Google to Police 'The Truth'

May 24th

Recently a fake story was highlighted in the mainstream media, and the SEO behind it also mentioned it on their site. The SEO space as a whole began debating the legitimacy of such tactics, and Matt Cutts even commented on the issue:

My quick take is that Google’s webmaster guidelines allow for cases such as this:

“Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known websites). It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it.”

There’s not much more deceptive or misleading than a fake story without any disclosure that the story is hoax.

The irony of this statement, as Nick Wilsdon pointed out, was that not only did Fox News syndicate the fake story, but they got in trouble in the past for attributing fake quotes to John Kerry. A person coming up with a clever story to get a few inbound links is nowhere near as sleazy as lying to try to sway the public vote for presidency...but it is much easier for Matt to police the small and weak webmasters while turning a blind eye to similar (but worse) offenses from larger players.

Morals of the story:

  • If you talk about exceptionally effective SEO strategies expect them to lose their effectiveness (search engineers are active in public discourse because it is easier to control people through fear than it is to write a better relevancy algorithm).
  • If your technique works so well that it is featured on many SEO blogs and/or draws a specific public comment from Matt Cutts you have went too far (sheep must be slaughtered to control the herd).
  • If you are going to lie do it in a way that builds a fan base. If you have such a large fan base that most of your traffic comes from channels other than Google it is virtually impossible for Google to block you (unless you use hate speech that extends beyond the lies and spin that are typical on networks like Fox News).

If you want to understand how the mainstream media works I highly recommend investing 5 hours and $50 into the following 3 DVDs. As more time passes Google's ad fueled business model will lead to them essentially replicating the flaws and biases of the mainstream media.

  • Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky talks about how the media operates to shape public opinion and policy.
  • Outfoxed - how Fox News spins the news to fuel their desired political agendas.
  • The Fog of War - in this DVD Robert S. McNamara talks about how he used spin and media control to try to minimize blowback from the Vietnam War.
Published: May 24, 2008

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Comments

May 24, 2008 - 10:33am

Why hasn't google banned fox from the search results for this behavior? Based on Matt's comments that seems pretty fair, they are constantly distorting the truth and making up stories.

Or the white house? The white house got caught giving stories to news agencies they filmed themselves which were actually fake.

May 24, 2008 - 12:09pm

Just look at Google Trends…
http://www.google.com/trends/hottrends

I would assume that many of the people making those queries are searching for fake news, crazy conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated rumors, gossip, etc... In my opinion... That’s what a lot of the results look like to me when I click on the links. I'm sure that a lot of people will see those results and think they hit the fake news jackpot because Google does a great job of getting the most entertaining fake news ranked near the top.

I just did a quick search for Britney Spears in Google News just now...

The top story in Google News: "Mel Gibson reaches out to Britney Spears"
It's a speculation article in the LA Times about why they might be on the beach together. Here is a quote: But what are these two really doing together? According to those who know (who declined to be named for fear of angering the actor)...

The second article: "Will Britney Spears Really Be Going Under the Knife?" That one is nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor that she might be about to go in for cosmetic surgery to help her get rid of some baby fat left over from having two kids.

Soon... Someone will report that Mel Gibson and Britney are lovers. As soon as they do, I'm sure it will be at the top of Google News for a relevant query as it should be.

Are most people who are searching for something like “Britney Spears” or “Paris Hilton” looking for verifiable facts? I know I’m not. Are you?

May 24, 2008 - 4:04pm

the us government via the cdc contends that water fluoridation is to the benefit of the population, while members of the epa disagree.

there's no way google can start "counteracting" misinformation without severely penalizing the little guy and ignoring the outlets that have the largest potential impact.

May 24, 2008 - 4:45pm

Why hasn't google banned fox from the search results for this behavior?

Two reasons:

1) When Fox posts audience bait, while it will increase attention to their website, their main target is the television viewers and print media. Any Google benefit is secondary.

2) As Aaron said, Google is much, much more likely to go after the little guy. Mainstream media, and the general population, know next to nothing about SEO's... making statements about what they do holds no real risk. If, however, Google were to make the same public statement about something that Fox news said, basically declaring their actions as morally reprehensible and worthy of punishment, then it would make news on all the other networks and get National attention. Since going after someone shows that G isn't always the nice guy, and since G fears negative rep to the point of psychotic paranoia at times (I think it's related to the fact that they can drop billions of dollars in value over a single bad news story about them), they really don't want that kind of attention.

