Fake news. Alternative facts. Media bias. Whatever you want to call it, the Information Age is encountering a crisis of misinformation. And while social media — where like-minded people can share information that supports their worldview — may bear much of the responsibility, search is not blameless.
“Search engines are an essential part of the fake news crisis,” Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “If someone searches on a topic, and search engines serve up fake news — not identified as fake news — that obviously fuels and exacerbates the problem.”
The nature of search makes it a difficult problem to combat. Trending topics and heavily linked, heavily trafficked sites (as well as other factors like “dwell time”) naturally move a site to the top of a results queue, regardless of their veracity, leaving it up to users to decide what’s true and what isn’t.
Google ran into this problem last year, when listings put a Holocaust-denial site first among results for a simple, “When did the Holocaust happen” search. The search engine giant quickly rectified the problem, telling Search Engine Land that it has changed its algorithm to “help surface more high-quality, credible content on the Web,” though it did not provide details about what those changes were or how it would determine credible and authoritative sites from those that are not.
“It would be very helpful to have algorithms that can quickly distinguish between truth and falsity, but that's not easy to do,” Levinson notes.
The issue is thorny. Search engines are designed to present the information it “thinks” as user is looking for. Limiting those results based on what’s “true” and “fake” (especially when there can be so much gray in between) can lead to cries of censorship, or even exacerbate the problem.
“Truth should never be suppressed, and neither should lies, untruths or alternative facts,” says Larry Burris, professor at Middle Tennessee State University’s School of Journalism. “Exploring these non-facts can, in reality, help us discover the truth, and thus we should ask, why should we suppress an avenue for helping us discover truth and reality?”
On the display side, Google last year updated its AdSense policies to limit ad placements on pages that “misrepresent, misstate or conceal information” about the site publisher or its content’s primary purpose. Among the examples was “enticing users to engage with content under false or unclear pretenses,” which would presumably include intentionally fake news.
But that’s only one side of Google’s business. The impact of fake news on search marketing (and search marketers’ responsibility to combat it) is blurrier. Obviously, search marketers should work to make sure they’re not part of the problem, credibly sourcing and disseminating provable information in their own content. They should also monitor what’s being said about them to combat any false information as it happens.
“If you’re a marketer, you’re not in the fake news business, [but] in cases where you think your product is being pushed down by fake news, you can seek redress from Google,” says Sastry Rachakonda, CEO of digital marketing company iQuanti, who also suggests monitoring how your information may be repurposed and reused elsewhere on the Internet.
Clearly, this is only the beginning of what will likely be a larger and longer discussion, but it’s one search marketers should keep on their list.