On October 16th this video appeared:
For those of you who missed it — Google announced a way to disavow links. In other words, webmasters can now ask Google to not take certain backlinks into consideration.
The video above is a Matt Cutts classic and contains a lot of between the line talk, warnings and controversy. In this post I am going to share some of my thoughts on the whole link disavowal thing.
“Disavow your links, but don’t do it.”
I assume you have watched the video already, but in case you have not, here’s what it’s about, in bulletpoints:
- A lot of you people have been punished in 2012 (all the Google black&white zoo updates + the recent exact match domain update)
- A lot of you have been running around contacting other webmasters that are linking to you and asking to remove your links. That pleases us @ Google.
- A lot of you guys received
randomunnatural link warnings in your Google Webmaster Tools and we appreciate that you got so scared.
- We are releasing a gift for all of you panic folks: a chance to disavow some of your links. If you think some links that point to your site are causing harm, upload them all in a text file to us and we will stop considering them while evaluating your site.
- You guys are helping us make a blacklist of sites by adding them via the disavowal tool, so
- Disavow only bad spammy links. Do not disavow good links. In fact,
- Do not use this tool. It’s not for everyone at all and most people should not be using it.
That’s pretty much what an attentive viewer will get from this video. Take a moment and digest it.
What did he really say?
Note the red words I selected in the bulletpoints above. Those are variables, unknowns, X, Y, Z. We can’t define bad links with 100% confidence, we can’t say what exactly made our site tank, but we can observe a lot of randomness.
We do not know how Google’s algo works exactly, nor will anyone working for Google tell us. Remember that.
Here’s what we do know though:
- Google’s ranking algorithm relies largely on links. Without links there is no Internet and nothing can be found. Bots travel using links.
- Google has patented a spam-combating technique that basically injects random numbers into site’s rankings right after some sort of an alarm has been triggered. If further alarm factors get triggered while the site is in this random phase, the rankings get even lower. That is all there ever is. You can never say “this link pushed my rankings up/down” with 100% confidence. Webmasters need to understand and accept that great pool of randomness.
Knowing that, here’s what we can assume:
- Google can not really determine “bad links” or “bad content” algorithmically. A link is a link and it adds to a site’s authority. No mechanic manipulations can be detected automatically, and the manipulators are always a step ahead. Here’s why: Google keeps all its’ secrets and logic right there in front of us, on the first page of results. In turn, Google may know nothing about a Gmail signed-out non-Chrome user without a Webmaster Tools or an Analytics account attached to his/her site.
To prove this point just take a daily look at pharma/adult/finance SERPs: e.g. buy cialis online contains 5 (!) hacked sites, and site with no sitemap, no PR, no age, just one page indexed in Google, but a shitload of only keyword-anchored links is at #1 and #2. That’s October 17th 2012.
Obviously that site won’t be there after a couple of days when manual review (yes, manual) or some automatic filter that has been triggered kicks it out. The fact remains the same: search engines operate relying on links.
- Occasional enhancing updates are rolled out and they target certain niches. That concerns the panda, both penguins and the exact match domains update.
- Mechanic filtering works pretty bad and puts a lot of legitimate sites under “friendly fire”. A lot of Google’s webmaster support forums look like a war-time hospital. Some mainstream SEO sites are also full of horror stories, if you follow them.
Having worked as a head of the support unit @ Link-Assistant.Com I have seen how crazy people get when they get hit by any of the “enhancing” updates Google releases. People are devoting so much energy to getting rid of the links they have probably paid a lot of money for just half a year before that, you wouldn’t believe it! If only they applied that energy to building more links and finding other traffic sources! Oh well.
- Google decides to build a blacklist of links. The link disavow tool is actually a pretty good move in this regard, because hundreds of people will be sending TXT files with “bad links” to Google first thing in the morning. It’s a crowd-sourced witch hunt.
What goes between the lines?
Google is a business and it has to make money. Apart from producing talking cars and flying glasses, Google makes money from the ads it displays (96% of revenue came from ads in 2011).
So Google’s main interests are:
- Staying popular with searchers. That is, producing good results.
- Encouraging webmasters to spend money on Adwords. That is, give them all the searchers but take easy front page rankings from them.
