3 Conspiracy Theories About Google’s Disavow Links Tool

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:

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:

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.

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?


steve
About The Author:  is an SEO audit specialist at Web Gnomes. He received his Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, where he published dozens of articles on Internet-related topics. Professionally, Steve has worked for Google and various other Internet startups, and he's passionate about sharing his knowledge and experiences with others. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.


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12 Responses to “3 Conspiracy Theories About Google’s Disavow Links Tool”

  1. MikeTek October 17, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Nice write-up, Steve. And I find I’m in general agreement with you across the board here.

    My Tweet above was mostly tongue-in-cheek, as I don’t think the disavow tool somehow opens up link spammers to free reign with zero consequences. The Webspam team can handily remove a site from the index regardless of disavowal submissions, reinclusion requests, etc, for repeat offenders.

    I do, however, think it gives link buyers a bit of an out where they would once be burned for good. Potentially. (This is all theory at this point, right? We haven’t seen exactly how the tool will work, we just know it’s there in GWT and we know what Matt Cutts has said.)

    Disavowing crappy links, if all you have are crappy links, still leaves you with near-zero net authority, but you could, theoretically, drive initial momentum/ROI with paid links and gradually move to a sustainable content-driven strategy. Justin Briggs talked about a similar strategy at LinkLove Boston (slides here), to which the disavow tool may well lend itself.

    If the tool gives some webmasters who unknowingly hired some less-than-authentic SEO/Link Building services the chance to shake off the filth, so they don’t, you know, go out of business, then the tool will be overall a good thing, even if it gets a few spammy operators an out when they may not deserve one.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds, in any case.

    • steve October 17, 2012 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment! First and foremost, I agree with you 100% about the “theory” aspect of this entire situation. It’ll be a few weeks before we have any idea how large (or small) this tool’s impact will be on the SERPs. And even then, I’m sure we’ll see a new wave of updates that Google uses to muddy the waters.

      Regardless, it seems like we have a very similar take on the tool. I’m very hopeful that it actually helps businesses that were slammed by Penguin (and the manipulative actions of others) — companies like The Children’s Furniture Company (the summer’s most famous Penguin victim). I’m equally hopeful the tool will help remove more spam than it helps create, but time will tell…

      -Steve

  2. Oleg October 17, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    >ONLY disavow those links if you are unable to have them completely removed

    This part is the mystery for me.. why do they require this? What is the downside to just disavowing a link without requesting it from the webmaster first?

    >#2 The Tool Is Actually A Crowdsourced Spam Detector

    Is that necessarily a bad thing? I see the potential for abuse but at its heart, if webmasters point out all the shitty, spammy sites, they are helping make a web a better place and help legit sites rank better. i’m sure G will use the data they receive from all these disavow files to determine which sites are spammy.

    Going back to my first point, disavow are suggestions and G will not necessarily disavow your submitted links (as mentioned in the video). In addition, they are asking people to leave notes next to the links they are trying to disavow.. leading me to believe there will be manual reviews of all of these.

    Sites where the webmaster is unresponsive and receives many disavows will probably drop out of rankings and discredit all links on their site.

    >#1 Spamming & Negative SEO Just Got A Lot Easier

    I agree that spamming won’t get easier. Sure they can spam then disavow and repeat, but it’s far easier to just get the high quality links. If you spam then disavow all your links, you’re just wasting your time. G manual reviewers can tell when links are shit and spammers just risk wasting a lot of time.

    Great ideas here, looking forward to seeing how G will use all this data.

    -Oleg

    • steve October 17, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      Hi Oleg,

      Thanks for your excellent comments/questions!

      I don’t think Google requires you to request a link removal from a webmaster before you can disavow it (and even if they did require it, they’d have no way of verifying that you actually made the request). I think Matt Cutts was basically saying, “Don’t rely on this tool as a cure-all for your spammy backlink profile.” My guess is that a disavowed link won’t necessarily penalize you, but it will have more negative weight than a spammy backlink that you explicitly removed by contacting a webmaster.

      In theory, you’re absolutely right. People are up in arms about the “outing” aspect of the tool, but if people are disavowing links that they genuinely believe to be spammy, it’s a good thing. The only problem (and this problem exists for all things that are crowdsourced) is the abuse factor. Hopefully, Google is smart enough to combat the abuse scenarios. But given how they’ve handled this entire manipulative links situation, I’m not convinced ;-)

      Thanks again for your thoughts on the post; I really appreciate the feedback!

      -Steve

  3. Dzianis October 17, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    It’s a crowd-sourced witch hunt, and as any witch-hunt can get ugly. Hopefully it won’t though, but relying on one traffic source is no longer an option.

    • steve October 17, 2012 at 10:14 am #

      As a general rule, I wholeheartedly agree that you shouldn’t rely on a single traffic source. Ideally, you want a nice, diversified traffic generation strategy to safeguard against worst case scenarios (e.g., Google penalizing or even deindexing your site).

      And I like how you characterized this situation: “witch hunt” (great description). Let’s just hope these past few months actually improve the SERPs… as opposed to making them worse.

  4. Stephane October 18, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Here’s a fun way to use this tool https://twitter.com/Qualitrafic/status/259109719292125184

    • steve October 20, 2012 at 10:53 am #

      That’s an interesting approach, but I’m sure Google has their properties whitelisted ;-)

  5. Patrick Masters October 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    The thing with Google is we just don’t trust them anymore. They’ve done more damage to their ‘do no evil’ image in 2012 than Jimmy Saville could ever hope for. I would like to think that this is them making amends for the negative SEO storm they caused by allowing backlinks to hurt in the first place. But something tells me its another sinister plot to massacre the livelyhoods of even more SEOs.

    • steve October 20, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment!

      I’m also trying to give Google the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard, but I’m trying ;-)

      I’m glad you brought up the ongoing negative SEO debate because it highlights one of Google’s biggest conundrums. The company’s ultimate spam-related goal is to be able to identify every manipulative link (and page) on the Web. This is obviously impossible because spam techniques are always evolving, and the line that distinguishes spam from non-spam will never be 100% accurate. Impossible or not, that’s their goal.

      If Google could magically identify EVERY manipulative link, they wouldn’t need to penalize those links. They could simply ignore them and assign value exclusively to legitimate links. However, since they don’t have this magic ability, they are penalizing manipulative links for at least 2 reasons: (1) to scare spammers (and hopefully convince them not to create manipulative links) and (2) to motivate “good” people to start policing the Web on Google’s behalf (this is where the disavow tool comes into play).

      I agree with Danny Sullivan (and the vast majority of the SEO community): life would be a lot easier if Google simply ignored manipulative links (as opposed to penalizing them). But that’s obviously not going to happen (for the reasons I just mentioned), and negative SEO victims will continue to be casualties of Google’s spam war.

      -Steve

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