If Fox did do a stunt like they did with the false Kerry statements, only it was focused on their online presence, and it got found out, then yeah, they might have to do something... but you can pretty much safely bet it would be along the lines of what they did when BMW was caught with hidden text on their homepage, ie. a temporary slap on the wrist, some token just so they can say, "See? We do punish everyone, regardless of how big you are."

May 24, 2008 - 7:01pm

Fox News didn't report fake news for links as a marketing tactic.

If I understand Matt Cutts, Google is not trying to censor the internet with this initiative, just making clear that an obvious ploy such as the example that played out this last week, will not reap the benefits of a more traditional link building campaign.

Matt also pretty much called the dude a dumbass for talking about his intent. I think that is ultimately what got Google all hot and bothered.

May 25, 2008 - 5:04am

Fox News didn't report fake news for links as a marketing tactic.

I do believe Fox News *DOES* report fake news as a marketing tactic. It was core to their audience building strategy.

May 24, 2008 - 7:13pm

It's amazing how much good discussion this story has brought up. It's almost as polarizing as Fox News itself.

I think the underlying story here is when anybody that is trying to be reputable & establish credibility does something completely deceptive for short-term gain, there is going to be long-term consequences. These tactics might build audience share, but is it the right kind of audience? Maybe for Fox it is, they certainly have their niche & play up to it, but they're so polarizing and sensational that they'll never be a BBC or even CNN for that matter with that strategy.

If building audience share (or links) at any cost is your strategy, eventually you will get caught by those who don't appreciate it. You may get "penalized" by politically-grounded people who appreciate real news and then skip over your channel quickly and even bad-mouth your brand to others. Or it may be a search engine who wants to present your site to their audience according links given not under deceptive circumstances. It's a tough relevancy problem for sure, and they are Police now, but just the type that's directing traffic to the places that the street they take you down is what you're looking for.

thanks for the viewing list - I haven't seen Manufacturing Consent, but it's added to the queue. I've got a couple more to add:

Control Room - al jazeera vs. US reporting. great documentary
Network - total classic, fiction, from 1976 but even more appropriate now

May 25, 2008 - 5:07am

I think the underlying story here is when anybody that is trying to be reputable & establish credibility does something completely deceptive for short-term gain, there is going to be long-term consequences. These tactics might build audience share, but is it the right kind of audience? Maybe for Fox it is, they certainly have their niche & play up to it, but they're so polarizing and sensational that they'll never be a BBC or even CNN for that matter with that strategy.

But the profits from Fox News were used to help buy The Wall Street Journal. As long as one owns numerous brands there is limited consequence* to telling lies for market segmentation purposes.

*assuming one is operating at a large scale

May 26, 2008 - 12:09am

"As long as one owns numerous brands there is limited consequence* to telling lies for market segmentation purposes"

Good - scary - point. I don't think I'm quite that cynical yet.

Going forward, I think brands are absolutely essential to commanding that attention that's at such a premium now. I'd also like to believe that lies (not opinions that are just plain screwed up) are never good long-term for whatever brand you are trying to create. One flat-out lie can ruin a brand no matter how much equity you've built with your targeted (nutty) segment.

Fox has to be careful and push not lies, but keep their focus on spin. There is a big difference. That Fox News lie is from 2004? That's 4 years ago, if these actual fabrications came along every month, that hurts their brand even with their core segment. High risk high reward. If they get exposed too much, the word "News" in their brand becomes a joke even within their core segment and they'll need to buy/develop another big brand that has credibility with a spin for the right-wingers who do want non-fiction, but spoken to them the way they like.

brands aren't meant to be disposable. That's what .biz & .info are for.

May 24, 2008 - 7:17pm

one more thing.

if this was my client - I'd be working intently on clarifying long & short-term objectives with them. What's their brand & long-term vision? It's becoming our responsibility to think about these things when developing search, social media, and marketing strategies.

That is really who and what should decide if this was brilliant (up to the point of blow up) or a really bad call.

