Google has acknowledged that “fake news” is a persistent and challenging problem in the tech industry–one that has the potential to impact society at large. Because Google wants to present itself as a trusted source of information, it has a vested interest in keeping fake news off its platform.
But what is Google actually doing to address the fake news phenomenon? A few of the company’s recent actions, such as the support of AMP, the Google News Initiative and updating its algorithm, provide insight into their intentions.
First, we see Google investing more in the patents that power AMP (accelerated mobile pages), a content language that structures text-heavy pages in a highly stripped-down fashion. The main idea is to speed up page load times on metered data connections. Yet there are other benefits that this increased speed produces: a better user experience and higher engagement (e.g., more click-throughs and longer time-on-site).
While Google is only one sponsor of AMP, alongside many other tech companies, its clout is helping to move AMP adoption forward. Specifically, Google appears to surface AMP stories more frequently in its results for news searches.
On the surface, this is about getting the consumer to the content they want as quickly as possible, increasing usability – and enhancing its own value as a news source. By investing in AMP, Google is also investing in a better user experience for digital news. That, in turn, solidifies Google’s position as a trusted “content hub” for news consumers, and reduces the concerns about fake news. While improving on the user experience, Google continues to double down on building trust among consumers, especially as it relates to news content.
Introducing the Google News Initiative
Further bolstering Google’s position as a news source is its “Google News Initiative,” announced back in March 2018. While the initiative’s stated goal is to support journalism – by, for example, making it easier for consumers to subscribe to content from within the Google ecosystem – its timing was favorable.
Facebook was rocked by scandal early in the year, leading to widespread questions about its trustworthiness. As the big tech companies look to increasingly define themselves in opposition to each other, Google’s News Initiative was likely designed, at least in part, to counter what happened at Facebook.
Indeed, a big part of the initiative involves making “authoritative” content more visible in search. Google is using subscriptions as a proxy for authority: Publications with more subscribers generally appear higher in Google News search results. The value of subscription count to the end-user may be debatable. Community newspapers have won their fair share of Pulitzer Prizes, even though their subscriber numbers are dwarfed by the likes of New York Times and Chicago Tribune.
Yet it’s significant that Google is considering the authority of news sites so explicitly. It’s a clear sign that the company wants to keep faulty news content off its results pages, providing a safe and trustworthy user experience.
Altering its Algorithm
Google’s algorithms are notorious among marketers for being opaque. The company uses upwards of 200 ranking signals to compare web pages, and while it does make many of these signals public, the company never reveals exactly how they interrelate, making it much more difficult for their system to be manipulated.
One recent change the public has been made aware of is a reduction in tweets appearing on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs). While this is in the self-interest of Google—it wants to keep users on its platform and not send them to Twitter— it also reflects how Google is distancing itself from fake news. Google realized Twitter is easily manipulated by foreign powers, trolls, and others with malicious intent. Overall, Twitter has been slower to rein in bad actors than other platforms, and Google is treating it accordingly.
Earlier this year, Google briefly introduced a fake news reporting function, in which users could report links that they believed to be fake, but since then has removed the tool and encourages users to send feedback through Google News. Ultimately, Google appears unlikely to tackle fake news directly. Instead, it’s addressing the issue by scrutinizing pages’ and sites’ authority.
This is simply an extension of what Google has always done. Authority is how the company differentiates between pages that cover the same topic. By asking what backlinks a page receives and looking at the quality of the domains that link to that page, Google formulates a ranking of the page’s topical authority. The big question is if these changes will affect rankings for media. The answer appears to be yes. Fox News has seen its pieces rank lower than the same story at another media outlet. This is due in large part to questionable sites linking to Fox News.
Interestingly, Fox News generally produces more backlinks per page than other outlets, and their on-page and technical SEO efforts are just as strong as anyone else’s. This phenomenon appears to directly result from the way Google uses links to assess authority.
Though the idea of trying to combat fake news can be overwhelming, there are tools available, such as SEMRush and Moz, to observe and clean up a site’s link profile if there is indication it is getting negatively impacted. In extreme cases, links can be disavowed by telling Google that certain links should be ignored.
While backlinks have been part of the Google algorithm since its earliest days, they matter now more than ever with the proliferation of fake news. Google is looking closely at pages’ inbound links – which means if you’re a site owner, you should be too.