Why Fake New Ranks Well

Have you ever wondered why fake news stories rank so well? The short answer is they catch people’s attention. The related buzz in the form of backlinks and social signals are two of the most important factors in search algorithms. Authority (being recognized as an expert) and content (quality, length, volume) are the other biggies. One of the interesting aspects of SEO is that a site can usually rank well with just a couple of these factors. Think about it like this – a 200 word article on CNN.com about China’s oil usage is going to rank better than a 2,000 word article on AndrewWoolbert.com about China’s oil production. The content posted on CNN is super skimpy, but their site is a recognized news authority with tons of social signals and backlinks. Their site is also old and has millions of pages indexed. As you can see, the most important search factors tend to favor large corporations that can pay writers to produce daily content. It is sad in a way since the little guy will find it harder and harder to rank over time, but the algorithm is doing its job because most people would rather see the 200 word article by CNN.

Examples Where Fake News Ranks Well

dustin diamond murder

I decided to write this article because Dustin Diamond (aka Screech from Saved by the Bell) recently stabbed someone in a Wisconsin bar. I know this news was devastating to the three remaining die-hard fans of Saved by the Bell. A fake news site called Empire News took the story a step further by saying that the person Dustin stabbed died, and Dustin is now being charged with murder. This exaggeration was a stroke of genius for a site trying to gain traffic. My news feed on Facebook was filled with the story for days. The story was so rampant Snopes quickly chimed in to explain what actually happened.

snopes dustin diamond

Even now when I search for Dustin Diamond (completely logged out of my Google account), the Empire News article ranks 12th. This is right behind an article from the folks at People Magazine.

dustin diamond

Regarding the second example, I first must admit a deep, dark secret … I like to read what rich and famous people are worth. OK, my confession isn’t quite as bad as being an ax murderer, but I still feel a deep sense of shame with this revelation. Typically, either Celebrity Net Worth or The Richest come up first in the results. Those blogs are no Forbes in their own right. When I read their estimates I imagine some guy much like myself saying I think Britney Spears should be worth 250 million.

Now a spoof site called Media Mass has gotten into the mix and publishes some outlandish figures. They probably have some guy in the Philippines making $350 a month following the same template over and over again for a giant list of celebrities. I can tell by their Alexa rank that they receive an insane amount of traffic, and therefore, make a killing in terms of advertising revenue.

why fake news websites rank



Is It Really That Simple?

Yes! These sites found a way to game the search algorithms. Personally, I hate the rise of these sites because I feel like an utter fool when I believe one of their stories, even for a split second.


How Do These Newer Sites Differ From The Onion?

the onion

Some readers might say hasn’t the Onion been doing this forever? In a sense they would be correct. I would still contend that the Onion is more deeply rooted in humor. Most readers can determine fairly early in an Onion article that it is a joke. Many of these newer generation sites are simply gaming the system. Here is a link to the the Onion Kindle store. If you click on that link and happen to make a purchase, I might make a few cents.


Why Is The Rise Of Fake News Sites Bad?

Any flaw in the system that makes search results worse for the end consumer is bad. Think about it this way, when I search for Britney Spears net worth, I want to see a ballpark estimate of how much she is actually worth. Relatively few people want to see some completely absurd figure. It is also bad because imitators are sure to follow and more search results are destined to be filled with junk results.


Do I See A Fix?

This is a hard problem to fix. The main signals to determine the worthiness of a website have served us well to this point. The most logical answer would be for Google to put up or down arrows on search results. This could create an automated feedback loop that could knock these fake stories down the ranking. Of course, this would require people to be able to recognize these stories as fake and take the time to provide feedback.

Let me know if you have any additional ideas.

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