How Google gave the spammers all the power

Ian Lurie
Surprise! No Penguin here

Surprise! No Penguin here

Google launched the Penguin update to filter out spammy links. Great! That’s fantastic! Lead us, oh tuxedoed little birdie, to the Golden Age of SEO! Content, marketing and all-around smarts will win the day!

Penguin is not subtle. It targets link profiles that flunk fairly obvious, common-sense criteria: Don’t buy links; don’t get site-wide footer links in 5-point type; don’t spam forums; don’t get 2,000 links with identical anchor text. In short, don’t acquire crappy links. You can read a longer explanation of Penguin here.

If Google penalizes you, you can file a re-consideration request.

But the common sense ends where the request process starts: The spammers are in control. Here’s why:

Unsettling trend…

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed legitimate sites, selling real stuff in a thoroughly businesslike manner, getting their re-consideration requests slapped down.

I’m not Google. But I know a wee bit about what spammy SEO looks like. The sites in question have reformed—they’ve given up their dastardly link-dealing ways.

So I did a little digging, and discovered that in every rejected case, some of the spammy links remain. They remain because we can’t get the site owners to remove the bloody links. We’re not hiding them. We’re listing them. Hell, I’d personally go to Google on bended knee and beg that they devalue the links if I could.

How much cleanup is enough?

That led me to write a little ditty:

If any spammy links remain, your request goes down the drain.

1,200 link removal requests isn’t enough. If you want to get back into the rankings, you have to actually get all of those spammy links removed. Or just pray the re-inclusion team misses the remaining links in a spot check.

Google gave the Batmobile to the Joker

Which leaves me in a pickle. I’m a strong believer in TOS-compliant search engine optimization. Do what Google and Bing want: Help them find, correctly categorize and rank the best stuff. Simple. If you screw up, fix it.

Except that now, site owners can’t do that. If a spammer decides not to remove a link, or if they’ve abandoned their site, Joe the Siteowner is hosed. Google, you’ve just put all the power in the hands of the people you most detest: Spammers. People who sell links, build blog networks and otherwise wreak havoc on your algorithm.

Um. Why, exactly?

Why, Google? Why?

Why, Google? Why?

The answer: Disavowal, or an ‘A’ for effort

Google, we need that link disavow tool. Now. It’ll totally wipe out a nice little consulting division here at Portent. And I’m OK with that. Just give site owners a way to yank links out of their profile.

Or, when a site owner sends you an excruciatingly detailed list of every link they’ve tried to remove, give them an ‘A’ for effort. Then devalue the remaining links, and move on.

Just please, put the power back in the hands of the site owners, OK?

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Ian they better had give thats “disavow” as its called because it’s going to be really easy for competitors to use blackhat link buying on behalf of a very valid business.
    Imagine waking up one morning to see your site back-linked to from 1,000+ crappy sites and site wide to boot????? It WILL HAPPEN! thats the name of the dirty games that are being played out here.
    The trouble is even with “disavow”… good businesses have got enough to do without having to check for spammy backlinks every day and then filing the “disavow”. Heck it takes enough time and effort just working in social networking and creating what google likes to call ” an active social media presence”. ( no doubt this will all backfire one day too)
    Oh and Ian… I used another anchor text and internal URL in my name so as not to upset google with all my anchor text links being the same…. woopeee some of us can do it right eh? LOL

  2. Link disavow tool will also give spammers power too, though.
    Once that’s active, I can spam a whole ton of links at my site. If I get slapped, I’ll start disavowing domains a few at a time until I come back. Then I can go back to spamming. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
    Granted – that’s still better than what we have now.
    There’s no good way to (a) punish spam and (b) not have false/”false” positives at the same time.
    The only thing they can do is ignore links they would otherwise punish you for. But, for whatever reason, Goog has decided that’s not enough.

    1. Given the alternative (what we have now) they’re better off with your scenario. They SHOULD be able to detect that kind of stuff. But who knows.

    2. I think you’re right, spammers will have the ultimate tool to see their good and bad links. Then, we’ll be back in the time where Google’s search result gets filled with bad quality sites again. I don’t think Google will provide this flashlight to help us game the system more efficiently. Risky decision for Bing in my opinion.

  3. It’s scary stuff, I haven’t had it happen to me or any websites I manage, but it sounds like a nightmare to go through and get your website back on track. Great article.

  4. At least give Bing a mention, they launched their Disavow tool last week. Almost certainly just to show up Google by doing it before them.

  5. I think the disavow will give spammers a “Get out of Jail free” card.
    It would be far better for Google to just ignore ‘crappy’ links, soon enough Clients realise that the crappy links don’t work and will stop paying the Spammers to build them …
    Everyone wins – Clients, non-spammy SEO’s, Google and its Users.

    1. That seems too easy (kidding). To this day I wonder why Google has such a hard time telling that a link from a blog with posts about viagra, low-priced jeans and turnips is a low quality link. There has to be a reason. I just don’t get it.

    2. Been thinking about that a bit, actually.
      Ignoring crappy links will ultimately mean *more* spam.
      If there’s no penalty built in for crappy link building (be it the sources, or your anchor text mix, or whatever metric you want to use) then you would be able to blast out spam, free of worry.
      If Google comes out and says the most they will do is ignore bad links, then it becomes a game of spamming as much as you possibly can in order to hit the sources that Google has yet to ID and ignore.
      Sure, you might need to drop 35.000 blog comments to get 1,000 that aren’t being ignored by Google… but, so what? It’s all automated anyway. And there’s zero risk since the worst thing that happens is Google ignores all of them and you’re out a whole $50.

  6. Great article Ian, and I cant agree more with you.
    I make SEO in little Denmark, and here we begun to talk alot about Negative SEO also now.
    I have even noticed, that some of the sites I work with no getting suspicious links from 100% bad neighborhood sites. This i have never experienced before in Denmark with danish sites.

