Down Google’s Disavow Rabbit Hole

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The SEO industry clearly has more than 9 lives. For every linkbait piece proclaiming the death of SEO, there’s a retort published on a marketing blog. Society can’t quite decide if SEO still has a pulse or not.

As long as search exists, I don’t see SEO going away. SEO isn’t something that dies; it just slowly evolves into new things. The more interesting question has always been: Where will SEO be in 5 years? 10 years?

As somebody who has worked in the industry for a while and who uses SEO to pay the bills, it’s a question I’ve thought a lot about.

SEO, as we know it, has evolved beyond its origin of making sure a site is crawl-able by search engine robots. Lots of SEO firms have morphed into “branding” or “content” shops over the past few years. With each Google update that targets SEO tactics, more will do the same. What was once okay is no retroactively deemed ‘black hat.’ Don’t build links, build content, they say. Optimize for users, not search engines, they say. Do SEO by not doing SEO, they say.

Whether you buy into those ideas or not, the fact is marketers have little to no control over the future of the SEO industry. We can tweet and blog all we want, but Google has shown little willingness to bend to public outcry and will do whatever they please. If Google wants SEO to change, it will.

One of the great examples of Google forcing the evolution of SEO is the disavow tool. Google’s spam detection methods have gone from automated algorithmic models to algorithmic models plus the largest crowdsourced link spam detection team. Think about it. Instead of relying solely on algorithms, Google relies on SEOs to  do the time-consuming job of identifying unnatural links for them through the disavow tool.

The disavow tool is much more than a simple way to “ignore links,” however. It’s a weapon used to threaten website owners into removing/changing their site’s content for fear of being added into Google’s database of disavowed domains. I do not like Google encouraging Webmasters to “out” one another using the disavow tool when 95% of people have no idea what an unnatural link looks like. I get 2-3 link removal requests each week for blog posts where I naturally wrote about and linked to somebody else’s website.

No matter how frustrating it is, I play along with Google’s disavow game because I have no other choice. Opinions on this vary, but the disavow tool has worked well allowing me to help sites recover from algorithmic penalties and aid in reconsideration requests for manual penalties. I don’t like it, but short of changing domains and starting from scratch, there is no other option if you want a penalized domain to recover.

I don’t believe in SEO outing. I don’t care if other websites use aggressive tactics and profit from them. That’s a choice every website owner has to make. But do I “anonymously” add a few sites to a disavow file to get out of the penalty box? You bet.

The disavow tool is a small example of the power that Google has. We’re all reliant on Google’s firehose of web traffic. Losing your traffic from Google means a quick death for most websites. If that traffic goes away, what would you do to get it back?

Would you add a few sites to the disavow file? Sure, no problem. That’s not a huge step for most people. But there’s no limit to how far Google may take this.

Webmasters are in a desperate place when they suffer a site-wide penalty. You either fix the penalty, or your business dies. Webmasters have no recourse in this situation. You can’t even pick up the phone and call someone.  It’s a helpless feeling.

With webmasters in such a desperate state, Google could easily start requiring more of a “good faith” effort that you will comply with their guidelines, such as:

  • Firing your marketing/SEO company (already encouraged by some).
  • Committing to certain monthly spend in AdWords.
  • Adding new Google-hosted metadata/tracking code to a site.
  • Forwarding personal emails to Google from your marketing agency.
  • Giving Google’s Web Spam Team access to a your email (already recommended by some).
  • Switching your ISP to Google Fiber.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see Google rolling out anything extreme in the near future. This type of change happens slowly. But as more penalties get dished out, the burden of proof for Webmasters will only expand.

Plus, a farfetched as these seem, in 2008 few would have believed that over the next five years

  • Google would actively penalize sites for a single bad outbound link.
  • Google would take away all keyword data for non-paid search queries.
  • The easiest way to fix a penalty is to send Google a list of every link you’ve built.

There’s not a lot of things business owners wouldn’t do to get rid of a penalty. We’d do whatever they required to fix a major issue with an important site. As the concept of a “good faith effort” evolves, we have no choice but to do exactly as Google says.

Having your site penalized in Google hurts your business just as much as having the road to your business closed would or having your license revoked. The only difference is that road closures and licensing issues have public laws and policies to govern them while Google penalties have vague messages, made up “Webmaster Guidelines” and outsourced site reviewers to determine your fate.

The disavow file alone might not seem like a big deal, but it’s part of a much larger trend — Google becoming more heavy handed. Instead of relying on algorithms to determine which sites to move down in the SERPs, Google is crowdsourcing spam detection on a massive scale, paying people to sign up for and participate in blog communities and watching what you say on Twitter. Monopolized marketplaces aren’t created overnight; they happen gradually.

Jon Cooper summed up my feelings about the future of SEO pretty well when he admitted that he’s scared of what the future holds. I know SEO isn’t going to die, but I’m afraid of what SEO will become in a few years. I’m afraid that links built 10 years ago will be used to penalize a site. I’m afraid of what I’ll have to do to appease the people who rule search.

The disavow tool gives us the illusion of control and power, but we’ve long ago disavowed the future of search to Google.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Conjecture stated as fact…please show where Google has said that they are using the disavow file for discovery?

    • Hi Terry! Google’s John Mueller has said publicly that they aren’t using the data ‘at the moment’ but I see no reason that they won’t or haven’t already begun using it. If your job is to identify and prevent link spam and you’ve managed to get thousands of people to submit links that they’ve created for SEO purposes, why wouldn’t you use that data? For a secondary signal, if nothing else.

      Then again, I don’t really put a lot of stock in what Google says publicly (especially about spam) so it is tough to say exactly what they are up to. 🙂

  • It’s hard to plan for the future SEO of a site (your own or a client’s) when Google’s penalty policy can change at any time. I understand they have to maintain a balance between dealing with spam and improving search rankings, but a lot of good SEO is being pulled down with bad, while a lot of bad SEO still gets benefits.

    Google enforcing ex post facto penalties on sites for links they built (or had built) years or a decade ago can make companies much less likely to invest in any content marketing/SEO because of the risk of it coming back to bite them in the future.

    • Hi Nick. I agree wholeheartedly — a good link today can easily become a bad link tomorrow. Google’s rules are always changing. Even if you try as hard as possible to keep up to date with everything, you are probably breaking the rules at some point and your site is at risk.

      Link spam needs a statute of limitations, I think.

  • Do not forget that Google uses the organic search results as bait to get people to see and click advertising. To increase their customer satisfaction they know that known brands ranking high for more search queries gives people the results they both expect and want.

    That is why what Google has done lately is eliminate the link acquisition methods that can be done to scale with little money and allow small sites to compete with large brands. Now large brands have the same advantage in search that they have “in the real world”.

    • Thanks for stopping by Keith.

      I’ve written before about how Google has ruined one of the best things about search — true democracy. You used to see a nice blend between smaller shops and big box brands in the SERPs and it wasn’t insanely expensive to carve out a nice chunk of change in a smaller ecommerce niche. Every update makes it more and more difficult, especially with the rush to make SEO branding & content marketing. Those are a lot tougher to excel at than traditional SEO on a small budget.