Oct 172012

An Unexpected Side Effect of Google’s Disavow Link Tool

As many in the SEO industry have heard, on October 16 Google formally announced their new disavow tool for links on the Google Webmaster Central Blog.  While great news to many worried about the possibilities of negative SEO, or who have been hit by the recent Penguin updates, there may be a nasty, lurking, side affect to this tool.

 Image from http://info.livemarketing.com/

While this post will be short, as I’m hoping it’s more of a discussion point than anything, I think taking a look at another side effect that SEO’s have been battling since Google started penalizing for links can help paint the picture that these things can and do indeed happen.

Essentially, back in 2011 when Google started sending out unnatural link warnings and webmasters were exposed to the possibility of their backlinks hindering their rankings, a new, unintended economy was built.  The sites that had taken payment to post links could now charge to have them removed.  You hit them one-way, they get you another.  I highly doubt this new economy was an intended result of the update.

Fast forward to today.  Here we are (er, ehm, Google/Bing are), still dealing with the problem of making a rickety link system more reliable.  This time though, I think they might have swung the door open a bit more for the link manipulators they’ve been trying to slow down.

Here’s the rub.  While it’s nice that you can tell Google to not count certain links, and I believe the tool is a welcome (and possibly necessary) relief to many legitimate sites that were hit by things out of their control (or companies mending their ways), I think it may be possible to spam all the more now.  Basically, this tool might allow someone to have his or her SEO cake and eat it too. A webmaster could now (in theory) buy links and enjoy their benefit until they get caught.  When/if they do, they can now turn around and “try” to get them removed, but ultimately follow the simple process of disavowing them through both Google and Bing’s tools.

Aggressive SEO’s can now capitalize on the short-term, while being even more able to regain footing for the long-term, or another short-term push.  Before this tool was available, if you used paid links, you were risking a lot as you may not be able to get them removed.  If that was the case, you could get stuck in the mud trying to plead with Google for mercy and understanding.

As always I’m curious to hear your thoughts! Am I crazy? Is Google really getting closer to solving their backlink problems in a big way with this tool or are there some side effects that could be big problems?





