On June 27, Bing officially announced a Disavow Links feature in Bing Webmaster Tools. Today, Google finally responded with their own Disavow Links tool.
But I’m not going to waste your time by answering the who/what/when/where questions. If you want those details, Danny Sullivan’s coverage is excellent. Google also has an official blog post, help page, and video (see below) to help answer your questions about the new tool:
Instead, I’m going to discuss conspiracy theories that are floating around the interwebs about the Disavow Links tool.
So without further ado, here are my top 3 theories, in reverse order (for arbitrary suspense):
#3 All Webmasters Will Destroy Their Sites In 3… 2… 1…
One of today’s most popular predictions is that the tool will single-handedly destroy the Web. Webmasters will flock to the tool and begin disavowing links just as fast as their little fingers can type URLs (and “domain:” strings) into a text file. By tomorrow, the entire Web graph will be disavowed!
(Technically, it can take “several weeks” for link disavowals to take effect, but you get the idea.)
Here are two of the best tweets that fall into this category:
— Ben Cook (@Skitzzo) October 16, 2012
Google just announced a link disavow tool. Thousands of SEOs are hurrying to shoot themselves in the foot.
— Ryan Jones (@RyanJones) October 16, 2012
Obviously, no one really believes this tool will lead to the Dark Ages of the Web (at least I hope not). However, in case you haven’t noticed: a lot of webmasters have been in a perpetual state of panic for the past few months. And desperate people tend to do desperate things.
Since many webmasters don’t know which backlinks are hurting them, they will inevitably go on a disavow crazy rampage, and they’ll create more problems than they solve. If you’re considering going down that path, stop right now! You don’t want to be that person!!
Instead, take a deep breath, and allow me to reiterate a few points that Matt Cutts tried to make abundantly clear:
- MOST PEOPLE DO NOT NEED TO USE THIS TOOL!
- No, seriously… MOST PEOPLE DO NOT NEED TO USE THIS TOOL!
- If you KNOW you have spammy backlinks (e.g., you received an unnatural links notice), ONLY disavow those links if you are unable to have them completely removed (e.g., the webmaster refused to take the links down).
- DO NOT blindly disavow backlinks. If you’re not 100% sure if you should be disavowing a link, ask a professional!
Before we move on to the next conspiracy theory, it’s important to highlight something in the above video (it’s at the top of the post) that hasn’t received a lot of attention. Around the 2:09 mark in the video, Matt Cutts explains a new type of unnatural links notice that will actually include site-specific link examples.
These new notices will only have 1-3 unnatural link examples (i.e., it’s not an exhaustive list), but that’s still a massive improvement over some of the recent notices, which have been extremely confusing for webmasters.
#2 The Tool Is Actually A Crowdsourced Spam Detector
This idea has been making the rounds in various posts and forums for the past few months. And today, it reemerged in a big, big way. Here are a few relevant tweets:
Wondering if disavow tool is just a crowdsourced way for Google webspam to ID manipulative links disguised as a webmaster tool…
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) October 16, 2012
I simply can not WAIT to help Google be the link police. Said no respectable SEO anywhere. #disavow
— Melanie Nathan (@melanienathan) October 16, 2012
The premise proposed by Rand and Melanie is fairly intuitive. If a large number of webmasters attempt to disavow the same backlink, Google could use that information to fight spam in a variety of ways.
Google could flag the source page as Web spam, which would also potentially flag all of that page’s outlinks as spam links. Alternatively, they could use the source page and its corresponding link graph as inputs to improve their spam detection algorithms.
Regardless of how Google uses the link disavowal data, the important point is that they’re collecting it. Essentially, it means Google’s Web spam team just acquired thousands of new volunteers for the low, low price of… FREE!!!
However, it remains to be seen whether these volunteers will help clean up the Web or hurt it even more, and that brings us to our final conspiracy theory…
#1 Spamming & Negative SEO Just Got A Lot Easier
For months, people have been debating the positives and negatives associated with a Disavow Links tool, and the most common complaint is always along the lines of, “Disavowing links makes it easier to build spammy links!”
The argument is that if you can disavow links, nothing stops you from employing every spammy technique in the book to build as many links as possible. Because if you get caught, you simply disavow the links and move on.
Lie, steal, cheat, disavow. #repeat
— Mike Tekula (@MikeTek) October 16, 2012
I don’t buy this argument for a few reasons. First, the disavowal process isn’t instantaneous (it takes weeks). Therefore, if a spammer went on a spammy link building spree and got caught, the Disavow Links tool wouldn’t instantly restore the spammer’s site. The spammer would have to wait for the disavowal process (and potentially the reconsideration process) before his site was removed from Google jail.
Now, let’s assume the spammer went through the aforementioned process and successfully cleaned his site’s backlink profile by disavowing all of the spammy links. Since he’s a spammer, he’ll immediately repeat the entire spammy link building process, and he’ll get caught again. In this situation, I can’t imagine Google would repeatedly offer the spammer a Get Out of Jail Free card. It seems far more likely that Google would identify the repeated violations and respond with even harsher consequences.
All right… so I’m not convinced that the Disavow Links tool makes it easier to create spammy links. However, I do believe it potentially opens the door for new negative SEO attacks. Here are just a few examples:
(a) Competitor Clone P0wn
One example of these new attacks is described by Ryan Jones in You Don’t Want a Google Disavow Links Option, and it assumes that #2 (above) is correct (i.e., Google will flag pages associated with disavowed links as spam).
The attack works as follows. You begin by identifying your competitor’s most important backlinks. Then, you create a dummy site, and you replicate as many of your competitor’s backlinks as possible. Once your dummy site has acquired those links, you disavow them, which will ultimately destroy their value (and their utility for your competitor).
This attack seems a bit far-fetched (why not spend the time directly building spammy backlinks for your competitor or you know… actually building high quality backlinks for your own site), but it illustrates a potential problem that we should be monitoring.
(b) Disavow Shell Game
Another attack idea was originally mentioned on Twitter by Patrick Altoft, but he subsequently deleted the tweet. Patrick’s attack involves creating spammy sites that link to your competitor. Then, after your competitor disavows the links from your spammy sites, you redirect the spammy sites to legitimate sites that are currently linking to your competitor.
It’s unclear if disavows will follow redirects so this idea might not work, but it’s yet another example of the potential dangers associated with this new tool.
(c) Preemptive Strikes
When I first heard about the Disavow Links tool, I immediately wondered if webmasters would preemptively disavow links from various domains. Then, I read the following line in Patrick Altoft’s advanced guide: “At Branded3 we already have a database of 60,000 blacklisted domains from our link removal work so we can cross reference with this quite easily. I wonder if agencies will start to just submit giant disavow files for all their clients?”
Clearly, I’m not the only one thinking about preemptively disavowing domains. And that raises a number of questions. What happens if I disavow a domain that doesn’t link to me? Is Google smart enough to ignore the disavow request? Or do they still record the disavowal… and count it against the domain in question?
If you’re allowed to disavow domains that don’t link to you (and Google actually uses those disavowals as meaningful signals), it opens Pandora’s box. Spammers will be able to create an army of dummy sites that register with GWT and disavow as many sites as they want.
Hopefully, Google has already considered these scenarios, but only time will tell if this new tool improves or exacerbates the negative SEO problem.
Now, It’s Your Turn…
I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Do you agree with any of these conspiracy theories? Do you have conspiracy theories of your own?