Fake News Follow-Up: SEO and Paid Search Strategies
In our first article on the “Fake News” problem we covered how fake news is infiltrating social channels such as Facebook as well as wide search channels like Google and Bing. We also covered why this is a Really Big Deal. At the end of that article, we briefly touched on the detriments it will have on the Search industry. Well, we’re two months into 2017 and those negative effects are already influencing Paid and Organic Search. Our next goal is to break down the problems both types of Search Marketing face, and how you can work to correct and prevent the issues.
As we’ve heard repeatedly over the past few months Google and other Silicon Valley companies have promised to crack down on fake news websites, especially those with the goal of profiting through ads and clickbait. Google says it took down more than double the number of bad ads in 2016 that it did in 2015 by removing 1.7 billion ads, including fake news and “tabloid cloaking” ads. Bing announced that 130 million bad ads were blocked last year, and 175,000 advertisers were banned. This is great, but the industry still has a ways to go.
While writing this article, I did an example search as an online advertiser who is concerned about where their ads are appearing these days. I searched “I don’t want my display ads showing up on fake news sites “, and the goal was to find out what kind of resources are out there. Instead I stumbled upon the opposite of what I wanted to find. The second result in the SERPs is a website called Zero Hedge, which per Wikipedia has been classified as a ”conspiratorial and anti-establishment blog that presents extreme and sometimes pro-Russian views”.
Not knowing this at the time, I clicked on what I expected to be a fair and helpful site but was instead met with a bright red warning from one of the fake news add-ons I have installed on Google Chrome. I was surprised. Like most users, I assume that Organic results in the top 3 positions will be reliable thanks to Google’s algorithm. It turns out that even a query that has a goal of avoiding fake news, will bring up fake news.
While Google, Bing, Facebook, and others are working on the issue, smaller companies and website owners have taken matters into their own hands. For example, although it’s still a part of the Google Display Network, over 1,000 advertisers have pulled out of Breitbart News. If you have concerns about when and where your ads are appearing, you can take steps on your own to take control of your ad campaigns.
The Issue: I don’t want my display ad campaigns to appear on unreliable or fake news sites.
With “fake news” emerging as a common buzzword in popular media, users of all demographics are becoming more aware of the sites they’re visiting and the links they’re sharing. But more importantly, people are becoming familiar with sites they don’t want to be associated with. Online advertisers don’t want their display ads served on a fake news site. Being associated or seen as supporting these sites can be harmful for brands and result in a loss in credibility or favor. Advertisers want to ensure that their ad campaigns only appear on sites that are appropriate, and will help sell their products or services, not create controversy.
Companies and websites advertising on Google can customize ad placement through the Google Display Network. In the same way you can target placements in the Google Display Network to show your ads, you can also exclude placements where you don’t want your ads to show. You can exclude placements on websites and mobile apps, and you can exclude placements from one ad group or campaign, or from multiple campaigns by creating a list. Setting up these parameters and manually excluding placements ensures you’re blocking ads from appearing on those sites completely. This prevents users from associating your brand with organizations you don’t support. Google has a handy resource here that covers how to exclude domains and format the exclusions to suit your needs.
The Issue: How to stop display ads that are against my company’s ideology and views from showing on my website.
Whether a user is a first-time visitor or a returning customer, they’re going to take notice of all the content that appears on a webpage. This includes the display ads from other companies that appear on the sides and at the bottom of the page. If a user sees an offensive or inappropriate ad it might affect their opinion of your company, even though you don’t have primary control over those ads. A regular user doesn’t know this, and a harmful association may form because of something negative they saw.
Luckily, if you use Google AdSense for display ads Google has you covered again. In your AdSense account, there is an Allow & Block Ads page that gives you control over the ads that appear on your site. There is an option to block ads by Advertiser URL, General Ad Category, Sensitive Ad Category, or third party Ad Network. It’s important to be specific in the type of content you want to avoid so that you don’t create a problem of unfilled ad inventory, but using the Allow & Blocks feature gives you back control. Google has a resource on how to block each kind individually, which you can find here.
Fake news is a problem for Organic as much as it is for Paid Search. Although it might seem like less of a concern in Organic results because of the lack of ads/money, fake news can take clicks and impressions from more qualified sites.
The Issue: If fake news is fake, Google would never feature it as the top answer to a query, right?
Wrong! This is the major issue that Google is tackling when it says that it’s fighting fake news. These misleading and false articles aren’t only shared by users on Facebook, they’re occasionally featured in Google Search. Google’s algorithms, including the futuristic RankBrain, aren’t perfect. A recent example of this featured a major incorrect historical fact appearing in Google’s featured snippets box. The featured snippet box, also called an answer box, is the box at the top of the search engine results page that features content from a website directly in Google. It’s sometimes called “position 0” by SEOs because it ranks above all other organic results. The example involved a query for “presidents in the klan”. As shown in the photo below, Google’s algorithm featured an answer from a site called thatrentonline.com as the “best” content for this query.
The problem here is that the answer in the featured snippet has no historical basis. It’s a popular conspiracy theory that’s been around for years, even though there is no historical proof that Wilson, McKinley, or Harding were members of the KKK.
What this tells us is that Google isn’t always right, and that there’s always opportunity to provide users with better content. SEO teams can combat fake news sites by keeping an eye on popular queries in their industry and reporting the problem when you see it. You can call out inaccurate information like fake news by “submitting feedback” to Google. Clicking the “Feedback” button under the featured snippet brings up the box below:Here you can clarify the problem and help Google fight against false information. Corrections aren’t implemented immediately, but Google will take this feedback into account for future crawls.
Finding false information and fake news in the featured snippets also presents an opportunity for your company to knock them out with better content. Try regularly pulling an informational query report from Google Search Console to see who’s coming up for questions in your industry and how those questions are being answered. By checking out the SERPs for “who”, “what”, “why”, or “how” queries, you can see if there are any featured snippets, and how well those snippets solve the user’s need or want. Focus on informational queries where you currently rank in positions 3-20, as those will be the easiest for you to take over with new and improved content. Even if a query doesn’t have a featured snippet, you can still look at the top ranked sites to see if they truly answer the user’s question and if the site itself is an accurate source of information. By providing content users actually want, content that is accurate and timely, there’s a better chance of increasing your CTR and beating fake news content in the SERP rankings.
Bye Fake News?
Fake news and clickbait sites aren’t going to disappear overnight, even with large organizations targeting them. However it’s important that major tech companies continue to fight the fake news problem, because it’s only companies like Google and Facebook that can make the threat of lost revenue a reality. If Google continues banning bad ads, the motivation for clickbait sites will decrease. When the ads go away, there won’t be any money in fake news, and the problem will start to fade. In the meantime, those of us in the Digital Industry can continue to make small changes to our tactics and own websites, and provide feedback to help knock out the bad seeds among us.