Will Google’s Link Disavow Tool Come Back To Haunt Webmasters?

By: Chris Crum - October 19, 2012

Back in June, during the height of the Penguin update freakout, Google’s Matt Cutts hinted that Google would launch a “link disavow” tool, so that webmasters can tell Google the backlinks they want Google to ignore. This means links from around the web that are potentially hurting a site’s rankings in Google could be ignored, and no longer count against the site in question. This is something that many webmasters and SEOs have wanted for a long time, and especially since the Penguin update launched earlier this year. On Tuesday, Google made these dreams come true by finally launching the tool, after months of anticipation.

Is it what you hoped it would be? Do you intend to use it? Let us know in the comments.

How It Works

The tool tells users, “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 is worth noting, however, that just because you use the tool, and tell Google to ignore certain links, it is not a guarantee that Google will listen. It’s more of a helpful suggestion. Google made this clear in the Q&A section of the blog post announcing the tool.

“This tool allows you to indicate to Google which links you would like to disavow, and Google will typically ignore those links,” Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Jonathan Simon says. “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—but we will typically use that indication from you when we assess links.” He adds:

If you’ve ever been caught up in linkspam, you may have seen a message in Webmaster Tools about “unnatural links” pointing to your site. 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. This is the best approach because it addresses the problem at the root. By removing the bad links directly, you’re helping to prevent Google (and other search engines) from taking action again in the future. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links pointing to your site on the web and jump to conclusions about your website or business.

If you’ve done as much as you can to remove the problematic links, and there are still some links you just can’t seem to get down, that’s a good time to visit our new Disavow links page.

With the tool, you simply upload a .txt file containing the links you want Google to disavow. You add one URL per line. You can block specific URLs or whole domains. To block a domain, use this format: domain:example.com. You can add comments by including a # before them. Google ignores the comments. The file size limit is 2MB.

If you haven’t watched it yet, watch Matt Cutts’ video explaining the tool. If it’s something you’re considering using, it’s definitely worth the ten minutes of your time:

Cutts warns repeatedly that most people will not want to use this tool, and you should really only use it if you’ve already tried hard to get the questionable links removed, but haven’t been able to get it done. For more details and minutia about how this tool works, there is a whole help center article dedicated to it.

Negative SEO

Negative SEO, a practice in which competitors attack a site with spammy links and whatnot, has been debated for a long time, and many will see this tool as a way to eliminate the effects fo this. Google has specifically responded to this.

“The primary purpose of this tool is to help clean up if you’ve hired a bad SEO or made mistakes in your own link-building,” says Simon. “If you know of bad link-building done on your behalf (e.g., paid posts or paid links that pass PageRank), we recommend that you contact the sites that link to you and try to get links taken off the public web first. You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links and jump to conclusions about your website or business. If, despite your best efforts, you’re unable to get a few backlinks taken down, that’s a good time to use the Disavow Links tool.”

“In general, Google works hard to prevent other webmasters from being able to harm your ranking,” he adds. “However, if you’re worried that some backlinks might be affecting your site’s reputation, you can use the Disavow Links tool to indicate to Google that those links should be ignored. Again, we build our algorithms with an eye to preventing negative SEO, so the vast majority of webmasters don’t need to worry about negative SEO at all.”

Cutts also talked about the subject at PubCon, where the tool was announced. Search Engine Roundtable has a liveblogged account of what he said, which reads:

All the negative SEO complaints he sees, or most of it, is really not negative SEO hurting you. It is a much better use of your time to make your site better vs hurting someone else. At the same time, we’ve seen cases of this as an issue. I.e. buying a new domain and needing to clean up that site. There are people who want to go through this process. Plus SEOs that take on new clients that went through bad SEOs.

Warnings And Overreaction

Again, you don’t want to use the tool in most cases. It’s pretty much a last resort tactic for links you’re positive are hurting you, and can’t get removed otherwise. Google has warned repeatedly about this, as over-use of the tool can lead to webmatsers shooting themselves in the foot. If you use it willy nilly, you may be hurting your site by getting rid of links that were actually helping you in the first place.

