Matt Cutts and Guest Post Ad

I found this ad abusing Matt Cutt’s picture to shill a spurious link building service on Facebook.

What a world we live in – when I first started in this industry, Google was adamant that “bad links can’t hurt your site: we simply ignore them.” Then in walked Penguin, and all of a sudden links can end up hurting your rankings…

So this year we’ve seen a number of web services crop up charging for the removal of links pointing to your site – or worse yet, webmasters running splogs charging for taking down your links. Capitalism at its finest.

And a while back, Matt Cutts mentioned that Google was working on a “link disavowal tool” and many of us saw that as an opportunity to clean up our bad links, hopefully play nice with Google and regain our lost rankings – right?

What Bing’s Disavowal Tool Teaches Us

Now it may seem like I’m comparing apples to oranges, but long before Google launched their disavow links tool, Bing’s been there, done that.

What’s interesting is when you read what Duane Forrester (who heads webmaster outreach at Bing) had to say when Bing launched their tool:

This tool simply allows webmasters a way to alert us – a signal if you will – to the fact they don’t support a particular link (or group of links) pointing to their site…

…There will always be instances when a webmaster sees something related to their website before we’ve been around to crawl them and see the bigger picture around them. This could act as a heads up, and if we are seeing a “spike” in disavows for a particular URL or domain it could raise a flag we’d want to investigate.

The source of that quote is this article from Searchengineland.com.

See, the problem with the Bing tool was that it was totally unclear if links actually hurt your site, since the “Penguin” algo shift is a Google thing. But what’s equally interesting is this: Google has for a long time claimed “bad links can’t hurt your site” and then they launch Penguin…so now bad links can hurt i.e. penalize your site

…they created the problem (or link-blasting, opportunistic webmasters and “SEO’s” created the problem, to be fair)…

…then they created the “solution” (their tool to disavow links)…

…so what’s the problem here besides the fact I keep abusing the ellipses (“…”)?…

Google is Crowd-Sourcing The Next Algo Shift

It’s no secret that Google has been for a while using “quality raters” – a team of hired help to test the SERP results, which data they use to verify their algorithm improvements and make sure they’re moving in the right direction.

It’s also no secret that they’re inviting webmasters to snitch on one another using a “webspam form” in Google Webmaster Tools.

But what isn’t clear is what Google is really doing with the data webmasters will now be flooding them with in the new links disavow tool – and this is where I jump in waving my yellow flag, calling foul on the play.

When you try to get your known spammy links removed – and you should dedicate some time doing so if you know those links are toxic links because you placed them yourself, or you’ve been hit by negative SEO (where competitors point spammy links your way to get you penalized for ranking in certain keywords) – you normally contact the webmaster hosting the link and ask nicely if they can remove the link.

Simple as that – either they respond or they don’t.

And you keep a record of your attempts, and eventually submit the whole record to Google via Webmaster Tools as part of a “reinclusion request” – and normally you only bother if you’re suffering a Penguin penalty or got the “unnatural link warning” email from Google. Either Google rewards your efforts with improved rankings or they don’t, but that’s how you should go about removing links.

But now, with their new tool, you’re not only trying to remove these links, you’re telling Google outright that you place no confidence in the links and have given them a positive signal that the domains in question are ipso facto spam.

You’ve just become a Google Snitch free of charge.

So What’s the Problem?

One of the first problems is that as webmasters, we’re simply looking for ways to promote our websites and rank in search. At first blush, the disavowal option seems like a much more streamlined way to get rid of those links we think may be hurting our ranking, especially if Google sent the “unnatural links warning” email.

To remove hundreds or thousands of links is daunting. But you want your profits back, so this tool is a shortcut, right? Or would you rather:

  • Find all your bad links.
  • Hunt down the contact details of the webmasters who own the sites hosting these links.
  • Compose and send emails that get opened and get results.
  • Tell Google the long story of your quest to get these links removed, via Webmaster Tools, for your reconsideration request (if need be).

Whew! That’s work!

Well: just use the tool, right?

Not so fast. Not everyone should use the tool, even Google mentions that about 80 times in their official announcement as well as Matt Cutts’ video on the matter (which is part of the official announcement post).

The big problem that I can see is that affiliate and ecommerce webmasters, who get links from various places that may be found on these “snitch lists” Google will now be collecting, will find it increasingly difficult to gain links to their sites.

The “losers” in this new link economy are going to be the small businesses that may spend a little time link building and in the interest of time and due to budget constraints – may farm out link building to someone found in a forum or as part of a Fiverr gig.

Or small businesses will continue building links on various domains (EzineArticles, Squidoo, HubPages, WordPress, Blogger) that wind up getting flagged down the line for being spammy thanks to these disavowal reports.

What happens then?

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

Big firms that have the budgets to operate a separate marketing/SEO department can dedicate full-time resources to building empires built on links from their connections to the authorities that Google trusts. Small time businesses and affiliates will continue to lose out as they continue to go for budget-friendly solutions that end up on the link disavowal **** list.

Meanwhile, in a rush to gain links, the link-building industry as a whole will continue to churn out so-called solutions that are fly-by-night (temporary ranking boost) or already dead center of the cross-hairs at Google (shoot yourself in the foot).

A large firm can dedicate full-time staff to removing noxious links, while a smaller publisher will have to decide how much time to budget for putting out that fire (even while other tasks will produce more tangible results, like running ads or making connections in social media and other traffic generation methods).

Link-building services are a dime a dozen, it takes no talent to use software to blast out links. Meanwhile, webmasters using the services and push-button solutions are ignorant of the danger these links cause to their money sites.

