Ask an Expert: Is disavowing spammy backlinks still necessary for SEO?

“Ask an Expert” is an occasional feature where we ask e-commerce practitioners questions. For this episode, we turned to Bill Sebald, a longtime search engine optimizer, managing partner at SEO agency Greenlane, and a contributor to Practical Ecommerce. It addresses the effect of low quality or spammy inbound links on organic search rankings.

Convenient e-commerce: Disavowing or requesting the removal of low-level inbound links used to be common SEO practice. Is it still necessary?

Bill Sebald: This has no black and white answer. It helps to understand how Google uses links.

Bill Sebald

Google was the first search algorithm to show websites related to each other as recommendations. This signal became the ingredient that Google used to rise above competing search engines. But it also created the link spam problem that Google eventually had to deal with. What was originally a signal of a democratic web became an industry of participants who tried to manipulate Google with its own recipe.

In 2011, Google rolled out its first link penalty with the “Penguin” update. It was intended for those who bought links or acquired unnatural (irrelevant) links to gain rankings. Later updates followed with the Penguin algorithm improving its detection capabilities. Google even has humans review and penalize sites.

Google also allowed penalized websites that engaged in unnatural link building to submit a request for reconsideration after proving they attempted to remove those links from the Internet. Unfortunately, Google has never been fully transparent about its definition of an unnatural link, causing ongoing panic in the SEO industry.

Today, Google’s main algorithm includes Penguin. It’s built-in and, according to Google, always works in real time rather than occasionally, which was past practice. For years, Google’s web spam team has written algorithms to identify characteristics of link spam. Website owners have helped by submitting hundreds of thousands of disavow forms. So Google’s ability in 2021 to automatically detect unnatural links is likely effective.

Google says it now downgrades all unnatural and low-level links it identifies. But he does not say what he has or has not devalued. This is why I strongly advise caution when hiring a link builder. The key is to produce content that people want to link to naturally – certainly not for money.

So I wouldn’t worry about spammy links if I’ve never engaged in aggressive or paid link building programs. But if the volume of unwanted links is so high that Google might conclude that you are trying to outsmart the algorithm, the disallowance process is quite painless.

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