Google only wants bad SEOs to use the disavow tool.
It's a rare moment of clarity from Chocolate Factory Chief Oompla Loompa John Mueller and proof positive that there are such things as bad links and bad SEO.
After making some less than clear statements earlier in the week about Google's disavow tool (a component in Search Console that lets you own up to "bad" links to your site and ask Google to ignore them) Mueller offered the SEO community some much needed clarity on this tool and when it should be used.
“Random links collected over the years aren’t necessarily harmful, we’ve seen them for a long time too and can ignore all of those weird pieces of web-graffiti from long ago. Disavow links that were really paid for (or otherwise actively unnaturally placed), don’t fret the cruft.”
That's a level of clarity we rarely see from Google, so it's worth paying attention - they've just told you specifically what to look for... links that were paid for or otherwise unnaturally placed.
Mueller also talked about the tool only being for expert users and SEOs, explaining why it is buried so deep in Google's system.
This leads me to a couple of conclusions...
1. Negative SEO is 100% a thing
If a paid for or "otherwise unnatural" link can hurt your site, then it's possible for someone other than you to create such a link to your site and do damage.
So, although Google's advice may be not to "sweat the cruft" of low quality links that sites pick up, you can't afford to ignore bad quality links all together.
2. Google might not be that good at spotting paid for and unnatural links
OK, you're going to need to strap your tinfoil hat on tight for this one, as we're heading into my conspiracy bunker, but here we go...
We know links are an important factor in the ranking of sites. If they weren't, there would be no need for a disavow tool at all as the quality and quantity of links to your site would be irrelevant. So, we know it's a factor and we know it's a strong one.
Now imagine that, despite their best efforts, Google weren't very good at telling a paid for link for a natural link. How would they fix it?
Our chief weapon is suprise...
Maybe they'd use the same method that they use for training their algorithm - they need to feed lots of examples of bad links into the system to train it on what they look like and, with enough examples, it will start being able to see them itself.
Ah, but here's the problem - to train a system like this you need good quality data. Where do you get good quality data on a shady practice that SEOs are deliberately trying to hide from you?
Solution: You give SEOs a tool that you say will eliminate the negative impact of the "bad thing" if they confess to the bad thing.
It's the psychological equivalent of separating two suspects and telling one that the other is about the "roll on them" and that they'd better confess first and cut a deal before their erstwhile complain walks free and they take a trip to the big house.
I suspect that somewhere deep in the bowels of Google there's a big, long list of domains that have disavowed links and where they disavowed them from... I mean why wouldn't you keep that data?
So, what should you do about the Disavow Tool?
Despite this being one of the clearest statements we've seen from Google for a while, it doesn't really shift the needle in terms of how you should use this tool in my opinion.
- If you're having traffic problems, review it for "shady links"
- If you know you've done shady stuff, review it and consider confessing your sins.
- If you hired a shady SEO, get a better one and have them review it or review it yourself