Why You Should (Almost) Never Disavow Links

Web marketers love to embrace and promote really bad ideas. It’s human nature to want to believe in magic. Do you need a miracle? Here is one all brightly packaged and ready to deliver to your home. Just send me $50. But wait! There’s more. If you act now, you’ll get a 20% discount plus this ebook that republishes every Googler quote from the last 5 years – TAKEN COMPLETELY OUT OF CONTEXT!

In Disney’s 2019 remake of Aladdin, Will Smith’s genie asks Mena Massoud’s Aladdin about who sent him. It’s a great poke at cheap movie tropes.

Genie: Where’s your boss?

Aladdin: Uh, my boss?

Genie: Look, kid, I’ve been doing this a long time, all right? There’s always a guy, you know… he’s cheated somebody or buried somebody, or… I mean, you get my point. Where’s that guy?

Aladdin: I know that guy. He’s outside.

When it comes to popular harmful SEO practices masquerading as good ideas, there is (almost) always “a guy” behind the supposed great idea. PageRank Sculpting had “a guy”. Noindexing category archive pages on your blog has “a guy”.

How do we know there’s always a guy behind these dumb ideas?

Because inevitably when you ask people why they want to shoot themselves in the foot by using “nofollow” attributes on their own internal links or “noindex” their category archive pages they name some well-known Web marketing personality. “So-and-so said this is what you should do.”

And it usually turns out that So-and-So is selling something that is somehow connected to his urgent message of self-destruction. There is more than one Mister So-and-So in the Web marketing world. And let’s not be sexist – there are a few Ms. So-and-Sos out there, too.

If someone is selling a clever solution to you – especially as part of a monthly subscription – it’s almost always solving a non-existent problem, like “keyword cannibalization”. I love that phrase. I have no idea what it’s supposed to represent because every explanation and rationalization is A) different from the others and B) stupid.

Disavowing links is (99% of the time) a really bad idea but it stands out from the crowd of really bad SEO ideas in one respect. There is no guy behind this mythology.

Where Did the Idea of Disavowing Links Come From?

I don’t know who first asked Google for the ability to disavow links. If I had to pick a name out of a hat, and could influence my random choice, I would randomly choose Danny Sullivan. Back before he turned to the Dark Side – I mean, before he joined Google – Danny was a champion for many Web marketing pleas to Google.

Good pleas, bad pleas, it didn’t matter. Danny felt our pain and he often went out of his way to share it with Googlers both openly and privately. And I have no doubt that is why Google thought it would be a good idea to hire Danny as their Search Liaison. It’s not that people like Gary Illyes and John Mueller lack empathy for Web marketers – after all, they continue to answer questions and help people despite the mountains of verbal abuse directed at them every day. But Danny Sullivan has proven he knows the pain of being a Web marketer time and time again.

I cannot think of a better choice for a Search Liaison role in Web marketing. So maybe Danny was the first person to suggest to Google that, hey, maybe instead of punishing Websites for all these naughty links you could just – I don’t know – maybe ignore them?

We don’t need to revisit the entire history of that discussion with Google. When Matt Cutts was the head of the spam team at Google he was pretty adamant that punishing sites was always a last resort but a rather effective way of dealing with determined Web spammers.

But people don’t trust Google to be honest. Yes, they’re far more easily misled by all the So-and-Sos who are selling them solutions to non-problems. What I mean is that Google lost the shouting contest.

How Did Link Disavowals Even Become Possible?

In the old days if Google hit you with a penalty for buying or building links that violated their guidelines you had to file an honest reconsideration request explaining everything you had done. This was a controversial requirement among so-called black hat SEOs because they always believed that they could hide some links from Google.

We need not delve into the intricacies of that idea. The point is, if you wanted Google to remove a penalty, you had to satisfy the Web spam team that you’d made a good faith effort to undo the violations. Whether you succeeded in not disclosing some links to Google doesn’t matter.

Some people were too proud or stubborn to beg Google for a second chance. Or they had learned the hard way that if they didn’t change their ways after being granted a Google Reprieve they would just be penalized again. Churn and Burn SEO predates Google’s popularity. It was a thing back in the days when Altavista ruled Web search and kept burning doorway pages.

Web spammers have deep roots, if short memories. They always think their latest gimmick (like “niche edits”) is a new idea that the search engines have never seen before. These tricks and hubs and wheels and tiers are all old hat to a search industry that has been in business longer than most of those Guys selling you solutions to problems that don’t exist.

But bad links do exist. And I know because I helped build many of them and I helped promote ways to build them. I even explained how to build spammy links right here on SEO Theory, the blog that many spammers dismissed as being “too goody two shoes” and “white hat”.

The problem came to a head in 2012 when Google launched the March-April Blogocalypse. I thought it was a funny sad situation, which is why I wrote “How Space Aliens Stole My Blog Network” on March 27.

It wasn’t long afterward that Matt and the Despammers released their next hit, “Penguin 1.0”. We didn’t know it at the time but Penguin 1.0 only identified blog networks selling homepage backlinks that met certain rather limited criteria. It was when Google announced “Penguin 2.0” a year later that they admitted they hadn’t been looking deeper into sites.