It seems like common sense, but ever since the Penguin update, we’ve seen plenty of examples of webmasters frantically trying to get links removed that even they admit they would like to keep, if not for fear that Google might frown upon them (when in reality, it’s likely that they did not).

Aaron Wall from SEOBook makes some other interesting points on the warnings front. He writes:

The disavow tool is a loaded gun.

If you get the format wrong by mistake, you may end up taking out valuable links for long periods of time. Google advise that if this happens, you can still get your links back, but not immediately.

Could the use of the tool be seen as an admission of guilt? Matt gives examples of “bad” webmaster behavior, which comes across a bit like “webmasters confessing their sins!”. Is this the equivalent of putting up your hand and saying “yep, I bought links that even I think are dodgy!”? May as well paint a target on your back.

Google Wants To Depend More On Social And Authorship

If overreaction is an issue, and it seems fairly likely that it will be, despite Google’s warnings, this tool could really mess with how Google treats links, which have historically been the backbone of its algorithm.

“Links are one of the most well-known signals we use to order search results,” says Simon. “By looking at the links between pages, we can get a sense of which pages are reputable and important, and thus more likely to be relevant to our users. This is the basis of PageRank, which is one of more than 200 signals we rely on to determine rankings. Since PageRank is so well-known, it’s also a target for spammers, and we fight linkspam constantly with algorithms and by taking manual action.”

It will be interesting to see how Google treats the links webmasters tell it to ignore, which are not actually hurting them in the first place. I would not be surprised to see some in the industry test Google on this.

Google does not like it when people manipulate the way it counts links, yet they’ve just given webmasters a tool to do so, even if it’s kind of the opposite of the black hat techniques Google has always tried to eliminate (link schemes, paid links, etc.). Now (and we’ve seen this even before the tool existed), you potentially have webmasters trying to get rid of links that actually do have value, even in Google’s eyes. I mean, seriously, what are the odds that this tool will be used 100% how Google intends it to be used, which is apparently in rare circumstances?

Google seems to be grooming other signals to play a greater role in the algorithm. While they’re not there yet, based on various comments the company has made, social signals will almost certainly play an increasingly weighty role. CEO Larry Page was asked about this at a conference this week.

He responded, “I think it’s really important to know, again, who you’re with, what the community is – it’s really important to share things. It’s really important to know the identity of people so you can share things and comment on things and improve the search ecosystem, you know, as you – as a real person…I think all those things are absolutely crucial.”

“That’s why we’ve worked so hard on Google+, on making [it] an important part of search,” he continued. “Again, like Maps, we don’t see that as like something that’s like a separate dimension that’s never going to play into search. When you search for things, you want to know the kinds of things your friends have looked at, or recommended, or wrote about, or shared. I think that’s just kind of an obvious thing.”

“So I think in general, if the Internet’s working well, the information that’s available is shared with lots of different people and different companies and turned into experiences that work well for everyone,” he said. “You know, Google’s gotten where it is by searching all the world’s information, not just a little bit of it, right? And in general, I think people have been motivated to get that information searchable, because then we deliver users to those people with information.”

“So in general, I think that’s the right way to run the Internet as a healthy ecosystem,” Page concluded. “I think social data is obviously important and useful for that. We’d love to make use of that every way we can.”

As Google says, links are a direct target for manipulation, and social could be harder to fake (though there are certainly attempts, and there will be plenty more).

Another difficult signal to fake is authorship, which is why Google is really pushing for that now. In a recent Google+ Hangout, Matt Cutts said of authorship, “Sometimes you’ll have higher click through, and people will say, ‘Oh, that looks like a trusted resource.’ So there are ways that you can participate and sort of get ready for the longer term trend of getting to know not just that something was said, but who said it and how reputable they were.”

“I think if you look further out in the future and look at something that we call social signals or authorship or whatever you want to call it, in ten years, I think knowing that a really reputable guy – if Dan has written an article, whether it’s a comment on a forum or on a blog – I would still want to see that. So that’s the long-term trend,” he said.

“The idea is you want to have something that everybody can participate in and just make these sort of links, and then over time, as we start to learn more about who the high quality authors are, you could imagine that starting to affect rankings,” he pointed out.

