How Link Denial Affects Search Engine Rankings

Stephen Yagielowicz

Search engine algorithms are complicated creatures that ingest and analyze amazing amounts of information in an attempt to ensure that the best and most relevant websites rise to the top of the search site’s rankings.

While the quality, quantity, presentation, relevance and type of a web page’s content play a major role, other factors such as server speed and page load time, plus the number and source of inbound links from relevant sites, which is seen as a measure of popularity — and hence, quality and on-topic relevance, are among the most used ranking signals.

It behooves all adult website operators to examine the sources of their traffic and eliminate any flows stemming from questionable sources.

But what happens when a site’s inbound links are coming from “bad neighborhoods,” such as known illicit sites, or commercial link sources (as paid-for links are devalued by some search engines), or are otherwise of poor quality or irrelevant nonexpert sources? Or what happens when you trade links or over-optimize your link’s anchor text?

Instead of a boost, you get a hit — and you can thank Google’s Penguin update for making the situation worse for marketers, especially those heavily invested in past tactics.

On the surface, this seems like fair play: rogue website operators are penalized for taking shortcuts or for using outright fraud; while legitimate, relevant sites are rewarded.

But what happens when this “fair play” is used for a deliberate, malicious assault against a competitor, by purposefully linking to a site from those “bad neighborhoods” — or when you regret the overenthusiasm of your prior search marketing efforts?

Enter Google’s new “Disavow Links” option in its popular suite of Webmaster Tools.

According to the company, while website owners that have been notified of a manual spam action based on “unnatural links” pointing to their site will find this tool helpful in addressing the issue, for operators that have not received such a notification, Google says that this tool “generally isn’t something you need to worry about.”

Webmaster Tools notifies users about “unnatural links” including paid links, those that result from link exchanges, or other schemes that violate Google quality guidelines.

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Jonathan Simon explains that by looking at the links between pages, the company is able to get a sense of which pages are reputable and important, and thus more likely to be relevant to its users.

“This is the basis of PageRank, which is one of more than 200 signals we rely on to determine rankings,” Simon says. “Since PageRank is so well-known, it’s also a target for spammers, and we fight link spam constantly with algorithms and by taking manual action.”

Google recommends that webmasters contact any sites containing bad links to theirs and ask for removal of those links, “Because it addresses the problem at the root.”

“By removing the bad links directly, you’re helping to prevent Google (and other search engines) from taking action again in the future,” Simon explains. “You’re also helping to protect your site’s image, since people will no longer find spammy links pointing to your site on the web and jump to conclusions about your website or business.”

The new Disavow tool comes into play when poorly linked sites are unresponsive to your link removal requests; and only requires that a webmaster upload a plain text file containing the links they want to disavow, with one URL per line.

Comments in the file will be ignored by Google when prefaced with a pound sign (#), while the “domain:” keyword (i.e. “domain: “) indicates that all links should be disavowed from a particular site. Page-level URLs can also be specified to avoid blocking a domain.

“One great place to start looking for bad links is the ‘Links to Your Site’ feature in Webmaster Tools,” Simon concluded. “But be sure you don’t upload the entire list of links to your site — you don’t want to disavow all your links!”

It is important to note that Google does not remove the actual link from a bad site — it only ignores it when determining the impact of a site’s inbound links on its rankings.

As with all things Google, not everyone is a fan of the Disavow tool, with critics that cite the possibility of abuse via sophisticated link-poising schemes where illicit operators seek to harm their competitors through malicious linking strategies, and other threats.

It behooves all adult website operators to examine the sources of their traffic and eliminate any flows stemming from questionable sources — and then disavow links from those that persist. Sure, there may be a drop in overall traffic volume, but you could receive more of that oh-so high quality Google traffic as a result.