May 24, 2008 - 7:29pm

All the documentaries that Aaron listed are available for free on Google Video. In fact there's a website with over 100 hard political movies:

http://www.freedocumentaries.org/index.php

May 25, 2008 - 5:28am

I do believe Fox News *DOES* report fake news as a marketing tactic. It was core to their audience building strategy.

See, I would be more prone to thinking that they weren't so much deliberately lying, and that it is probably more a case of them deliberately not confirming their sources. Fine line, I know... but one actually has more culpability than the other.

if this was my client - I'd be working intently on clarifying long & short-term objectives with them.

The client decided to disavow the seo completely. However, I do not believe it was because of his tactics, but instead I think it had more to do with the fact that he went public with them, and the resulting negative press. Had this been revealed in a slightly different manner (ie. press release from the company stating, "Wow, we didn't think you'd actually think we were serious" kind of thing) then this whole scenario would have gone down much, much different... and with a whole lot less vulturing over the poor seo who actually wrote the copy. The number of people who tried to feed of off his misfortune was ridiculous, imo.

May 25, 2008 - 5:42am

<offtopic>PS: Aaron, ever consider adding in some sort of "Subscribe to these comments" feature on the blog? Is there a plugin that does that for this platform?</offtopic>

May 25, 2008 - 6:05am

I will check :)

May 25, 2008 - 6:10am

Added...now below the input box there is a check box for "Email me about replies to this comment."

May 25, 2008 - 7:28am

Nice, thanks. :)

May 25, 2008 - 1:29pm

A friend of mine calls the media the "What To Think Network". I personally think the term is spot on.

May 26, 2008 - 11:05pm

The Manufacturing Consent documentary is also on Google Video.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5631882395226827730

May 27, 2008 - 4:23am

Hey Aaron,

Why single out Fox News? What about the Dan Rather CBS scandal that nearly cost George Bush the election? Has Fox done anything on that level? If so, can you give specifics?

At least with Fox, I know what I am getting. I know when I watch Fox I am getting right leaning commentators that give me their opinion on the news. The other networks are full of left leaning commentators that try to pass themselves off as anchors.

May 27, 2008 - 10:30pm

What happened to that cute young blonde that once was Google - the attractive engine everyone wanted to get involved with?

Now it is more the stern headmaster - making us wait in the corner for our results and not tolerating talking back.

It was so much more fun in the flirtatious days... guess it is true.. once you go corporate....

May 27, 2008 - 10:33pm

Are you kidding me? Noam Chomsky as a source of unbiased truth? Robert MacNamara? Give me a break! MacNamara's been in more fogs than just Vietnam and Chomsky--don't even get me started on his radical leftist agenda. He's hardly a mainstream source of anything. I'm new around here, but I guess I never expected SEOBook to be a hotbed of radical socialist thinking.

Brent is absolutely correct. At least on Fox I don't get leftist radicals pretending to be unbiased. Just look at the way MSNBC and Keith Oberman handled the recent Hillary reference to the RFK assassination--then watch the video of her statement for the real story. How come it's never news when someone in the mainstream (aka leftist) media distorts a story? Because it happens every day! It's S.O.P. Just the way they want.

I have spent the better part of 25 years dealing with the media and this is the only conclusion I can come to: "All news stories are true, except the ones where I have first hand knowledge." They never get it right!

May 28, 2008 - 6:37am

So then if they screw up every story you know a lot about then what force (hint: their advertisers) would cause them to get almost everything wrong?

It is not a matter of politics with the media stuff. Self-sustaining is the first goal of any organization...and then the official stated goal comes second behind that.

May 28, 2008 - 12:02am

Great post, Aaron. It just goes to show that the art of spin has been around for a very long time and Google will have its hands full if it wants to determine truthiness.
SeoBook - "hotbed of radical socialist thinking" - now that's funny, if not some reactionary...spin.

May 28, 2008 - 2:06pm

@Brent/Cmecham

I wasn't picking out FoxNews as the only ones guilty of this behavior. As someone who studied media bias, I am well aware this is pretty widespread. However, they were a good example for this article as (a) they were one of the channels Lyndon was accused of polluting and (b) the fabricated news referred to in the link occurred on their website not the TV channel.

Thanks for the link Aaron.

June 2, 2008 - 2:58am

Been slammed with work-related stuff but I finally got to catch up on my required reading. Great post here, Aaron! I put all three documentaries on my Netflix queue!

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