Penguin 3.0 Is Here, but the Disavow Tool Remains Mysterious
It's that time again. Google's Penguin 3.0 update has officially rolled out after about a year of silence, and the reactions so far have been mixed. Webmasters and SEOs will likely be doing one of three things as the update takes effect: enjoying a surge in rankings due to a clean link profile, seeing no change in traffic, or scrambling to fix low-quality links.
Fixing spammy links involves either contacting the webmasters that are linking to you or using Google's disavow tool. Unfortunately, despite much discussion, Google has failed to make it clear when people should actually disavow links.
Manual Action vs. Penguin Slap
Even if you consistently monitor your link profile, Penguin 3.0 could cause Google to consider some links spammy that have never seemed to hurt your rankings in the past. However, Google will never specifically tell you if your site has declined because of Penguin. What Google will tell you, however, is if they find links to your site that are glaringly unnatural. These usually end up in your link profile due to questionable link building practices of years past, such as buying links, spammy blog commenting, submitting to blog directories, bad article marketing, link schemes, etc. If Google finds these, it may force you to correct them by sticking you with a manual action, which will appear in the Message Center of your Google Webmaster Tools. The distinction between Penguin and a Manual Action is important because it may help you decide when to use the disavow tool.
Where the Confusion Comes From
The disavow tool retains its mystery because it seems like it should be an easy fix. Submitting a disavow file to Google essentially tells them to ignore certain backlinks in your profile. There are many programs available that will evaluate your link profile, tell you which ones are questionable and even create the file for you. It sounds like a simple solution; however, Google consistently maintains that disavowing links should be more of a last resort. First, Google maintains, webmasters should contact the site owners from which the bad links are coming and ask them to remove the links or add the rel="nofollow" attribute to them. Also, when trying to disavow links, Google first gives you this scary warning:
To many, Google's warnings and guidelines make it seem as if the disavow tool should only be used when trying to fix a manual action and being unable to contact or cooperate with the webmaster hosting the link. However, Google's Matt Cutts is on the record as saying that a disavow file should be submitted even if you haven't received a manual action, meaning that disavowing links might be a solid method for saving your site from Penguin too. To make matters worse, it's not even clear as to when and how a disavow file will begin to take effect. We know that disavow files are processed automatically, but it's possible that your bad links might not be disavowed until you've filed for reconsideration or Google does a major refresh. Dizzy yet?
The Case For Manual Removal
Perhaps the use of the disavow file is deliberately unclear because Google wants you to try manually removing bad links on your own. Anybody who has ever tried this, however, knows that it's incredibly time consuming and has a fairly low success rate. At the same time, we have to agree that manual removal is the best option, at least in the beginning. For a Google Manual Action, link removal works well because it allows you to gather documentation of your efforts, which Google may request. If you've been hit hard by Penguin, link removal is great because it gives you definitive proof that the link has been removed, whereas the disavow tool doesn't provide any feedback showing when, how, or even if your bad links have actually been disavowed. There's also a chance that you won't create the file correctly and end up thinking you've disavowed something you actually haven't. Not to mention, disavowing a link from a low-quality article site such as Ezine won't prevent that link from being replicated in similar article aggregate sites.
Put simply, it's best to try contacting webmasters and getting the links taken down if at all possible. After those efforts have been exhausted, then it's time for the disavow tool. Until Google truly clears up how the tool works, this is the strategy that will ensure your efforts will have an effect.
The Good News
The good news is that you might not have to worry about the disavow tool all that much if you've consistently relied on white hat SEO. The tool mainly seems to be a way for webmasters to fix damage done by shady SEOs such as buying links or article spinning/marketing. You may never have to worry about it in the future either if you focus on consistently creating great content. Artificial link building that games the system is over and done with. To avoid the confusion over the disavow process, be sure to remove the worst links in your profile now, and then move forward by earning great links through high-quality content marketing.