Semalt: How Does Google Treat Misinformative Websites?

"These tablets cure cancer!" a website yells, "Just $29 for a pack of 12!"

The claim is obviously false and obviously harmful. For Google to serve it up on its search engine results page (SERP) would be to potentially put the lives of users in danger.

The number one goal of Google is to provide its users with the most relevant and useful information for each query. So what does Google do about misinformative websites? And how might this affect your site?

Here we take a closer look at Google's misinformation policies, to better understand how Google is fighting the threat, and what you can do to ensure you aren't caught in the crossfire.

The rise of misinformation

The information age. For the first decade or two of the internet, the world stared in childlike wonder at what it had created: a system that put the sum of human knowledge at their fingertips. It was scarcely believable and overflowing with promise. Now that we had access to all the information, we could do anything!

The transition into the misinformation age was subtle at first. Jaded lovers posting lies about ex-partners. Scammers tricking new internet users into sending them money. But soon things got far more serious.

In the last few years divisions have been stirred, democratic elections have been hacked, and in some cases genocides have been enabled by deliberate misinformation. The internet is no longer the land of endless opportunity that it once was - dispense the right misinformation in the right way and you can turn the World Wide Web into a weapon.

And as the most powerful gatekeeper of the internet, the spotlight has recently turned on Google: how does it currently identify and punish misinformation, and how will it improve these efforts into the future?

The official Google stance

"Providing useful and trusted information at the scale that the Internet has reached is enormously complex and an important responsibility," Kristie Canegallo, Google's VP of Trust & Safety said in 2019. "Adding to that complexity, over the last several years we've seen organised campaigns use online platforms to deliberately spread false or misleading information."

Canegallo went on to say that the company's approach to misinformation is based on three foundational pillars, described in length in a 2019 white paper:
  • Improve our products so they continue to make quality count.
  • Counteract malicious actors seeking to spread disinformation.
  • Give people context about the information they see.
In 2020 Danny Sullivan, Google's public liaison for search, wrote a blog about the flipside of the issue: promoting quality, reliable and useful content above all else. He explained that Google's modus operandi was to ensure users got the best possible information for every query they have, and that Google works toward that goal by:
  • Fundamentally designing its ranking systems to identify information that people are likely to find useful and reliable.
  • Complementing those efforts with Search features that not only help users make sense of all the information they're seeing online, but that also provide direct access to information from authorities like health organisations and government entities.
  • Forming policies for what can appear in Search features to make sure that it shows high quality and helpful content.
If you read between the lines of all this corporate jargon, you realise something quite interesting: Google doesn't actively punish deliberately misinformative sites at all. These websites enjoy a place on Google's index like any other, and can therefore appear on the SERP.

Google instead relies on its automated systems to ensure that these results don't earn a high ranking on the SERP. It trusts that its algorithm prioritises useful and reliable information, and that a user will only be served up misinformation if they actively search for it.

Misinformation vs spam

But the above policy has raised some eyebrows around the internet because of Google's approach to spam content.

Google is quite active and vigorous in penalising spam. When it identifies a website using black hat SEO tactics, like buying links, it will often override its automated systems to manually de-index the site. This poses a question: why is spam treated as a greater threat than the likes of medical misinformation, which has the potential to physically harm or even kill Google users?

This was a question that SEO expert Joe Hall recently put to Sullivan on Twitter: "If you are found to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines… then you shouldn't be in Google's index at all. It's time that G puts its money where its mouth is in regards to content quality".

To Sullivan's credit he responded to the tweet, though for the most part, he went back to his corporate talking points: "We don't turn a blind eye. Just because something is indexed is entirely different from whether it ranks. We invest a huge amount of resources to ensure we're returning useful, authoritative information in ranking."

He also made a fair point on the challenge of monitoring the internet in the misinformation age: "Remember the whole '15% of [Google] queries are new' thing. That's a big deal. Some new story breaks, uncertain info flows, misinfo flows along with authority info that flows. Our systems have to deal with this within seconds. Seconds. Over thousands+ pages that quickly emerge…".

In short, Google says that it's impossible to manually review the tidal wave of misinformation, so it leaves the job to its automated systems. The implication is that spammy sites are more static and easy to identify, and therefore more suited to manual de-indexing.

Whether this is a complete truth is another question. Google certainly has the resources to fact check and manually de-index a good portion of the misinformative sites out there, although this would obviously be a huge investment, and would also put Google in the cross-hairs of free speech and open internet campaigners.

What does this mean for your site?

Google's current stance makes two facts clear:
  1. Google punishes spam more heavily than misinformation (although there is a fair bit of overlap in that particular Venn diagram.
  2. Google uses automated systems to promote high-quality and trustworthy information over misinformation.
Will you fall in the rankings if your website is filled with misinformation? Yes. Will you be de-indexed if your website is filled with misinformation? No. If people really want to find you, they'll still be able to find you. It'll just be harder than if you filled your site with reliable and trustworthy information.

The percentage of websites designed to actively deceive and misinform is tiny in the grand scheme of things. This is particularly the case in business: selling fake tablets to cure cancer is an absolutely horrible business model, both morally and financially.

More common on business websites is unintentional misinformation.

We've all been there: you see an interesting fact or stat on the Internet, and you repeat it to your friends, only for one of them to quickly prove you wrong by showing you a more reliable source. It happens all the time on business websites too: you repeat or link to a fact or stat to drive home a point about your product / service, only to find out later that it wasn't totally true.

While 100% unintentional, this sort of misinformation can do real harm to your SEO efforts, as Google recognises that you've linked to or pulled from a questionable source, and lowers your SERP ranking as a consequence.

How to guard your site against misinformation

So how do you ensure that your site avoids the ill effects of misinformation? There are two main ways:

1. Use factual information from reliable sources

The best way to avoid dropping down the Google rankings because of misinformation is to make sure you don't post any! This might seem obvious, but it can actually be a little more difficult than you think. You'll need to scan your website for every claim you make and stat you use and ensure that each is provably true. Wherever you link to external sources, ensure that they are reputable and trustworthy and that they too can back up their claims with facts.

It goes without saying that your website should avoid spam and black hat SEO tactics at all costs, as these things are punished more harshly by Google than misinformation, and could result in your site being de-indexed.

2. Get help from an SEO expert

The truth is that guarding yourself against misinformation, and ensuring your Google ranking isn't negatively affected by it, is a complicated task. What's more, misinformation makes up just a small slice of the SEO pie - there are so many other factors to consider if your website is to rank as high as possible.

That's where Semalt comes in. Not only can we help to guard your website against the perils of misinformation, our FullSEO package considers every other factor that contributes to your ranking, and ensures your website sits as high on the SERP as possible.

Ready to rid your site of misinformation, and get to the top of Google? We're ready to help!