This was an intermission. When you analyze what Google says or does, keep the above two points in mind.
So will the Internet get disavowed now?
I can see several possible outcomes of this disavowal feast.
Low-quality public link networks will stop working completely.
Link service providers will have to adapt or die, but they are used to that.
Certain link types will stop working.
Forum profiles and blog comments are the first things that come to mind. Any other links that can be created automatically come to mind second. If it can be done on a mass scale, someone has been selling it, which means at least some of the former customers will definitely disavow these links.
Small private link networks will still rule.
I do not mean link networks advertised as private, I mean the really private ones that only you have access to. So having high-quality satellite sites is always a great idea, but don’t link out to other sites in the niche anymore, or you might have your sites disavowed
A lot of sites will get hit.
Hey, who has been complaining about negative seo? It just went a step up with account hacking and disavowal requests on all links.
Or, try to get the same links as your competitor and disavow them. When you have disavowed them and your competitor has not, they look suspicious.
Ranking sites becomes harder
This is what I actually like about this: people learn to build brands, provide value, be creative and reach their audience. When ranking on the first page becomes hard you stop investing energy into AdSense sites and focus on building a viable business.
Only big brands and gov/edu/newspapers will rank on top
This is a pretty possible though a very gloomy outcome. A very risky tactic for Google as well. As webmasters get hit, the smartest ones will start looking for other traffic sources, and that won’t be Google AdWords. Which leads things to
Google might get excluded from the equation if it pushes too hard.
If all links get disavowed, you can not get to the first page and paying for AdWords clicks eats too much money, you will be looking for other ways to get customers. There is Internet outside Google, it was before and it will be after, I wonder if any pf the passionate disavowers remember that.
Of course, Google won’t let this scenario develop that easy, and Matt’s webspam boys will be very cautious. They will “see how it goes” and browse all that gets submitted to them via the disavowal tool. If they bust several thousands of blog networks and link building methods they’ll call it a day and consider the disavowal tool a success.
What do I suggest?
Rise above the maze.
You do not need rankings. You need visitors, clicks, sign-ups, sales. Just repeat that to yourself each time you think Google has screwed you.
Re-shape your link building approach.
Forget the PR/Outgoing links/Domain Age/Dofollow nonsense. The best link is the one that will bring you visitors.
Do you think Google will know about an actively visited site and not want to put it on top of search results? If you do, then you’re forgetting point #1 from our intermission.
Find other sources of traffic.
Youtube is second most popular search engine, by the way. There’s also Bing, Facebook with all its’ groups, forums and blogs. You are re-shaping your link-building approach, right? So you will take that nofollow link from a popular blog any day. While at it, might as well provide value with your comment? There you go, targeted visitors to your site.
I am not even talking about advanced tactics like buying domains with traffic. Simple things are right there in front of you so use them.
Occupy first page
Hey, if you’re into Google so much, why don’t you try and get your link on sites that rank well in Google? I am talking about “legitimate parasite hosting”. Answer sites, forums, communities, user-generated content sites all rank really well in Google, especially for long-tail keywords. One of my sites gets about 30% of all its’ visitors from an authority niche forum and an actual niche directory I’ve submitted it to. I’ll be doing a detailed post on securing long-tail rankings on rented property later on.
Don’t disavow any links.
It’s just ridiculous. If you’ve read everything above you probably understand why. Concentrate on finding other traffic and optimizing conversions, let Google-oriented webmasters disavow each other all they want. In fact, delete your Google Webmaster Tools account and you’ll sleep better. Rise above the G maze.
If your site has suffered from anchor over-optimization (penguin update) – why not add a ton more generic anchor links rather than disavow existing ones? Add more links, add more content, make your site load faster, get more traffic, ultimately 301 redirect your site to a new one with better onpage if you wish to start anew!
I also have penalized sites, but I would never think of removing links. All links are good, even the 50K forum posts that mysteriously appeared in 2010 (funnily enough I still get visitors from them. These forum threads rank high, so I don’t have to).
I never found out if those links are “natural” because I never submitted this site to Google Webmaster Tools. I am working on traffic sources outside Google so I don’t have to depend on just one player on the field. And when I have traffic and people find value on my site, will Google not be interested in having my site on the first page?