Should Messengers of Fake News Be Held Responsible?
When it comes to controlling search results, SEO specialists walk a fine line. Many consider SEO to be the process of “manipulating” search results by making methodical edits to websites so they will rank higher. “Manipulate” is such a negative word though. Yes, Google instructs SEO specialists on how to “manipulate” its search results, but that doesn’t mean we should falsify or misrepresent our websites. We aren’t trying to deceive search engines into ranking us higher.
However, in the wild west of the internet, there are parties out there with less admirable intentions. After both the Brexit and the US election, a hot topic emerged: fake news.
This time, the public was being manipulated.
2016 was the year post-truth was added to the Oxford English dictionary. How did so many people read — and believe — fake news stories? Major websites like Google and Facebook were feeding these stories to the public far and wide. And websites were spouting off fake news and manipulating their pages well enough to get rankings and approval — leading to even more visibility.
Our Facebook newsfeeds and Google search results were filled with lies, biases and misinformation. People were making historical decisions based on falsehoods.
We can place some blame on the media for America’s issues, because they have a responsibility to help people know what's true and what isn't. But is it only the media’s fault?
We’re all familiar with the saying, “don’t shoot the messenger,” but the messenger has to be held responsible to some extent, right? As perhaps the most powerful source of information in the world, Google has the responsibility to deliver high-quality content to users — and to be an honest messenger.
So what’s going wrong? Why are these algorithms failing by landing low-quality content in the top positions of our search results?
Many believe that this is a direct result of new “homogenizing platforms” such as AMP and Facebook Instant Articles. These HTML frameworks are designed to rank higher because they’re mobile-friendly and have faster load times. The issue is that all pages using these frameworks are designed to have extremely similar visual presentations — like narrowed down details, clean columns and layouts — that enhance a mobile experience. While we were once able to decipher trustworthiness based on a site’s appearance, we’re now seeing low-quality Wordpress blogs presented exactly the same way as New York Times articles.
Homogenizing platforms are new and gaining a lot of traction in the SEO community. We know that we need to prioritize mobile experiences. We know that the mobile and desktop indexes will be divided soon, making mobile optimization even more important. But because these platforms are so new, we can hope that there will be modifications made in 2017 based on the fake news epidemic.
Meanwhile, inbound links are another reason low-quality content is ranking at the top of search results. Search engine algorithms are constantly evolving in order to combat low-quality content and demote spammy sites, but they aren’t perfect yet. Many of these fake news sites gain popularity and tons of inbound links from other fake news sites or even some quality websites. Because high-quality inbound links are seen as endorsements by search engine algorithms, their popularity allows them to move up in rankings.
Both Google and Facebook are already finding ways to filter fake news from their search results. In November, both sites promised to penalize and block sites known for publishing fake news. Facebook is also asking for users to help weed out fake news by offering Facebook Surveys on articles. Google is taking more initiative to remove fake news by manually reviewing news, removing incentives to create fake stories and signaling when content has been fact-checked.
While there will always be spammy, low-quality sites and people trying to get their 15 seconds of viral fame, search engines are taking precautions to prevent people from being deceived.
The media, marketers and search engines need to reestablish the people’s trust, beginning with the results we see when we seek answers. But this is not the responsibility of search engines alone. Everyone has a role to play in combating fake news. For SEO specialists, it’s our job to optimize high-quality content that ranks higher because it deserves it.
In a world where advertising and the media have been given a bad rap, we must be responsible marketers. SEO specialists must strive to provide the best solutions that meet the needs of searchers, and when the public doesn’t know where to turn to find the honest truth, we need to be able to count on our good friend, Google. And hopefully, with Google making more efforts to stop fake news, we can.