster Tools came out with their disavow link tool, Google Webmaster Tools provided a way to see when new links have been discovered by their algo. From within Google Webmaster Tools, go to “Links to Your Site” click on “Download latest links” and you get a spreadsheet of links with the date Google discovered them.

Here’s one way Google expects webmasters to use the “latest links” tool:

In the past if you got a message from Google’s Webspam Team, your site was in trouble. Now the Webspam Team is sending messages to address specific artificial links which they distrust.

Matt Cutts: “We often take this action when we see a site that is mostly good but might have some spammy or artificial links pointing to it (widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc.). So while the site’s overall rankings might not drop directly, likewise the site might not be able to rank for some phrases.”

If you get a message like this, Cutts recommends using the new Webmaster Tools utility to download your backlinks sorted by date, clean up the artificial links and send a reconsideration request. However, most sites impacted by Penguin won’t be so fortunate to get a “courteous” message from Matt Cutts’ team.

The “latest links” tool is probably only useful to you if you can catch your lower rankings for a particular keyword within a week or two. Then you have a good shot at identifying the spammy or artificial links and getting them removed or using the disavow link tool.

The challenge today for some is keeping up with your link profile on a daily or weekly basis, for others it’s interpreting the guidelines accurately so that you don’t hurt your site further with the disavow link tool.

More questions about the disavow link tool:

Will this tool distract people from focusing on more important things about SEO?

Will this tool become the new form of link sculpting?

Some shady characters will see this as a license to linkspam.. they can disavow at any moment anyway.

“What if people have submitted links from my site to be disavowed without contacting me first, is it gonna hurt my site reputation with Google or its gonna have no effect on my domain or What?” kamesh

“I feel that webmasters who’ve historically built spammy links have now been given a lifeline to recover their old penalised pages/websites.” vezznay

Has access to a site’s Google Webmaster Tools become a tiny bit too important?

Has Google gone too far this time?

Photo credit: Palla

Tom Shivers
Tom Shivers

I'm a ecommerce SEO consultant and President of Capture Commerce. I've managed digital marketing campaigns for scores of clients since 2000 and found that every business is unique with its own challenges and opportunities. When I see that I have contributed to the success of a business by helping them grow, it makes me feel awesome! That’s the coolest thing and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do this.

    2 replies to "The Shocker About Google’s Disavow Link Tool"

    • This is a really useful article. We have seen #1 rankings die for no apparent reason since September for a number of websites and it is now clear that Google is complicit in widespread negative SEO. This is hurting small businesses with very much bona fide websites especially those with localised domain names – that in many cases they have been trading under for years.

    • Tom Shivers

      Hi Matthew,
      I’m not accusing Google of being complicit about negative SEO, its that Google’s algo is not ideal and therefore requires webmasters to understand how to properly manage their link profiles based on what Google knows about the links.

      I also want to call attention to negative SEO, since Google seems to be dodging it somewhat. Negative SEO is really a non-issue for the majority of sites, but something to be aware of. Your issue in particular seems to be from the exact match domain name update that came out in late September.

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