SEO News: Disavowing links, TrendWatch February 2023 and new featured snippets blue highlight

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Show notes

This week, Jack Chambers-Ward is joined once again by Mark Williams-Cook to discuss:

Watch this episode on recorded live on SISTRIX's YouTube channel:


Jack: Hello and welcome to the first episode of the SISTRIX with Candour, new livestream series. You may recognize me, I'm Jack Chambers-Ward and my co-host Mr. Mark Williams-Cook from the podcast, Search With Candour. And you may also recognize SISTRIX from being our sponsors on that podcast. And we are now partnering with SISTRIX to do a brand new livestream series to bring you the latest SEO and PPC news every single month on SISTRIX's new YouTube channel. So Mark and I here we're going to talk about a few different topics. We'll also cover a bit of Q&A at the end of the episode and touch on a few bits of data and things from SISTRIX along the way as well. Should we get stuck into some data from SISTRIX?

Mark: Let's do it. So, if you do have questions, do pop them into the chat and we'll try and answer a couple of them, as Jack said at the end of the show.

Jack: Exactly, exactly. So let's talk about some TrendWatch, shall we? Because I think TrendWatch is fascinating. It always comes up with unique and weird interesting topics for us to talk about on the podcast and here on the live stream as well. And something I think most people assume is a bunch of rubbish, but is actually a bunch of rubbish is Blue Monday. And no, I don't mean the song by the band New Order, although it was the 40th anniversary of that yesterday apparently, which was nice to find it out, little bit of synergy going on, which is quite nice. I'm talking about the day in January apparently where everyone is at their most depressed and most upset. Bad weather, post-Christmas lull, all that kind of stuff. And the data from TrendWatch over at SISTRIX written by the fantastic Nicole Scott, one of the members of the data journalism team over at SISTRIX tells a tale of growing worries I think about Blue Monday. So we've got a bit of data here, let's flash this up on the screen. You can see the trend here for Blue Monday and seems to have grown a little bit and we were just discussing this before, won't we Mark? Maybe because of the pandemic and stuff it's kind of grown a little bit as well?

Mark: Yeah, I mean the search volume is huge to be honest.

Jack: Pretty crazy, yeah.

Mark: It was way more than I expected, but there is that jump in 2020 and that was my first question, well why is it increased so much? That's like a almost 20% increase. And the first answer I think you had, like everything was, 2020, it was probably COVID. That definitely made that Monday worse.

Jack: That's that default answer, right? Yeah, I think it's really interesting here, like we said, looking from left to right here, you can see it's grown over the last few years, dating back to 2019 and I wonder if this little spike has been driven by interest in New Order potentially, but I think this is probably mostly focused around this rumored phenomenon that was apparently started by travel companies and advertising and all that stuff to try and get you to go away and travel and all that stuff, and go on holiday and cheer yourself up because it's the most depressing day of the year. At the end of the day, it all comes down to marketing. Like Father Christmas being red, it's all because of marketing.

Mark: The thing I saw the most actually about Blue Monday, and this is obviously I'm in a bit of a bubble in my Twitter of lots of marketers, was loads of marketers saying, "It's not a real thing, it's just a marketing thing, it's fake." But with that huge search volume, as you said, this was just, they made an equation by looking at average temperature, day since last payday, how dark it is. But, how they've made that idea stick, and I think it's pretty rich for a lot of us work in digital marketing to say, oh it's made up when we are getting stories in the news about what a human's going to look like in a hundred years time when they use a computer and there's those weird 3D pictures of the hunched human. But that goes to just show when you capture people's imagination and how you can create that search demand intent as well.

Jack: Yeah, definitely. I think it's an interesting, almost a weird little digital PR case study in a way of, I don't know if you're necessarily getting actually more people to go on holiday. I think it was started by Sky Travel a little while ago, so 20 years ago or so. But it's definitely driven search intent and whether that ties into the song or not, I'm not necessarily sure that matters, but I think it's an interesting little trend to kind of keep an eye on. And if you are keeping an eye eye out for this kind of stuff, you can of course go to and subscribe to TrendWatch the monthly newsletter that would deliver 10 brand new trends to your inbox every single month. Coming up next on TrendWatch, the second half of it. We're going to talk about some stamps, and I thought it was because of our recent change of Monarch and how Elizabeth passed away late last year on my birthday, no less.

