What The Google Disavow Tool Does To The Offending Site
As Google has gotten more stringent in their backlink profile analysis, and as the ball has been thrown in the hands of the site owners themselves to make sure their profile is clean, the disavow process is becoming more complex. Since Google introduced the disavow tool back in mid-October of 2012, webmasters have had the opportunity to get rid of the bad backlinks that have been placed via bad SEO companies and procedures. The tool has definitely been a valuable asset against the harmful penalties and sites that put up bad links looking to extort money from site owners to get them down (a practice that is still rampant through directories). The only issue that comes into play is that no one is really sure what including a site in the disavow file and sending it to Google does to an “offending” site.
We know that Google will take notice of the site you just ousted for having bad links, but not much more is known about what the inclusion of the domain means to the site itself, or how Google sees the site from now on. Besides devaluing the links it is sending to your site, it is hard to tell if that bad site as a whole gets hurt or just the page(s) you listed.
Our team at Online Image wondered about this when we were doing the annoyingly lengthy process of finding and evaluating backlinks for one of our new clients who worked with deceptive SEO companies in the past. We rely on a few in-house tools and methods to pinpoint the blatantly bad links, but the rest of the work is done by hand to ensure first-time manual action resolution with our submissions, which we have been hitting 98% of the time so far. As we combed a particularly long backlink log, we found ourselves wondering about the spam that was coming to our client from popular websites like Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, and a few other websites we could potentially see ourselves working with. The issue we pondered was whether or not we should “use the machete” as Matt Cutts loves to point out in his communication to the SEO community, since these sites might have spam comments we haven’t found yet or if we should just stick to blocking the specific URLs that we found. Luckily for our client, there were only a few bad links on each of the big sites, but what if you had hundreds pointing back from these pages? What would be the right action then?
We wondered about three things: what penalty does Google hit the offending spam site with, what does the disavow file do to an offending site, and how does it affect the individual links that are submitted in a disavow file? Playing the devil’s advocate and going off of our team discussions, I look to answer these questions with logical scenarios for how the disavow tool information should be used in penalty algorithms (if they are used by Google).
The overall umbrella concern I have with the disavow tool is centered on the people that are using the disavow tool. Some might not have experience to determine a passable link from a really bad one, or they might use a tool to figure it all out for them without reviewing the results, or they might even be taking the “use a machete” tactic and banning whole domains for even one bad/spammy backlink, due to fear that Google has pushed on to the SEO community. The issue that comes from this is that a site like Flickr, YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook (or even a site a client works with) is now blacklisted by you and marked as a spammer. If enough of these disavow files mention them, how long until they start getting hit by some algorithm, when they haven’t done anything wrong on their end? Google probably has some breaker switches so that big sites need to be really spammy to be burned, but what about the little guys? The issue isn’t that big for the “web giants”, but how detrimental would this be for a medium or Mom & Pop-sized site. And if there isn’t an algorithmic penalty that will come from these disavow files, then what would really be the point to throwing these names into the dirty pool of spammers?
The Obvious Solution
It’s easy to see some solutions to these fixes; the person doing the disavow file should do it with caution, and the website owners should be vigilant in the content that exists on their sites. This sounds fine and dandy, but as there is no real formal training in the industry, I am willing to bet that a lot of people are making things up as they go along. One blog might be saying “use a machete”, while another is saying something else, and third recommending something entirely different. Even in the professional arena of advice, there isn’t one way to get a disavow done. On the other spectrum, not all site owners are prepared and experienced at catching spam content, the majority of which happens on blogs and forums, especially when every Tom, Harry and Sally have a blog these days. When it comes to the big guys I mentioned, they wouldn’t ever even bother checking every profile for spammy activity.
The Real Solution
So what is the perfect solution to this whole problem Google set itself up for with a power tool like the Disavow Tool? Simple, we kill the Batman. But before we do, Google needs to have the proper setup for the disavow tool, and what effects it has on sites.
The way I imagine it, the purpose for the disavow tool set up by Google is to give them a better understanding of what content out there is bad, and what content is acceptable. I sincerely hope that their main intention isn’t to use the data to burn sites, because if mistakes like I mentioned above happen, we will have a wild goose chase of random sites being hit because someone disavowed the whole domain, when only one page is spammy towards their site. Now, instead of blocking just that one spam page on Flickr, you disavowed all of the links from the site now and in the future, getting rid of any link juice being passed down by 10 legitimate links you might get from the domain name (from users or even better pages on the domain). Instead, if Google is using the lists to improve its algorithm, then it would make sense to just devalue the links pointing to your site, and that’s it. It lets you decide what links you consider bad, Google doesn’t count them any more, and it uses that information for your preference to improve its algorithm based on what the site might contain. This way, no other site on the Internet is burned, they are just looked at overall with more stringency, but the sites that are mainly clean and are included in the disavow tool but don’t really belong, are spared a silent death at the hands of inexperienced people working with the Disavow Tool.
I ultimately hope that this is a first step towards Google automating the process and deciding on its own what links you want disavowed and not automatically counting the baddies once it comes across them. The genie of negative SEO has been let out of the bottle, and if Google thought it would kill the SEO industry by providing a disavow tool, they got it wrong. This just created more work (albeit tedious work) for SEO professionals in cleaning up messes some people are making on purpose. Overall this is more reason to promote industry standards for what a good site should have, and update the community as these standards change, so that regular Joes and Janes can wrap their mind around it instead of being strung along all of the information/misinformation out there.
Until there is a change, we will just have to do the disavows by ourselves, one site at a time, one link at a time, and if you ever need any help, Online Image will be there.
Nenad is Croatian. He is also the Senior SEO Specialist at Online Image and works on SEO & all its secrets. He also has a twin who does PPC.
With a long background in technology, he looks at the website in multiple dimensions and from various perspectives. When he gets a website on his plate, you can be assured that he will give you in depth feedback on various ways to improve your website to further advance your business.