2017 wasn’t a great year for the truth. One of history’s most prolific fibbers ascended to one of the world’s highest offices, with a great deal of help from online news stories that definitely weren’t genuine, and spent most of the year whining “fake news” about stories that almost definitely were. Google, Facebook and other online media outlets (sorry, “technology platforms”) came under fire for featuring unverified and easily discreditable information as though it were fact, helping Russia, the White House and who knows how many other monstrous regimes to spread misinformation across the globe.
While Facebook’s feigned surprise rings hollow (as Senator Al Franken pointed out during a US Senate hearing), it is a little shocking that Google allowed itself to be played so easily. As an SEO, I’m all too aware of Google’s ever-growing list of requirements for authenticity, authority and expertise, all in the name of providing the best possible experience for its users. I’m all for it too. So it feels a little bit like a slap in the face for me and my clients when we have to jump through so many hoops to reach our audience, only for a shower of nefarious cave trolls to get to the top of search results with claims that are not only blatantly untrue, but unfathomably offensive and criminally misleading.
“But the algorithm!” they bleat defensively. Yes, sure, as we’re all aware, the search results we get are brought to us within a fraction of a second by an ever-more-complex set of algorithms programmed to give us the most relevant response to our query. Yes, these algorithms are powered by machines and not infallible. And, yes, Google did act pretty quickly to update its algorithm to clean up these results, once they were pointed out. But shouldn’t the algorithm have been set up to keep results clean already? Google seems to have been caught completely unawares each time one of these incidents of fake news has occurred, and is clearly working frantically to shore things up and prevent future issues from occurring.
2018 is likely to see some major changes to Google’s algorithm, which place news stories and other content under much greater scrutiny. These changes are likely to come quietly and without warning. Google has already been adding in various fact-verifying elements over the last eighteen months, both user-facing and in its back end, and this is very likely to continue until both the search engine and the public are satisfied that it’s doing everything it can to provide people with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So what does this all mean for SEO? Our clients are all decent and honest (we’re very picky), so they haven’t got anything to worry about, have they?
Well, probably not … but there are always some casualties with algorithm upheavals, and it’s likely that Google’s bots will become more zealous than ever when assessing any editorial content. Content plays a part in almost all of our digital marketing strategies, and it’s here where the search landscape is most likely to shift. While media and news outlets will take the brunt of this, more commercial sites that feature articles or content hubs could well be dragged along too.
So what can we do to make sure our content doesn’t fall victim to overzealous fact-checking or get unfairly labelled “fake news”?
All it should require is a little more vigour – cite sources, attribute quotes, don’t make any claims you can’t prove, and you should be ok. Use markup to show Google where you got your information from, where relevant. If you’ve got a lot of potentially contentious, but verifiable, claims in your content, you could even create a dedicated page of claim reviews, summarising all the fact checks that have been made for your web content.
As with most SEO, if you’re already publishing authentic, honest content, then it’s only going to take a bit of extra diligence to make sure Google knows you’re legit. Coupled with Google’s efforts, hopefully we can make the internet a little bit more of a truthful place in 2018.