  7. I think there are actually two completely different ways of looking at whether the disavow links tool will be the answer people are seeking and both are totally dependent on why you are trying to get rid of the links.
    I imagine those dealing with an algorithmic “adjustment” probably could expect that it would be an answer for them, but I don’t see that being the case for those dealing with a “manual action”.
    I wrote a more detailed post about this on our Google+ page a few days ago.

  8. I think the real problem is that Penguin hasn’t been re-run for over a month. Unless the sites weren’t hit by Penguin, there’s no way to know yet if removing all those links worked or not, until Penguin runs again. (Unless of course, you’re referring to links that were removed prior to the last Penguin run).

  9. I think the title of this post is kind of misleading.. Wouldn’t “How blackhat SEO’s and site owners gave the spammers all the power.” be better? Dispite years and years of warnings of Matt and the Google spam team some say they didn’t see it coming. That this was going to hapen sooner or later was obvious, wasn’t it?

    1. So spammers gave spammers all the power? That’s a little disconcerting. With all their computing power, Google can’t level the playing field?
      Our clients are all pretty clean. The folks I’ve helped since Penguin hit are all solid businesses who at some point hired someone who spammed, or had spammy links pointed at them. But their sites are quality sites with content that’s useful to consumers. Why should they, if they’re willing to put in the work to clean up their link profiles, get the SEO death penalty?
      It doesn’t add up.
      And trust me, I’m happy to see link spammers go down hard. They’ve made me cringe for years.

  10. Fabulous post Ian. I am trying as hard as I can but fact it there are some dirty and crappy links pointing to my domain and the fact is I am just totally unable to remove them.
    I 101% agree with your point here GOOGLE should have to understand and give us A for the effort or at-least B.

  11. Interesting read. The thing is negative SEO has always been a concern to us and on a small scale has been happening quite a lot. The truth be told it’s happening a lot more now and is much more easily to carry out. I did a case study on one of my own personal websites, built around 2000 spammy back links within 24 hours and found that my site had disappeared from the rankings within 4 days! Not good.

  12. Well, this tool could also be abused… Adding crap links seeing if they work if not removing them via the tool… A’lot of people that cheated got spanked and now they are crying about losing their rankings…
    I agree that neg SEO is bad, the only real solution is anything that Google think is crap they discount.
    I would be interested in seeing a test… On a domain that did everything right then got neg hit by crap links and seeing exactly what happened, and a month later etc.
    I suspect after a while google just devalue the bad links…

    1. Yeah, but it’d be pretty easy to tell if someone’s abusing the disavow tool.
      People who really, actively cheated got what they deserved. What’s concerning ME are the less clear-cut cases: Legit businesses who either made a bad hiring decision or had no idea what was going on. And there are a LOT more of those than clear spammers.
      I frequently wag my finger at those businesses, saying it’s their fault for not using good judgment. I stand by that. But Penguin penalties appear to be near-permanent, at least given what I’ve seen in the last few weeks. If true, then Google’s removing good sites from their rankings. That’s not their intent, and it’s a bad outcome for everyone.

  13. We have recently Added an affiliate program to our Fundraising site… and though our affiliate agreement states they can not spam (in any way including link spamming). They lose little if they do… where as the company would lose allot …. Any thoughts on preventing a person with no SEO knowledge from paying to have their affiliate page link to a million sites for $9.99?

  14. Google has gone too far with the negative weight on a sites rankings from bad links. I have got myself from #7 to #3 on a fairly competitive keyword by spamming the sites above me. You can literally buy 40,000 trackback links for just $10. I’ve blasted competitors with the same anchors with trackbacks, xrumers and other spammy links and gave got competitors deranked. It’s shocking how easy it’s become to negative seo a rival.

  15. Google won’t even tell you if you’re effected by Penguin. What happens if someone is performing negative SEO on your site?
    They can spam thousands of links with the same anchor text and get you wiped out.
    Isn’t it a great strategy for keyword competitors to use against you.
    What Bing has done is include a new tool which you can use to disavow links. Google should do the same but doesn’t.
    If written more about the link tool
    I have filed to 2 reconsideration requests and received nothing back.
    Never spent anytime on link building

  16. I don’t have any sympathy for former spammers who come begging to have links removed.
    I run a large web property that allows user-generated content. We’ve been hit by every manner of bad and manipulative linkbuilding technique you can name — comment spam, profile spam, webspam, even XSS that does page takeovers and browser hijacks. We’ve spent hundreds of hours purging “the four horsemen of the spampocalypse” (porn, pills, mortgages, gambling), and thousands of dollars blocking and filtering all the rest (counterfeit Chinese fashion goods, phony PPV credit-card scams, etc). But a lot of the more generic link placement spam got through. It’s harder to detect, harder to block, and once its there it tends to remain there.
    Lately I’ve been getting emails begging me to remove this old webspam. That would strike me as comical, if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass.
    In summary: first these companies (or their crappy SEO agencies) abused my site by spraying their spammy links all over it, and now that they finally got caught they’re abusing my time by demanding that I take their links down.
    Enjoy the wrath of the penguin, fellas. You had it coming.

  17. Oh and Ian… I used another anchor text and internal URL in my name so as not to upset google with all my anchor text links being the same…. woopeee some of us can do it right eh? LOL

  18. I can see how a Google disavow tool could be a double edged sword but the way things are at the moment, without it, any disgruntled competitor can take you out of the serps easily and there’s really not a lot you can do about it.

  19. Giving credits to sites with informative and quality content is the best move Google has ever made. But Google also wants us to pay attention to the content quality of pages linking to our site, so Google must find ways to identify poor links directed to our site by our competitors.

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