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May 22, 2008

Google Is Not the Government, Nor My Mother

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The sensational outrage over Lyndon Antcliff’s fake news story has officially reached a level that can now only be described as Utterly Ridiculous. Sparked by a comment by Matt Cutts over at Sphinn, Search Engine Land and others are now speculating that Google may or may not begin penalizing fake news stories that don’t contain any type of disclosure. Oh, goodness.

If you haven’t been following the story, here are the important nuggets: Lyndon Antcliff posted a fake news story on his client Money.co.uk’s Web site without labeling it as such. The satirical story was then picked up by several mainstream news channels, including Fox News, and received a serious amount of links and about a gazillion diggs. Proud of his accomplishment, Lyndon blogged about what had happened and his success (the post has since been removed).

Cue all hell breaking loose as search marketers come out from corners everywhere throwing rocks at Lyndon for manipulating the Internetz.

I’m going to openly state that I don’t agree with link bait at any cost. I don’t think that creating a fake news story in an attempt to get links is a smart business decision. I’m not going to get into the ethics of whether it’s right or wrong, because really, my opinion on that doesn’t matter to anyone but myself. I just don’t consider it an effective strategy in that I’d be really fearful of breaking the trust of your audience.

Even so, the idea that Google would suddenly start penalizing those who did is borderline ludicrous. It’s not Google’s job to be your mother and slap you on the wrist for telling a long tale, and any attempt at doing so would be completely unscalable and mind numbing. Google already has one unscalable nightmare with the paid links debacle. Do they really want to get into the battle of protecting the integrity of the Internet by only ranking “truthful” articles? What the heck is truth on the Internet anyway? Where do you draw that line? A search for [2008 president campaign] would bring up zero results.

Sure, it’s Google’s index and they have a right to take action against things that are “deceptive”, I just question whether or not the line should be drawn this close. I’ve seen link bait far more “deceptive” than what Lyndon offered up. And is something deceptive just because some people don’t pick up on the joke? Maybe we should ban April Fools day or other satirical news sites? Personally, I read Lyndon’s story when he Twittered it and giggled. I didn’t take the story as fact, but I can see how others may have had they only skimmed it. It’s certainly not Lyndon’s fault that Fox didn’t take the time to validate any of the sources or make an attempt to prove its truthfulness. Just like it’s not anyone else’s fault when someone reads a fake news story on April Fools Day and then blogs about it later as truth. You should have done your homework.

As someone with a journalism degree, I’m all for journalistic integrity and truth in reporting, but it’s not Google’s right/job/function to be that guide. If people want to “trick” users, then they’ll suffer the consequences on their own. When Google starts getting involved in determining what’s fact and what’s not, you’re just opening the door to a whole new world of problems. People twist the truth online every day. I’d argue that it’s what the Internet is based on — opinion, wild speculation, and gut instincts with no facts to base them on. When Google stops being objective and starts entering that grey area of judge and jury, that’s when people start getting nervous and paranoid. Just say no. [I’m going to devil’s advocate and say that there is absolutely a place for Google to determine that completely made up stories do not belong in their News results. They’re not Digg; lies do not become them.–Susan] Okay. I nominate you to read through Google News as it updates and pick out the fact from the fiction! Enjoy your slope.

Google, you worry about spam. Let the people worry about morality and their eternal souls.

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13 responses to “Google Is Not the Government, Nor My Mother”

  1. Ciaran writes:

    Lisa – I agree with you on almost all of the points you raise here.

    I only fear that you may now have extended the life-span of a story that would’ve passed away were it not for the recuperating effect of seemingly absolute morals (so none of us have ever bought a link right? And we wouldn’t all have loved to have come up with Ray-Ban’s “Catching glasses campaign”?)

    And, btw, Google is your Dad, and your Confessor too. Didn’t you get the memo?

  2. Tin Pig writes:

    The problem with this tactic isn’t just that a fake story was published and people believed it was true. The real issue is the intent to publish the story as linkbait, thus trying to influence search rankings. The real deception is perpetrated against the searcher who gets a skewed results page due to this story.

  3. spostareduro writes:

    i’m curious, how is this supposed to happen?
    “If people want to “trick” users, then they’ll suffer the consequences on their own.”

  4. Doug Heil writes:

    Yes. Read Tin Pig’s comment again as he has it right.
    Of all people Lisa, I’m quite surprised you don’t see the deceitful tactic he used as search engine spam. I certainly do. I’m not quite sure what angle you must be viewing this spam, but I can assure you that no search engine worth their salt would want a deceitful and fake story getting a boost because of the incoming links. Let’s be very clear here; he wrote this for the purpose of gaining links by deceiving the general public. That’s pure se spam. Period. What makes this doubly worse than most is that there is no disclaimer saying it’s false… even to this day you can go to the story on money.co.uk and see it in tact with no disclaimer whatsoever.
    Not only is this search engine spam, but fuels the fires of all the outside world who KNOW that SEO is spam and full of snake oil people who are out to deceive everyone, and do so at any cost.
    Gee? Of course Google would not like this nor want this. And of course there is no way that Google could police or enforce this, but when the writer says it’s false and blogs about it, and everyone else writes about it saying how great it is, and how genius it is, etc, what the hell is Google to do? Allow the content to get noticed and ranked on Google? You must be joking. Google or any engine does not want it’s index to be used and abused like this. They do not want “their own users” being deceived by this. Of course it’s spam. It can’t be anything else.
    It’s appalling that soooo many in this industry think this is a great thing. I know you (Lisa) don’t think this at all, but I am surprised you don’t think Google has a say in the content in her own index.
    To all other SEO’s out there thinking this is a great thing? Shame on you. You can be sure G and others are taking names. Count on it.

