Why the ‘Google Disavow Tool’ is or isn’t for you
By Jonah A. Berger, SEO Director, Performics
31 October 2012
Site owners rejoice! Google has unveiled a link disavow tool that can help you clean up your link portfolio and ease back into the search engine’s good graces. But hold on a minute! Before you go and do something drastic like remove all your backlinks, we recommend that you sit back, take a deep breath and better assess the situation.
Recent Google history
Earlier this spring, site owners far and wide (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands) received link warnings or notifications (we’ll refer to them as the former moving forward) in their Google Webmaster Tools accounts that included these snippets:
- Some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
- Look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank.
- Make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration.
These warnings for obvious reasons caused heart palpitations among site owners and the SEOs they have on speed dial. Not only were they coming from the Big G itself, but they were also worded in a way that left many guessing. Questions like “Which links are the offenders, Google?” and “Do I need to submit a reconsideration request if I…?” were commonplace, and for the first time, site owners were pretty much being forced to “look under the hood” of their link portfolios to see what was hiding in there.
Waddle, waddle: enter the Penguin Update
Shortly after these warnings, Google dropped another bombshell in April in the form of the Penguin Update. Unlike the 2011 Panda Update, which focused primarily on content and brought out the whipping stick on content farms, Penguin was mostly geared toward links – specifically those of low quality and those with over optimised (i.e. unnatural) anchor text. Panda was said to initially affect about 12 percent of US queries (its release later went worldwide to all English-language Google users), while Penguin impacted just 3 percent of English queries and potentially more in heavily spammed languages.
Languages aside, Google has made it clear after Panda and Penguin that if your site isn’t following its quality guidelines, chances are you’ll pay a penalty in the form of decreased visibility and ranking. Link schemes in particular are a big part of what Penguin targets, and these historically include buying or selling links, anchor text manipulation, links from directories and unrelated sites, forum spam, etc.
As can be imagined, many site owners – especially those affected – were in a panic following Penguin as they scrambled to clean up their link portfolios and figure out what to do next. Because the original warnings sent by Google weren’t clear as to which links were good and which were bad, it’s been a guessing game of “should I or shouldn’t I remove this link?” ever since.
Roughly three months after the initial Penguin Update hit, Google confused site owners even more by sending out multiple messages that mixed signals and forced the recipients to wonder if their entire site was being targeted or simply the links themselves. The most recent of these messages, first reported around July, at least took a murky picture and painted it a little bit clearer by saying, “…we are taking very targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.”
Phew. Unlike before when it made site owners guess as to what should and shouldn’t be removed, Google this time around basically asked them to do as much as they could. Any links that were either out of their control or unable to be taken down were going to be devalued by the search engine. Most would argue that Google should have put this action into play a long time ago.
The link disavow tool
After all the correspondence from Google, the flow of constant updates and the chants for an easier way to clean up link portfolios, finally a link disavow tool has been released.
The tool, which is accessed via Webmaster Tools, is really simple to use. But wait – stop right there! Just because you can submit links for disavowal in your sleep doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Google has already indicated that the majority of sites won’t need to use it at all. Instead, the tool is intended for those who have received one of the warnings we mentioned from the search engine, the very warnings that talked of link schemes and unnatural links. These are the sites that need to get back on the search engine’s good side, the sites that have likely submitted (or are in the process of submitting) a reconsideration request.
Why leave the disavow tool to only those who need it? Here are two major reasons:
1) You don’t know which links are the “bad” ones that keep Google awake at night. While it may be completely sensical to disavow the links from a shoe retailer that are pointing to your auto insurance site, how do you really know how much or little value they’re passing? And was Google ever going to penalise those links or just leave them alone?
2) By using the disavow tool, in a way you’re calling out your site as guilty or one that has a suspect link portfolio. Think about it, if Google hasn’t sent you a warning and your traffic has remained unscathed after all the major updates, why shoot flares in the air when your boat isn’t sinking? Chances are that Google will take a closer look at sites that tell it about the thousands of “bad” links they’re attracting. And as for the links that most certainly will be “told on” over and over again due to the disavow tool, who knows what’s going to happen to them.
Now, if you’re a webmaster who has received a warning from Google and you haven’t acted yet, the time to take action is now! Lucky for you the tool could help you save a multitude of man hours, as webmasters up to just a few days ago could be found scrambling through their link portfolios by hand to identify suspects. From there, it was up to them to compile the contact information of the domain sending the link(s) and email the owner to ask them nicely to have the offenders removed. Sound like fun? It isn’t, as this writer can attest from firsthand experience. It’s never going to be a joyous occasion to email one webmaster about link removal, and it’s even worse when you have to email 100.
How to use the disavow tool
Again, it’s of utmost importance to know when and when not to use the tool. If you’ve received a warning from Google that indicates wrongdoing and you either have submitted a reconsideration request or are about to, this tool could be for you. And it’s a breeze to use, as these steps outline:
1) Go to the tool home page (you’ll have to log into Webmaster Tools if you haven’t already).
2) Click the “Disavow Links” button.
3) Upload a disavow.txt file. This file is similar to a Robots.txt file in terms of simplicity, as it really is just a list of the URLs you want to disavow.
4) Once you upload the file and confirm, that’s it. As stated by Google, it can take several weeks for disavowals to go into effect, as the search engine has to recrawl and reindex the indicated URLs first.
When Plan B is your approach
The tool may not be for everyone, which is understandable considering the consequences that can result from its improper use. If your site has been notified or slapped by Google and you don’t think the tool is the answer (but still want to clean up your links), your next best bet is manual link removal. To start this lengthy process, we recommend that you do the following:
1) Check the “Search queries” section of your Webmaster Tools to see if there were any drastic traffic declines around the time you received the warning(s) from Google. If there is a noticeable difference, chances are you’ve been affected by a recent development.
2) This day and age it’s important to understand your link portfolio, whether you’ve been targeted or not. Using tools like Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO and Webmaster Tools (particularly handy to study your most recent links), you can create a spreadsheet that lists a variety of factors. These can include but aren’t limited to:
- URL (the origination URL of the link)
- Date Acquired (the date the link was acquired)
- PageRank (the PageRank of the origination URL)
- Anchor Text (the anchor text used in the link)
- Page/Domain Authority (there’s an SEOmoz metric that measures page/domain value)
- Target URL (the URL being linked to)
The more data you can collect, the better, but this doesn’t mean you should spend the next 72 hours manually going through all your links. Instead, it’s important to identify where the problematic links are coming from. To do this, you need to sort your backlinks by domains that are sending the most links to your site. While quantity is definitely important to link building, search engines like Google are also looking for quality and links from as many relevant sources as possible. It’s much more valuable therefore to have 10,000 links from 10,000 domains than it is to have 10,000 links from 100 domains. Google is aware that many sites are linked in global footers and navigation areas that can result in one site being linked to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times.
Once you identify the domains that are sending the most links to your site, choose the top 50 or 100 (as time allows) and visit each, looking at relevancy and contact information. From there it’s up to you to reach out to the proper sites (likely by email) and request that they remove the links. Chances are you won’t hear from many of them, but some should comply with your request. All requests should be tracked, and in a couple weeks you should check back to see if any action has been taken.
Yes, the process of cleaning up your links is a long, arduous task, but if it can help boost your search visibility and rankings and keep Google from contacting you again, the time and effort will be well worth it.Next → ← Previous