by Iain Wilson
If search engines are at all important to your business, you will probably know that each search engine regularly updates its secret recipe for determining search engine rankings.
The updates are sometimes to provide new feature but more often are to improve the results they provide, especially punishing spam and rewarding good content.
For some time now, Google have been releasing a series of updates, with codenames Penguin and Panda, aimed at weeding out over-optimised sites and those indulging in 'spammy' link building (inbound links are a key component in Google's search engine algorithm).
As always, if your site contained good, non-spammed content and you had plenty of inbound, incontext and relevant links, your site shouldn't have been affected. However, if you'd perhaps engaged a SEO company that had built links using black-hat techniques, you could have a lot of spammy, low value links and could be in trouble.
Of course we would never do anything like that, so had nothing to worry about. And so it turned out, except for one site.
This one site, plummetted in the Google search rankings. It had been on page one for almost every keyword phrase that had been targetted. By the beginning of January, it was nowhere and continued to be nowhere.
Interestingly, because we are good boys, and we had never done anything untoward SEO-wise, it didn't occur to us that the problem might have been caused by a Google update.
So we revisited those updates and found them to be in good order and nothing that could hurt the site.
Then we thought, maybe the inbound link count is down, so we checked using Google's Webmaster Tools. At that point, the mist cleared. This site had over 8000 inbound links! There were some good ones, but most were from some (extremely) dodgy sites.
The link text (the hyperlink that can be clicked to go to the linked page) on these sites were all advertising a particular product. Some were visible, some were hidden. But they were all going to the problem site (why, you might ask, but that is another story). Exactly what Google have been trying to target!
So, cause found, problem over, you might think. In actual fact, the problems were just starting. How do you get rid of links to your site that you don't want? If the links were from good quality sites, you would just email the site and ask for the link to be removed.
But the sites these links were coming from were poor quality, old, unmaintained sites, many hastily put together with Wordpress, filled with link articles, then left to die. We sent a emails to a few of the better ones, advising them that they may have been hacked and asking for the links to be removed but got zero response.
Doesn't seem right, does it? The site is getting penalised for links that the site owner had nothing to do with. There must be a way to get rid of links like this. Well, this is where the Google Disavow Tool appears to come to the fore.
The theory behind this facility in Google's Webmaster Tools, is that it allows you to send Google a list of links to your site that you want removed (i.e. disavowed). It sounds simple, but in the search engine community there is much speculation about it, and whether it works at all. In any case, it must be used very carefully, or you could end up hurting your site even more.
To use it, you go through this process:-
This article explains it in much more detail.
Part of the mystique surrounding the Disavow tool surely is that you are given no indication that anything is happening. Once the file is uploaded, nothing. No status update, no messages, nothing.
Well, we did the necessary. We sent the text file, and.... nothing. We let it run for a few weeks hoping something was going on. By this time, we'd heard that a Reconsideration Request might help. This is Google's mechanism for sites that have been identified by Google as violating their Quality Guidelines and have been given a manual penalty. Once they've fixed the violation, they can use a Reconsideration Request to have the site, well.. reconsidered.
Some SEO experts reckon a Disavow request needs to be backed up with a Reconsideration request. So although we had never had a manual penalty assigned to the site, we got one of them in, too. Almost immediately, we got a response saying that there were no manual penalties associated with the site and there was no need for the site to be reconsidered.
Well, it's good that the site doesn't need to be reconsidered and hadn't been manually penalised, but there were still 8000 bad links hurting the site. Back to the Disavow tool, and Google say:
"It may take some time for Google to process the information you’ve uploaded. In particular, this information will be incorporated into our index as we recrawl the web and reprocess the pages that we see, which can take a number of weeks."
So, all we could do is wait. And 6 weeks after the redundant reconsideration request and over 2 months after the Disavow request, the bad links submitted in the Disavow request were wiped clean!
The site isn't yet up to it's former ranking. Maybe it never will. It's quite possible that those bad links actually helped the ranking before Google started focussing on them. Interestingly, throughout this, the site continued to rank well on Bing and Yahoo.
Keep an eye on your ranking. Keep an eye on the sites that are linking to you.
The easiest way to check links is through Google's Webmaster Tools if you have a Google account and have set your site up there. Just go
Webmaster Tools > Search Traffic > Links to Your Site
Otherwise, there are services like Majestic SEO which will give you similar information. It doesn't matter what you use, just keep checking!
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