Adventures in Disavowal
August 22, 2013
Just as SEO can be used to improve a website’s performance on Google, it can also be used for evil, or rather to devalue one’s website. This practice is known as “negative SEO” and it is when a competitor points hundreds or even thousands of poor quality or spam links at a site with the goal of harming that site’s rankings on Google organic searches. In an attempt to combat this practice, as well as help sites maintain good SEO, Google Webmaster Tools introduced the Disavow Tool which allows one to “disavow” links pointing to their site.
Now before I continue–and this is very, very important–it is worth noting that using the Disavow Tool is an advanced practice that can seriously harm your site’s performance in Google search results if used incorrectly. It can be easy to go in and hack and slash perceived “bad” links but you may be doing more harm than good. Google has also stated, too, that they generally ignore obvious spam or poor quality links so unless you see an abundance of those links under “links to your site” in Google Webmaster Tools, you should probably not be concerned. However, if you are receiving “unnatural links” messages in GWT that suggest a manual penalty, you may need to take action.
With that caveat out of the way, I will say that just because you haven’t received an unnatural links message in Google does not mean that your backlink profile does not need cleaning up. In fact, it’s best to be proactive and do this before your site gets hit with a penalty, rather than run that risk. Analyzing your backlink profile can be tricky and it may be best to enlist the help of a search engine professional, like the kind folks over here at SEOhaus (:P). There are several metrics to look at that can help determine if a site is low quality or spammy, as well as programs that compile and rate these links.
One surefire way I’ve found to see if a link is poor quality is to examine the anchor text of the link to your site. If the anchor text is something like “Viagra”, “Cialis”, “Propecia” or “Pokemon” and your site deals neither in pharmaceuticals or toys, it’s probably safe to assume that those are spam links. Now, again–this is just one metric–there are several other metrics out there to take into consideration and to reiterate, Google may already be ignoring these bad links.
Once a list of spam links has been compiled, there’s a very specific procedure to go through to disavow these links. Google suggests that you do your due diligence first by contacting the webmaster of the spam site to remove the link. This is where things can get tricky as many of these sites are not easy to contact or may even want a fee to remove links (not surprising practices, especially when dealing with spam sites). Even if you do manage to contact one of these webmasters, how long should you wait for a response before submitting those links for disavowal?
I wish there was a clear-cut answer but Google’s explanation remains hazy. However, a recent video by Google’s Matt Cutts seems to suggest that Google has softened their view on the steps to take prior to disavowal:
Even after you’ve submitted a disavow form successfully, it’s hard to say when it will be processed by Google and there will not be any indication that it has been completed outside of the initial “disavow submitted successfully” message. In my experience, it seems to take about 1-2 months to process.
There has been a lot of debate out there on the effectiveness of the Disavow Tool and whether it does anything at all but there have also been a lot of success stories on sites that have rebounded after being hit with webspam. Google seems to be purposely cloaking the tool in mystery but I think this is more to deter the average webmaster from potentially harming his or her site.
One thing’s for sure: spammy backlinks are not doing your site any favors. However, whether or not they need to be disavowed is something to be analyzed and is best left up to an SEO professional.