Today’s Ask an SEO question comes from Alessandro in Germany. Alessandro asks:
“Should I disavow all links that come from a domain (with domain:example.com) that is stealing us important rankings with syndicated content? Or should we ask them to add a canonical to all syndicated content (past and future content)?”
Google’s disavow tool is a bit like a chainsaw.
It’s great for chopping down forests, clearing out large roadblocks, and chopping down the random dead or troubled tree.
But when you start trying to create fine details with a chainsaw, you’re probably going to run into some issues.
The same goes for the disavow tool.
Google doesn’t tell us which links are helping our site and how much they are helping our site.
Every time you use the disavow tool, you’re running the risk of cutting out links that are actually helping you rank for specific keywords.
But if you can see that you have a whole forest of dead trees, a chainsaw is necessary.
The same is true if you have a plethora of obviously toxic links pointing at your site.
I always caution my clients to use the disavow tool sparingly.
I’ve witnessed many instances where an overzealous SEO professional has actually hurt their rankings by disavowing suspect links that were actually providing value in Google’s eyes.
My educated suspicion is that Google knows more about the links that are pointing at your site than you do, and typically if a link is suspect, they just don’t count it.
But sometimes they do count links, and if you go and disavow them, it’s a bit like cutting the trunk of a healthy tree rather than pruning unhealthy branches.
Canonicalization Over Disavow
To answer the question specifically, I have to make a few assumptions.
I’m assuming that the site in question is outranking the site where the syndicated content is originating.
I’m also assuming that the site where the content is syndicated has permission to publish the content in question.
In this case, the answer is pretty clear cut.
As I’ve outlined in previous Ask an SEO columns, Google wants to rank the original content when the content is syndicated.
If you have the authority to require that the site in question place a canonical tag on all content syndicated from your site, you should do so.
Especially if the site in question is outranking your site for your own content.
It would not be appropriate to disavow links from a site that is republishing your original content – unless that site was toxic and actually harming your rankings.
I have a hard time envisioning a scenario where one site republishing your content would be cause for enough concern to take out the chainsaw of disavow.
The Purpose of Disavow
Again, the disavow tool is not something to be used lightly.
The disavow tool should only be used if you know you have sketchy links pointing at your site.
The original purpose of the disavow tool was to fight negative SEO.
I’ll be the first to tell you that negative SEO is real, although true cases of negative SEO are rare.
I’ve had countless prospects approach me with suspicion of negative SEO.
I’ve only found a handful of actual negative SEO, and even fewer cases where attempted negative SEO has actually caused damage to a site.
But it does happen.
And when it happens, the disavow tool is an absolute necessity for recovery.
The disavow tool is also commonly used for sites that have done some sketchy link building in the past and are looking to change their ways.
In fact, in most cases, you must use the disavow tool when you submit a reconsideration request to Google to attempt to get out of a manual penalty.
But the disavow tool is not meant to keep your competitors from ranking for your syndicated content.
There are other tools, such as canonicalization and overall link building that are much more appropriate for outranking your competitors.
Editor’s note: Ask an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!