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Pat Marcello

Backlinks: To Disavow or Not to Disavow? Anyone?

Pat Marcello

With all the Panda and Penguin updates that ran last year, some webmasters are still scratching their heads wondering if they backlinks they have are helping or hurting them in organic search. Sometimes, the problem didn’t come from anything the webmaster did, but from other sites linking to them without their knowledge.

Remember all the paranoia about UpDowner last year, which indexed and linked back to nearly every page on a site, multiple times even? Yeah, sure. I was paranoid, too. I had like 6,600 links pointing back from that site, and wondered if those weren't why I lost traffic after the update on May 26, 2012. I immediately questioned whether the issue was caused by this site and one other called “Mattters.com” (yes, three t’s), who linked to my site more than 3,000 times – both sites that I never asked to be linked from, ever.

UpDowner Did the Right Thing

UpDowner responded pretty quickly to the furor, to their credit. They allowed you to delete your account and they removed the links, a little over time. I don’t think there are any left on blog now. Took a while, but the links are gone. I wrote to Mattters.com, but they never responded. Most of their links are gone now, too. But neither of those actions made much impact.

I mean, it was good of them to take quick action (which was also helping their reputation), but it seems that all that linking never mattered anyway. According to Google’s John Mueller in a Google Webmaster forum post on June 29, 2012, Google never considered those backlinks to begin with.

Google Webmaster Forum comment: John Mu

But people were still creeped out by the way they were being penalized for backlinks they never asked for. Desperately, webmasters went around the Internet asking linking webmasters to remove the backlinks they had in place. This seldom works, as webmasters have way more to do than they should, and so… Some of webmasters with links pointing in decided to start charging for having links removed.

Yes. Yes, they did.

Oh, no you didn’t…

Google found out and wasn’t too happy about that practice. On July 27, 2012, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team wrote:

“In a few situations, we have heard about directories or blog networks that won’t take links down. If a website tries to charge you to put links up and to take links down, feel free to let us know about that, either in your reconsideration request or by mentioning it on our webmaster forum or in a separate spam report. We have taken action on several such sites, because they often turn out to be doing link spamming themselves.”

Probably true. And like good little Google soldiers, the people being charged started reporting the offenders. The practice seems to have died out pretty quickly.

Bing Goes First

By this time, Bing had already come forward with their “Disavow” tool for backlinks, where webmasters could go into Bing Webmaster Tools and tell Bing about the backlinks they wanted to be removed from consideration. The backlinks didn’t go away. This tool just told Bing not to notice or count them.

OK, to me, this is just wrong. I mean search engines have to know that webmasters add links to site they like, even if they’re crappy, spammy sites. As a webmaster, I know I can’t stop it. How much chasing are we supposed to do? Popular sites just attract backlinks, period.

Virtually, what Google did was make all webmasters responsible for links on their site, even when placed through no fault of their own. Still seems incredibly unfair to me, but to them, what an ingenious way to make US responsible for their spam site listings, right? Instead of their algorithm weeding out bad sites and ignoring multiple links from sites like UpDowner, like John Mueller said they did, they made us responsible for cleaning up our own backlink profiles. How is that fair?

Well, it’s not.

And the Big Dog Don’t care.

It took months before Google finally came out with a disavow links tool of their own. It lives in Webmaster Tools, but we’re not supposed to use it, except under strictly defined circumstances. In fact on that page, Google tells webmasters:

This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you disavow backlinks only if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you. In most cases, Google can assess which links to trust without additional guidance, so most normal or typical sites will not need to use this tool.”


Doesn’t this feel a bit like a shell game to you? Where’s the link? Where’s it from? Should you get rid of it or not? What to do? What to do?

We need to do more

Not only are we responsible for killing off these low-quality links, but we’re responsible for how other sites link to us. Without a fair amount of distribution in anchor text, we’re also toast. So, how do you educate people to link to you using the appropriate language, especially when the language needs to change so frequently?

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, right?

  • How many “do follow’ links do you have vs. “no follow”?
  • What’s the page rank distribution?
  • In what context is the link used?

Why, oh why, Big Dog of Search are we all responsible for these things when we have no control over them?

So that we can clean up your SERPs?

Seems like we’re doing more of the work than you are. Yep, truly does. And we have no time as it is. What are you telling us? Hire more people? That’s cool for big corporate sites, but what about the little guy? What about Mom or Pop?

What else can we do?

Folks are still freaking out over this backlinks issue. I actually had a webmaster write to me asking me to remove comments they had placed on my website last week. Comments! We talked about these in my last article, but here’s a person, who posted several comments to my site. One by one, spread out over time, they looked legit. But when you search for the poster and string a bunch of them together, it seems that they are spammy comments because together you can see that the content is rather repetitive. Sometimes, it really is hard to tell. So, now, I just nuked them for spam.

But think about it: the webmaster is asking ME to clean up his garbage, too. I’m getting darned sick and tired of it! Aren’t you?

I mean, we’re responsible for all these things, just to get a listing in the SERPs? Really?

Oh, and remember, too…

If you’re not paying for AdWords, you can’t see all the data from people who came to your site organically, but weren’t logged into Google.

And if you’re not using Google + and posting there every 72 hours, having hangouts, and having more following you than you following back Google doesn’t consider you an authority, either.

Could it be that we have given this Big Dog too danged much power over us? They pull our little strings and we dance like puppets?

Yeah, we do.

As Kay Corleone said, “This must all end!”

Where do you stop worrying about Google? Probably never. Though we have to jump through hoops to get the traffic, it’s usually good, targeted traffic that converts. So, we have to remain obsequious and needy.

But don’t be entirely beholden, either.

The WORST thing you can do is to put all of your traffic eggs into one basket. If you’re depending solely on organic Google traffic to drive your site, good luck with that. You never know when an algorithm will shake things up and cause you sleepless nights over something you never did to get ahead in the SERPs. When you depend solely on Google, you’re pretty much their little b****.

As an SEO, I’m not telling you to stop worrying about the Big Dog. I’m not. But you don’t have to go crazy tracking down every questionable backlink, either. Usually, when Google has a problem with your site, you’ll know about it through Google Webmaster Tools. You’ll get a message about links that look to be “unnatural.”

If you haven’t gotten any warnings, then start worrying about other things, like making your site convert better, fixing duplicate tags, smoothing out over optimization, or re-visiting your keyword research.

Using the disavow tool will NOT solve your problems.

Pat Marcello is owner and SEO Manager of MagnaSites.com, which provides web design, digital marketing, and SEO services for companies that want to get online or to improve their existing Web presence.

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was "Google's Fetch and Render: Why It's Important."

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