Between Penguin 1.0 and Penguin 2.0 I had a fairly serious discussion with Matt Cutts. Angry at Google, some link spammers began redirecting their deindexed links at people’s profile pages. I asked Matt if blocking or redirecting those URLs to “example.com” would be okay. I only proposed people do this for their peace of mind (because if a link isn’t in Google’s index it cannot hurt you). Matt said the redirection would be okay and added that they had discussed a disavow feature for Webmaster Tools and he would talk to the Webmaster Tools team.

Matt was always reluctant to create a disavow tool. A lot of people asked him about that and he was rightly concerned that A) spammers would try to abuse it (they have) and B) people might harm themselves (they most definitely have) by disavowing innocent links.

My final argument (as best I can recall) in favor of a disavow tool was simple: Thousands of small business owners had hired unscrupulous SEO agencies to help them. The agencies had in turn bought thousands of links on blog networks for those clients. When hit by the Penguin algorithm, those small business owners had no recourse. They didn’t know where the links were, couldn’t get them removed, and Google wasn’t allowing people to simply apologize and move on.

Still, months later in October 2012 Googler Jonathan Simon announced the launch of the Google Disavow Tool.

How Well Did the Disavow Tool Work?

One of the caveats of Google’s manual action system was that you had to make a legitimate effort to get rid of spam. That didn’t change with Penguin. But because Google understood just how complex the Web spam problem had become, they were more tolerant when businesses (or SEO agencies) wrote a polite message explaining that “someone else” had created all the links and neither the new agency nor the client had the means to remove them.

People were still expected to find as many links as possible and disavow them and to name names. That last part was controversial, and I don’t know how widely it was enforced.

Some minor SEO personalities pivoted into the business model of fixing Penguin penalties. I, personally, found this kind of work unappealing – as did my partner Randy Ray. We agreed we would not become Penguin Penalty Specialists, and so I gradually stopped writing about Penguin. I’d mention it in Web forums and Facebook groups, or on Twitter, and offer a few bits of advice to people. But I didn’t want all these clients who had sunk their Websites by hiring cheap spammy link building agencies in the past.

I had one guy call me up and ask if I could help him. He had been hit hard by Penguin. But until that penalty came through his local insurance business had been competing with national giants thanks to the link networks. He wanted to know if I could help him replace the links he lost. I politely suggested he think about a different business model. “But it’s hard to walk away from that rush of success,” he said wistfully.

The Disavow Tool gave those thousands of small business owners a second chance on life. Prior to October 2012 if a link builder screwed over your Website you almost always had to rebrand your site. That is an expensive proposition for many businesses.

In this respect, I’d say the Disavow Tool did exactly what many of us hoped it would do: breathe new life into the business Web and give everyone a chance to do things right.

But Then Came the New SEO Mythologies

Somewhere along the way people began to talk about “toxic links”. Now, I admit I probably contributed more to popularizing this phrase than anyone else. I was talking about “toxic links” when most Web marketing experts were still saying “all you need is links”.

I hammered away at toxic links for years.

And then one day someone posted in a Web forum discussion that he was going to disavow thousands of toxic links. I innocently asked (purely out of curiosity) why he had bought so many links. “I didn’t buy them,” he said. “Nor did I build them. They suddenly appeared in my backlink profile.”

So there were two red flags in his comment. First, that he had nothing to do with the creation of these supposed “toxic links”. Second, that he was tracking a “backlink profile”.

People have been using the wrong tools to monitor their backlinks for over 15 years. I can’t begin to count the number of times SEO “experts” used to tell people that if they wanted to know how many backlinks they had they should “just use Yahoo! to show you what Google won’t”. Never mind the fact that Yahoo! had its own index and didn’t share data with Google. Just substitute Yahoo!’s data for Google’s data and you’d know everything you needed to know about your backlink profile.

That was always a bad idea.

But enough people loved the bad idea that it became the common practice, until Yahoo! stopped publishing its own index. And then all these link research tools began appearing. They crawled the Web or bought web crawls or whatever and built their own databases. And Web marketers turned to these tools to understand their backlink profiles.

But these tools were worse than Yahoo!’s index. Their limitations included:

    1. They weren’t using Google’s index
    2. They couldn’t crawl and index as much of the Web as Google
    3. They weren’t using Google’s algorithms
    4. They were computing alternative metrics to PageRank

In other words, the Web marketing world was gradually moving away from Earth to Mars, but still trying to analyze Earth’s climate by sampling the Martian atmosphere. What I mean is, if you want to drink expensive Scotch Whiskey don’t buy a diet soft drink – and don’t pretend the diet soft drink is expensive whiskey just because you can’t buy the whiskey.

But now people had begun disavowing perfectly innocent links. And I know they were innocent links because I often asked people to share examples of the links they were disavowing with me. Most of them were created in bulk by Websites that generated automated content (aggregators, Website profilers, etc.).

