Your Link Graph is Burning

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The Google disavow link tool has just been released and unsurprisingly Google’s version attracted a lot more attention than Bing’s version. This new Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) feature gives those with “unnatural link” warnings and concerns over Penguin related penalties something to do other than trying to get links removed by disinterested or non-existent site owners or past SEO agencies.

You weren’t using those links right?

While removing these links from the web is still the preferred solution, Google will typically ignore links submitted via this tool once they have been recrawled. The links are submitted as a list in a text file, and each site can only submit one. These lists can be updated by downloading the original file, altering it and resubmitting through the same tool. The links submitted will be recrawled before the change can be applied, possibly taking weeks. Google also advises to wait a while after submitting a disavow request before submitting a reconsideration request.

The Link Builder’s Dilemma

One of the best links you can get for SEO is from a good site that no-one else, especially your competitors, has access to. These kind of links are not common, and usually require some work or cost to acquire. This also means the process isn’t scalable or easily commoditised. As a result most link profiles are full of shared link resources. These kind of sites include forums, directories, aggregators, news and resource sites, blogs that accept guest posts and anything with poorly moderated comments. Unfortunately this is also why Google is attempting to discourage this behaviour through “unnatural link” notices and penalties, and requesting disclosure of purchased and artificial links as a part of this.

In this environment the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good metaphor for how the behaviour of SEOs can affect themselves and others in the industry. One SEO disclosing links and practices contrary to Google’s Guidelines will affect others in the industry. This provides information to Google for identifying patterns in behaviour and can even result in direct penalties. Reconsideration requests, “unnatural links” notices and the Disavow tool seem simply to encourage this behaviour further by offering a benefit.

Hypothetically, if no-one discloses all the shared resources they are using, there is a chance that Google won’t be able to accurately identify them. Conversely, if enough people provide Google with information on these networks, then most other sites that rely on them are likely to suffer as they are penalised or their links are disregarded. Ideally it is not in everyone’s interest to disclose shared link resources that may be violating Google’s guidelines.

Choosing Disclosure

The Disavow tool will get used, and for a lot of people it will probably be very valuable, especially after the predations of Google’s Penguin algorithm. Another certainty is that Google will collect a lot of data from this. From outing competitors and annoying link spammers to disclosing huge lists of links in reconsideration requests, collecting data on what other people think is a bad link isn’t new. It is just a little easier.

To Disavow or not to Disavow

As their name implies, shared link resources are likely to link to more than one site, providing them with better rankings, nothing at all or a penalty. Sometimes it can be hard to work out which of the three it actually is. Which can be an issue when it comes to picking which links to have removed or disavowed.

Winning the Link Builder’s Dilemma

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma both the players are equal. They have the same options, the same resources and the same consequences apply to their collective decisions. This isn’t really the case with the Link Builder’s Dilemma.

Perhaps if the original Prisoner’s Dilemma had one player committing robbery and the other adding a little murder to the outing it would be a truer reflection. In the case of the Link Builder’s Dilemma, not all the players have the same risks, and some are better able to endure the negative effects of choosing to disclose more than their competitors.

Playing the Game

Disavowing links purportedly provides a benefit. Providing a list of links for Google to disregard should assist reconsideration requests and lift penalties, provided that the list covers the links affecting the site.

As it is hard to tell which links are having a negative effect on a site’s rankings, there is an incentive to over-report and list everything. Especially if the site in question has a good range of other, natural links. Brand sites (Site A) are likely to fall into this category. They have the resources to attract links others might not have access to through sponsorship, mainstream media activity and their place in the community. Often these entities have also engaged in other link building activity to remain competitive prior to the latest series of changes.

Other sites that are more reliant on shared link resources are less likely to over-report, as the risk of torching otherwise still valuable links carries greater consequences. These two kinds of sites come into conflict when they share link resources. If one disavows and flags links the other believes are legitimate and necessary, and if Google eventually uses this data to remove any value this link can pass, then the one that didn’t disavow will lose out.

Sites likely to fall into this second group are pure web businesses (Site B) such as aggregators and other online services without the resources to have established a good brand or presence throughout the community: sites that are not likely to be able to generate the same kind of links just by existing as Site A.

Hypothetical and Simplified Link Builder’s Dilemma
Site A Over-Disavows Site A Disavows Site A Doesn’t Disavow
Site B Over-Disavows Penalty Lifted, Site A has a link advantage Penalty lifted, Site A has a link advantage Site B Penalty Lifted
Site B Disavows Penalty Lifted, Site A has a link advantage Penalty Lifted, Some shared link resources remain Site B Penalty Lifted
Site B Doesn’t Disavow Site A Penalty Lifted Site A Penalty Lifted Status Quo

Realistically, it will always be in the interest of sites like Site A to over-report and disavow any link that could be associated with a penalty. Established sites will usually have enough links that losing some shared resources that are providing good links is acceptable. Sites with a profile like Site B are not likely to be in this position.

Who Wins

To say that the Disavow tool will render all shared link resources ineffective is a massive assumption. It is far more likely that this is just one more source of data for Google to use in building and training their algorithms.

Something like the Disavow tool is certainly needed. Attempting to get thousands of comment spam, footer and splog links taken offline is not practical, and as links have been seen to be effective for so long, there are a lot of them out there.

Like any other change in how Google collects and uses data, there are going to be consequences, and as with any other change, there will be some who benefit, some who lose and some who are unaffected. Though if I were pressed to choose a winner in this environment, it would be those sites that are not reliant on just shared link resources.

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