The big news item from Google in recent weeks has been the “Disavow Links” tool. Bing beat Google to the punch on this one many months ago; both search engines are now recognizing the need to allow Webmasters to have at least some control over who links to their site, and whether they “accept” that link to be evaluated by the search engines or not.
In short, the Disavow Links tool allows webmasters to submit a list of links that they wish for Google to “discount” when evaluating search engine rankings. It comes with the strong caution that you need to be very sure about which links you are disavowing, as you may be discounting links that are actually helping you.
The tools comes largely in the face of the public attention being brought to “Negative SEO” – the ability to impact a site’s rankings by building “spammy” links to it. In the past, it was generally accepted that Negative SEO was difficult to do – spammy links of the past may still have helped that site climb the rankings, or were otherwise simply not counted either way. But with the Google Penguin algorithm impacts coming in through 2012, it has been clearly seen that spammy links can indeed cause penalties. This caused some outrage at the apparent new ability to attack other websites, and appears to be the main driver for Google’s decision to release the tool.
The point has to be made that Google should perhaps have been providing this ability before they allowed thousands of websites to tank in the rankings through the Penguin updates. Over 700,000 webmasters were emailed about “Un-natural Links” earlier in 2012 despite Google knowing fully well how difficult (if not impossible) it can be to remove a link that is on someone else’s website. One might almost wonder if this was deliberate – Google perhaps wanted to punish those sites it saw as “cheating”. This causes some heated opinions from SEOs and internet business owners in general – Google has a tendency to treat businesses like criminals for taking advantage of a situation that Google itself created. When certain SEO methods were helping businesses generate more traffic and make more sales, what did Google expect would happen? Those that were willing to take advantage, took advantage. Those who were not, watched everyone else take advantage while they wallowed in the depths of low traffic volumes and struggling businesses. Those who chose to invest higher amounts of money on pure white hat SEO can remain immune and take the moral high ground, but how many small businesses could really afford that? How many even knew the difference?
So, some might say that this tool shuts the gate after the horse has bolted. Or more accurately, to some website owners this tool is like putting airbags into the car that Google had already driven a monster truck over.
With the tool being so new, what remains to be seen is whether removing these links actually remove the penalties that were applied from those links. The obvious answer everyone hopes for is yes; but if Google has actually applied a time-based penalty because of the links found earlier in the year, there is no guarantee that these penalties will be removed. Many experienced SEOs expect that there will be lingering impacts to those sites who were “caught with their hand in the cookie jar”. Time will tell!