September 12th, 2013
Recently, SEOs found themselves facing a new reality: the invisible web. When I say invisible, I don’t mean the kind of the web that search engines like Shodan specialise in. I mean the regular web of sites and links post-Penguin and post-disavow tool.
You used to look at a site’s link profile and know what you were looking at. Commonly used backlink tools show you a site’s physically existing links, and sometimes links that used to physically exist but have since been deleted, and you knew that was all there was to it. But there is no tool to show which links, while still present physically, have been disavowed, or if Google took those disavowed links into consideration.
The most dangerous thing about the disavow tool is anybody can submit anything into it, including their complete link profiles, good natural links included, it’s not known if Google filters these submissions in any way, but it’s pretty obvious that they are building a database, and using that database, and unnatural links email triggered by getting a link from a site previously disavowed by someone else already happen. It doesn’t matter how many links you get from sites in the disavowed database, it can be just one. I have witnessed cases when one link was enough. This is something new Google apparently has just started doing recently (in the last couple of weeks by the looks of it) and not many people are aware of this yet – but it is already happening to sites in various verticals, with various link profiles and SEO strategies. There hasn’t been any public announcement of any sort about this new flagging tactic from Google that I’m aware of, they might just be testing it – but it has already affected a number of sites that’s difficult to estimate at this point, and may affect more any time.
Disavowed links are like radiation – you do not see it or notice it until the damage is already done. Building links of any kind – the most genuine kind even – has become akin to walking through the minefield. You used to be able to evaluate the quality of sites you were targeting for links – you cannot do it with any reliability any longer. Google has built a monster you say – but it’s every one of you who has been using their disavow tool that has helped build this monster and create your own trap.
I will even go as far as saying Google’s disavow tool is the most disruptive thing that has happened to the web. If we step back and look at the origins of the analogy that was used to name it the web (which a lot of people tend to forget as the web is becoming more and more of an everyday thing), we’ll see that the web is a complex living organism with lots of dependencies where everything is interconnected. Disavowing backlinks of one site will inevitably affect the link profiles of all other sites that have backlinks from the same sites as that one, and the owners of those affected sites wouldn’t even know it. The owners of the sites carrying the links that have been disavowed would not know their sites got into Google’s disavow database either. If you are running any tests disavowing your test site’s links just to see what happens, don’t do it as you never know how many other sites your tests are affecting and how disruptive it can be for those sites.
Google has stepped into a very dangerous zone when they introduced their disavow tool and encouraged people to use it. Sure, they are trying to solve a problem they are facing involving the least resources possible – this is not the first time they are doing this, and given the sheer size of their operations, saving resources where possible is indeed one of their key priorities (as confirmed by Googlers I talked to). Google has depended on user input in the past, they have been known for encouraging spam reports, paid link reports, feedback on various updates they were rolling out etc. – this time however, it’s much more serious. They are now instilling the view of links – any links – being dangerous in people’s minds, and links ARE the nature of the web, if Google disappears tomorrow the web will still be made of links, content and links between it.
Is it too late to stop? If Google wants to keep playing the disavow game, they should at the very least notify website owners if a link off their site has been disavowed, and notify website owners if a site they have a link from has been disavowed. It is not very clear what should then be done by those sites’ owners, but at least they would in this case know what’s going on. Next, if Google really wanted to be open with the webmasters like they say they want to, they could launch a publicly accessible tool letting people check if any given site is in the disavow database yet. Sounds crazy I know, but the whole disavow database concept is much crazier. I know what Google’s rebuttal to this idea would be – they would likely say that making a public tool like this would allow for manipulation by SEOs. Only, manipulations happen already, and we have no way of protecting ourselves, so this argument is invalid. What’s a poor SEO to do?