As digital platforms begin to take action against fake news, their changes are affecting the information ecosystem of the web.
Although most brands and organizations in the content creation business aren’t publishing deliberately false narratives, they need to be aware of how efforts to thwart fake news might affect their content strategy.
This post examines how Google is tackling fake news, and offers advice to marketers, publishers and brands on how to bolster their content’s integrity and avoid getting filtered.
A History of Manipulation
Google has long fought against nefarious entities seeking to unnaturally influence its algorithm. In the early days of search, and to a certain extent still, Google struggled to stop black-hat SEOs (or content created to game search engines) from unnaturally boosting their clients’ search visibility.
This manipulation was usually deployed in the pursuit of commercial gain—selling more products and gaining more customers. It was done through a variety of tactics, such as purchasing links, building bogus link wheels and injecting link code into websites without consent. Google has squashed many of these techniques, but some complex tactics have evolved to stay ahead of counter efforts.
Recently, phony news publishers have used similar tactics to drive disinformation in attempts to make advertising money and influence political campaigns. These dubious publishers’ ability to manipulate algorithms, coupled with partisan politics, is a recipe for undermining Google’s core product and financial longevity. Ensuring the integrity and quality of search results is the foundation of a digital information and advertising business that was the biggest reason Google’s parent company, Alphabet, earned $24.7 billion (+22 percent YoY) in Q1 2017.
If trust in Google’s news results begins to erode, the consequences could quickly spread across its platform, cascading into a loss of use that would undo Google’s dominance: 87 percent market share of search in the United States with an average total of 40 billion searches per month. With market leadership and that much money at stake, it makes sense that Google would invest in squashing fake news.
So, What Are You Going to do About It, Nerd?
Aside from proprietary algorithm tweaks designed to degrade relevancy of low-quality sites in the news niche, the biggest thing Google is doing to bolster the integrity of results is rolling out fact-check citations in search results.
This allows information-watchdog websites, such as Snopes and others, to use newly accepted code markup via Schema.org to define and summarize fact-checking content. Google outlines what it considers to be valid fact-checking, but it is important to note that simply using schema markup will not guarantee fact-checking designation in search results.
While this added SERP (search engine results page) nuance doesn’t directly stop fake news, it does help present results in a more thoughtful and analytical way. Google doubled down on its position empowering searchers to make more-informed decisions in the official blog post announcing this rollout:
“This information won’t be available for every search result, and there may be search result pages where different publishers checked the same claim and reached different conclusions. These fact checks are not Google’s and are presented so people can make more informed judgements. Even though differing conclusions may be presented, we think it’s still helpful for people to understand the degree of consensus around a particular claim and have clear information on which sources agree.”
This language, and the overall fact-check feature strategy, is carefully chosen to both insulate Google from culpability for flaws in fact-check accuracy and dampen the narrative of being a privacy-violating overlord that monopolizes digital information access.
Most organizations creating content online aren’t in the business of fact-checking and won’t need to worry about implementing this particular schema markup. But it’s still important to consider the impact of evolutions in how your audiences discover, consume and analyze your content.
What Content Creators Should Do
The first and most obvious course is to hold the content you create to high-quality standards—bypassing the possibility of losing search relevancy or being hit with a “FALSE” fact-check label. This is a key reason Manifest hires journalists and applies rigorous journalistic standards to the content we craft for clients.
Even with this safeguard in place, it’s important to consider any potential ramifications for authenticity. Consider this example from Huffington Post:
A story about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and classroom globes was posted on a section of huffingtonpost.com clearly for satirical stories, but this isn’t apparent from the search results page. The story’s narrative gained so much traction, Snopes debunked it.
What this means is that though the story is clearly marked as satire, Huffington Post’s credibility in search results in this case is damaged.
Should Google’s fact-checking results be better able to understand this type of situation? Absolutely. But the onus should be on publishers to think about how content will appear in channels like search, and how that might affect audience perception of their site.
Strategies for Maintaining and Improving Credibility
Here are some tangible steps for content creators to take to ensure they’re ahead of the game when it comes to fake-news filtering:
Pay close attention to the updates Google, Facebook and other distribution platforms make. Apply these updates to content strategy in a real way. Test whether specific updates affect how your content is framed.
It’s not enough to say “We use data insights to fuel content production” on your website or in pitch decks. Actually do it. Invest in dedicating team members to content framing and distribution strategy. Hold them accountable for measuring and reporting on how platform updates and reactionary tests affect content (or not). Be open to allowing that to guide updates to the content ideation and production process.
Consider how your content might be inadvertently lumped into, or labeled as, nonfactual content before publishing. Does your editorial process include honest evaluation of truth? Are you in a situation where it might be advantageous to stretch truth in pursuit of marketing wins? If so, think about balancing potential long-term credibility erosion with quick wins.
Understand how the underlying technical aspects of content. Schema and other forms of open-graph markup play a role in how your audience perceives and consumes content. The basic message of your content, whether it’s video, text or audio, is important. But so is the technical foundation on which it’s built and distributed. If you don’t invest in technical analysis, your original message might become distorted and you could miss out on opportunities to expand its reach. One way to accomplish this is to use Google’s fetching tool (a look at Manifest.com through this tool is below) to examine how search spiders understand your content.
Other crucial tools include the Google structured data tester and markup tools for Facebook and Twitter that will help analyze how content displays on these channels.
Set standards for information sourcing. Where and how you link offsite has search authority implications, and it affects editorial credibility. Do you evaluate sourcing from websites you assume to be credible? It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming a piece of information in a publication you trust is well-sourced, but before you cite something, go two (or more) layers deep to evaluate how the information was derived.