How Mainstream News Sites Are Making Google Less Trustworthy (And How They Can Help Improve the Accuracy and Credibility of Google Search Results)

Google has a credibility problem. And those authoritative backed-by-lots-of-fact-checking news sites like The New York Times? They’re only making Google’s problems more difficult.

Searchers have long taken as a given that top-ranked search results are accurate, but as far as I know (which, at least for this topic, is quite a bit), Google’s ranking algorithms (for the regular web search “10 blue links”) have historically not included signals for accuracy. The signals were focused mostly on relevance and popularity. The unintended consequence has been that as bad ideas gain popularity, they rise in the search rankings, making them more visible to searchers who think top rankings are reserved for good ideas.

That’s changing now. Google said, recently for instance that “we want to show authoritative information.. we took deserved criticism after our Top Stories section carried misleading information after the Las Vegas shooting… we want to get this right…” (More on the Las Vegas shooting issue here.) And they’ve launched a collaboration with the Online Trust Project for Google News (which may eventually be used in regular web rankings as well if all goes well).

How News Organizations Influence Google Rankings

In another corner of the online information world, highly esteemed news sites are catching flak for elevating bad ideas and people. The news sites might argue they’re just covering relevant events, and not supporting, for instance, Nazis.

But possibly without realizing it, they’re often thwarting Google’s attempts to add credibility into the ranking signals mix. Or, rather, they — the credible news sites with a history over 150 years of reporting, investigation, and fact checking — are providing Google with an unintended credibility signal for terrible, dangerous, and inaccurate ideas and web sites.

Consider this recent example: On November 25, 2017, The New York Times profiled a person they described as a “white nationalist”. Nearly everybody was outraged that The Times would amplify that voice. Below are just a few responses.

But the article did more than just raise the visibility of the person, ideas, organizations, and web sites described in the article.

It also provided a link from The New York Times to some of said web sites. And links from reputable and credible sites is certainly something Google is looking at as a credibility signal for its ranking algorithms.

After all, Google uses links for all kinds of signals in its algorithms: for instance, popularity (how many links does a page have? are the links from popular sites?) and relevance (what is the topic of the linking site? what text is used in the link?).

It would make sense that as Google finds ways to mark a site as a legitimate news source, it also gives links from that site provide a credibility weight.

On Twitter, Michael Whitney noted that this profile included a link to a web site selling a swastika armband.

The New York Times seems to have removed that link, but as of now, a link still remains to a web site called “Radio Aryan”. And looking at the source code of the page, the link appears to be “followed”, which in Google speak means that the link has full weight in Google’s algorithms.

Google Credibility


Google Credibility and the NY Times

In other words, The New York Times not only elevated this person’s visibility amongst The Times‘ readers, it also gave this person’s writings and podcasts a boost in Google.

Not all news sites are linking in this way. I looked at a few sites that have been mentioned as a better way to profile Nazis, such as those below:

I did a very unscientific survey of these stories (the above and the ones mentioned in this Twitter thread) and found that some news sites do a great job of not linking to sites they don’t want to elevate, although even those don’t always link out to other news stories.

Linking to Hate Group (And Other) Sites Helps Those Sites Be More Visible in Google Searches

News sites are spending tons of time and money on providing credible information in today’s landscape of confusing and misleading information overload. But a simple and free and probably super impactful thing they can do? Stop linking to sites they don’t endorse. 

For instance, this ProPublica story mentions a white supremacist organization, but doesn’t link to the organization’s web site:

Same with this article from The Atlantic:

This Buzzfeed story references several Instagram and discussion forum posts, but includes only quotes and images, but no links to them.

And this Washington Post story links to a news article (from another publication) about a hate web site rather than to the site itself:

Two follow up stories show different news organization policies. The Washington Post seems to generally not link out to hate group sites and does link to other news organizations. For instance, in this follow up, they don’t link to the web site of the Traditionalist Worker Party, but do link to a New York Times story.

However, a USA Today follow up piece links to stories in several competing publications but also links to the hate group site.

If the reporter or news organization feels a link should be part of the story because it provides background or evidence, they can use a nofollow attribute for the link. When Google finds a link with a nofollow attribute, they don’t use the weight of that link in any of their ranking algorithms.

A nofollow attribute is easy. Instead of a link like this:

<a href=””>site I’m not vouching for</a>

Use a link like this:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>site I’m not vouching for</a>

Nofollow attribute tags are often already built into the content management software newsrooms use, so it can be as easy as expanding policies around linking and letting those loading the content know how to use the tag.

If the issue were only about Nazis, it should be easy for newsrooms to put together policies, but of course it’s more complicated than that.

NPR linked to a flat earth site:

Mashable linked to a Reddit thread about the moon landing being a hoax:

At the very least, news organizations should be thoughtful about the link process and understand that linking to a hate group or a conspiracy theory site or sites with false information can help those sites to be more visible to searchers.

Linking Out to Credible News Sources With Descriptive Text Helps Those Stories Be More Visible in Google Searches

Another thing news sites can do to help credible and useful information gain search visibility? Link out to other news stories (even from competing publications!) using link anchor text that describes what the story is about.

This GQ article, for instance, has no links at all, when links to both The State article referenced and the Southern Poverty Law Center would help elevate both in Google searches.

(A long-held search engine optimization myth sometimes causes newsrooms to have policies to not link out to other sites, for fear that doing so will reduce the site’s “PageRank”, but it’s not true. Other times, newsrooms have policies not to link out for fear that readers will click away to the other site. But news organizations need to approach journalism from the standpoint of educating readers, not with fear of reduced page views.)

ProPublica does a good job of linking to other news stories, but could improve the descriptive text. For instance, in this story, rather than the text “recalled in an OC Weekly article”, the link could be placed in the quote section: “Trump supporters felt empowered to ridicule and intimidate me”.

That changed link placement would help the OC Weekly article rank for Google searches such as [trump supporters intimidate].

News Rooms Should Think About Their Impact in the Online Algorithm Ecosystem

It’s not enough anymore for news organizations to just think about the content of their reporting. We live in a world where we get our news from online algorithms, not the morning print newspaper. In addition to thinking about what information gets reported and how it’s covered, news organizations need to think about what sites and pages they’re linking to and how they’re linking to those pages.

Ideally, newsrooms should have policies around:

  • Not linking to sites and pages they don’t want to help become more visible in online algorithms, or using nofollow attributes on those links
  • Linking to sites and pages they do want to help boost visibility to
  • Using descriptive anchor text in links to help the linked to pages show up for relevant Google searches

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