You’ve undoubtedly heard about fake news. Fake news is just what it sounds like—(often intentionally) misleading articles with inaccurate facts, missing details, and other flaws that render them unreliable. Despite this, they’re presented as factually accurate, and because of this, they have tremendous destructive power. It’s worse than clickbait titles whose MO is simply to drive eyeballs, fake new is factually inaccurate.
Fake news first came to light in the aftermath of the Presidential election of 2016, when it was revealed just how many fake news stories circulated to members of each political party. However, fake news was likely a major problem long before this—and it continues to be a problem today.
We all recognize fake news as a bad thing. Whether it’s a tool used to manipulate people, the byproduct of lazy journalism, or part of a grand conspiracy for political influence, its negative consequences are hard to overstate.
But what is the role of fake news as it relates to SEO? Can fake news impact your SEO rankings? Can you use fake news to your advantage in some way?
Let’s start by examining the history of fake news, and how that history ties into Google.
Google has always wanted to provide news stories to the general public. Even in its early stages of development, you could search for a topic and see a range of news stories listed in Google’s “News” section. This was a valuable informational tool, and it added to Google’s trustworthiness in the eyes of users.
Around 2014, Google made significant changes to its “In the News” section, pulling in articles from a wide range of different sources, including social media sites like Facebook and Reddit. With the benefit of hindsight, you already understand that this was a flawed decision.
The internet is essentially an open forum where anyone can write a story and popularize it on social media—regardless of inherent accuracy. As you might imagine, this led to some interesting results in the “news” section.
Google immediately attempted to correct this error in part by renaming its “news” section to “Top Stories” (although this was never stated as their official motivation for the change). At the very least, this lent some plausible deniability to the situation; a “fake story” is much better perceived than “fake news.”
There is significant debate as to how much responsibility should be taken by Google, Facebook, and other tech giants to control fake news. Obviously, a fake news story circulating at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) can do a lot of damage. But should Google step in and do something about it?
On one hand, Google is just an algorithm fueled by user actions and authoritative measurements (like the number of links pointing to a source). In this dimension, it’s about as neutral as it can get. And if Google decides to actively manage stories, we’ll have a new problem; Google’s bias affecting news visibility and search results.
There are some of you reading the heightened engagements associated with fake news who think this could be a valuable opportunity; you’re right. We’ll touch on that more in a future section. For now, hang on.
Suffice it to say, Google took this constructive criticism and has since taken more advanced measures to guard against fake news.
Let’s be clear. Despite it’s “don’t be evil” founding philosophy, Google isn’t inherently altruistic. It’s a for-profit company and its primary motivation is making money.
To make money, it must generate ad clicks. To get Google Ad clicks, it needs a lot of traffic. And at the bottom of this motivation funnel, to get traffic, it needs to be trusted.
Google’s motivation in filtering out fake news is to increase public trust.
In line with this motivation, it took a couple of important actions.
First, Google added new “fact checking” systems to its search engine and News results. Only reputable, vetted sources are included in its roundup of News stories. Additionally, some stories in some regions have a “fact check” label, which identifies disputed claims and/or supports controversial claims with evidence from third-party sites. These are designed to improve user awareness and knowledge, while simultaneously making the News section seem more credible.
Second, Google (along with other major tech platforms) cracked down on known sources of fake news. While stating a controversial opinion and even outright lying aren’t a direct violation of Google’s terms of service, spammy and low-quality content are violations of those terms. In line with these quality standards, Google has been known to penalize, derank, and sometimes even delist known fake news sites from its search results.
How can this possibly benefit your SEO strategy?
We’re getting there.
One important consideration in any discussion on fake news is the fact that “fake news” isn’t always “fake”—per se.
For example, is fake news any story that isn’t completely accurate? In many cases, facts aren’t known, and in other cases, facts change over time. With the COVID-19 pandemic, our initial assumptions and findings quickly became irrelevant in favor of new data and knowledge; are the initial stories fake news despite being based on the best scientific knowledge we had at the time?
Is fake news any story that has an intention to persuade someone? If so, the entire mainstream media is guilty of fake news in one form or another. Opinion pieces are both common and valuable, and we shouldn’t be restricting their publication or accessibility. And almost any news story is bound to have at least some bias.
Because of this, fake news is often difficult to pinpoint—even by advanced algorithms like Google. Some fake news slips through the cracks and makes a big impact in search engines. Some real news stories are mislabeled as fake news. Some “fake news” stories aren’t fake news at all, and some real news stories probably deserve to be called fake news.
It’s all very complicated, so be dubious of anyone who claims the difference between “real” and “fake” news is easy to define.
We’ll also need to keep this in mind when discussing the SEO benefits (and drawbacks) of fake news.
The most pressing concern for any search optimization specialist is the possibility of receiving a Google penalty due to fake news.
As we know, many known fake news sites have been flagged as spam and penalized. If you receive a link from any of these sites, it will work like any link from a low-authority or spam site; it will harm your site’s reputation. This should be avoided at all costs.
Additionally, you don’t want your site to develop a reputation for writing or popularizing fake news. It’s unlikely that a single “fake news” story would tank your reputation or earn a penalty for your entire domain, but you should still strive to write the best, high-accuracy, high-relevance content you can.
If you do discover a link from a fake news site pointing to your domain, you’ll want to remove it as soon as possible. The process for this is relatively straightforward.
First, you’ll want to conduct a backlink profile analysis to determine whether you have any spammy backlinks pointing to your site. Using a backlink profile analysis tool, you can quickly evaluate the domain authority of all your referring domains and pinpoint the links most likely to be a problem.
From there, your first line of defense is requesting removal. Reach out to the domain in question and ask the webmaster to remove the link. In the vast majority of cases, this is ample to get the link removed.
If the webmaster refuses to cooperate or if you’ve tried every outlet to remove the link, there’s still a chance you can get it removed. You’ll need to formally disavow the link to your site. Note that this tool should not be used arbitrarily or recklessly; only use it as a measure of last resort.
Even though you shouldn’t use fake news as a tool to improve your site’s visibility or search engine rankings, there are some important lessons that fake news can teach us. Fake news is incredibly popular, and it’s easy to spread. Popular, spreadable content is good for SEO. So what can we learn from this?
Let’s summarize. What can we learn from fake news, and how can we use those lessons to improve our SEO strategies?
Fake news circulates easily, even now that tech giants like Google are cracking down on it. If you want to increase user trust, earn better links, and ultimately increase your search rankings, it’s important to avoid fake news and use the lessons from fake news to improve your own strategy.
Are you interested in improving your SEO strategy? Do you need help writing better content and earning better links? SEO.co can help with our customized link building plans. Contact us for a free consultation today!