Mark: Was it really?

Jack: It was on my birthday.

Mark: Interesting.

Jack: I'll always remember that date because it was on my birthday. And turns out, in the UK we have a bunch of new stamps and I had no idea, but apparently, when do stamps expire has massively jumped up in search volume because suddenly stamps have an expiration date. News to me, I can't remember the last time I used the stamp. So yeah, I was very interested in this. Apparently, they have barcodes and stuff now and it's more about security and things like that, but this graph is pretty crazy, right?

Mark: I mean Royal Mail, mentioning anything about security at the moment. Pretty crazy. So for those that don't know, there was a security incident with Royal Mail which stopped all international deliveries.

Jack: They've been a lot of hot water recently, have a royal mess.

Mark: I had no idea Stamps were getting coded now either, and again, if you are looking at this and thinking, okay, yes, obviously, so stamps have barcodes now they're going to expire. What use is this data where we can see where we can see this big search query increase. And, it's actually really just the starting point. So I popped that query itself into, also asked to get the new questions that are around that topic. I think we've got an image here as well.

Jack: Here we go.

Mark: So again, related to when do stamps expire, we've got a whole new bunch of search terms that have appeared because of this. So TrendWatch is also a great way to be aware when a topic is starting to explode, because it's not just usually that one search term, it comes with a little tree with lots of branches of different topics to cover. So, if you're spotting those trends, that's when you can say, okay, well we need to get on this, start making this content because you get that first mover advantage.

Jack: Yeah, definitely. I think it's really interesting we're covering legality of stuff and even how old stamps, because previously you could use a stamp from the 1970s, if you use enough of them, it eventually adds up to a modern stamp and it would work. But some of these questions are, can you use it from 10 years ago? Can you still use old stamps? How do they work first class and second class, is it all different? If you're not from the UK this is probably all absolute gibberish to you, but basically this is running down all of our different stamp types and how they're really shifting and really changing.

So I think that's an interesting way of, like you said, being able to use TrendWatch and analyze that data. The analysis has already been done for you by the fantastic people over at SISTRIX. And then you have that little jumping off point for your content ideas and, like you said, using a tool I also asked, you can dive in and find out new questions to answer around those topics. I know one of the other topics was Love Island, but I didn't dare bring that up. Because I know for a fact you don't watch it Mark. But, even then, like I said, Love Island and a bunch of other topics are included in this month's TrendWatch. You can go to Like I said, subscribe to the newsletter there and you'll get 10 exclusive trends delivered direct to your inbox. Shall we get stuck into our first topic then Mark?

Mark: Yes. So this came from the January 2023 SEO Office Hours with Google. Well pop a link to this, but there was one particular question that really interested me, which someone asked, which is, will disavowing links make my site rank better? Which is one of my favourite questions because it's really polarizing and you have some, you'll see people claiming, oh, we disavowed a bunch of links, we didn't have a penalty and our ranking shot up. Then you've got other people, usually me, us, saying try not to touch that disavow tool if you can.

Jack: Yeah.

Mark: But John Mueller kindly gave an answer to this and I think it's just worth exploring because there are lots of bits of information in the detail of how he's saying things.

Jack: We mentioned this all the time, right? It's getting that first party from the horses' mouth kind of data from Google makes all the difference because there nuances, there are subtleties in there that are worth exploring and paying attention to that can make all the difference. So I will flash up on the screen here so everybody can see that as well.

Mark: Yeah, so John's answer to this was, I'd try to evaluate whether your site really created those spammy links. It's common for sites to have random weird links and Google has a lot of practice ignoring those. On the other hand, if you actively built significant spammy links yourself, then yes, cleaning those up would make sense. The disavow tool can help if you can't remove those links at the source. That said, this will not position your site as it was before, but it can help our algorithms to recognize that they can trust your site again, giving you a chance to work up from there. There's no low-effort magic trick that makes us work. Yeah, we know that's SEO.

Jack: Welcome to our SEO.