Googlers had said repeatedly, many times, throughout the years these links do not harm your sites. And I never disavowed the tens of thousands of links those kinds of sites pointed toward SEO Theory, Xenite.Org, and other sites we operate. We’ve never been harmed by them.

All the panic over “toxic links” was being stirred up by those guys – the people with the solutions for non-existent problems. If there is a way to leverage people’s fear and gullilbility, someone with an SEO tool will find a way to do it.

Not all SEO tool vendors are bilking you out of millions of dollars. Even some of those guys do some pretty clever stuff that is genuinely helpful. But the Great Toxic Link Scare is a complete scam. It’s a false crisis.

If you don’t know why the links exist or how they came to be, you’re probably safe with Google. To this day Googlers claim they’ve never seen a successful case of “negative SEO”. But people outside of Google – without access to any of the data they would need to confirm their beliefs – swear they are victims of negative SEO.

It may be true that someone is willfully trying to poison your site by pointing thousands of blog network links at it, but remember that Real-Time Penguin 4.0+ just ignores links that violate Google’s guidelines. It’s like those links don’t exist.

So why freak out over nothing?

Just Because You Lose Rankings Doesn’t Mean Anything

The justification people raise about their Toxic Link Paranoia is that they have “lost rankings”. Some people lose rankings every quarter. I’ve seen three specific individuals complain about lost rankings for almost 3 years straight.

By my calculations, they must owe Google a hell of a lot of rankings because you can only lose 1,000 positions at most for any query and then you’re done. So there must be a Ranking Deficit problem out there where Google is trying to collect for all those rankings you shouldn’t have had in the first place. You guys just keep “losing rankings” with no end in sight.

Why do you bother?

It’s these SEO tools. People can’t just look at their average positions in Bing Toolbox and Google Search Console. They have to turn to 3rd-party tools that just make up imaginary numbers (oh – I’m sorry, they estimate traffic).

Rankings hasn’t really meant anything since Bing and Google stopped showing everyone the same search results OVER A DECADE AGO. Two people sitting side-by-side can run the same query at the exact same moment on their devices and see completely different search results. This happens every day, all day long, all across the world.

You have no “rankings”. You have Search Luck, where you randomly appear in some people’s search results and not in others. And the only semi-accurate measurement of your Search Luck is found in the search engines’ Webmaster dashboards.

Everything else is just really bad guesswork. So why are you paying for really bad guesswork?

So What Links SHOULD People Disavow?

Google hasn’t removed the Disavow Tool, yet, so there must still be a legitimate reason for it.

Frankly, I’m doubtful many people really need it. If you buy a domain that was previously used Google says they’ll ignore the backlink profile once they see new registration, hosting, and content on the site.

Yes, I know that domain reclamation is all the rage among Web marketers. It’s like Google has never heard of this clever idea (just as they’ve never heard of “niche edits”).

Those who swear by the success of domain reclamation never bother to claim that maybe they just built a site Google deemed worthy of being included in its index. I guess the idea you could build a better site than whatever was there before must be too radical – too much of a conspiracy theory – to gain any traction among marketers. It must be that they have fooled Google once again.

But let’s back up here. Look at what Google originally said about the Disavow Tool:

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. When you arrive, you’ll first select your site.

Now, some SEO Tools try to tell you if your links are spammy. I’ve been amazed at just how wrong these tools can be, and I’m not alone in my amazement.

I always recommend that people who aren’t sure about their backlinks review the Google Webmaster Guideines. They explain what they consider to be spammy links.

But to be fair to many people who haven’t spent much time looking at spammy links, the guidelines can be a bit vague. Well, except for one point: why were the links created?

If you didn’t create the links or cause them to be created for the purpose of improving your Google search referral traffic, you have nothing to worry about from those links. You may lose rankings, perhaps even actual Google search referral traffic, but if you do it won’t be because of links you didn’t create or have created for the purpose of influencing Google’s search results.

It doesn’t work that way.

Conclusion

The Disavow Tool did its job when it was needed most. Now I think it should go away, not because there isn’t still a legitimate need for it but because – as with PageRank Sculpting – people are just screwing up their Websites (and their livelihoods) by disavowing perfectly innocent links.

Fear, paranoia, and panic should not form the basis of your search engine optimization strategies. You shouldn’t buy into every solution for problems you didn’t know about. And you shouldn’t believe in problems that haven’t been proven to exist.

Just because someone writes about a supposed problem on their blog (like “keyword cannibalization”) – or explains how to solve it in a Web or conference presentation – doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. They may not be trying to take your money but they could have learned all they know about the problem from people who are profiting from solving it.

If you don’t look for the guy you’ll never see him (or her).

Better yet – if you don’t push back on all these SEO disasters that need convenient solutions provided by tools and plugins that just happen to cost you money, you deserve to be taken advantage of.

But I feel sorry for your clients. They should get better service from SEO providers. They didn’t ask to be led into this maze of hysteria and false disasters.

And if you’re thinking about launching an SEO tool, there’s a lot of good things you can do. But please don’t solve non-existent problems and create panic. Don’t be that guy.

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