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Why Fake News is Old News for Google & Facebook

Greg Elfrink Updated on February 29, 2020

fake news

If you use social media at all, you probably have been exposed to fake news sites. They typically have outrageous headlines like “What Obama Did Next Will Make You SICK!” or  “PROOF That Donald Trump Wants to Create Internment Camps”.

The formula is pretty simple. Take a public figure or trending topic, create a controversy, and offer little — or more often no — evidence to support the claims. The article is written in a journalistic fashion and tone, then it is promoted to those who would HATE or LOVE that article, depending on their outlook. The recent outcomes in the US Presidential Race, Colombian referendum, and #Brexit certainly had their fair share of fervent political supporters and opponents.

Those who use provocative, fake content depend on conflict to create organic exposure, which results in extra traffic and clicks on their website.

Sites featuring these types of stories are attempting to benefit from content that will likely go viral. In fact, few of them get any traffic from consumers looking to solve a real problem; they rely almost solely on the angry people to share their content. With their clickbaity titles, they really push the emotional triggers to get massive exposure. It’s not uncommon that sites like these can generate millions of pageviews and earnings of $10-30k a month in just clicked ads alone.

But this might be about to change, as two internet giants have vowed to put an end to such techniques, a move which might have some serious repercussions for your online business.

Why Has Facebook and Google Pivoted Against Fake News Sites?

The previously mentioned presidential election in the United States was one of the most controversial elections in sometime, and the victory of Trump was stunning to many. Same with the Colombian referendum and #Brexit. Large segments of the public have begun to rail against Facebook and Google for allowing these campaigns to flourish and win by curating content from fake news websites.

Pinning these wins solely on fake news websites is dubious. However, online news sources that do not employ fact checkers are an inevitable component of the information age. It goes beyond the political spectrum too. From weird alternative medicines that cure cancer, to corporate conspiracies about littering the sky with chemicals, anyone can say anything they want online and their claims may never be submitted to the scrutiny of experts.

Many of these articles are well written and can be convincing if you don’t know what the authors’ underlying agenda is.

While both Google and Facebook vehemently deny that fake news sites have any real influence on public opinion, they obviously believe it is a serious enough threat (perhaps simply from a PR perspective) that they are moving to curtail the exposure they give to these kind of sites.

Can Fake News Be Stopped?

Fake news is a bit like the enemy from Atlas Shrugged — just a nameless massive collective.

Honestly, it will likely be impossible for either giant to completely halt fake news. It is just too easy to setup a domain name that sounds official with the word “news” in it and create content that riles people up.

If they did somehow figure out how to build fake news identifiers into their algorithms, it would be incredibly impressive.

As it stands, the task seems almost infinite in scope.

Just because it might be too difficult to tackle, doesn’t mean fake news site owners shouldn’t be watching out. If you have been thinking of getting into this game, then you should really reconsider before diving in and writing your first clickbait title.

If you have already been in the fake news game, read on and prepare yourself.

What Does This Mean For You?

Google will likely create parameters to identify which sites are considered fake news sites, same with Facebook. Once Google has some parameters in place, they will begin to use their bots to see which websites are considered fake news websites, and will ban that publisher from their Adsense program — effectively cutting off the site’s ability to earn money.

Since these sites aren’t really about affiliate products, but run on sensationalism and ad clicks, there are not many other options for them to go to unless their site gets some major traffic where they can apply for other display ad networks.

You might ask, how can Google, or even Facebook, decide what is a fake news website?

There are many tell-tale signs they can look at. While we don’t know exactly what they will be, one thing that stands out about the majority of these sites is how they get traffic.

Most of the traffic will be coming from viral social media shares. It is unlikely these sites will really rank organically, and most of them won’t be doing any kind of paid traffic, though some might when they start out to get the ball rolling.

Once Google and Facebook have identifiers that they are happy with, they will unleash their ban hammer.

In Google’s case, the ban hammer typically falls hard and wide. That means sites that aren’t fake news, but still share some of the same qualities as fake news websites, might get hit in the sweeping ban.

Fake news sites have always been a pretty black hat strategy. Everyone knows that black hat eventually fades or shifts. The entire concept is a “churn and burn” strategy — short lived so you have to milk it for all its worth before it disappears.

It seems now that the time of reckoning has come for the fake news black hat strategy — or it is at least very much on the horizon now.

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What Should You Do Next?

Our advice would be to avoid buying any kind of fake news website. It’s just not worth the hassle and current uncertainty. There are plenty of other ways to grow a legitimate business, or to buy a legitimate online business, that have nothing to do with fake news.

While Google and Facebook might never win the war against the growth of fake news websites, you certainly don’t want to be caught in one of the battles, and have your business destroyed.

If you ARE running a site that might be considered a fake news site, here are a few things you can do to try and survive:

  • Watch Facebook & Google press announcements for any changes to their algorithms
  • Create content outside of just fake news, especially political news
  • Look for monetization strategies outside of Google Adsense
  • Diversify your traffic more by going after some organic keywords or adding a paid traffic strategy

(On a sidenote: Obvious satire like The Onion should be safe, but smaller satirical news sites should tread carefully and make it EXTRA clear that they are a satirical news website. Otherwise they may be grouped with the fake news sites that get hammered by Google & Facebook. One way you can do this is by contacting Facebook or Google Adsense directly and have them tell you specifically that your site passes as a satirical website that will not be affected by their terms of service changes. You can use this info as a method to secure your site in case the ban hammer does end up affecting your website)

Photo credit: Focus Pocus Ltd

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  • Peter says:

    They should be shut down, just like my niche site I purchased from Empire Flippers which had 100’s of pages of spam and scraped content. If you follow the path of creating or buying worthless sites, in the end you will end up with a dead URL after Google lowers the hammer on you. As I have discovered, recovery may not be possible.

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Peter 🙂

      Yes fake news sites are not good news for almost anyone. It’ll be difficult for Google and Facebook to win the war, but many sites will lose the battles for sure.

      As far as your site you’re mentioning, that is always a risk with those style of sites. Some can last for a long time, others not so much. In the spam and scraped content games, you are really playing with a short shelf life (but again this isn’t always the case, I’ve seen some sites like this still kicking today after years being around).

      In any black hat strategy, people should know their days are numbered so scale it if they want but don’t rely on it as a reliable profit producer for years to come.

      Sorry to hear about your site Peter – some of those penalties can be pretty nasty for sure when they do come down!

  • Riya Sharma says:

    Fake news should be stopped actually…. its all meant for the traffic generation on website and to engage more and more users.
    Good article
    Interesting and thanks for sharing

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Thanks Riya!

      Yes, fake news should be stopped. It’s pretty unethical as far as black hat strategies go. Alas, it is going to be a hard fight on Google’s and Facebook’s hands to fully rid the world of fake news sites. Still, for those out there producing these sites, my suggestion is to be very careful. I predict the internet is going to become increasingly aggressive towards these kind of businesses.

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