Mark: But, here's the things I wanted to explore with this. So firstly, there's a distinction here between spammy links you've created versus what Google hopefully defines as weird spammy links. But if you look at most backlink profiles, it's actually really obvious what that means. We've just published a new site and already we've picked up what I would call weird spammy link, which is just these sites that are completely nonsensical listing links to other sites. Interestingly, if John is saying it's the other type of link that you should worry about, maybe ones you've placed yourself or paid for, it's probably the opposite to what a lot of tools are detecting as toxic or bad links, because they're harder for at least more basic tools to spot. But if those links can have an impact, it by definition gives people a chance to potentially do some kind of negative SEO, if you bought those kinds of links and placed them for a competitor, not necessarily that would be a cost-effective thing to do.

Jack: Yeah, that's that whole negative SEO discussion, right?

Mark: And I think that's how Google's trying to set this up so it's not a cost-effective good idea to try and do this. So a couple of things I think as SEOs come out the backend of this that are helpful, which is, firstly, unless you are in a very specific situation and I'm talking this is in the fraction of 1% of people would be in this situation, unless you've had some kind of manual penalty, generally I would leave the disavow tool alone because, even if you have links that look a little bit off, unless you've been placing them, there's only two options there. Google is either ignoring them, so you're not having a penalty of having them.

Jack: The fact that we get so many spam updates and stuff, Google knows what they're looking for at this point. You would think if you can identify it through a tool, chances are Google can also analyze and find it pretty easily as well. So, the fact that you will flag something up on something like Ahrefs or SEMrush or whatever toxic link analyzer you have, Google already knows that stuff and they're probably already essentially discrediting that stuff. As you said, Mark, you get all these site ranking things where it's just a list of URLs and it can be completely random, no particular topic whatsoever and you'll just get scraped URLs basically. Cool, who cares? I'm sure Google already know about that stuff and discredit that stuff already. So, you don't need to waste your time and effort and money going off and disavowing all this stuff when you could spend your time actively doing stuff and benefiting you, your client, your site, whatever it is.

Mark: I mean the other thing out there, if Google hasn't identified that link, it's again by definition probably going to be giving you some benefit from it. So you could actually potentially harm your rankings if you chucked a load of links into disavow.

Jack: I encountered this with an old client. A previous agency I worked at, somebody was, the previous agency they had worked with was hot on the disavow tool. They basically had a monthly, possibly even bimonthly, every couple of weeks checking in and making sure the backlink profile is, I think they used the term pruned. Like clear out all the crap and give it a little spring-clean and stuff like that. I was like, do we need to do that? I feel like we don't need to do that. I was like, well, just to make sure, I'm like, how about this one? And I pointed out one that was a totally legit link that had come from one of their link-building campaigns that they had completely mislabeled or accidentally copied the domain, the disavow tool or whatever it was. I was like, maybe that shouldn't be there, let's take that out. Somehow we were able to reclaim that link, so I think probably they'd only just done it. I guess that's the advantage of them doing it every couple of weeks. Google hadn't picked up that they changed it yet. But yeah, I've encountered that before where disavowing what seemed to be spammy links or perhaps have been mislabeled can actually negatively affect you there and you run the risk of losing legit links for probably not that much benefit. I think the risk is higher than the reward for me in my opinion.

Mark: The other thing that Google's previously hinted at that I find really interesting is that, there's a lot of links they struggle to classify because it's very hard for them to tell the intent of, well is this link paid? It looks a little bit like it but we can't be sure. And they've mentioned before about having an overall trust in your profile and I think a really good analogy for that is, if Google will give you the benefit of the doubt for those, on-the-fence links. So if you have maybe someone that maybe spins a lot of tales, tells some lies, embellishes stories, if they tell you something that's hard to believe, you are less likely to believe them. You're like okay...

Jack: The boy who cried wolf kind of thing.

Mark: Yeah. Whereas if someone's always been super honest, fact-based, and they tell you something that's hard to believe, you're more likely to be like, okay, I trust you, I believe that. And I think the same can apply with backlink profiles, if you have a whole bunch of very spammy links that Google can detect, if you then have some on-the-fence links, Google's probably going to say, well based on your other link footprint, probably not worth us counting these as well. So I think, like with all things SEO, there's a spectrum of where you might sit on the correct thing to do here, but unless you're getting problems and you can see there's a very big footprint of someone trying to do something or you know have previously done this, generally I would leave the disavow tool alone.

