Google’s "Disavow Link" Tool

By Melanie Phung, Director of New Media, PBS Interactive

For as long as search engines have valued inbound links as a measure of a site’s authority, spammers have tried to exploit this by inflating their link profile with a high volume of low-quality links. Earlier this year, with a series of algorithm changes called the “Penguin update,” Google started trying to put the smackdown on sites that appear to be inflating their rankings with spammy or paid-for links. This has made some webmasters nervous as they don’t necessarily have control over their entire inbound link profile and don’t want to be penalized for suspicious links they can’t have removed. 

A few weeks ago, Google launched a tool allowing webmasters to indicate they want Google to ignore certain inbound links; the “disavow links” tool is meant to help sites that may have been penalized for “bad” links.

Read the Google Webmaster Central Blog post for the official announcement.

What’s a Bad Link?
The type of links Google is interested in hearing about are not the type of editorial links that PBS content generally attracts; instead, they are looking for spammy or paid-for links intended to unnaturally inflate PageRank or (possibly) links used in “negative SEO” attacks intended to get a site penalized.  If you hired a firm who engaged in an overly aggressive link-building campaign or are getting an unusual volume of very dodgy sites linking to your site, those links could be hurting you, especially if you don’t have sufficient “good” links to balance them out.

High-quality editorial links or standard advertisements are not impacted and should not be disavowed (disavowing links unnecessarily could negatively impact your search engine visibility, since quality editorial links are an important part of the ranking algorithm).

How Do I Check My Inbound Links?
We highly recommend checking out your inbound link profile in Google Webmaster Tools to see who is linking to you (and what they’re linking to) as part of your general digital strategy -- this information can give you leads on new positive digital PR outreach targets, insights into what content resonates with other site owners, and more.

To see some of the sites that are linking to you, log into your Google Webmaster Tools account and: 1. Navigate to “Traffic”, 2. Click on “Links to Your Site:, 3. Click on “More” for the full list (which you can download and sort).

If you’re worried about bad links or penalties related to Google’s recent algorithm changes, look for notifications from Google (in your Webmaster Tools account) warning you about possible “unnatural links” or check Google Analytics to see if you suffered a dramatic drop in organic traffic over a very short period of time.

What Do I Do? 
If you believe your PBS property may be suffering from penalties due to bad links, consult with Melanie Phung (mmphung at PBS dot org) before taking any action. 

Additional Reading
Good sources for additional reading on Google's new "disavow link" tool can be found on Search Engine Land, Search Engine Roundtable, and Search Engine Watch.