The Sad State of My Search Traffic After Disavowing 35,000 Links

On April 3, 2013 I disavowed every link to this website I could find through Google Webmaster Tools.

35,000 links. Gone.

It was an experiment, documented on Moz, to better understand how Google’s Disavow Tool worked. For almost the first two months, nothing happened. This site ranked for all types of phrases, even top 10 for competitive keywords like “SEO blog.”

Then, shortly after Google released Penguin 2.0 in late May, my rankings started to drop. They dropped like a rock.

Rankings Drop
The mystery deepened. Why did my rankings not drop until Penguin?

Tim Grice of Branded3 had a theory which he shared through Twitter.

Tim Grice Branded3 Twitter

Other SEOs noticed similar effects after disavowing links, most notably Marie Haynes. The disavow file seemed to have 2 different outcomes, depending on what you did next.

  1. If you filed a reconsideration request, the effect of disavowing your links often seems to take place soon after Google responded to your request.
  2. If you don’t file a reconsideration request, the file seems to update only during a major algorithm change like Penguin.

Immediately after this, I removed the disavow file from Google Webmaster Tools. I wanted to find out if the my rankings would recover with the file no longer in place. Here’s what happened:

No Disavow Recovery

Even after removing the disavow file, my ranking never recovered. Will they ever? When was Cyrus Shepard born?

On the outside, it may seem like my site was hit by Penguin, and this has nothing to do with the disavow file. The truth is, my link profile was squeaky clean, my anchor text was diverse, and I’ve never done any manual link building. Additionally, as reported by other SEOs in the industry, mine was not the only site that “preemptively” disavowed links without filing a reconsideration request that saw their rankings plummet.

Unfortunately, information about what is really going on is scant. We’ve only seen one major algorithm update when this seemed to be true, the Penguin 2.0 update. Since we haven’t had a known Penguin update since May, we don’t know if these links will be reinstated, or if they are lost forever.

When you disavow your links, best to heed Google’s advice. Use with caution.

Disavow Link with Caution

One other factor that could play a role in this experiment. I haven’t updated this blog since May, and I would expect traffic to fall as the content and user activity became stale. That said, I would expect at least some uptick in rankings if any of my old links were reinstated.

Will my rankings ever return? Watch this space…

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Comments

  1. says

    So, do you think you will ever get the value of the disavowed links back, so your rankings will be re-instated?

    And did you think about the consequences for the websites you disavowed the links from?
    Those website owners could get into a lot of trouble for having their links disavowed. Maybe they will lose their rankings, their traffic, their authority and what more…

    Testing is great, and it takes balls what you did with your site, but I hope you do understand you now branded all those other webmasters with Google

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      Hi Dennis,

      I’ve heard some webmasters claim that disavowing links is an easy way of doing negative SEO, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it.

      I’ve looked at a lot of disavow files and people disavow some pretty crazy stuff, stuff they shouldn’t disavow and links that actually help them. People often have no idea what they are disavowing. People ask Moz to remove links, then disavow Moz.com! Unless the same websites got disavowed again and again and patterns stated to emerge, I can’t imagine Google would take action on a single disavowed link.

      In aggregate, it might be a great way for Google to find link networks, but on an individual site level it doesn’t make much sense.

      If I believed for a second that I could hurt a website by simply disavowing a link from it, I never would have done it.

      But I don’t believe it.

      • says

        Hey Cyrus:

        How can the disavow tool be a great way for Negative SEO? I see it as a way to help thwart a Negative SEO campaign.

        Are you thinking that if enought people disavow a certain page/domain enough times this may trigger a response from Google that the page/Domain being disavowed is a bad/negative site?

        Trey

  2. says

    Hi

    Interesting post, we found that Penguin 2.0 had quite a significant impact on our rankings, much more than other updates. Our problem was to many blog roll links.

    Certainly frequency of update is a key factor. I was trying an experiment with the impact of authorship and Google plus activity on ranking when Penguin 2.0 was released. It changed the results so much I had to abandon the experiment. it’s is difficult to understand what is happening with SEO ranking.

  3. Laure France says

    Hi,

    Don’t you beleive that by disavowing your links, you actually lost all the link juice and the trust these onces were giving you and making you rank.

    I think you have just nofollowed all the links that were actually making you rank. So yeah links have been disavvowed, now based on what would you rank ? Your most powerful links have vanished away.

    Kind regards

  4. Rich says

    Hi,

    I worked on a site where the disavow file seemed to be processed during Penguin 2.0, despite a successful reconsideration request just over 2 months prior.

    We had to disavow/remove a huge proportion of links, yet rankings improved a few weeks following the success response. At the time, this was attributed to the disavow file being processed. However, Penguin 2.0 then hit and rankings dropped away massively.

    In hindsight, it seemed as if rankings initially improved owing to the removal of the manual barrier that had been put in place, but the major drop during Penguin 2.0 seemed to better fit with the large scale cuts we had to make within the disavow file.