Jack: I agree. Yeah. It's kind of in my go-to, oh hey, you're a professional SEO. What's a quick SEO tip? Stop touching your disavow tool. Anytime anyone has asked me on a quick little clip or whatever it is, little snippet or a comment or whatever. That is a general rule and I said I've got firsthand experience of it being a negative thing and having negative effects for a client in the past. So, I can speak from experience, you're better off probably not touching it and relying on the pretty frequent spam updates that Google have these days. They are pretty hot on with spam brain and all the recent stuff we've been talking about recently. They're pretty hot on it and I think we're pretty much covered with a lot of that stuff already, so yeah. Moving on to, a featured snippet discussion, our friend Brodie Clark, the fantastic Brodie Clark. Hello Brodie, if you are watching or listening to this, thank you very much for what you do and highlighting all the basically cert feature updates and stuff like that. Very, very handy. Essentially we have featured snippets that have a blue highlight in them and we were just talking about this before we started recording. They did have a yellow highlight about 2019-ish, three or four years ago.

Mark: Was it that long ago?

Jack: Yes.

Mark: Wow.

Jack: Yeah, I looked this up and they've been testing the blue highlight link since September of last year. So there's been on and off things here. But from my experience, this is now pretty much universally rolled out across featured snippets. And if you don't know what we're talking about, I searched for, who is Mark Williams-Cook and you get Digital Marketing Director at Candour, highlighted in blue there.

Mark: Phew.

Jack: Thank God for that. You are the Mark Williams-Cook as we know already. And yeah, I think it's interesting they've kind of made the text a bit bigger. There used to be an emphasis on bold text as well, a lot in featured snippets. How do you feel about the blue compared to the yellow compared to the bold Mark? How much of this do you care about?

Mark: In general, I care about featured snippets quite a lot.

Jack: Okay, good.

Mark: There was, obviously when featured snippets became a thing, there was quite a lot of backlash about Google stealing our clicks. And obviously, I understand that argument as content producers, you're paying for this so it is painful when Google can do this and you miss out on clicks. I think what we're going to see with the search results now with featured snippets because of things like passage indexing and because of the improvements such as with birth of the understanding of the search query, they're getting a lot more precise in my opinion. So I did a blog post back in 2019 of featured snippets that Google did particularly badly and we talked, we were doing Google searches for things, how many legs does a duck have? And Google very confidently comes back and featured snippets saying four legs of course, and how many legs does a rabbit have? 200 legs where it obviously it hasn't quite managed to pass the test.

Jack: Didn't you have 513 arms at one point or something like that?

Mark: 512, yes.

Jack: 512, sorry.

Mark: So I think we are now at a stage where I'm seeing fairly good featured snippets. There's obviously always going to be edge cases. I don't think they're going away, and that's something as SEOs, we just need to accept.

Jack: You've got to pay attention to it, right? Yeah, yeah.

Mark: So, when people complain about featured snippets and discuss it with SEOs, I can understand that, but my view is, it's not going to change, this is the environment we now have to operate in, how do we make the most out of it?

Jack: Yeah.

Mark: And I do think it's genuinely better in most cases for the user.

Jack: Yeah. Funnily enough, I have anecdote from my wife literally yesterday because I was talking about the topics for this show and all that kind of stuff. I was like, oh we're going to talk about these things. Have you noticed that? She was like, oh yeah, that blue highlight big text, so patronizing. And I'm like, oh okay. That's an interesting way of looking at it. Because we think of it, so obviously in our SEO brains, we're so in that mode I'm keeping an eye on, oh something ever so slightly changed on the SERP, quick, someone tell Barry Schwartz. But coming from my wife who doesn't work in SEO, she's a nurse so she has no real kind of contact apart from what she hears me talking about essentially. And she was just irritated by it straight away. I was like, oh that's interesting.

Probably has no idea they used to be highlighting in yellow. I think a lot of users probably don't particularly pay attention to the minute details. Does it matter whether it's yellow or blue or bold or highlighted or not highlighted? As long as it's getting the right information. But I think there is elements there of it making it super-duper obvious. I think that makes it very obvious that who you are, your defining characteristic is apparently, Digital Marketing Director at Candour. And then once you click through, it also highlights on the post itself. So if I click through to clockwork talent here, you get the little highlighted section here that is actually where it got the information from.

