SEO, Backlinks and Fake News: What 2016 Taught us About the Internet

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The numerous memes poking fun at how awful 2016 was are funny enough to draw a comradery-driven smile from anyone. “I know what you mean. We’re all in this together.”

Taking a humor break with SNL skits and Onion articles satirizing our current state of affairs, it almost feels like we can laugh our way out of this.

But once the giggles subside, I have to wonder if the “fake news” accusations and botched breaking news reports that were so rampant in 2016 are here to stay.

When more and more of our information is coming from blogs and websites instead of traditional news outlets, how can we distinguish fake stories from real ones?

“Googling it” may not be as helpful as you think.

SEO: Good For Business, Good for Fake News?

As a copywriter, I work a lot with search engine optimization or SEO.

Crash Course: SEO encompasses all of the marketing activities that focus on improving your website’s rank on a search engine results page (SERP), including but not limited to:

  • Sprinkling target search keywords and phrases throughout site copy.
  • Knowing how to utilize hierarchy to place keywords where they matter most.
  • Increasing backlinks.
    • An incoming hyperlink from another web page back to the original
    • The more backlinks a site has, the more authoritative it is to Google and the higher up it goes on the SERP.
  • Publishing blogs/articles containing relevant information that other sites will want to link back to or share.

Understanding how Google algorithms judge site authority and relevancy, marketers can use these activities and others to optimize webpages so that they return in higher results spots. A high spot on a SERP increases exposure, site traffic and conversion rates. More eyes = more interaction.

The algorithms that Google uses to decide if a site is relevant and authoritative do not dictate if the content within that site is accurate. Because of this, the same aspects that make SEO an excellent marketing tool also make it a friendly ally to the spread of fake news.

These algorithms are playing a content matching game when our search experience is really more like a puzzle. Let’s take a closer look.

How SEO Can Help Fake Results Outrank Real Results

There are tons of online SEO instructions and tools available to anyone. Website optimization is no longer a skill set of a handful of successful Internet nerds.

Because of this, a company that promotes fake news and rumors can easily master SEO and apply the rules when writing copy. Over time, it can build backlinks, eventually gaining enough clout to return at a higher spot than a reputable news source – in some cases.

The problem with backlinks equaling authority is that there is no way as of yet for Google to divide them based on the sentence copy supporting them (i.e. copy saying the link info is false or true).

This backlink setup means that popular “truth-telling” sites, like Snopes, can inadvertently help the spread of the fake news stories they set out to denounce.

When Snopes links to a fake story, it is giving the article’s host website a backlink, helping to increase its authority in Google. The more authority it gets, the more likely it will climb up a Google SERP. The higher up this fake news site climbs, the more searchers will see it.

We’ve been talking a lot about backlink hijinks, but writing copy for SEO plays a problem in this vicious cycle, as well.

When Snopes writes a post disproving a big rumor like “Betty White is dead,” it wants it to return for corresponding search keywords to get the most eyes on it as possible. This results in straightforward headline wording like “Is Betty White Dead?” that will match the most search inquiries.

If the searcher clicks on this example article, they would see that no, she is not. However, on the Google SERP, Snopes’ headline wouldn’t prove or disprove the story, which can unfortunately be dangerous.

In the time of Twitter and Facebook, more and more people are not clicking on stories and reading them. Instead, they’re recklessly assuming that headlines are enough. This means that unless a search result claims “FALSE” in the headline, tons of readers aren’t going to know one way or another.

A Real-Life Example:

Researching this topic to see what was out there, I stumbled across the following blog post: “Fake News, SEO, and Batboy.” (There’s a backlink, you’re welcome New Why!) In this article, there was a great example of this Snopes conundrum dealing with the Google search “christmas lights offending muslims.”

Apparently, a story went around that Sweden was banning Christmas lights because they offended Muslims. “This validates some people’s beliefs that 1. There’s a war on Christmas and 2. Muslim refugees are a threat to western ways of life.”

Sounds like fake news.

Ever the good student, I went over to Google and typed in the keyword phrase. Here’s what my corresponding SERP looked like:

xmas lights and muslims

As you can see, the top return is for Snopes. As you might have guessed, the content of the article claims that this is story is a rumor, but everything on the search result appears to justify a belief that Sweden has in fact banned Christmas lights. There isn’t even a false claim in the paragraph text underneath the headline and URL.

Now take a look at the second and third return. The second clearly seems to validate this rumor, whether the copy inside says otherwise.

And the third from the Guardian, which is a reputable news source on most accounts, features an opinion from a Muslim. I could see the searcher thinking:

  • “Why would this opinion piece even exist if this story wasn’t true?
  • “…Okay, it’s true.”
  • “This is outrageous.”
  • “I’m posting to Facebook.”

And the vicious cycle successfully makes it to the next leg. It could go viral!

So, What?

If you thought you were going to read this blog and get answers on how to fix the Internet problems that threaten our ability to be a well-informed society, then I am sorry to disappoint you.

I am no genius. I couldn’t begin to tell Google how to account for this, and it’s not necessarily their responsibility if they don’t want it to be. After all, they are just providing us with a catalogue. We are the ones responsible for clicking and actually reading content before we take a story and run with it.

I fully agree that’s on us. Unfortunately, people aren’t taking this responsibility seriously.

In a world where the picture we paint in our heads of the state of our union is largely based on the makeup of our social media feeds, successful debate is nonexistent, education is subjective, barriers are built and progress is stunted.

People’s growing mistrust of mainstream media is leading them to look to nontraditional sources for their news. In this anything-goes online free-for-all, how will we keep up with the ever-increasing Internet updates?

I write this in the hopes of getting a conversation started because I believe that we, as a society, need to figure out a way to better navigate news online. The 24/7 news cycle is broken, and claims that fake news is now greatly affecting our elections and public discourse are disturbing.

I’m not sure if it’s possible for new algorithms to be designed to digest content for accuracy, for news outlets to set a standard format for search result posts or for us to convince more searchers that they need to actually read again.

What I do know is that there is more than one problem, and with a growing dependence on technology, there will be more that we can’t even fathom yet. However, we can start talking.

And maybe, just maybe, we can tackle one problem at a time.

Questions to Ponder:

 

  • Should search engines like Google be responsible in trying to eliminate the spread of fake news on their SERPs? Why or why not?
  • Should websites that disseminate information abide by a standard post format that includes a truth indicator of some sort?
  • Should news sources have an accuracy rating? Some sort of reputation marker kind of like a seller’s positive percentage on Amazon or Ebay? Or is this dangerous territory in overreaching?
  • How can we get people interested in diversifying their news sources again?
  • How could social media get involved in curbing the posting of damaging fake news stories?
  • Would they be able to or would anything they tried to do be a First Amendment violation?
  • What can mainstream media do to bring back the trust of the populace?

Please comment or get a conversation going below. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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