Fake news sites have plagued the Internet for years, but whereas they used to be built purely for commercial gain, they are now being exploited by political extremists to influence how nations think, and more importantly feel, about various global issues. Fake news sites have been implicated in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory. Google has decided that enough is enough.
In the Autumn of 2016, Google AdSense banned around 200 publishers. The reason given was that they had been publishing “fake news” for commercial gain. So, what does this mean, and is your blog at risk?
What is fake news?
Fake news is a term that describes any article or news story that is either wholly fabricated, or so far from the truth that it is misleading. Before political groups exploited it, it was used by professional bloggers and web entrepreneurs as a way to generate increased page views, and in turn, increased advertising revenue.
In the past few years, content marketing professionals discovered that the easiest way to attract more readers was with content that triggered an emotional response. However, this poses a problem, as often news stories are of little real interest, and proper journalism takes time and money. The solution to this “problem” was simple – create fake news articles that people cannot help but to read.
Fake news is really quite an obvious concept. We all know that most if what is written in newspapers is partly fabricated anyway, and some tabloids regularly create what is considered acceptable fake news everyday. The new phenomena differs only in that the creators of the content make no attempt to add any element of truth – journalists are employed only for their knowledge of how to format an article and manipulate the reader, not for their investigative skills!
Some fake news sites replicate the style and design of popular news sites, known in the industry as tabloid cloaking, even using the same logos, and then publish their own fake stories. These stories would always have the same goal – to promote a product that is being advertised. One of the most notorious industries for this is weight loss, with stories of celebrities losing huge amounts of weight thanks to a newly discovered plant that is conveniently sold in pill form. Other industries to exploit fake news include payday loan and fraudulent sites claiming to sell secret methods to make money online.
Some publishers soon realised that even more money could be made from well optimised AdSense placements, as this meant that any topic could be covered. Soon there was a whole industry involved in the creation of fake news. As we reported last year (Google tackles fake news sites), the death of celebrities was the most popular form of fake news at the start of the year, but fake political news grew rapidly.
Sites must not mislead users
Google AdSense has its own set of quality guidelines, one of which dictates that publishers must not mislead users with their content. Google revealed in its 2016 bad ads report that most of the sites that were banned were those that impersonated news sites, usually through shortened top-level domains – they did not share any sites.
1.7 billion ads taken down
As well as banning websites from showing AdSense, Google also removed 1.7 billion adverts from its platform for various violations, of which misleading advertising is one. Google suspended 1,300 AdSense accounts for tabloid cloaking alone.
Once again, Google is setting a great example by punishing publishers who exploit their advertising network for commercial or political gain. A day does not pass without hearing accusations of fake news in the media, and while little can be done to combat its use for political purposes, advertising platforms can easily cut the revenues streams for those who are using it for commercial gain, and political groups will need to find new ways to fund their activities.
Fake news is not good for web users or society as a whole, so well done to Google for taking the first steps in tackling this growing problem. With respect to your own website, so long as you are transparent and honest, your AdSense publisher account will be safe. Following accepted journalistic standards, always cite your sources and avoid the temptation to sensationalise minor facts to generate more clicks.