What is in rather short supply are SEO service providers that have been down that route and know how to navigate the landscape to get websites ranking without worrying about the latest penalty affecting the hard-won position.

The fact is that building a defensible position in the SERPs is difficult to do when you’re surrounded by advice that comes from 2009, pimped out by software developers and link-builders who stand to lose millions if people catch onto the reality of a post-Penguin SEO environment.

I’m not saying all software is useless. But I am saying that it’s “funny” to watch would-be experts in the SEO field selling tools and methods that worked in 2009 as if Google hasn’t evolved over time.

Many who made money online resting on spammy links (and who know better) are simply spinning the truth and pretending nothing’s changed. The reality is that everything has, but knowing what works takes analysis and takes tools more powerful than common desktop solutions provide.

It also takes dedication to learning the industry as it changes, while watching the SERPs to see what’s changed and what ranks (and why). Most website owners don’t have that sort of time, so the quick solution:

Use the disavow tool, right?

Use it sparingly, if ever.

Be Prepared for War

Business is war. Is your site prepared to stand up to scrutiny, or is it going to fall short of the mark as more and more of your links fall prey to the new link disavowal snitch system?

One sure-fire way to lose rankings is to have more and more of your backlinks disappear or become worthless in Google’s eyes. Maybe they stop counting those links – worse yet, maybe those links are delivering a penalty rather than a “vote of confidence” which is what links were first designed to do.

Before you turn tail and run, remember that Google is only one source of traffic. Having said that, to prepare yourself to be in the business for the long haul, you may need an SEO audit.

Personally I’ve been able to look deeply at a number of client’s sites and am now offering an SEO audit service for serious webmasters and business owners. Read here for more information.

Remember that links are only part of the issue for your ranking. Panda is concerned with on-page SEO elements, but overall a thorough SEO audit is something that you’ll have to do if you want to climb the rankings and get organic traffic – whether or not you hire me to do that for you.

The Problem with Scalable Linking

The problem is apparent. If you’ve been building thousands or even just hundreds of links using spammy services or submitters, you have one major mess to clean up. How much time do you dedicate to removing the trashy links from your profile, versus gaining new links?

If you’re an ecommerce business owner, how much time do you even dedicate to SEO to begin with vs. other pressing matters (like negotiating terms with a new drop-shipper, or other marketing efforts)?

In a rush to get rankings, we’ve all more or less dug our own grave for the past few years. I’ve had to start over with one of my sites because my linking was well over 90% toxic: better to start from scratch.

My advice to you is to steer clear of “scalable” link-building, or at least to test the results on a sacrificial non-profit-making website before using any scaled link-building solutions.

Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot

One other point to make: accidentally disavowing great links. A “great link” is really any link that’s helping your site rank. By listing a bunch of URLs in the link disavowal report, you’d better be sure those links are hurting your rankings.

Have some paid links? Those are potentially hurting you. But simply ask to have them removed, that should suffice.

Have you hired out a forum or blog link blast? Those are likely culprits to take aim at – but again, don’t simply remove all these links in one fell swoop with the disavow tool.

Giving Google a list of “bad” URLs is a sure-fire way to accidentally include some winning backlinks that you’ve just had removed from your profile. The result could be even worse rankings than you had before, because you’ve effectively shot yourself in the foot.

Who Should Use Google’s Disavowal Tool?

It’s not all bad news with the disavow links tool – but if you watch Matt Cutts’ video carefully, notice that he’s practically saying don’t use it unless you absolutely have to.

If you’ve been hit with a negative SEO campaign and find the dreaded “unnatural link warning” email from Google, you may just disavow all those links you’ve found. Google will send you an example of the type of link they’ve found (that’s a new thing). Google Webmaster Tools will show you a list of links they’ve found (but not all of the links)…

In my opinion, it’s best to have a 3rd party or tool like SEO Spyglass show you the links pointing to your site, so you can sort according to quality signals (like PageRank, anchor text, etc.).

Also, and only after trying to remove as many of the links yourself (by either hiring out the service or contacting all the webmasters hosting your poisonous links via email), should you use the link disavowal tool for those links that you couldn’t remove.

And to be perfectly fair and to Google’s credit, that’s essentially what they’re saying to do. The tool is a last resort, but my concern is that it will be used as a shortcut instead, and will be used far too often. A new era of negative SEO is about to ensue, if Eugene Ware is right (see article below).

Further Reading

I’m pretty late to the party weighing in on the issue, but have had a number of inquiries asking about this new tool, and if it’s “safe” to use or not – but here’s what others have had to say.

Market Samurai’s Eugene Ware has some interesting ideas on the potential consequences.

SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan weighs in.

Jennifer Slegg at SearchEngineWatch spells out the ramifications nicely.

Aaron Wall weighs in with a skeptic’s eye.

Dr. Pete at SEOMoz says to take a deep breath and think.

And in the interest of fair reporting, Leslie Rohde simply calls the tool a gift. (He’s the “godfather of SEO” according to most, he’s been in this business a long time.)

Tim at SEOWizz has some case studies showing the tool actually helped recover clients’ sites (and he won’t or can’t admit to being on the beta for testing the tool: if you look at the dates in his charts, the recovery took place before the tool was officially released, but if he told me he’d have to kill me).

Matt Cutts is interviewed by Danny Sullivan and offers some FAQ’s on the tool here. That’s as authoritative as it gets (and I still would point you to the Bing tool and comments made by Bing’s team: the feedback on the disavowal tool will be used to crowd-source spam detection, or at least verify Google’s data on spammy websites). No helping that, though.

Before you do anything, read those resources first. If you would like help analyzing your link profile and want to compare it against quality competitors in your niche, then you can hire my services for that (relatively cheaply I might add). Thanks again for reading.

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