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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Search Engine Optimization Through Hoax News

Over at Search Engine Land’s Sphinn, people are discussing a search engine optimization tactic which tries to assemble backlink juice by posting a fake news article. Jonathan Crossfield wraps it up: “Online marketer Lyndon Antcliff recently helped a client achieve over 1500 inbound links in under a week with a story designed to grab attention.” The article, titled “13 Year Old Steals Dad’s Credit Card to Buy Hookers,” was and still is hosted at the authoritative looking domain, which is a financial advisor and Lyndon’s client, apparently. The hoax news explains that “Ralph Hardy, a 13 year old from Newark, Texas confessed to ordering an extra credit card from his father’s existing credit card company,” taking his friends on a $30,000 spending spree “culminating in playing ’Halo’ on an Xbox with a couple of hookers in a Texas motel.”

Jonathan continues to explain that the page received 2,452 votes at social news site (it’s currently at 2,489 diggs, and not marked as incorrect, attracting comments like “Ballsy kid.”). Then, mainstream news made it into the mix. The hoax item was covered in Australia, The Daily Telegraph, Fox News and many others, Jonathan says, and even reached the print version of UK’s Sun newspaper.

Google’s Matt Cutts makes a statement

Google’s anti webspam worker Matt Cutts at Sphinn gets involved too, making a statement in regards to the question “Where does [Cutts] and search engines stand on something like this?”. Matt argues, “My quick take is that Google’s webmaster guidelines allow for [as in “cover”] cases such as this,” citing the bit at the guidelines which reads “Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known websites). It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it.” Matt Cutts says, “There’s not much more deceptive or misleading than a fake story without any disclosure that the story is hoax.”

I wonder if it should be any of Google’s business when a page games humans – and whether it should only be of their concern when a page games Google. Otherwise, Google risks becoming an editor for the web, additional to their existing strong traffic channeling power. In that role, they would have to decide what is correct reporting and what is not. In that role, Google would need to answer a lot of new questions, and they may not always be the most qualified to answer them.

For instance; should popular sites like The Onion, which claim to be “America’s Finest News Source,” be judged as deception or satire? What if search engine abusers simply disclaim their own hoax news as satire somewhere on the page? And what happens to news sources which some people would consider so badly researched or sensationalist that one may argue it borders on a hoax? What if the hoax has a bit of truth in it? Is hoaxing allowed on April 1st? Are April 1st articles allowed to reside on the server after the day, without disclosure? What about sites publishing fiction?

Once before, Matt Cutts argued that he thinks “of ’linkbait’ as something interesting enough to catch people’s attention, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are a lot of ways to do that, including putting in sweat-of-the-brow work to generate data or insights, or it can be as simple as being creative. You can also say something controversial to generate discussion”. (That last tactic, he argued, “gets tired if you overuse it, though”.)

As one example of a backlink-generating tactic that falls into the “generate controversy” camp, Matt Cutts lists Google-critical site Incidentally, one of the theories of that site, Matt Cutts some years ago called “100% wrong”. That would make it similar to a hoax, it seems – and following Matt’s argument provided at Sphinn, that might make it a case which the webmaster guidelines may cover. As you can see, such editorializing would not only be tough and walking many gray areas... it could also start to become a conflict of interest for Google.

Keeping spam out of Google’s results

On the other hand, the fake article in question is also apparently search engine optimization spam – linking out to such heavily rank-battled topics like insurance, mortgage and loans, and perhaps using the word “credit card” in the title of the story just to increase keyword relevancy of backlinks towards this phrase. As a human editor, that convinced me to link out to the site using the “nofollow” attribute. So while it targeted human visitors to add manual backlinks, the real goal seems to have been gaming Google; as such, it may be in Google’s area to unspin the result ranking. Taken to the extreme, a Google search result filled with hoax articles becomes useless – unless someone is specifically looking for hoaxes.

Though – didn’t Google always state they rely on the democracy of the web to decide such things? The PageRank algorithm, which Google say is “the heart” of their software, relies on – according to Google – “the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value.” If the democracy makes a bad decision – in this case, by having many of its web citizens misjudge the quality of a news item – is it Google’s job to jump in to overrule that decision?

Well, already, Google lets human editors decide which publishers make it into Google News, which in turn are displayed in some of Google’s main search results as News onebox. Also, Google already has human evaluators which indirectly affect rankings – as they can influence which ranking algorithms Google picks (even when Google argues the “beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results”) –, and those human evaluators may give lower ratings to search result pages which put hoax stories in higher positions. And then there’s pages employing phishing or distributing a virus; in such cases, Google currently may display a warning in the search, but that flag perhaps does not affect the ranking and the page is still displayed.

Similar to the controversy around how Google expanded their fight against paid links via the push of the “nofollow” attribute (and lowering the PageRank of those who buy and sell links), if the “fake news” SEO tactic becomes more widespread, Google’s response to it may also trigger new discussions. Admittedly – if the nofollow discussions are any indicator, then while there may be lively debate around the topic, at this time it’s Google who makes the final decision. They may listen to webmasters and get involved, but in the end they won’t rely on just democracy or automation, but may come to an entirely human conclusion somewhere inside the Google headquarters.

Lyndon Antcliff removes his coverage of his hoax strategy

In the meantime, search engine optimizer Lyndon Antcliff, who started the hoax item, removed an article in which he gave insight into his tactics – tactics which, I would argue, are blackhat, and the exact kind of stuff that gives search engine optimization a bad name among so many outside the industry. Lyndon says, “After discussing it with a number of trusted colleagues I have taken the step of putting the ’Mental Linkbait’ behind closed doors. I had thought discussing tactics in an open way was a good thing but it seems I am giving too much away and was attracting a crowd I really don’t have any time for.” Lyndon adds, “I have little interest in discussing the ethics of linkbait, as far as I am concerned if it works and results are achieved then do it.”

One result seems to be clear in this, indeed, backlinks aside: Lyndon managed to lower the image of his apparent client,, who got themselves involved in a very shady marketing technique (and this in turn may also give the “link democracy” another chance to get it right, by removing links to the site). “After all,” Jonathan Crossfield writes, “if this article is incorrect, how can a reader trust any of the financial advice contained on the site?”

[Via Tony at Friendfeed.]


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