I think that's useful, I think it's handy to have that pulled out straight away. There's elements of accessibility there as well, being able to make it more visually accessible for people and things like that. I'd be interested to see if there's any mashup of blue and yellow and bold or whatever they want to do, but this doesn't seem to be a test anymore. There seems to be a proper rollout of blue big text for featured snippets now, from my experience. I can't find a feature snippet that doesn't tend to do this. If it has that definitive answer, then it pretty much universally for me is coming out with the blue highlights in the big text.

Mark: Going back to the point you said about maybe some users kind of find it patronizing, being spoonfed that answer. I don't think there's a user experience cost particularly for Google to do this because if you don't like the feature snippets, the link is still there for you to click through and explore the search result as you did previously. Whereas if you are in the chunk of people that maybe find that kind of information helpful because it's like say more accessible. Certainly, I know when I'm doing Google searches generally, my goal is very time orientated. I want to spend the minimum amount of time and energy just to find out the thing that I need to know. So that kind of serves my purpose there.

So I think there's a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B.

Jack: Yeah, yeah.

Mark: Again, from an SEO point of view, why I love featured snippets is, we don't have to have that battle of we're position five, we're position four, we're number two, and then that big fight for number one, if you get your content right, you do the research, you answer the question succinctly. We've had fairly small websites beating very big websites just by leapfrogging them, by getting that featured snippet. And featured snippets, especially when we as an agency are working with clients where they are competing in areas where they're punching above their weight and we look and we say, well actually it's not realistic that we rank for these things because these sites have got years of a headstart, huge SEO budgets, big teams. A featured snippet strategy is my go-to there, so apart from yes, especially the big sites complaining it might be taking away some clicks, is a huge opportunity for small sites to work on those lower search volume, more specific questions and actually just leapfrog.

Jack: Start punching above your weight.

Mark: Yeah, and when you get that traffic as well, that's the opportunity then to start acquiring links naturally because it's those kinds of bits of information that we found in experience that people then will share on forums and such and then, eventually they'll migrate into people researching it, finding the answer, using it in a blog post. So it's the perfect foundation, good kind of strand to a strategy.

Jack: Yeah, I think that ties back round to what we were talking about with the TrendWatch stuff as well. Seeing something suddenly pop up as a featured snippet that you've not noticed before or something spike in a trend and using tools like AlsoAsked or anything else to really analyze the SERPS and have a look at what is popping up and what is coming through for that search term can be the difference maker. Like you said, that is what happens with a lot of early content strategy stuff you come in with. Yeah, we're going to try and punch above our weight, as I said, try and fight off the big competitors in this space and now we're trying to, yeah, we'll take up some little lower volume search terms, we'll take up some zero volume keywords, we'll answer very specific questions that users might have and that allows you to compete in that way. That can be a huge difference-maker in those early days of a site. Just getting your feet on the ground and getting started and starting things rolling out. I think that's been a big part of what we have as part of our content strategy right Mark? We mentioned the new site we've been building recently here at Candour. That's been a big factor in our content strategy is, targeting those zero volume terms and making sure we're going after things we can rank pretty easily with and get clicks from compared to, let's go straight for a big 10,000-word header term, go for big search volume stuff. Maybe down the line if you really want to, but there's also search intent behind that. There's potential for conversions there that if you've got your UX and you've got all of your customer journey stuff really mapped out really well, getting people to a page can be all the difference in a sale or not and somebody clicking through my featured snippet can be the difference between a massive sale and absolutely nothing.

So, I think it's something a lot of people maybe, like you said, think of just the negatives of, oh, people won't click through, Google's just hosting the content on the SERP, there's no point. Why would somebody bother clicking through? But people do and enough people do then it can make a difference, and I know certainly with clients I've worked with, it can be a matter of two or three clicks. Oh yeah, one conversion is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. One project, one sale is worth massive amounts. You've got these big high-ticket projects and things like that. That can make all the difference, just a couple of clicks and a couple of conversions can be all the difference. Cool. I think we've pretty much covered all of that.

Mark: Shall we do some questions?

