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The Real Reason Why You Shouldn’t Use Google’s Link Disavow Tool…Yet

Google's Disavow Tool

Any time Google makes an announcement that directly references SEO, the internet marketing world rightly gets into a bit of a frenzy. Yesterday, Google announced a new tool, the Link Disavow tool, the use of which they explain the point of here:

“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…We send you this message when we see evidence of paid links, link exchanges, or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines. If you get this message, we recommend that you remove from the web as many spammy or low-quality links to your site as possible.”

Obviously, this is a big development for any SEO who has had sites negatively impacted by bad links pointing at it, whether from their own doing or from sites out of their control. So it’s safe to assume that quite a few SEOs are going to be running to use this tool as quickly as possible to try and recover their rankings by disavowing all of their bad links.

But there are some subtleties here that I think could be quite risky to play around with at this point. A few facts about how the tool works:

  1. You submit a txt file that lists every single URL you want to disavow, like in the image above.
  2. After “multiple weeks”, Google will start to disavow the links you’ve supplied.
  3. That’s…it. No confirmation, no verification. It just works…hopefully.

Why Should I Avoid The Disavow Tool Then?

Well:

  1. We don’t know for sure what Google thinks a bad link is. Sure, backlinks from a deindexed site are pretty objectively “bad” links, but there are all kinds of other “bad” links out there that are still in Google’s index. It’s impossible to accurately create a list of all “bad links” in terms of Google sees them, so it’s inevitable that you’ll either accidentally remove good links, or notify Google of links you think are bad.
  2. There’s no guarantee that Google will actually do anything. They explicitly state that after you submit the text file, they “… will typically ignore those links. Much like with rel=”canonical”, this is a strong suggestion rather than a directive—Google reserves the right to trust our own judgment for corner cases, for example”.
  3. There’s no verification that they have done anything with the links. If the disavow tool needs to “recrawl and reindex the URLs you disavowed before your disavowals go into effect, which can take multiple weeks” there’s an opportunity for all kinds of things to occur between the time you submit the URLs and when the disavow actually takes effect. This time differential makes it virtually impossible to measure the impact of the disavowed links because 1) you don’t know which links they disavowed and 2) Google is constantly releasing algorithm updates that could also cause your site to move around in the SERPs. I think the Disavow Tool is going to create a bit of mayhem for a lot of SEOs as it will lead to a lot of false positives and correlation assumptions.

The Other Real Reason Why You Should Avoid The Disavow Tool For Now

I think the biggest thing to remember with all of this, though, is that there are always two ways to improve your site’s rankings:

  1. Actively performing SEO either by tweaking your own site or creating (or removing) back links
  2. Other people screwing up and dropping in the rankings.

It’s very possible that many SEOs are going to overdo things with this new tool because they’re desperate after being destroyed by all of the recent Panda and Penguin updates Google has been throwing at them. A huge cause of rankings changes that most SEOs don’t think about is massive link loss, such as losing good site wide links.

And because we can’t know exactly what Google things is a bad link, there’s a chance you can shoot yourself in the foot by removing the wrong links. So let your competitors overdo things because they risk dropping in the SERPs, which gives your site and opportunity to improve in rankings without actually having to take an action at all.

I suggest staying away from the Disavow tool for at least a few months and let others give it a test to see how effective it is. If you must try it, pick a random abandoned site from your portfolio to test it with just in case you send your rankings into a tailspin.

So Why Did They Create This Tool?

I think there’s two main reasons why they created this tool. The first is that I guarantee they’re directly feeding the links submitted to it to their manual site reviewers. What better what to find sites to manually review than to look at sites that have been manually submitted to them?

The second reason is that I think with the major updates they’ve been making to their algorithm since they started doing the Panda and Penguin updates, they are going to use the submissions to this tool to verify that their algorithm is identifying the right bad links. No one in their right mind would submit good links to the disavow tool, so by looking at the bad links that are being submitted, Google will be able to develop heuristics to help them identify similar bad links in the future.

I think it was a smart move by them, and I think that while SEOs are shouting from mountain tops that this is a Godsend, it might actually be a sophisticated way for Google to get a lot more accurate when tracking down spam. We’ll have to wait and see over the coming year how things will turn out.

And no, I don’t think this is a honeypot to catch spammers. Google is already capable of identifying spammers and I don’t think they’ll ever turn to psychological tricks to help them nab people. I think they’ll be using this to improve their algorithm just like when they came out with the ability to blacklist domains from your SERPs and then applied their findings to the algorithm to kill sites like Yahoo Answers and Experts Exchange who were outranking sites like StackOverflow.com


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I'm the founder of serpIQ.com. I've been doing SEO since 2008 and programming since elementary school. I hate doing things by hand and am a massive proponent of automation.

6 Comments

  1. Marvin Fontanilla

    Well written. If you’re a spammer, Google already knows.

    I was hired to perform my company’s online marketing strategy 3 days after Panda 3.4. I’m one of those SEOs that feels this tools is Godsend. Trying to re-rank a site after a huge hit, is like trying to run in quicksand.

    • Hey Marvin,

      Thanks for the reply. Would love to hear how you’re planning to use the tool, and if you get any results – if you remember, see if you can shoot us an update on your company’s site!

      - Kevin

  2. Alan

    It is possible that this tool will send these links straight to their manual reviewers. So what do you do? Put your competition in the tool. Maybe they will get a manual review…

    • Hi Alan,

      While you could definitely do this, we take the position that it’s best to focus on your own efforts, not your competition. Sure, you can break down what they’re doing and replicate it if it’s working for them (and is a viable long-term strategy), but it’s probably not a great idea to toss competition in there. Karma will come back to you in the end :)
      - Kevin

  3. Tim Jones

    I totally agree. This is going to be a very useful tool… for Google. The thing is, I’m dying to run some backlinks through it out of curiosity. The site I want to test on is a Penguin victim with mostly good, natural links, but a few active links on deindexed domains.

    Best case, I get some rankings back in a few weeks. (I’d be happy just to get back to page 1 for my brand name.)

    Realistic case, I don’t notice a bit of difference.

    Worst case, Google takes away the 5-10 monthly visitors they still send me.

    • Hey Tim,

      Thanks for the comment. I think it’s probably safe to run a busted, low traffic domain through it. But then again…you could always wait for the inevitable flood of posts in about a month or so with case studies about using the tool on domains. Just seems like a situation where you can just wait to see what happens to other people. If good results…use it on your own domains. If not…you just saved yourself a massive headache :)

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