Back in 2010, Google was getting beaten up in the media for the increasing amount of “content farm” clutter in the search results. That negative press was so overwhelming that Google felt it had no choice but to respond:
[We] hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.
Soon after that, in February 2011, the Google Panda update was released, which specifically targeted spammy and low-quality content.
Why do I bring this up today? Because the media has been hammering Google for promoting fake news for the past year and a half — a problem so extensive that search industry expert Danny Sullivan has referred to it as “Google’s biggest-ever search quality crisis.”
Needless to say, these accusations are hurting Google’s image in ways that cut far deeper than content farms. While the problem of rooting out false information is a difficult one, it is one that Google has a great deal of motivation to solve.
Google has already taken action to combat the issue in response to the negative press, including banning publishers who were promoting fake news ads, testing new ways for users to report offensive autocomplete suggestions, adjusting their algorithm to devalue “non-authoritative information” (such as Holocaust denial sites), and adding “fact check” tags to search results.
Of course, the issue of trustworthy search results has been on Google’s radar for years. In 2015, researchers from Google released a paper on Knowledge-Based Trust (KBT), a way of evaluating the quality of web pages based on their factual accuracy rather than the number of inbound links. If implemented, the Knowledge-Based Trust system would ultimately demote sites that repeatedly publish fake news (although there is a potential for it to go wrong if the incorrect facts become widely circulated).
Whether the Knowledge-Based Trust method is enough to combat fake news — or if some version of it has already been implemented without success — is difficult to say. But, it’s clear that Google is interested in making truthfulness a ranking factor, and they’ve never had a stronger motivation to do so than now.