In response to growing concern about the effects of fake news stories on our elections and national discourse, Google has announced it will be rolling out “Project Owl”. The purpose of the program is to let users tag or filter search results that appear to be based on falsified or exaggerated facts.
In theory, this shouldn’t affect search engine optimization done by small and medium-sized businesses. After all, it’s aimed more at news items, and specifically conspiracy theories and other dubious forms of content that are rarely found within the material being published by every day companies.
If there’s one thing we have learned over the years, though, it’s that small changes to Google’s algorithm and operating platform can have big, far-reaching effects. So, it’s worth considering whether Project Owl might have intended or unintended consequences for marketers.
With the obvious caveat that we haven’t been inside Google’s planning sessions, here are few conclusions we have drawn on our end…
Project Owl Shouldn’t Affect Most Google Searches
Google spokespersons have been clear that they don’t anticipate the majority of normal search traffic will be at all affected by the new initiative. There simply won’t be much reason for searchers and buyers to be flagging normal items related to marketing.
Also, if past performance is any indication, Project Owl will probably be rolled out in stages and will have only minimal effects on search results for a while. Lessons learned from Penguin and Panda suggest Google won’t want to disrupt search traffic unnecessarily, particularly in regards to topics that aren’t all that prone to outright falsehoods. In other words, political news will probably be monitored a lot more closely than local restaurant reviews.
Authority and Accuracy are Coming Back
Through the years we have seen Google make a number of attempts at prioritizing reputable websites over unknown or low-quality destinations. These have included changing link weights, bonuses for citations, and the largely-ignored rel author and publisher text.
With more attention being paid to accuracy with regards to news, however, it’s safe to assume Google may begin to revisit site authority more closely going forward. Along with giving readers the option of reporting suspicious pieces of content, the search engine may also play favorites when it comes to publishers. So, establishing your website as a trusted source of facts (by using citations for your statistics and minimizing customer complaints, for instance) might be a good idea.
Black Hats Might Have a Field Day With Project Owl
It’s possible that the most interesting side effect of Google’s Project Owl won’t be in the news stories that are filtered out, but in the way unethical marketers will take advantage of the new reporting tools. Just as they found ways to bombard other companies with spammy links in the past, it’s not impossible to imagine a situation where some will hire others to report their competitor’s legitimate blog posts as untrustworthy. This could open up an entirely new and large can of worms that Google doesn’t want to deal with. Or, it could result in a system where users could face penalties from reporting too many items at once. Would that cut down on black hat activity, however, or simply render the program unusable? These are questions that will likely be answered by trial and error.
How to View Project Owl Going Forward
For the moment, the best way to think about Google’s new initiative is with a sense of cautious curiosity. While there will almost certainly be abuse, you probably don’t have much to fear over the next several months. If and when things change, we’ll post again with an update, so check back regularly for the best in online marketing news and insights!