• By: Mike LaLonde
  • November 05, 2012

Google Disavow Tool: Effects, Implications, and Conspiracy Theories

The Penguin and Panda updates affected a lot of websites – some were hurt a lot, others not so much. In turn, some websites jumped up the search engine ranking pages as others were penalized. And to be fair, most of the people who were penalized deserved it for employing the tactics that they did.

But of course, some websites (and website owners) don’t really deserve to be forever cast into a shadowy corner of the Internet that is void of any Google’s vivifying light. I would classify these individuals in two different categories:

1) Unsuspecting Website Owners
Let’s face it. Now everyone knows about SEO. That’s why they pay us. Unfortunately, because they don’t know SEO, they also pay people who they shouldn’t. And you can’t really blame them. Plenty of marketers find this magic formula that happens to get around Google’s rules and provide amazing results for a while. They can back it up with testimonials, fairly low prices, and fast results. Why wouldn’t a website owner jump on that bandwagon? The answer, of course, is if it seems too good to be true, than it is. But you’ve got to feel for these webmasters, as in most cases they didn’t really know what people were doing was wrong… or even what they were doing… so these guys deserve a bit of a break when it comes to reestablishing some rankings.

2) Websites With Content Frequently Stolen
One type of link that falls under the umbrella of low-quality these days are duplicate content, or similar content that is published a lot of different places. Of course, this is because cheaters were publishing the same article on hundreds or thousands of different low-quality websites and counting them as links. But what if your website provided good content, and these shady SEO company’s decided to just use your content for their websites? Well, unfortunately you’re going to get flagged for a penalty due to all those “low-quality” links pointing at your website.

3) Negative SEO
Many people would like to believe this doesn’t exist. Or if it does, then it’s such a small problem that it can be ignored. Either way, I’m of the strong opinion that the possibility of negative SEO can not be ignored (if you aren’t aware, Negative SEO is engaging in black-hat and otherwise shady off-page linking tactics for a competitor’s site in an attempt to get them penalized). If Google allows off-page ranking factors to hurt search engine rankings, then over the long-term, it’s going to spell trouble for them. If negative SEO isn’t a problem now, it will be in the future if things like this continue. In that sense, any webmaster who was attacked with a negative SEO campaign certainly deserves some restitution.

As soon as these “Unnatural Links Detected” started flowing in, I’m sure Google was flooded with e-mails. Some perfectly legitimate concerns from people making up Groups 1 & 2, and probably a myriad of algorithm manipulators saying “oh I’m sorry what did I do wrong.” For the latter, we have little sympathy. But even so, Google was forced with a decision to try to come up with a way to restore order and continually “perfect” their algorithm. Now they are claiming the “Disavow” tool is the way to do that.

I’m a bit of a skeptic, in general. I’m not going to tell you that I think the moon landing was staged or that 9/11 was an inside job, but I will say that I don’t think a company as sophisticated as Google is just going to “wipe away” a list of links that you submit. When a simple solution is provided (like hiring an amateur who promises fast, guaranteed results) to solve a high-stakes problem (increasing SEO rankings), it’s usually smart to take a step back and consider the implications.First, let’s look at the actual text from the disavow feature, which in itself makes me smile a bit:

If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site.

It sounds like a mother talking down to her 7-year-old:

If you really think you just found that cookie and you didn’t take it from the cookie jar, you can ask me if you’re allowed to eat it and I’ll think about it.

Not only is it phrased like they don’t really believe you, but they even say all you’re doing is asking Google not to take them into account. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Really all you’re doing is providing a little additional information from a manual reviewer. Anyways, let’s consider the possible implications and more far-fetched conspiracy theories behind the tool:

How Does Google Treat the Submitted Links in Regards to the Website?

    • Google just automatically ignores all the links disavowed when assessing site value

Does anyone really think this is exactly what is going to happen? Let’s say it is. This would mean that people who tried to stretch the rules a bit get to cut off all their bad links, wipe the slate clean, and just move start over. This would actually make things easier than the guys in the legitimate groups I discussed above, because they likely have a history of where their links were posted. I find it very unlikely they let them off that easily. Plus, this ultimately brings the risk of building bad links to 0. If you’re trying to spam links, do it. If your rankings go up and you don’t get a notification, then you’re fine. If you get caught, just disavow the links with no harm done.

    • Google penalizes/counts these links less than they normally would

It’s certainly possible that Google won’t let a website off completely free, but they might be a little more lenient with websites willing to put the time and effort in to right the ship, If they’re willing to work hard enough to reestablish a website, it’s pretty likely it isn’t an Adsense-fueled profit machine made of stolen content that someone decided to throw together in a couple hours one day.

    • Google takes the links into consideration during manual reviews

My vote is on this one. I’m sure Google is tip-toeing around this issue, and they’ll likely just attach the report to any manual reviews or reconsideration requests that are processed, and make exceptions on a case-by-case basis where they believe the person submitting the request. As you can see, my hopes aren’t too high for this. They like to make algorithm changes, not exceptions.

  • Nothing! It’s purely a PR Stunt!

I wouldn’t put it past them. Do you think Google really wants to deal with complaints (or begging)? I mean, they don’t even have customer support or a phone number.

How Else Could Google Use This Information?

