SEOGoogle, Penalties & the Disavow Links Tool: The Big Game Theory

Google, Penalties & the Disavow Links Tool: The Big Game Theory

Google’s new tool allowing people to delete spammy backlinks you don’t trust has been met with much fanfare as the “answer” to the backlink profile problem. But maybe there is a bigger game at play. Maybe those who use it are being gamed by Google.


The announcement that Google had created and launched a Disavow Links Tool to allow people to simply “delete” spammy backlinks has been met with much fanfare as the “answer” to the backlink profile problem.

I’m here to argue that the opposite could actually be true and that those using it are being gamed by Google.

Google has never had an issue with the quality of search engine results pages (SERPs) per se. Yes, there were areas that they weren’t completely satisfied with, but this was not the motivator to the mass penalty rollout.

That came from its attempts to clean up the link graph of spammy links to enable the search giant to compete in semantic search, with the likes of Wolfram|Alpha and Apple.

Taken at face value, a tool to remove links with the click of a button could only be a good thing, right? I’m not so sure. If that’s the case, then it really gives black hatters free reign to test new techniques at will, safe in the knowledge that the slate can be wiped clean.

Google has said it still needs to see manual effort but again this suggests that there is very clearly an underlying motivator. If you still need to manually remove links then it isn’t really a disavow tool at all, but instead is a tool to collect links.

We know that Google is well known for hiring the brightest talent from the best educational centers across the globe. We also know that it has 7,000 staff on Maps alone, so their core search product will have more than enough resource on it to ensure that every move is well thought out and executed.

What is Game Theory?

Enter Game Theory. As a tool to model social behavior and to “game” behaviors, it’s a killer app and my view is that it has played a central role in Google’s strategy on the Disavow Tool, and across the whole penalty issue in general.

To explain why this could be the case, we need to look at a specific area of Game Theory; that of something called the Nash Equilibrium. It’s a complex offshoot of the central theories but basically focuses on social cooperation.

The basic premise of the Nash Equilibrium is that no player in the game takes a different action (to the action that the game “owner”, in this case Google, wants) as long as every other player remains the same and continues to do the same thing. Nash Equilibria are self-enforcing; when players are at a Nash Equilibrium they have no desire to move because they will be worse off.

Think about this in the context of penalties and you can see that Google has created a game where they continually roll out penalizing updates to force site owners into their “game.” They then send out manual penalties so that some send them the data they needed. Knowing this works they then simply hit more people with more updates in a continuation of that “game” until they achieve the outcome they require (in this case a clean web graph).

Here’s what the Google Penalty “Game” Process looks like:


Why is Google Doing It?

We know for certain that they couldn’t fix the link spam issue alone and so they needed to create a “game” scenario that ensured social cooperation. Enter the penalties.

Site penalties forced website owners to look for a solution to avoid being “worse off” and Google gladly gave them it in the form of a route to admit all wrongs via manual penalty resubmission.

Once they knew it worked it was then simply a case of offering those with Penguin penalties the same “service,” via the Disavow Links Tool.

The point of the tool therefore isn’t to help sites recover, but to give Google the data they need to clear the web graph so they can compete in the era of semantic search.

And they knew everyone would cooperate because they had premodeled the process using game theory to ensure they succeeded.

The outcome will be a continuation of this current process until Google is happy that they have a link graph clear enough for them to adequately map relevance and associations better so they can compete with the likes of the Wolfram/Apple partnership on Siri. It only ends when the spammers give up and the link graph is clear once more.


The point of this post is not to criticize the rollout of penalties. I applaud Google’s move to confine valueless link building to the annals of history. As a former magazine editor I realized quickly that the only way to create long-term value for a business is to create audiences around expert, quality content.

Hopefully you will now think more deeply about Google’s strategic ambitions and try to see the bigger picture. Penguin and Panda are not about hurting site owners. They are a process in a bigger story. They are also incredibly well thought out and planned as changes to such a profitable part of Google’s armory will never be taken lightly; hence why game theory and other predictive modeling will be used to ensure the right outcome.

As website owners we must understand that there is a bigger game at play here and as pawns we must abide by the rules to survive.


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