  5. Lisa Barone writes:

    @Ciaran: Geez. I have so many parents in this industry lately, it’s hard to keep up. :)

    @Spostareduro: Hi, I answered you over at Sphinn, but I’ll expand a bit more over here, as well. :)

    I was referring to what can happen when a site becomes known for creating false news stories or taking advantage of situations for links. I don’t think that Lyndon did or will suffer any type of negative consequences for his post. As I mentioned in my response, I really didn’t find a problem with his original post to begin with.

    However, if the money.co.uk domain keeps getting outed for publishing stories that are intended as jokes or hoaxes, it may hurt their reputation in the long run. That’s the “consequence” I was referring to.

  6. Chris Hooley writes:

    Well said Lisa. I agree on all points.

  7. Lisa Barone writes:

    @Doug: We agree on many points. I’ve been pretty vocal in the past about what I consider acceptable link bait and what I’d stay away from me. Whether or not Lyndon’s post was “spam”, for me, isn’t really what I looking to get into. I’m more concerned about Google’s reaction.

    There’s a natural reaction to want to “close the loophole” when it’s exposed, but at the same time, I think you have to be careful. I completely understand and agree that Google has a right to run its index the way it sees fit. I just think it’s opening itself up to a whole world of trouble if Google is now going to try and decide what’s fact and what’s fiction. What’s the scalable way to do that? Are we going to have more manual reviews where people’s bias is entered into the picture? Where’s the line for how true something has to be allowed into the index?

    There’s just too much grey for Google to be stepping in here. It’s not Lyndon’s fault that this story was picked up and thrown everywhere. It’s the mainstream media who ran with it without doing any kind of fact checking.

  8. Doug Heil writes:

    I agree that Google cannot manually check for factual content, but that’s not the point. In this instance, the writer made it publically clear that he wrote it “on purpose” and for the purpose of gaining links, and to see how far it would travel.
    You wrote this:
    “It’s not Lyndon’s fault that this story was picked up and thrown everywhere. It’s the mainstream media who ran with it without doing any kind of fact checking.”
    Not his fault? Is it the general public’s fault that they believed money.co.uk and what they publish? That’s nutty, sorry. This is a case of a very greedy website who hired a greedy and unethical SEO…. he IS a SEO… check what his site offers. It’s their fault and not the public’s fault for believing it. Please don’t put this on the big media as that’s not what the real issue is at all. We all know damn well how big media gets it wrong many times. When is OUR industry going to step up and claim responsibility for our own actions and industry? This is the same damn way it is for blackhats. NO ONE wants to step to the plate. It’s always someone else’s fault… like Jason Calacanis. It’s his fault for stating that SEO is spam and SEO is crap, etc. Why does he and others think that? Hell; I know why.
    And right about now; I’m agreeing with everything the people outside are saying about the SEO industry.

  9. Jaamit writes:

    Spot on Lisa. Identifying false or innacurate news stories should never be Google’s job and it’s scary to think how much (more) power that could bring them in terms of being open to influence by their shareholders.

    @Ciaran, good point that the issue is the intent to influence search rankings – but unless the author admits he’s done this (as Lyndon did), how the hell would Google determine this intent? Maybe Lyndon’s right – it WAS a mistake to be open about his tactics!

    @Doug Heil: I don’t think Lisa is saying it’s the general public’s fault for believing it. The reason that the general public even saw this story is because the media covered it as fact, and they’re to blame, not the public. And in fact, as I have said over at seomoz, I don’t think this was an accident either – more of a ‘look the other way’ job.

  10. Pfft writes:

    What a silly argument. You are blaming everyone but the moron that made up a story for attention? Someone in the media that makes a fake story is responsible for it. And Google shouldn’t penalize fake articles? Shoemoney hit it on the head in his article about not making google look dumb. Thats the last thing they want; if they aren’t giving relevant information, they are no longer relevant. Plain and simple.

  11. Jane writes:

    “As someone with a journalism degree, I’m all for journalistic integrity and truth in reporting.”

    I think I’ve finally worked out why I don’t find this that appalling. The focus of my English degree was creative writing ;)

  12. Doug Heil writes:

    Jammit; You cannot be serious. So you think as well as many, many others in the SEO industry that Lyndon has no responsibility for his own actions? Come on now.
    Frankly; I’m astonished at this industry.
    Let’s see who out continues to put the blame on something else other than the article writer:
    http://www.money.co.uk/article/1000487-we-apologise-for-hoax-story.htm
    At least money.co.uk finally did the right thing… quite a bit late though.
    Now tell me again who should take full responsibility?

  13. Marc writes:

    Google (GOOG) is the freaking government already! i have been referring to them as “Google W. Bush”

    the have many outstanding conflicts of interests like playing in the ad agency game while regulating a major part of it with organic search. Just like the bush administrations relationship with Haliburton, which seems to get them many billion dollar, no-bid contracts.

    their entire penalty structure should be focused around killing spam in the index and nothing else. although they have made strides in the past two years, there is still much work to be done



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