Here's the audio version of this post:
In a technical SEO group I’m in on Facebook I see a lot of questions on a day to day basis regarding aspects of SEO, however, I don’t always have the time to give a thorough answer and sometimes it’s hard to fully explain your thoughts in a Facebook response.
Since link building is still such a complicated part of SEO, it’s often misunderstood. I thought this conversation deserved a closer look, so here are parts of that exchange, edited and enhanced to answer the question:
“Hi would someone mind explaining to me how toxic backlinks happen without someone managing their SEO?”
It’s a free web. Anyone can link to anyone. If you don’t like a site linking to you then Google created the disavow tool for that purpose.
The Google algorithm is largely based on links and, even though when they developed it they anticipated that link building would happen naturally, of course SEO’s (and spammers) caught onto it and quickly manipulated it. Google had to find new and unique ways to utilize links as part of the algorithm, while also diminishing the value of anything that could be looked at as artificial.
So even though it might appear that link building is in your control, the actual point is that it’s not.
Anyone can link to you. If you want to “control that”, you have to use Google Search Console to find links and disavow them.
But, I Thought We Didn’t Have To Disavow Links Anymore?
Yes and no.
Although things have changed dramatically since 2012 when the Disavow Tool was launched and new Manual Actions from link spam are more rare today, there can still be reason to maintain a disavow file with Google today.
For example, let’s say you are working on a site with a large link portfolio and discover a large amount of backlinks that appear to be purchased (perhaps their last SEO did some shady link building), even if Google hasn’t placed a manual action for unnatural links, if you know these links were purchased, the site is still at risk.
The best way to approach a list of bad backlinks is actually to reach out to the sites and ask for a link removal as the first step. However, if the websites don’t respond or remove the links, even though you didn’t build them, they could still have a negative impact on any link building efforts you make moving forward.
Most bad backlinks happen artificially. As already mentioned, they generally happen because bots are always scraping the web and picking up on content that includes links. So, generally it’s not actually a human doing it. However, if a site acquired a ton of suspicious backlinks overnight, and they all appeared to be using the same anchor text and point to a specific page on your site, etc? Yeah, that’s going to raise a red flag with Google.
What Benefit Does The Spam Site Get For Linking To You?
Although it’s pretty rare for me to see anything like this today, there was a point in time where black hat SEOs would use this tactic to link bomb their competition in hopes that they would flag the site for purchasing links and therefore get them penalized. It’s called negative SEO and it worked for a while there.
Because Google was submitting so many manual actions and penalizing sites for links, Webmasters were furious and demanded a way to identify links that they didn’t build or want pointing to their site. Their solution was the Disavow tool. Once they rolled it out, Google even started sending instructions on using it when they sent a manual action message in Google Search Console.
Over time Google has evolved that aspect of their algorithm and they now have better filters for understanding link spam. However, better believe that negative SEO is still very much a real thing and sites / pages can still get penalized in Google for a spammy backlink index.
But, Wouldn’t Google Notify Me If I Had A Penalty?
I guess that depends on what you consider a penalty. Back in 2013 Google was issuing the Penguin link-spam update to issue Manual Actions left and right! It was common to hear from a prospect that they received a message from Google about link spam and they didn’t know how to handle it. It was so common, in fact, we created a service for it: Google Penalty Recovery Services.
We would run a full backlink analysis and determine which links needed to be removed. We worked on getting thousands of links manually removed. When we had exhausted all manual avenues, we then created a final list of bad backlinks to submit to Google with a reinclusion request.
We had success with this method and helped several sites fully recover from a manual link penalty using the Disavow Tool.
Today, however, what we see is Google doesn’t generally penalize a site for links, but they will suppress a specific page or pages of the site that have an artificial link velocity and sometimes even prevent a page from ranking altogether. So, you might not get a sitewide penalization, but you still might be suppressed and never be able to achieve top results for those pages / keywords.
So, Should I Even Bother With The Disavow Tool?
Even if you discover a bad backlink in your index, you probably shouldn’t be too concerned. If there’s the opportunity to reach out to the webmaster and ask them to remove the link, that should always be your first choice.
If you have built links yourself or acquired a project with an existing paid link strategy, technically you could do a proactive disavow in an effort to avoid a future penalty. Of course, BE WARNED, if you don’t know how to properly assess the value of a link, there is potential for you to disavow links that are actually helping you rank and do more harm than good.
This is why I consider link building and backlink management a more advanced SEO topic. Determining what institutes a quality link is one thing. Assessing an entire link portfolio is another. There are times when links from quality sites, for example, can actually work against you.
So, you also need to know:
- How trusted the site is now
- How many backlinks it has
- Where those links are coming from
- How old they are
- The dates they went live
- The link trend over time
- The link velocity in corelation with the site changes and content updates
- The mix of link types
- The anchor text used
- The URL’s the links point to
- The relevance of the sites linking to you
- Where the link is on the page
- How the link was added (contextually, an image link, a direct URL)
- If the link is indexable or not
And, those are just a few of the variables to take into consideration.
So, consider yourself warned and proceed with caution. And, don’t just take my word for it, here is what Google themselves placed as a warning on the tool:
If you have a manual action against your site for unnatural links, or if you think that you’re about to get one because of paid links or link schemes that violate our quality guidelines, ask the other site to remove those links. If you can’t get these links removed, then disavow those sites using this tool. More information
This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution
If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe that there are a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.
Link Building Today
Whether you’re a seasoned SEO or new to the world of digital marketing, I think we can all agree that link building today is tough.
My partner and I met at a link building agency where we both started our careers roughly 16 years ago. Back then things were very different and the Internet was basically still the Wild Wild West. You could literally rank a website with links alone and never even had to optimize it with your target keywords or work on technical SEO. It’s crazy to think back to those times and what we were doing for link building techniques.
Despite link building being very different today, in terms of the tactics and what constitutes a quality link, I think that it’s important to know where we came from to understand where we are now and where we can go.
So although link management is a much less involved manual process today, knowing why these tools and strategies exist will definitely help make you a better SEO today.
If you want to keep reading on the topic of link building and link earning, head on over to our Organic Marketing page or, for a true throwback, head on over to Organic Link Building Post Penguin which I wrote back in 2012 in response to the core algorithm update that shook marketers everywhere and permanently shifted the way SEO’s approached link building. It’s a classic (and surprisingly still mostly stands up today!).
Still have a specific question about links? Drop me a note over here: Connect with Eminent SEO. I’m happy to help if I can!