Back in the Wild, Wild West days of SEO, people would just toss as many links out there as they could. It was all fair game, because it seemed to work. If someone had said “tell us all the bad things you’re been doing,” most people would have just laughed.

But now that’s exactly what Google is doing, and people are getting excited about it. Trust me: I’m not nostalgic for the old days, but I do recognize the shift and can’t help but wonder about where we’re heading next. Google’s asking us to basically report all of the bad links we know about so they are aware of them. Should you do it?

Google would be foolish not to use the reports in some way or another. Perhaps they’ll start to recognize some spam sites they aren’t currently devaluing. Maybe they’ll insert the disavow’s into their algorithm and reduce the value of links that are frequently cited. Whatever the case, they’re essentially enlisting a horde of webmasters to do their work for free – you can bet they’ll take advantage of that.

The Diabolical Side of Disavow

Some of these are based on how Google ends up treating disavowed links, both in reference to the account they are disavowed from, and to websites and domains in general. In any case, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to work the system a bit. For the most part, however, these more diabolical tactics will be larger issues if disavowed links are actually, well, disavowed.

Firing your old webmaster?
Make sure you remove his access to webmaster tools first. And of course his ability to get access to webmaster tools as well. If he/she has access and is a little angry, you might suddenly find all of your links being disavowed. Be sure to lock that up before you let him/her go.

Targeting Competitor Links
Let’s say your competitor has some high quality links on a website. Find a way to submit a bunch of low quality links, and hope their webmaster notices them, and disavows the entire domain. The result? Those low-quality links you built are disavowed, but so are the high-quality ones that they already had established.

Drink the Iocane Powder
Does one of your competitors just copy your tactics? Just build tons of terrible links to your website. Your competitors can see those, with the right tools of course. What they can’t see if you disavowing the links. Let him follow you into the pit which only you know how to climb out of. (hopefully you know the Princess Bride reference, in which Wesley is immune to the poison he is serving both himself and his adversary).

Hacking Becomes Higher Stakes on Lower Levels
I’m not talking about hacking the main frame of your bank to steal millions of dollars. I’m no expert, but I assume that’s pretty difficult. And while I’m not a back-end developer myself, I know from managing websites hosted on multiple CMS platforms that it isn’t all that difficult to get through in some cases (I’ve had plenty of redirects installed, or the occasional website takeover). I knew I had to do something in these cases, because, well, my website was now written in Hindi, or whenever you clicked on a link you were redirected to a search farm page. But what if it wasn’t obvious? What if the hacker simply added Webmaster Tools access for a random user using the meta tag or .html file method, and then simply disavowed all your links?

“Your Computer Is Now Affected”
Ever gotten a virus or been affected with Malware? You’ve probably had to look up some instructions and delete a bunch of files. If you’re like most people, you’re probably going through the file directories and just deleting things that don’t look like they should be there, or things you don’t need. And if you’re like most people, that’s what you’d do if you got an unnatural link detection too. So, go ahead and build a lot of bad links to your competitor. Sure, they can just disavow the links and make them worthless (in theory). But while they’re doing that, you can bet they’ll also disavow some borderline, or better yet, good links, that will hurt their overall rankings.

Does Your Website Link Out? Prepare for an Invasion
This one works on the assumption that Google is taking the disavow data and making judgments on the websites being disavowed at fairly high numbers. Let’s say your competitor posts a blog and allows people to comment with a link (probably a nofollow, anyways). Go ahead and comment, link to a site you control but don’t care much about it. Actually, do that, but for 10 different sites. Then, under each webmaster tools section, go ahead and disavow that link you just built. This will send “spam site” signals to the competitor site thanks to the commenting and reporting, which in turn could have negative ranking effects.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Good question. Right now, we’re more in the “wait and see” mode. We are working with a couple websites who fall into the “Unfortunate Website #1″ category above, that we’re going to involve the disavow tool with because they have “nothing to lose at this point.” While that isn’t entirely true, we’re going to do exactly what we should be doing – exactly what Google wants us to do: do our best to contact webmasters to manually remove links, and then if it doesn’t work, disavow them.

Sometimes following directions works. It’s worth a shot at least, right?

My advice here is simple: pay attention. Read the results. Continue building high-quality links. As long as you’re focusing on SEO from a user experience perspective, making valuable connections to online authors and websites providing valuable content, and producing resources worth reading, you’re going to be just fine. Pay attention to what is going on around you, make sure you’re avoiding the pitfalls of taking shortcuts, and let Google figure out their algorithm. In the end, the better it gets, the more it will benefit people doing things right. SEO is about long-term investment, so focus on the long-term, stick to the fundamentals and don’t get overly caught up on the latest tool or announcement. The fundamentals of SEO ranking theory have, and should always, remain the same: giving users what they want.

Mike LaLonde

(Digital Marketing Specialist at Londes Digital Marketing)

After creating his first website at 14, Mike hasn't looked back. He received a BA in Economics and an MBA concentrating in marketing and finance, both from Rochester Institute of Technology. Combining his quantitative education with a creative approach to online marketing, Mike helps the LDM team focus on developing creative solutions that provide long-term ROI for clients. In his spare time, Mike enjoys weaving latch-hook rugs, boondoggle, and making turkeys out of hand tracings.


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