Jack: Yes. Let's move over to the questions. So, one came in here, let's flash this up on the screen. "What do you guys think about Marie Haynes's opinion on disavowing links? Seems like she represents a pretty opposite opinion on disavowing." I'll hand over to you Mark, you've got a bit of a bit more information.

Mark: Yeah, so huge, huge respect for Mary Haynes.

Jack: Absolutely.

Mark: Listen to her podcast. I've chatted with her about SEO over many, many years and I was a little bit surprised by that question because I thought I'm pretty sure Mary Haynes is similar in my thinking. So, unless her opinion has changed in the last 12 months or so, I was doing some research while you were speaking, Jack.

Jack: Live on the show.

Mark: Yeah, because that's how I roll, and I found a post on Marie Haynes consulting website entitled Toxic Links, here's why you can often ignore them. So I just want to read you an excerpt from this because I think it sums up Marie's opinion and weirdly enough, I'm quoted in her in our actual post. So this is what...

Jack: It's just a bit of narcissism you then Mark.

Mark: I knew, in the back of my mind we had discussed it publicly before. So this is what Marie has to say, and this is from March 2022, so pretty much bang on a year ago. She says, "A lot has changed since Google first gave us the disavow links tool in 2012. Back then we found that more unnatural links we could find and disavow the better our chances are of seeing improvement. Creating the blacklist saved us many hours of link auditing time as we were able to easily find and disavow links from domains that we knew to be spammy. However, things have changed over the years." Then she goes on to say, "We still do recommend disavow work for some websites, but after years of disavowing links for many sites, we feel that most do not need to disavow. For those sites that do benefit from disavow work, the types of links we need to disavow are ones that are not in our disavow blacklist."

Jack: Interesting.

Mark: And she's done a quote here from John Mueller from a discussion I was having about, basically if a tool can detect a link is toxic, would Google not also be able to…

Jack: Pretty much what we said earlier.

Mark: And John Mueller just rolled up on Twitter and was like, as he does, and then zoomed off. But I think this is a good point because, in terms of coverage of the visible web, even some of the largest tools, when it comes to this level of link analysis, I don't think... Even if they have the same technological capabilities, Google has no guarantee, they're looking at it the same way. So, I've talked about these tools before and I have used them and I would still use them if we're doing a penalty recovery because of links, I would still use these tools to build me a short list of where I need to look at.

Jack: There are still use cases where it's relevant. If you know, say for example, I gave the example earlier of, working in an agency where I know the previous either freelance or agency or whoever it was had done some of that stuff and been disavowing. It's kind of the opposite of that, if you know are coming into a kind, like you said, kind of a recovery element of, hey, we've worked with an agency before. They completely ruined our backlink profile, can you help us? That's when you think what the obvious is to look at the disavow list, see what's going on, analyze those backlinks, have a look at it in a bit more detail. There is still definitely cases and still definitely uses for it, but I think the kind of scatter and hope for the best kind of approach that a lot of people have to disavowing is definitely not the right approach.

And as you said, from what I can see, Dr. Marie Haynes kind of agrees with us, and huge respect to Dr. Marie, she's amazing. Fantastic podcast as well. If you're not already listening to Marie's podcast is another fantastic SEO podcast. Cool. Well, that about wraps us up for the first-ever episode of SISTRIX with Candour. Thank you. If you have joined us in the live chat, we've seen a few comments and a few things going on. We will be hanging around in the live chat. I know a couple of the guys from SISTRIX will be in there to answer your questions as well. So please do stay, hang around, have a chat, treat this as a little bit of a hangout essentially if you have any sort of little networking chats and questions and things like that, we will be around to answer a few questions for the next few minutes.

If you want to listen to this in audio form, we are available on Search with Candour, you can find us on all your usual podcast services, wherever you listen to podcasts, we will be there. And if you are listening to us in the audio version, you can come and join us, this'll be our live monthly thing on SISTRIX's YouTube channel. The link for the video will be in the audio description and the link for the audio will be in the video description as well. So, either way, you can either see our faces and hear our voices or just hear our voices. If you don't want to see our faces, we are covered either way. Thank you so much for joining us, we'll be back next month with another edition of SISTRIX with Candour. Thank you so much for joining us and we'll see you then.