So here you have Google (Matt Cutts specifically) telling you that authorship is going to become more important, and that you probably shouldn’t even use the new link-related tool that the company just launched.

Danny Sullivan asked Cutts, at PubCon, why Google doesn’t simply discount bad links to begin with, rather than “considering some of them as potentially negative votes.”

“After all, while it’s nice to have this new tool, it would be even better not to need it at all,” he writes. Cutts did not really answer that question.

Why do you think Google does not do as Danny suggests, and simply ignore the bad links to begin with? Do you think social and authorship signals will become more important than links? Share your thoughts about Google’s ranking strategy and the new tool in the comments.

Lead Image: The Shining (Warner Bros.)

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • sofakingdabest

    Why isn’t Matt wearing his crown?

  • Guy

    cool. google noticed what unable to determine where is good and bad links and give us some small weapon in to our hands. But with hidden wishes, such as recognize blog networks and open for posting websites.

    when google start paying us salary???

  • knysna

    Hey Chris, this is a stupid question you asked.

    “Why do you think Google does not do as Danny suggests, and simply ignore the bad links to begin with?”

    LOL, they can’t get it right!

  • Robert Blueford

    Sad. When Google can and could do the job alone, like any other guillotine update like Penguin…(Disalow.TXT, managed like robot.txt) it uses its monopolistic powers to set absolute confusion and business destruction in asking billions of webmasters throughout the planet to “jump still higher” to manage years if not a decade or more of all types of allowed, accepted & tolerated backlinks of all sorts created for websites since 1996 (Are all webmasters still working for the same website?) Good thing AdWords are there. I’m shutting down my client’s 200,500 websites and opening a Google Investing Firm to purchase G stock. Everybody will be making money then, exept businesses counting on Google’s Search Engine capabilities that have gone down the drain for a long while, now. Good thing BING is there… as well as Yahoo to resurect from its ashes, with so many “malpractice behaviours” from Gooble going on for years, now. Thanks Google, please proceed.

  • Bryan

    Fools Rush In!

    I wonder how many people will be suckered into using this tool like so many others in the past.. Why can’t anyone wake up and realize SEO and Google don’t mix, they are not doing this to help you out, they are doing this to clean up the free loaders and abusers.. I have never once used Google tools, analytics, etc., never once submitted to their search engine, yet all my sites are all over Google, and not one has gotten band or de-indexed with Panda or Penguin… you know why that is? You guessed it, because I don’t tell them what I’m doing!

    Good luck all!!

  • http://techlister.com Web Trends

    “After all, while it’s nice to have this new tool, it would be even better not to need it at all” – what are you trying to say?

    google and the so called programmers are becoming more and more confusing nowadays.

  • http://www.quickhaggle.com/ Bilal Ahmad

    I can see that the whole purpose of this tool is to find the blogs and websites which are involved in selling links.

    Smart Idea Google.

  • Kris

    I fail to see how this tool helps. So far I have not bought links and do not respond to link trade requests. Instead, I let all links to my sites just grow naturally. Have done that for years. During the course of natural backlink growth, I see links to my sites appear in various places – forum posts, site blogs, comment sections, and crappy sites splattered with advertising. One time a site was linked to from hundreds of useless domains all at the same time. These had names like asdfasdfsdf.com and I saw that as a deliberate attempt to lower the site rank. But what worries me now is that this tool implies I should be doing something about it. In the past I had assumed google was clever enough to understand that we have no control over links and that links were actually a really bad indicator of rank. Obviously not. So my concern is that there is no way that I will ever know where the bad links are. Is google going to provide a tool to discover bad links? Webmaster tools does not show every site linking in. So how do we find the dreaded link spam that google is so afraid of. At this point in time I am teetering on the edge – on one side is life with google and all the confusion and demands placed on us by this corporate control freak. And on the other side is life without google, living free to develop my business in a world without the limitations placed on us by the cyber police/big-brother bully, that is pretending to be a search engine. I think I already know to which side I will fall. Can you guess?

