With so many moving parts and all the noise generated by Google’s imaginatively titled ‘March 2019 Core Update’, you’d be forgiven for thinking SEO today is a far cry from where it used to be. In some ways, you’d be right but, there is one element of SEO that often gets overlooked; a Webmaster Tools function so old-school that Google themselves have hidden it away in a help document: the Disavow Links tool.

What does the disavow tool do in 2019?

Since the roll-out of ‘Real Time’ Penguin 4.0 in September ’16, Google highlighted a number of key changes to the link-spam element of its core ranking algorithm.

Penguin 4.0 brought with it:

  • The real time assessment of spam scores for pages, as links are discovered. This means an end to the infrequent refreshes of the spam score of a site’s backlink profile.
  • As a result, recovery from link penalties take effect much more quickly, as do any negative effects.
  • Granular spam scores, allowing individual pages to be impacted rather than blanket scores affecting the entire domain.

As a result of these adjustments, link spam and its effect are seen much more quickly and handled more easily by a webmaster, or their agency. If you submit a disavow list to Google, manual actions can be withdrawn more quickly, just as any penalisation can be doled out as bad links are identified.

However, Googlers have made a number of statements that go one step further, suggesting that Google can simply choose to ignore bad links without penalising the target site. This sounds ideal – negative SEO becomes a thing of the past, as the links are simply ignored instead.

Why You Should Still Disavow Links

Twitter image disavow

The key is John Mueller’s choice of words in the above tweet: ‘we can just ignore them’, not ‘we just ignore them’. A quick look in Search Console’s ‘Links to Your Site’ report shows that Google is, at the very least, still finding and cataloguing unwanted links to webmasters’ sites, regardless of quality. How they’re affecting spam scores and rankings remains, understandably, locked away from prying eyes.

This hasn’t stopped John Mueller, Gary Illyes, and Google’s support documentation suggesting that, for most webmasters, the Disavow Tool is more or less a waste of your time. Google’s official line is:

‘You should disavow backlinks only if:

  1. You believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, AND
  2. The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site.’

If your site is not currently, or imminently likely to get a manual action, Google says the Disavow Links Tool is not for you. If you have a lot of spammy links, continue to rank well and have not received a manual action, move along and enjoy your ill-gotten gains!

But the Disavow Tool Still Works

Enter an e-commerce client inherited from another agency that had, to date, failed to achieve results. Whilst we worked with the client to improve the new site and prepare for a site migration, we continued to support the existing site with off-site activity.

Disavow graph 1
1 - Product term visibility, Google UK

1. Product Term Visibility, Google UK

To the best of the client’s knowledge, the site never receive a penalty and no record of one existing in Search Console. So, this provided the perfect test-bed for how effective disavow files are for seemingly unpenalised sites. We pulled the site’s backlink profile from a range of sources, and populated a new, more conservative disavow file for Google. We turned it loose and waited for results.

Disavow graph 2
2 - Impact of a disavow file on an unpenalised site’s visibility, which was uploaded 20th Feb 2019.

2. Impact of a disavow file on an un-penalised site’s visibility, which was uploaded 20th Feb 2019

The results imply several things which may be of value to SEOs:

  1. Real-time Penguin does seem to enact recoveries more quickly than previously.
  2. The Disavow Tool is not just beneficial for people with, or at risk of, a manual action (the client had never had one, and none arrived within the first few months, despite links being evaluated in real time)
  3. Google is likely still penalising sites without handing out manual actions, which means bad links are not simply ignored, they still affect your site in the absence of a penalty.

The only significant additions to the site’s disavow file? A mountain of links from The Globe’s network of spam sites. This is one of the most prolific and well-known spam networks around, so if any backlinks were to be disregarded by Google, it would be these. This casts doubt on the suggestion Google would detect and disregard the impact of common spam links, rather than pass along the negative effect.

So, if you haven’t revisited your backlink profile, there’s a good chance it’s worth your while in giving it a Spring clean this year. If Google are not ignoring your spammy links for you, you might do well to spell it out for them.