Google allow you to plead ignorance

Since the launch of Google’s Penguin update in April, sites that rely on black-hat link building including purchased links and link exchanges, have had their page ranking penalized.

The question has been, exactly how is Google deciding if you’re using black-hat techniques. The answer, based on past experience, is that they’re making an educated guess.

There have been plenty of horror stories circulating since Penguin was pushed live, ranging from sites penalized because an employee linked to their day job, to spammers suing over spam-links they inserted themselves. Most of these are just scare stories, but genuine issues have arisen.

Until now, you were forced to accept their initial judgement, but yesterday Google used Pubcon in Las Vegas to unveil its much-anticipated Link Disavow tool as part of their Webmaster tools.

Imagine if you will, you’ve spent months building and designing a site for your own web design agency. You’ve followed all the best practices and you haven’t used any black-hat techniques because that’s not something you’d do. Checking your stats you see that has noticed, linked to you and as a result, a fair amount of traffic is being driven to your site.

A link from us is great, a web design blog linking to a web design agency is relevant, and Googlebot smiles down upon you.

Checking your stats a few weeks later you notice a link you didn’t expect from a site devoted to knitting booties for stray cats. You look up the page and discover it’s your Mom, she’s very proud of you and wants to help you drum up some business.

The link from the knitting site is bad news. Googlebot thinks this link is spam because it can’t see any relevancy; it’s not so much cross, as disappointed.

The correct thing to do in this scenario is to ask your Mom to remove the link, but if that’s too hurtful, you now have the option to disavow the link; leave it in place and suggest — it is only a suggestion — that Google ignores it.

Keep-out image via Shutterstock.

The advice from Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, is “Most sites shouldn’t use this tool. Use Caution. Don’t just start disavowing links. Please start slow.” and it seems like good advice considering the potential damage you could do to your ranking. Google suggest that you should only use the tool if you’ve received notice of a manual spam action from them, the vast majority of sites should never need it.

Old links image via Shutterstock.

Given the high impact of Penguin to date, the link disavow tool seems like a necessity and one wonders why Google didn’t introduce it in April.

Could it be that the link disavow tool is less about helping webmasters recover from bad SEO and more about finding a surreptitious method for crowd-sourcing the identification of spammy sites; a simple way to encourage the community to snitch?

Afterall, if one link is identified as having been paid for, how trustworthy are the rest?

Have you had to recover a site from bad SEO? Will disavowing links help your clients’ rankings? Let us know what you think in the comments.

  • Gareth Brown

    I think you’re right this tools could be very damaging, if used wrongly. Most website owners don’t take the time to look at the link before requesting it’s removal. Unless you fully understand what links should be removed, you could quickly do more harm than good.

    As per usual, nothing is straight forward with Google. Matt Cutts does say this tool doesn’t guarantee your links will get devalued.

    This tool should only be used once you have exhausted all your link removal efforts. I don’t think the manual spam team are going to look kindly on you, if you just upload your toxic links, without trying to manually remove them first.

    We recently recovered a client’s site by removing over 10,000 links, which wasn’t a nice job. I bet our reconsideration request wouldn’t have been so fruitful if we’d just used this shiny new tool.
    The bottom line is, you will need to prove you’ll behave from now on!

  • 08a

    “The correct thing to do in this scenario is to ask your Mom to remove the link”

    From a SEO perspective, right now – yeah.

    But, do we really want a web where a mom can’t link her sons business? A web where you can’t link your daughters blog (look at how good she is at drawing! we could all learn a little.. etc)

    I’m not saying I could perfect the search algorithms to allow for this… But giving the search engines power of how the web should look like is kind of backwards.

  • Jon

    “Could it be that the link disavow tool is less about helping webmasters
    recover from bad SEO and more about finding a surreptitious method for
    crowd-sourcing the identification of spammy sites; a simple way to
    encourage the community to snitch?”

    As with all things Google there’s definitely an element of smoke and mirrors involved, and I think the simple answer as to whether they’ll be using the data to discover new link farms and the like or whether it’s just for the use it appears to be on the surface is that they’ll use it for everything they can.

    From the perspective of saving webmasters from “bad links”, the extent to which Penguin opens up negative SEO means they have to do something like this otherwise vandalising competitors’ sites becomes far too cheap and easy.

    It would be foolish for them to do anything other than categorise webmasters submitting many of these links as potential spammers to watch in the future (and discover new serp manipulation techniques from), to generate focused content for the limited resources of the manual review team to examine, and anything else they can imagine. You’re right in that they’re crowdsourcing the generation of the data for this, and will succeed with only the vaguest of promises about future action.

    I don’t think we’re in for a future where accidental links from Mom are likely to take down a new website though, although a vast stream of blackhat links pumped in someone’s direction once a week will probably see them pinned to the bottom of the serps harder than the disavow tool can save them.

  • Nispaara

    If this tool is not used in a proper way , it could be damaging..