Google to Disavow Links?

If you could tell Google which links you don’t want included in its ranking calculations, would you? Have you created links or had links suddenly appear that you wish weren’t there? Has an SEO company that you hired built a bunch of nastly looking links? Well, Google has announced that there may soon be a solution: A disavow tool.

Bings Disavow Links Tool

The Fight Against Link Spam

Nothing ever stays the same on the Web. When Google discovers how to identify link spam or link building tactics, SEOs find new ways and methods to build them. This forces Google to continually try to update the algorithms it uses to assess and rank pages.

Two of the latest major updates Panda and Penguin have seen Google wage war on sites with low quality content, blog networks, on site over optimisation and aggresive anchor text link building.

These updates did eliminate a number of poor quality sites that have ranked for years with low quality links. Problem solved, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, this tactic has a downside.

When Good Is Used For Evil

When Google crawls a page, it assesses each link leading to it. It then determines the quality of each originating site, before combining this information with some of the other 200+ ranking factors, and adjusting the page’s rankings.

The debate has always been whether “bad” links, could make the page or website receive a penalty or a filter. How much could bad links affect your rankings has been up for discussion. Could this could be used against your competitors. Webmasters have whispered about the possibility of this for years.

Known as negative SEO or “Google bowling”, some SEOs and site owners believe they can use a tool such as XRumer to build enough bad links to a competitor to trigger a penalty or filter. This causes their competitor’s site to fall in the search rankings leaving space on the first page for the offending SEO. Up until recently, however, this has been mostly rumour; there wasn’t a lot of proof out there.

As the Panda and Penguin updates continue, the stories of site owners being hit by negative SEO practices are becoming more common. The threat of negative SEO has added to the confusion surrounding ranking drops, and become the scapegoat for a number of other penalties, filters, and falls. It also became the subject of a few experiments.

Does Negative SEO Really Exist?

Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz issued a challenge to the public: give me 40K bad backlinks, and we’ll see what happens to our site. As of August 2012, nothing other than an unnatural link warning (that may be unrelated) appeared.

So is it possible? During SMX Advanced, Google’s own Matt Cutts stated negative SEO isn’t “impossible”, but unlikely. This has left webmasters and SEOs wondering how they can protect themselves.

Combating Bad Links With Traditional Solutions

Dr Pete recently did a great post on SEOmoz about negative SEO, but if you’re looking for a magic solution to bad link filters or over-optimization penalties, you won’t find any here, or elsewhere for that matter.

If you find your site’s rankings have fallen, there are a few steps you can take:

Ask to have the links removed – Given the evidence, it’s highly unlikely that a few bad links could do significant damage to your rankings (unless you get busted for buying links). And if you’re hit with Google bowling, removing a few thousand links would be an almost impossible task. However, if you’re absolutely certain they’re the problem and still think it’s worth it, contact the owners of the various sites and ask them to remove the links.

Create a 404 for the affected page – If the bad links are all pointing to a specific page, Google’s John Mueller suggests you may be able to simply move the page and 404 the original URL. This will cause Google to automatically disavow the links. Unfortunately, you’ll also lose all the good links with it.

Build more good links – If you generally have a pretty strong backlink profile and a quality page, you may be able to offset the negative affects of the filter by simply building more high quality links from quality sources. While doing so, also check your profile to ensure it’s diverse and contains a wide range of types, anchor text, domains and locations.

Of course, your best defence is to have a strong backlink profile that meets Google’s webmaster guidelines. This means you should also have a well-structured site that’s easy to use and filled with content your site visitors want to read. That being said, the big search engines have proposed another idea.

Bing Introduces the Disavow Tool

To help Bing identify links you don’t want counted or don’t trust, the search engine has introduced a disavow tool. To report a link, simply add the URL into the tool located in the dashboard. Bing will then see this as an indication that a particular link is unwanted and can assess or ignore it accordingly.

Bing says the disavow tool will act like a signal instead of a removal tool. Duane Forrester from Microsoft says that if Bing notices a sharp increase in the number of disavowed links, it could raise a flag and cause the search engine to investigate.

Is the disavow tool really going to help? Some webmasters think so, but others aren’t so sure and worry it may cause more problems than it’s worth. Bing, for example, can’t seem to decide whether they’ll simply ignore bad links or if they’ll penalise webmasters for them. The blog post announcing the launch of the tool states:

“You should not expect a dramatic change in your rankings as a result of using this tool, but the information shared does help Bing understand more clearly your intent around links pointing to your site.”

According to Microsoft, this tool does have a few other advantages. You can use it to help remove paid links or bad ones you may have previously created. If this is true, it could help strengthen your page rank or deal with penalties and filters that may be hampering your SEO efforts.

Will Google Allow Webmasters to Disavow Links, Too?

Google doesn’t seem as eager to create such a tool for webmasters. However, Matt Cutts did announce during a You&A With Matt Cutts session that they were working on such a tool and would release it in the next few months.

That being said, the search engine has been adamant for years that, while negative SEO is possible, it works hard to prevent this issue. As for dealing with bad links in the meantime, Matt Cutts and other Googlers suggest webmasters contact site owners directly to have bad links removed.

The Downside of Disavow Tools

There are also some potential negative side effects from this tool as well. As noted on, the tool could be used to recover only when caught creating or buying links. This would give webmasters the freedom to create links at will, using whatever techniques they want because, if they get caught, they can easily recover by using the disavow tool to discount the bad links.

Others worry it will cause professionals in the industry to point fingers and out their competitors leading to a number of issues on its own. Because the search engines will investigate sites with frequent or large amounts of disavows, it would be easy for an SEO or site owner to simply repeatedly target the competition to eliminate a competitor.

There are no real answers as to when the Google disavow tool will come out or when it will be available to the public, but it’s definitely under consideration. What do you think about the tool? Will it be something you’ll use? Or, do you think it will be nothing more than a way to waste time with very little return?

3 Responses to “Google to Disavow Links?”

  1. Jordan McClementsNo Gravatar Says:

    So, the short summary is that on a practical level, in most cases, negative SEO is not possible?

  2. MichaelNo Gravatar Says:

    Jordan, I never doubted that it was possible.
    Build more authority and the safer your site will be against such an attack.

  3. Barry ConnollyNo Gravatar Says:

    Really well written article Michael.

    Things like this really wind me up. Google are the guys that are hammering sites with spammy links yet do next to nothing to help sites wanting to rid themselves of them.

    Let’s face it, 2 years ago buying lots of directory links worked. Google changed the rules so it should be them taking the initiative, not Bing.

    For smaller websites negative SEO is certainly an issue. A site that has limited link building is easily susceptible to sabotage from competitors.

    The simple solution is for Google to simply ignore these links instead of punishing them. If somebody wants to waste their money then let them.

Michael Wall

Michael Wall is an experienced SEO based in Belfast N.Ireland currently running his own SEO Agency.

Michael Wall is available for Internet Marketing, Google Adwords PPC and SEO work. Please call Belfast 02890 923383 or use the contact form.

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