  • http://www.webpronews.com/author/rich-ord Rich Ord

    To answer your Danny question… Google wants to deter web spam by punishing the spammers. If they just ignored the links people would still pursue link spam and hope for the best with Google. That being said, I still believe that Google shouldn’t be in the business of punishing sites because of all the false positives hurting sites that never purchased links, etc… Sites should not have to go through all these hoops if they in fact never pursued any link spam.

  • http://www.optimera.co.uk Optimera

    I find it funny that Google are trying to stop people over optimising them give them a tool that potentially puts them in control of their link count and popularity.

    I can sense massive de-indexing on the way.

  • http://www.backwaterstudio.com Kathleen Johnson

    Excellent explanation. Thank you!

  • Steve

    Danny suggests ignore the bad links. Easier said than done. How do you expect a computer to figure out what exactly a good or bad link is?? Sure, some sites label their links as sponsored or paid, but not every site discloses that.

    There is a fine line here.

  • Tag A. Long

    It makes better theater to have a “link disavow” tool. How stupid is that? Google can’t count?

  • Watson

    One more signal that G’s links based website ranking algorithm has failed….. G is making webmasters paranoid about links.

  • http://www.ukbettips.co.uk/ UK

    This is a good thing. They are focusing on telling webmasters that Google wants them to pay if they want their sites on Google. Long live Adwords.
    Respect Google.

  • Tai Kung

    Remember once when this Cutt guy said that webmaster need not worry about link spamming from other competitors? Now, what is this tool for? This guy is treating webmasters like whores. I give you a big spanking today, tomorrow, I’ll bring you out for lunch. And the whore in us will start praying that we will gain Google’s favor again. Wake up!

  • http://www.canbuy.ca David Cameron

    Why doesn’t Google simply ignore the bad links?

    It must be one of two things:
    1) Either the Google algorithms are not sophisticated enough to accurately weight in-bound links.
    2) The anti-spam team got overly aggressive with pushing the responsibility off onto individual webmasters to clean up a mess that Google created by the very nature of their nested algos.

    My choice is #2.

    I suspect that the business reason behind this new disavow tool is based on having to hire all those “engineers” in India to sift through our reconsideration requests. It must be costing them a lot of money. Now, they can run a script against the disavow.txt file for a fraction of the cost.

  • http://Houses.com.ng Darlington

    I think this tool would be great for webmaster so that they don’t keep getting hit by Google Update. Getting a warming upfront can help get rid of the spam links.

  • http://findcheaperinsurance.ca BD Williams

    It must have been nice being a webmaster where penguin wasn’t a total pain in the arse. I have been working on my sites SEO for two months now and I haven’t seen any improvement. I’m totally discouraged and ready to quit.

  • http://www.bodybuilderprogramsreview.com/ tim clarkson

    great info thanks so much

  • http://ephedrinewheretobuy.com Mike Budd

    I will probably use this Disavow Tool: I don’t know why but some “adult sites” are copying my articles including internal links to my other pages and as a result I get their links that have nothing to do with my content that in all modesty I consider high quality content (doctors team). But I will not spend much time on that, only in obvious cases.
    Cheers, Mike

  • Clickdawg

    Propaganda of the highest order.

    Matt Cutts should be a politician as his talks and videos remind me of a really bad ventriloquist.

    Google is a public company. They earn their money from advertising not search.
    They will come out with penguin 2.0 and panda 3.0.
    Search has gotten worse not better.
    Search blows.

    The idea of falling on my knees as begging for forgiveness from Google is not going to happen.
    Who came up with that gem?

    To imply that negative SEO will not or does not occur is ignorance.
    It will occur more frequently…….guarantee it.

    Here is a simple exercise which will summarize the state of search today.

    Go to google.
    Do a search on the keyword “search engine”

    Dogpile.com comes up first. That says it all.

    Google comes up seventh.

    I wonder if penguin 2.0 will move the dogpile?
    Tune in same bat time and same bat channel to find out.

    Nuff said.

  • http://www.opace.co.uk/seo-audit-and-link-removal-service Opace

    Not convinced by this tool to be honest, heard so many mixed results that it’s impossible to have any confidence in it.