    Major improvements have been made to the site’s content since (to cover all bases), yet ranking performance for existing terms of focus remains relatively static – as if the site is now ranking where it deserves to, based on the links that remain.

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      Thank you for your comment Rich. There’s always confusion over what is actually causing the ranking drop. Was it the disavow file, Penguin 2.0 or something completely different?

      Personally, I hate the whole disavow process. I hate that it causes so much confusion, fear, and senseless worrying.

  5. says

    Hey Cyrus –

    This is a cool post and experiment, but as DennisG says, I’d be a little sore if you had disavowed links from my site – you know, just in case Google actually goes through those files. But that’s the tin foil hat talking! :)

    If I saw that graph in GA I would be REALLY upset. That’s a big drop in traffic. But as your link profile is squeaky clean, haven’t you essentially just dropped a bomb on an awesome link profile? It would be quite neat to have tried the same thing on a site with a manufactured link profile that ranks fairly well, to see how much of a difference it makes.

    If disavow is just for spam and links known to you as being bad, then I’d expect to lose rankings after disavowing all user generated, honest John links. But if you had a ton of directory and paid links from the days of yore weighing you down after Penguin, I wouldn’t expect a dramatic drop.

  6. says

    I have done a few disavow files in recent times, also manual links removal and recon requests.

    Personally I see heaps of brands ask some one to do a disavow and they do not know what they are doing, they usually make a huge list of links with the wrong formatting and it just makes a HUGE mess of the site. I also noticed something recently where they disavowed 2k spam URLS and did not include the spam domains. Further to this they had a huge number of urls with spaces in the urls and also had a whole bunch of good urls included.

    But that been said Disavow can work well if you remove the right links see an example of traffic increase here after a huge drop – http://www.powerretail.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Results-2.png

    James Norquay

  7. says

    35,000 links and never done any link building? WOW. I reckon that looks already suspicious on Google’s book. Disavowing all the links make it even worse. Possibly…

      • Richard Hearne says

        The problem with that particular recovery story was that it covered manual actions. So what we now have is a theory that disavow needs either a recon request or a Penguin refresh for the changes to go live. That’s completely at variance with what Google has been saying, although quite a few people believe disavow is not the tool Google has made it out to be.

        I think if what you found happened to your site is replicable across all others Google has been telling porkies for many months about this tool.

  8. says

    I believe this post from Irish Wonder follows on nicely from your test: irishwonder.com/blog/2013/09/12/the-invisible-web-can-we-stop-creating-our-own-trap/

    Disavowing links is bad M’kay!

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      Thanks Chris. A handful of folks like Mr. Wonder believe that disavowing is equal to negative SEO, but I’ve yet to see any evidence. Which is a shame because it would be the easiest thing in the world to test. Simply disavow a site and see if the target site gets an unnatural link warning or if their rankings go down. But so far, no one has ever shown this to be the case.

      Would love to see some data on this.

      • IrishWonder says

        For the record, Mr. Shepard: I never said I believe disavowing links is equal to negative SEO, and I do not believe it, please do not put words into my mouth. Unfortunately, indeed, only “a handful of folks” realise the danger of the disavow tool and how disruptive the whole concept is to the nature of the web itself. It happens more often that other folks fail to see the forest for the trees – if after your experiment you still require evidence it is unclear why you ran it in the first place. Furthermore, I believe experiments like this are totally irresponsible as the sites you are disavowing are linking to more than just your site. Please build yourself an isolated private network linking to your properties only and then disavow to your heart’s content. Would you actually go as far as ascertain that other sites linked to from the sites you have is avowed have NOT suffered? Have you checked what happened to their rankings? Do you even care?

        • Cyrus Shepard says

          Thanks for stopping by and offering a clarification to your point of view – I appreciate it. Heard you hung out with my friends today in Brighton. That’s awesome!

          Regardless, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  9. says

    One question is that as your site / name is “well known” has the quality of traffic to you (as opposed to the site).

    I am interested to know if your level of business (if business is the focus of this site) changed significantly at all once your traffic dropped. I am a (semi) firm believer in quality over quantity so the -actual tangible result – would be interesting to read about in a follow up post or comment trail.

    Kieran

  10. says

    Hi Cyrus,

    I’d have to say 35000 links are a lot of links, do you know how many actual domains are included? Do you have a lot of links from side bars seems to be the case with those link numbers? Also have you refreshed to see if there are a lot of domains now that haven’t been disavowed?

    I don’t think Google will use the disavow to directly impact sites that have been disavowed, it’s too noisy a data set, however if they aggregate the dataset that’s a different matter! They say they aren’t using the data now but whose to know when they do.

