On April 24th Google unleashed the biggest change to its search engine algorithm in over 8 years – the dreaded “Penguin” update. In a nutshell, they began PENALIZING websites that obtained poor quality links, and websites that had too many “SEO Optimized” anchor text links.
For the first time ever, links can POISON your site, negatively impacting your rankings. Because links are very difficult to remove once they’ve been built, Penguin makes it almost impossible for websites to recover from link-based penalties.
Yesterday, on October 17th, Google announced the much anticipated “Disavow Links” tool in Google Webmaster Tools.
This tool finally gives webmasters the much-needed ability to tell Google to “ignore” specific links and domains from poor quality link-sources.
Google’s new Disavow Links Tool allows any site owner to upload a list of URLs (or entire domains), with the promise that (in most cases) links from that site will be excluded from ranking algorithms within a matter of weeks.
Here’s what the interface looks like:
This is both good news and bad news for website owners:
The Good News is…
If you’ve been a Penguin casualty, and have tried to remove as many links as you can but still can’t seem to recover, then you can use this new Link Disavow tool to essentially “delete” the poor quality links that are poisoning your website.
The effects don’t happen immediately (Matt Cutts reveals in this video that it may take a few weeks for any links that you wish to be disavowed to take effect in the rankings).
For millions of website owners who have been hit by the Penguin Update and who have done nothing to incur any penalties (or whose SEO teams have applied “gray-hat” link-building techniques without them knowing) and who have been “collateral damage” – this is great news!
The Bad News Is…
By giving webmasters the power to “report” bad links they have essentially “crowd-sourced” link-spam detection.
Think about it…
Millions of webmasters will be submitting long lists of low-quality or spammy sites, which Google can then use in its algorithm to penalize not only the sites that are providing these poor quality links, but also those that are linked to by these sites.
This spells disaster for any site that makes it too easy to get a link back to your site. For example, popular “easy” sources of links have traditionally been:
- Blog comments
- Web 2.0 sites
- Article Directories
- Web Site Directories
- Poor quality, automated Blog Networks with no human-approval “citation” process
- Social Bookmarking Accounts
The “low hanging fruit” sites that promiscuously give out too many links, too easily will most likely see poor pages (or even their entire domain) get penalized.
But what’s worse is that a penalized domain may also penalize any other sites that it links out to. (Think of the opposite of PageRank – where poisoned “link-juice” flows through to sites that are linked from them.)
Now, much of what I’ve mentioned is speculation at this point, but with this additional data, Google is free to incorporate these kinds of “tweaks” into its ranking algorithm. This is data that they’ve never had at this kind of scale, ever before.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If Google identified a website as being ripe for link-exploitation, and a lot of websites are using it to build easy links, then it may infer that anyone also using that site for links is a candidate for penalty.
Search Engine De-Optimization Will Continue Via “Sacrificial” Sites
One of the biggest complaints around the Penguin update is that it allowed unscrupulous SEOs to point bad links and “over optimize” their competitors links to decrease their rankings.
While the Link Disavow Tool only allows you to report links pointing back to your site through Webmaster Tools, an entire industry will spring up around existing domains or building new-sites that will aim to build links from the same sources of their competitors – and then “report” these bad links to effectively reduce the “link-juice” of their competitors.
Aggressive automated link-building tools and techniques will still have their place – in poisoning sites that have links that mirror their competition. This will most likely only occur in hyper-competitive SEO markets, but depending on how effective this strategy is, it may overflow into more traditional SEO markets.
So, What does Google Want from a Link?
That begs the question: What does Google want? How do you differentiate from poor quality links and high-quality links?
Google genuinely wants links to be a vote of confidence for a site. The concept of PageRank stemmed from the idea of “Citation” in the academic paper publishing process where one paper would “cite” another paper in its references. The more citations a paper has, the more important it is.
Google wants links that are true measures of citation. Therefore a good guideline is this:
- Good links are those by which an actual human being has taken the time to approve the link (or content containing the link in the case of genuine quality content syndication for backlink creation).
- Bad links are links that can be created automatically with no human intervention or quality review. These kinds of links are ripe for exploitation through leveraged automation through software tools.
If you haven’t already, I recommend that you read through the Google Webmaster Guidelines to get a feel of what they consider good and bad links. They’ve recently updated it to include a range of examples to make this distinction clearer.
How To Thrive With SEO in a Post-Penguin/Disavow Tool Environment…
We strongly believe that with Google’s bias towards Social Media ranking factors becoming more important, using a sophisticated Social Media / Market Leadership strategy with a strong SEO focus in mind is the best way to improve rankings in the months to come.
If you’d like us to provide some training on using Social Media for SEO, please leave a comment below.
We have had increasing interest in effective “post-Penguin” link-building and SEO strategies and may do a “Post Penguin SEO” Q&A webinar if there is enough interest. If you think this would be valuable to you, leave a comment below and we’ll make it happen.
What you need to do RIGHT NOW…
As a website owner you need to do the following immediately or risk being part of the inevitable SEO “cleansing” that is to come:
- If you have any form of link-exchange plugin or system on your website, remove it immediately. As people starting “reporting” sites that are poor quality, your site may inadvertently become part of the “collateral damage” by becoming a source of poor quality links.
- If you participate in any form of poor quality link-building system then stop immediately. As webmaster report sources of poor links, if they also link to your website you may end up being penalized as a result.
- If you’ve been hit by Penguin and can’t recover, or are worried about being “on the edge”: start analyzing your backlinks (you can use the Anchor Text Analyzer in Market Samurai or the list of links in Google Webmaster Tools).Look for sources of poor quality links and you may wish to consider using the new Disavow Links Tool to remove those links which may be hurting you. Read the resources linked to below before making any knee-jerk reactions, however. Most people shouldn’t need to use this tool at all.
Resources You Need To Read Today…
This is a recent announcement and there’s not a lot known about the Disavow Links Tool yet. But here’s a great list of “must read” resources which represents the best information about the tool, and its implication on the web today:
- Google Launches Disavow Links Tool – Search Engine Land
- Matt Cutts Disavow Links Tool Video – Youtube
- The official Disavow Links announcement – Google Webmaster Central Blog
- Google’s Disavow Link Tool: Their Best Spam Reporting Tool Yet – Search Engine Roundtable
- Beware Google Bearing Gifts – Ed Dale’s Blog
Please don’t do ANYTHING until you’ve reviewed these resources.
Penguin was the first in a powerful salvo of attacks against link-spam, and this Disavow Links Tool has changed the SEO game once again. This is perhaps, the most significant change in the history of SEO.
Link-building using automated techniques that “side-step” the citation process of human review and approval have always been a questionable proposition, but it’s now time to cease using these techniques immediately and focus on more traditional “white hat” link-building strategies.
Once again, we strongly believe that using sophisticated Social Media and Market Leadership strategies with a strong SEO “side-effect” is the best way to improve rankings under the current SEO environment.
If you’d like to receive some content or attend a Q&A webinar from some SEO experts that excel in this area, please leave a comment below and we’ll organize for you to get all your questions answered – in what is becoming a very confusing and challenging time in the SEO industry.