Demystifying Link Disavowals, Penalties & More
Findings from a recent Google Webmaster Hangout on Air (video) demystify link disavowals, penalties and more. Read on for the official word from John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst from Google and friend to webmasters everywhere.
First, Some Background
Last month, I introduced Five Steps To Clean Up Your Links like A Techie. The commenters on the post had a lot of good questions, and I wanted to begin this month with a few clarifications.
First, the development of that list was meant only to be a technically-minded way to create a solid list of pages to check. I only mentioned contacting the domain owner and asking to have the link removed or nofollowed at the very end of the article.
However, if you have a valid contact address and believe it’s worthwhile to contact the domain owner, please do. Google wants to see that you’ve made an effort to clean up bad links.
That said, most links you want to remove fall into one of three categories, in my opinion:
- You know the site owner or you paid for the link. These are easy to handle — either stop paying to have the link listed and wait till it’s taken down, or contact the owner and ask them to either remove or nofollow your link.
- It’s an article directory (or a link directory, press release directory, or some other kind of directory). There’s usually a link to “remove” somewhere in the submission process or on the link itself. One of two things will happen here: You’ll get a thank you page telling you the link will be removed, or you’ll get redirected to a page that says something like “if you want your link removed, pay $200 processing via Paypal.” You should document either of these cases in your spreadsheet.
- It’s blog spam, comment spam, forum spam, or some other form of garbage that you probably paid someone to post for you. In 99% of these cases, you’ll be left with disavow as your only option, because there will be no contact info, no one will respond to you, or you’ll be asked to pay something to have the link removed. Again, document it in your spreadsheet.
Insight From John Mueller On Commonly-Held Assumptions About Link Disavowal
Clarifications aside, let’s talk about what came out of that Webmaster Hangout. I was fortunate enough to be able to join as one of the 10 main participants, and I got to ask John some questions about things people said after the last article.
• Conventional Wisdom: Multiple Reconsideration Requests Will Hurt Your Chances Of Reinclusion
FALSE. John said each request is considered independently and that multiple requests will not be looked upon negatively.
• Conventional Wisdom: Google Keeps A Record Of Link Disavowals You’ve Done
FALSE. Google does not keep a record. John said that each time you submit a disavowal file, your site is considered anew with those particular disavowals. So don’t remove links you’ve already disavowed!
• Conventional Wisdom: You Should Only Disavow Pages Of A Domain, Not Entire Domains
TRICKY. While disavowing an entire domain can cause you to lose credible links, disavowing an individual page may not be enough. Often, these pages are duplicated in different areas of the site. Writer’s note: I recommend using the site: command to search for all copies of your link, for example:site:website.com "anchor text"
(Here, “anchor text” is the specific text that links to your site.)
You may also want to search for your brand name this way, just to be sure you’ve gotten them all. Unless the link is comment spam or something like that on an otherwise legitimate site, you’re probably better off disavowing the whole domain.
• Conventional Wisdom: You Should Just Submit The Text-Based Disavow File
IT DEPENDS. John indicated if you can link to a Google spreadsheet or something similar that shows the efforts you went through to contact (or even find contact information) on your inbound links, that can help.
If you need a sample spreadsheet, you can check out the one we use at Archology… although, we do request you strip off our brand name before submitting to Google. ;-)
• Conventional Wisdom: You Need To Check Multiple Sources For Links — Google Webmaster Tools Isn’t Enough
TRUE AND FALSE. John’s official response was that you should focus on the links in Webmaster Tools as a guideline, but if you spot patterns in the way links point to your site, you should explore further to see if there are other links that follow that pattern.
He also mentioned that the team often tries to dig a bit deeper with the examples they might provide in a response to your reconsideration request — to show you that something you thought was okay actually isn’t.
In my opinion, looking for links that point to a particular page or section of pages may be beneficial based on this information.
• Conventional Wisdom: It’s Okay To Keep A Single Http Link In Press Releases
FALSE. John’s official advice on that is to go ahead and nofollow it to be on the safe side. I asked, “Why didn’t Google just identify press releases and discount them?”
His response was that they already try to do that, just as they already try to eliminate affiliate links, but sometimes the algorithm isn’t good enough to find them all. He also mentioned that if a site shows a pattern of using excessive anchor text links in their press releases, Google will notice and look for that to be cleaned up.
But, I asked him, “What if they are really old, like 2008?” He confirmed what I suspected: there is no expiration date on links. Finally, I asked him whether it might be possible at some point in the future to disavow a piece of content. For example, if a site has a press release they know was stuffed with anchor text and syndicated to hundreds of sites, might they one day be able to disavow all of them at once?
He said that was an interesting suggestion, and we saw him write it down on a notepad. So, here’s hoping that might be a future option.
• Conventional Wisdom: Using Robots.txt To Block A Page Will Remove Inbound Link Value
FALSE. John confirms that because the search engine can’t crawl the page, they can’t see if it should be noindexed. He says if you want to remove the link value from a page, you need to include a robots=”noindex” in the head of that specific page… but then, there was a note added to the video afterward that said noindex will *not* block the flow of PageRank. This is a new one on me; I thought it would.
In my experience, one of the best ways to stop the flow of PageRank to a page is to 301 redirect that page offsite to another domain that you don’t care about, then 302 it back to another page on the main site. It’s a clunky solution, but seems to work if you’re dealing with a large number of established links to an intermediary page like those you may have with affiliates.
If any readers have a better idea, please share in the comments.
Try A Hangout Yourself
There were many other items discussed in the hangout beyond links, so I encourage you to watch the whole video (it’s an hour well spent!) or to join future hangouts. The next one will be on August 26, 2013. To add a question or vote on questions that will be asked, go here.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.