September 27th, 2017

Will Google’s Project Owl solve the Fake News Problem?

Content Marketing, Digital Marketing, Search Engine Optimization

Fake news and offensive content has transformed the way we think about the internet and the news around us. In an effort to improve search results, Google has launched Project Owl, a comprehensive effort that involves both a change in its search algorithm and user feedback. Yet there are many unanswered questions for users, marketers, and business owners. Will Google’s Project Owl solve the Fake News Problem? What impact will it have on SEO?

Let’s examine these questions below.

What is Project Owl?

Currently, Google has trouble handling what Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land likes to call “problematic searches.” These include fake news, essentially when publications fabricate news stories to push a certain viewpoint or opinion. Problematic searches also include rumors and derogatory topics. People are searching for these in such high volumes that they’re influencing Google’s search suggestions. Taken together, these can influence a user’s thinking with information that’s hardly based on truth.

While previously considered a small problem, press attention from outlets like the Guardian highlighted how Google’s search results can sometimes yield offensive and disturbing results. Project Owl is the company’s attempt to reign in these problematic searches in the following three ways.

Search Suggestions Feedback Form

The autocomplete feature in Google’s search bar now includes a feedback form (“Report inappropriate predictions”) that allows users to report hateful, violent, and other results. Top suggestions are based on popular searches that start with the letter the user enters. For example, top suggestions for “tod” can include “today show,” “today’s weather,” and “today in history.”

The downside is that these suggestions can sometimes reflect topics related to fake news and distorted beliefs. One of the most infamous examples is now the top search results related to the Holocaust. By introducing the feedback form, Google is adding a new level of user participation into its search results. Previously, user feedback has been mostly indirect, such as bounce rate.

Featured Snippets Feedback Form

When Google determines that a particular search result is the most relevant to a search, it will display this above all others, typically boxed-in with large font.  These “featured snippets” are meant to deliver the user with a quick, correct answer.

However, Google has drawn criticism for how it’s featured snippets can sometimes pull in incorrect or biased answers that again distort a user’s understanding of the topic. The featured snippets feedback form allows users to indicate whether a result was helpful or provided incorrect or inappropriate information. This form is an update of the previous feedback form, where Google simply asked if the information was helpful.

Emphasis on Authoritative Content

Google’s third move boosts authoritative source to the top of results pages for more obscure searches. This started late last year when the company updated its search algorithm. Google has now gone one step further by having its search quality raters flag content that’s upsetting or offensive. Flagging a site doesn’t immediately remove or lower pages from search results. Instead, flagging data is used to help the company’s search algorithm spot upsetting or offensive content on its own.

Project Owl and SEO Implications

Marketers and business owners alike may be wondering about Project Owl’s impact on SEO. Smaller companies may be worried about being knocked out by better-known sources (after all, trying to rank on longer-tail keywords is a viable SEO strategy).

Overall, these updates aren’t likely to affect SEO efforts. As long as companies practice white-hat SEO and don’t publish inaccurate or offensive content, there should be little impact on their rankings. Nevertheless, marketers are considering future implications as Google continues to refine its process for spotting fake and offensive content. These include:

  • Abuse of Feedback Forms: There’s currently nothing holding users back from flagging authoritative sources that don’t align with their views. This can be used to the advantage of companies who may want to flag content that could hurt their business (e.g. fracking and its environmental impact).
  • Treatment of Branded/Advertised Content: As of now, there’s also no guidelines on branded content. Will Google treat branded content as authoritative content? If so, brands will unlikely see a change in their current rankings. If not, brands may see their rankings drop in favor of content from publications, educational institutions and organizations.
  • Internal Fact-Checking: Companies may be incentivised to publish accurate, up-to-date content to boost their rankings. If this is the case, outdated content with high-rank authority may see a drop as fresh content is introduced.

The Impact of Project Owl

When it comes to combating fake news and offensive search results, we’re all in uncharted territory. There’s no telling what kind of impact Project Owl will have. The user feedback process will need to be refined to weed out abuse. Treatment of content from branded sources will need to be clarified.

When it comes to combating fake news and offensive search results, we’re all in uncharted territory. Click To Tweet

Remember that Google’s search algorithm incorporates hundreds of factors, so companies should continue with their current SEO practices. After all, Project Owl is meant to fight fake news and biased information. If you’re delivering content that’s accurate and informational, you’re already helping your cause.


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