    To me Google have effectively but backlink profiles at the responsibility of webmasters, the issue is if your site is good and gets scraped, those links could effectively harm you in future. To me that’s the problem, there are links we have absolutely no control over that Google wants us to control with a disavow file and a data set that we have no full access to.

    Matt cutts just said there will be a lot more link data, so would be interesting to see if you’re suing a lot of new domains and if they are sitewides.

  11. says

    Hi Cyrus,

    Interesting experiment however there is one other thing that could influence the results.

    You haven’t told us whether you just disavowed every link in WMT (all 35,000 individual lines) or used domain: to disavow, although I’m assuming for the purposes of this post that its the former. As Majestic shows you have over 51,000 links and we know that WMT does not show a complete backlink list, could it be that the remaining 16,000 links are of sufficient quality to keep the site afloat in the SERPS?

    Also, it would seem that there is no mechanism within Google for removing disavow files. Whilst you can go in and remove the actual file (as you did) there seems to be doubt over whether that can actually make any difference. Have we ever had confirmation from Google that removal, or even updating it with a smaller file, actually makes any difference?

    Jonathan

    • Cyrus Shepard says

      Hi Jonathon, thanks for your observations.

      ONLY links found in WMT were disavowed, so there were undoubtedly links not caught up in the file. Even if I included links from Majestic, Open Site Explorer, ahrefs etc I don’t think I could capture all the links in Google’s index.

      Your question is spot on – if you remove a link from your disavow file, can you ever get it back? I have a sinking feeling the answer is “no” but we’ll have a better answer if/when Google updates Penguin again.

    • Ro says

      This is very interesting and, I think, the crux of the issue here. We are making the assumption that removing the disavow file removes the disavows. But I have also not seen any indication that that is the way this is meant to work. Your suggestion of uploading a new disavow file, possibly one that only disavows a single link, is interesting! Would that replace the disavows and restore the other 34,999 links?

  12. says

    Hey Cyrus

    Glad someone (you!) got out there and experimented with this! I posted on Inbound too, but the way I understand disavow from a few John Mu explanations (around last Jan-Mar in Hangouts) is a disavow doesn’t take sudden effect – Google has to crawl the pages the source links are on, and this of course is based on their own crawl schedule – and thus the effects of a disavow will appear to roll out slowly.

    Could be a piece of the explanation of the reverse in effect, where you have removed the file, but now Google has to re-crawl and revaluate the source pages again. John Mu has said this can take up to 6 months to process, and has also said in Hangouts that you can most definitely hurt your site by disavowing good links (it’s like adding a nofollow) – so I also wonder if once you disavow, you can’t go back, you’ve basically added permanent nofollows (even if the file is removed).

    Awesome you got this discussion happening though, there really is a lot we don’t know about it – and even harder to test because a) people don’t want to kill their site and b) the effects don’t seem anywhere near instant.

  13. says

    Omg u disavowed your own site for an experiment. That’s like a zombie movie where the hero infects himself with the virus to see if the cure works. Hope u are able to recover!

  14. says

    I question whether the disavow or the revoking of the disavow made a difference at all. I wouldn’t expect revoking a disavow would have an effect within a week, as the graph shows…

    I would suggest this was inevitable and your traffic pre-penguin was inflated due to a disproportional amount of questionable links…

    Thoughts?

  15. narek says

    Hi,

    I did pretty much the same. I have disavowed 60% of the links and file is still there and links are still alive but I could manage to revoke the manual spam. I am not sure what to expect from Google’s coming updates

  16. says

    OK, there seems to be some pretty smart people on here. So I’d like to ask a question. As it stands one or more of my competitors can maliciously harm my rankings simply by using an automated bot to post 1000s of backlinks to my site from the worst possible neighborhoods on the web. I get penalized because Google gives negative value to those links even though I’m not responsible for them.

    Why don’t Google simply give neutral value to those links it doesn’t like instead of negative value?

    Result – any competitor trying to get my site deranked/delisted is wasting his her/time. It’s also a waste of time for us as genuine marketers to try to boost our own rankings by link spamming.

    It just makes no sense to me. What am I missing?

  17. says

    I have a client now who has over 1.1M links to their site. I don’t know if it is humanly possible to sort through that many links and not remove quality ones which brings in traffic. It’s a fine line between trying to remove a penalty and not lose any traffic — have to wonder if it’s worth all the effort or just mail it in and start over again with a clean slate.

  18. says

    this just shows that one of the major ranking factors Google uses is still backlinks pointing to a website, they just “liquidated” the VALUE of those backlinks.

  19. Steve says

    I had made a preemptive strike with the disavow tool against some spammy links late June, and about 2 weeks later the site tanked. At first I thought it could have been a Panda issue since it was loosely around the time of the latest refresh, but now I’m wondering if the drop was caused by the disavow. I just deleted the file this morning to see what will happen. In theory the links are still live, and over time the links should be followed again…I hope. Or should I still keep a disavow file in place, but scale back on the links within it?

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