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Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, has finally waded in on the issue of fake linkbait. Jonathan Crossfield (aka Kimota) provides some background information on the controversy.

In summary, Lyndon Antcliff posted a satirical story on a client’s site, which ended up being quoted on several mainstream news channels. Critics have claimed that Lyndon manipulated these sources by not labeling the material as fake, in order to gain links for his client. In his defense, none of these news channels or reporters seem to have tried to check the legitimacy of the story.

This is hardly the first time news channels have carried fake news. For example, FoxNews, the main channel to carry Lyndon’s story was reprimanded in 2004 for placing fabricated quotes attributed to John Kerry on their website.

In this thread at Sphinn, Matt Cutts has now suggested that such behavior comes under the jurisdiction of Google.

My quick take is that Google’s webmaster guidelines allow for cases such as this:

“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.”

There’s not much more deceptive or misleading than a fake story without any disclosure that the story is hoax.

Does this mean penalties for misleading information on websites? This certainly opens the doors to a whole host of issues, from fake reviews to less than honest product marketing. Also, can we expect to see the FoxNews website suffering any penalties in the near future?

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Lead SEO, Group Optimisation at Vodafone. Founder at E3 Business Incubator, a consultancy group helping enterprises and start-ups. Digital strategist and veteran SEO/SEM. Views are my own and not representative of my employer (more).

21 Responses to Matt Cutts Suggests Google Penalties For Fake Stories

  1. Damn, you mean Matt is going to give himself a penalty for his April Fool’s hoaxs?

    The was absolutely no indication that last year he wasn’t really hacked, at least to an uneducated user.

    How much of a disclaimer is needed? Just a fiction category, or a small mention in a legal paper that only shows somewhere buried on a site?

    Now where was that bunny I was going to cook in my microwave?

  2. Careful what you think.
    Careful what you write.
    They are watching.

  3. I have long suspected that the sophistication of Google’s almighty algorithm can detect and penalise fictional content, whilst keeping a watchful eye for any satirical pieces that include disclaimers.

  4. @Andy

    You better provide pictures of aforementioned bunny cooking. I have a very strong policy about “truthful commentary” on this blog.

    (until such a time as the rel=”not-true” tag is made available to me)

  5. If this is true, the whole adult industry is in trouble :.)

  6. “If this is true, the whole adult industry is in trouble :.)”

    Maybe this is why some in the industry have had troubles?
    When they stop being objective of content that is published online I can see huge problems going forward. I don’t think it is Google job to differentiate real and fake. This is now entering the gray area of opinion, censoring that could be bad for everyone.

    Now sure the Lyndon issue is pretty cut and dry. Easy to spot, but how or why in the world would they expect to actually try to demote/penalize/ban on a larger scale? Demoting Lyndon link bait is as easy as a hand job. Scaling a way to demote/penalize/ban other fake stories surely is impossible while being objective.

    This is similar Google war on paid links. There is truly no way for Google to know I am paying or not paying someone for link on another website. Making these assumptions can be very dangerous.

  7. @Todd

    Yep, I’ve long suspected that some of the material in the reader’s letters section to be entirely fantasy. :)

  8. Google is already on so many slippery slopes in the way it handles information. If it now wants to get into the editorial business as well, I see even more trouble ahead. The other problem is that most Americans don’t understand British humor. Oh dear!

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  10. Well it eventually was going to happen, especially when all the media outlets took the bait! Just keep your news legit with some spice. Writers still can linkbait, you just have to write well and write something legit.

  11. Google should stick to what it does best – Bringing relevancy to search. Period. There are countless examples of hoaxes bringing in legit links, including Google very own April fool’s jokes . I think I read more than a blog or two that pointed do-follow links back to these sub-sites, and they completely believed it was true.

    I don’t think its fair for anyone to complain when they were naive enough to fall for such link bait without researching the sources. Further more, any policy of Google judging the ‘truthiness’ of content is purely subject, isn’t scalable, and takes away from its independent, un-biased?? algorithm.

  12. This isn’t Google’s job – they rank pages according to their relevance to a search query – nothing more nothing less.

    Getting into a debate about the factual basis of an article is dangerous territory for them to be getting into.

  13. Pingback: Questions for Matt Cutts: What about April Fools fake content | Zeta Interactive Agency

  14. Amidst the annoyances about Matt’s comments I think we have lost sight of the underlying problem. Main stream media is so lazy to be publishing the drivel without fact-checking justifies the lack of public confidence in the media, not the link-baitor or satirist, depending on your point of view.

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  16. Pingback: SEL | Doing A Fake Story For Linkbait? Disclose — Or Face The Wrath Of Google | Searchsavant - The SEOintelligence Blog

  17. rel=”not-true” is the funniest thing I have seen in days.

    Maybe someone should let theonion know that satire=evil

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