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How to Fight Fake News with SEO

Fake news is everywhere and now represents an unavoidable part of our day-to-day. Some schools now even teach young students how to use fact-checking tools to differentiate between real and fake news.

For digital marketers today, fighting misinformation through fact-checking is now even more essential, especially with the increasing importance of quality, rich and in-depth content in a brand's digital portfolio.

In this in-depth blog post, Natalija Abrams, Technical SEO Manager, and Shaun Hill, Content Marketing Director, explain Google's position on fake news, the problems around this growing issue and what it all means for SEO and Content Marketing. 

What is Google doing to fix fake news?

From Google's perspective, ‘good’ is synonymous with ‘real’. It’s been 12 years since Google first filed a patent for ‘a search engine system (which) provides search results that are ranked according to a measure of the trust.' This marked the birth of TrustRank. We now know that Google upranks websites that they trust, and that trust is measured in its algorithm with TrustRank. It is therefore an essential metric for your SEO efforts.

Recently, the California-based giant pledged to invest $300 million (approximately £230m) in the next three years to support these goals. Launched in June 2018, the Google News Initiative illustrates Google’s commitment to tackle fake news.

The scheme has three specific goals:

  • highlight accurate journalism while fighting misinformation
  • help news sites continue to grow from a business perspective
  • create new tools to help journalists do their jobs.

As an example, the debunking site Snopes is now an approved Google News provider, making it a source of news – or truth - for Google users. And Snopes is just the beginning. It won’t be long until this is rolled out across a multitude of publishers. The question is: how ready are you as a marketer to tackle this challenge? 

The Problem with Fake News

The challenge is that fake news is not limited to news sources. Ubiquitous and ever-changing, it lurks in the most unexpected places. The more likely it is, the harder to spot.

Fake content can take many shapes and appear as text, images or even videos. In some cases, it may be that visual and audio content has been algorithmically modified (known as ‘synthetic media’) - all the more challenging to detect.

Even as a responsible Internet user, you may create or propagate fake content unbeknownst to you. As a content creator, you might accidentally include or link to fake content. Not a pleasant prospect when you know Google TrustRank works like a filter.

If Google sees your links and content as trustworthy, they pass the filter, but if your TrustRank is low, these signals are seen as illegitimate and therefore blocked. Needless to say, you want Google to see your site as a trustworthy resource. If not, your rankings are going to suffer.

Aware of the challenge, Google gave the industry some clues on how to establish content writers as trusted in the new “Reputation of the Creator of the Content” section of the Search Quality Rater Guidelines.  This set of guidelines is used to help Google’s human 'quality raters' to evaluate online content and provide feedback to Google. It now states that a website page should clearly identify (section 2.5.2):

1. Who is responsible for the site

2. Who created the content on the page

As a result, every page within a website, trusted for its topics, can now be judged individually according to the reputation and authority of each page author if the site uses multiple content creators. This is a significant new addition to the guidelines. It also means that a bad author can lower the quality rating of a page even if it’s on a high-quality site.

What Does it Mean for SEO and Content Marketing?

Gone are the days when brands could get away with producing thin and poorly written content in large volumes. Our expectation of brands is to produce magazine-quality content with high production values. Additionally, we now expect a brand to be an expert across every aspect of its vertical.

If you want a mortgage, and search for tips on being a first-time buyer, you want to be satisfied, reassured and given expert advice on what exactly to do. This entry point to content consumption plays a huge part in the buying decision further down the customer journey. To be front of mind for the public, you need to build trust and authority with your audience. Trust and authority only comes with rich and real content.

But, what does this mean for publishers? For starters, reputation is everything. You do not want to be known as the news site that published fake news. There is scrutiny over what is fake news at the moment. To be highlighted as a news outlet producing fake news not only damages your journalist integrity, but it means you lose trust from readers and Google. 

Publishers need to be savvy to what type of content they accept and only work with trusted sources.

It is essential that brands work hard at establishing expertise, authority and trustworthiness. Ensure that you receive an author bio for publications and ask them to link out to your social media and personal websites. In short, put a face behind your story and ensure that you’re fully reactive and responsive on social media once an article is online to give people more trust in your brand.

Consider this challenge as an opportunity to refresh your site with a new type of content. Debunking fake news can be fun, so take advantage of the informational and entertaining value of this type of content by including it on your site. You could have a new section entirely dedicated to ‘Fact check/Debunking’ or just add it to existing pages as a related fact.

You just have to be creative about it. For example, in the travel sector, you could give people the facts behind aviation. Here’s one for you: at any given time, there are 9,728 planes flying through the air carrying 1,270,406 people.

Given the recent realisation of the extent of the issue, we can only speculate as to the best strategy marketers and content creators should adopt to limit the impact of fake news on online visibility. For now, there are a five steps that you can take to send positive trust signals to Google. 

1. Be sure to check your facts. If your website doesn’t allow itself to establish the reputation of your authors, you need to make your content ‘fact-check proof’ in a different way, both onsite and on your external social media platforms. As simplistic as it sounds, you can do this by making sure that only correct information is provided and that your followers are real, as opposed to bot-generated or ‘fake followers’. 

2. Have a critical view on what third-party sites you’re working with. Go through recent articles, understand the content and most importantly, ensure their audience and readership aligns to yours. If they are publishing a story about your brand, they are acting as spokesperson for you and your reputation, so its authority and status is crucial to pushing your brand message.

3. You can monitor online mentions through tools such as Talkwalker, Google News, Mention and Meltwater. Be sure that anything written about your brand is factual and ensure that your teams are on top of stories written about your brand. If you want to fact check, there are some great free sites out there which provide factual information such as snopes.org, factcheck.org and fullfact.org.

4. Check your competitors. What is true for them today might become true for you tomorrow, given your shared vertical. Preempt the impact of fake news by publishing debunking content before your brand is even mentioned to minimise its impact on your business.

5. On a more technical note, you can support your fact-checking efforts by using structured data, increasingly essential to raise your visibility in Google Knowledge Graph. Remarkably, the schema.org site published the first markup meant for use by fact-checking sites as early as March 2016, and has been actively expanding the range of related markup ever since. As a result, you can now tag your content with the following structured data related to claims (’Claim’) and reviews (‘ClaimReview’, ‘ItemReviewed’).

What’s next?

As the industry learns to adapt to this trend, new opportunities to fact-check content will inevitably arise. Fighting fake news might eventually become a ranking factor in search engine algorithms or a routine part of any pay-per-click campaign.

For the time being, it might be wise to treat any new initiative involving fact checks as a valuable opportunity to test and learn. Your site is unique. The only way to find out if this is a winning strategy is to keep monitoring and measuring its impact on your overall visibility, just like any other trend.

After all, it would not only be justice but poetic justice if fake news were defeated by marketers’ weapon of choice: cold hard data.

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