20 Responses to "An Unexpected Side Effect of Google’s Disavow Link Tool"
Here is a more obvious threat..If you do a co-ordinated disavow across several websites (Flag the a link from a competitor)..will that flag the offender as a spam website? in Google's systems -or is the fix..completely manual. Which I suspect? searchengineman
@searchengineman - Interesting point and I could see that potentially being a problem. If I had to guess though, I'd imagine Google has ways of cross-referencing an accused site against sites they suspect of/classified as spam and filtering based on that. They would of course have all the other ranking signals to work with in determining if they need to see an accused site as spam/negative or not. In theory, if you flagged a competitor as a link to disavow, the link wouldn't count anymore, but the site wouldn't be flagged as spam simply by someone pointing the finger and accusing it of being spam. I will say stranger things have happened though and it would be interesting to test that somehow :). Thanks for the comment!
"A webmaster could now (in theory) buy links and enjoy their benefit until they get caught. When/if they do, they can now turn around and “try” to get them removed, but ultimately follow the simple process of disavowing them through both Google and Bing’s tools." It seems like Google could detect a repeating pattern of "bad" link acquisition and then disavowing from with the same site.
@Christopher - Could be. You might have to burn a site after using it once or twice, but I could see in some cases site owners arguing that they were being targeted with negative SEO over and over again (even if it's a flat-out lie), thus making the issue a little more complicated to sort out. I do think that's a pretty valid point though about the longevity of trying something like this. Thanks for jumping in!
Adam Hoog says:
While it may not be perfect, I think this is certainly a step in the right direction for Google. As Christopher mentioned above, I think that Google's system will work to detect repeated abusers of the "Disavow" tool.
@Adam - I agree they'll continue to improve and will likely come up with ways to handle these types of issues. Part of the problem to me as I'm thinking through it more with everyone, is the door it opens to more aggressive even once. As an SEO, I feel like I just added a roll cage to my rally car. There's still risk of getting hurt, and if you do it often, you increase the risk that your safety devices won't work, but for a few rounds it certainly encourages you to be a bit riskier because you know you are a bit safer. Example: If I'm a retailer say a made up one like, ynnepCJ ;), I might be tempted to push the envelope during the holiday season with some aggressive paid link building. If I get caught, I have a new way of dealing with the trouble I caused quickly and efficiently. My risk/reward is looking better.
cara says:
Interesting article Todd. This tool probably helps to expose link farms and build Google's list of bad sites. So, if you were to buy links, you'd have to know what link farms were still passing equity. I think the more webmasters use this tool, the less valuable link schemes will be. @searchengineman - I also think Google has a way of detecting if a disavowed link should truly be disavowed. So if a competitor tries to signal your site as spam by using this tool, Google would most likely know that something wasn't right. Also, now that I'm thinking of it, this tool is meant to discredit links, not penalize the linking domain. So in theory, this tool should not have an affect on the domains that are disavowed (although I do suspect that Google is making a list and checking it twice :). I welcome this tool and hope that it helps to clean up spam and level the playing field a bit, allowing quality sites and content to rank.
If Google has not already thought about this, I am Queen Victoria. The Disavow tool only works if you are a site "owner" in Google Webmaster Tools. This restricts use. Also, Google will have its own algorithm to refer to, so if some person starts spamming the Disavow Linkstool with all kinds of links from quality domains, for example, not only will Google be able to spot that, it will also now have identified a black hat person. Result. Anyone trying to use the Disavow tool negatively would be an idiot, IMO.
SN says:
Hi Todd, your concern is pretty obvious. When they added this feature, there might have internal discussions on this thing and Google might have something in mind to cope with this sort of side effects. Just a thought :) Thanks, SN
@Steve - I think you're on it...probably a serious challenge to use the disavow tool in a negative fashion. @SN - I would certainly hope so and agree on the obviousness of it. However, after seeing (and having to deal with to a certain degree) the new economy that sprung up out of the change related to how they treat "bad" links, I can't help but think that it could still be an issue even if they did think of it. Might be a situation where the benefit out weighs the negatives. Overall it's a continually challenging situation with out a great solution (so far). Thanks for sharing and reading!
Tom Pick says:
Seems like Google is just trying to turn SEO into Calvinball, constantly changing the rules for the sake of changing the rules with no regard to simplicity. If the search engine already knows which links should be "disavowed" why not simply ignore them? The value of black hat SEO (at least in terms of high-volume, low-quality, link building/buying) would disappear overnight. No need to penalize anyone, just ignore the links.
@tom - I tend to agree. I've often wondered why Google didn't just leave it at that.
Steve Masters says:
@Tom - Google can't just assume what links should be disavowed and know it is getting it right all the time. Getting direct input is a good way of asking people for pointers, so they can sanity check. Also, it allows them to start measuring new patterns which they can overlay on their wider algorithm. It also answers the problem for owners who say, "I didn't build these links. My stupid unprofessional SEO company did and now I want to get rid of them." I disagree that Google is like Calvinball. Anyone who does SEO properly knows that Google's quality guidelines have always followed the same tenet. Good sites built for real people that real people find useful - that's what they want to promote.
Tom Pick says:
@Steve, I respectfully disagree You write that "Google can’t just assume what links should be disavowed and know it is getting it right all the time." If Google can't figure out, how the heck is the guy who hired the dodgy SEO company supposed to do so? You and I may look at the same site and I say the links there are high quality while you contend that they are crap. But it makes absolutely no difference because what Google thinks is all that matters. I use the Calvinball analogy because links that were helpful a year or two ago may be viewed as spam or worthless links now. Put another way, under the ex post facto legal doctrine, you can't be punished for an act that wasn't against the law when you did it. But that's exactly what Google is now doing--punishing sites for actions that used to be perfectly acceptable. I'm not talking about obviously manipulative stuff like link farms, but links that were built with good intentions. If Google no longer values those, it should just disregard them. But don't ask business owners to guess which sites/links those might be.
Steve Masters says:
Good points Tom. The client may not know how to discern good links from bad, but if they are paying a professional to clean up what a previous company has done, that professional should know the difference. I'm really talking about bad quality link building here. Spam has always been spam - just because Google didn't penalise for it before doesn't mean it was never spam. The legal analogy is a good one, but consider it another way. Google is not enforcing the law, it is a publisher making editorial decisions. If a nightclub changes its door policy to disallow trainers and people in jeans when you have been going in jeans and trainers for years, you can't say they are wrong when it's their prerogative to make the decision.
Tom Pick says:
Here's the thing though Steve - there are obviously good links, obviously spam ones, and then gray area in between. If, to your earlier point, "Google can’t just assume what links should be disavowed" -- then how would even a skilled SEO be able to discern that? As for the nightclub, they may change their dress code, but they don't actually punish people for wearing jeans - they just no longer let them in. That's what I'm saying - if Google decides a link from site x is no longer of acceptable quality, it should just ignore the link, not penalize the site for having it.
Gideon says:
Hi Todd Google says: "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. If you haven’t gotten this notification, this tool generally isn’t something you need to worry about." Sometimes, I think Google tells us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth... but we don't listen and we add a bunch of imaginative stuff. What if the tool works best - only - after spam notification?! And what if you've been bad and Google hasn't noticed/informed you... there's no guarantee the DLT is going to help. And nowhere does Google say that the DLT will leave a website blemish free and whiter than white. Bottom line - if you're aggressive with your SEO you're going to burn up domains just as you've always done and the DLT won't make a difference. So my advice to SEO's looking at DLT as salvation; it isn't - bite the bullet and buy the new domains, you'll need them.
Tom Pick says:
Thanks for the clarification Gideon. M
@Gideon - I understand what you're saying and think you have some valid points, but I still think the door is open (at least a bit wider) for a creative, aggressive link builder to do some damage by working the system. Also, I don't necessarily agree that a site is going to get completely torched if you are agressive with your link building or SEO...JC Penny, Overstock, etc. are all examples of that. Yes they went down, but they seem to be doing pretty well now :). Part of the point I wanted to make is that these tools that seem like great steps forward can have interesting side affects and be exploited by creative individuals/companies willing to take risks. Without knowing all the ins-and-outs of how they work, it's tough to tell. This is simply one side effect I could see. Personally, IF I was a practitioner of paid linking, I would feel more encouraged knowing that I have another possible safety net to use if I get caught...I have 2-3 perfectly valid excuses in my mind as to why I might suddenly have shady links that I shouldn't be penalized for.
Aaron over at SEOBook.com has some interesting thoughts on this as well. Check out the piece here: http://www.seobook.com/google-disavow-tool Some of the vulnerabilities he sees include: • Walk into a penalty: build spammy links, then disavow them. Competitors looking to copy your link profile don't have access to your disavow file, thereby shooting themselves in the foot. • Spoil a domain: find links pointing to competitor and spam it up on that domain with more links pointing at competitor, get them to disavow the good links they had. • Fingerprint a site: disavow links from domains that link to competitors from multiple different accounts. I think these types of things are plausible. We've seen how low competitors can go (negative SEO being an easy recent example).

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