How Search Engine Optimization Undermines Original Reporting

By Steven Specht No comments

How Search Engine Optimization Undermines Original Reporting

Search Engine Optimization, commonly referred to as SEO is the method by which websites direct traffic to themselves through searches online. If you manage the website of a rehab facility, you may look into treatment seo methods that can help promote the business online.

For example, if I finally give in to my wife’s requests to not go up a 20-foot extension ladder, I’d type in “Gutter Cleaning Stafford Virginia” into Google Chrome.

In less than a second, I’d get four paid advertisements as my top search hits, followed by a Google Map Listing, followed by an independent person not paying for advertisement, and then several aggregators who have compiled their “top ten lists.”

The advertisements are paying to be there and if you click on their ad, Google makes money. The independent guy who does gutters has done an excellent job on building his web presence, as have the aggregators.

However, working the system does not mean good gutter cleaning, just good SEO exploitation.

There is an off-color joke about the best place to hide a body is on Page 2 of a Google Search, because if you make it that far, someone hasn’t done their job. I can’t imagine I’ll make it to page 2 in my search for gutter cleaning.

According to experts like VICTORIOUS, SEO is a tool. Like all tools, it can be used to build or destroy. It is only as dangerous as the person wielding it.

However, domestically it has lured government agencies into releasing sensitive data on unsecured lines, because they Googled their fellow agents in another city and called a fake number set up by a government whistleblower. The calls were recorded by the whistleblower as proof. [1]

One of the key methods of SEO is a linking strategy of having hyperlinks from one article to another article OR setting up extra websites that all cross-link to each other. No one website would have credibility on its own, but when they all link to each other, their collective visibility increases.

This was done leading up to the 2016 election. Dozens of fake news sites banded together to create a linking strategy so profound that reasonable, informed people were regularly sharing outrageous stories about fictitious scandals. Russian propaganda mills contributed to this as well.[2]

This rapid spread of propaganda websites had even credible journalists giving credence to bizarre stories, like an alleged ring of child sex trafficking involving the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee. So believable was the web of “journalism” that a man charged into Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington DC and fired an AR-15 before demanding to see the children locked up in the basement.

A befuddled owner said “we don’t even have a basement.”[3]

So I’ve outlined a few horror stories of SEO, how does it relate to original reporting? By market share, online news has exceeded print journalism and will likely take over television in the near future.[4]

The use of SEO exploitation for online news organizations has meant that the best article doesn’t show up on Google News, just the best SEO.

Here’s an example. As I sat down to write this article, today, October 17, 2019, I scrolled briefly through Google News, and clicked on an article from CNN Online titled “Mulvaney brashly admits quid pro quo over Ukraine aid as key details emerge — and then denies doing so.”

Skimming it, I found four hyperlinks to previously published CNN articles.[5] None of the four hyperlinks advanced the contents of the story in any meaningful way. However, if you were to do a Google search for the terms “Mulvaney quid pro quo,” it was the top story of the day.

This behavior is done by ALL outlets, some of the time, but some outlets do it all of the time. The CNN page is so well designed that even if I search for “Associated Press Mulvaney quid pro quo,” the CNN article still shows up as the second search result.

So better articles get shoved aside by better SEO. [6]

One can argue, that when a mid-range quality news organization like CNN does this, it’s lazy but not directly harmful to the dissemination of good information. However, this is short-sighted.

Regardless of individual judgement on the overall quality of CNN coverage, it consistently has one of the largest reaches of any online news source. What they do sets the tone for what is acceptable by numerous bad actors, the dozens of outlets who do not even bother with the sheen of objective reporting.

The rapid spread of propaganda sites leading up to the 2016 election existed because they all repeatedly linked to each other, one half-true story giving merit to a conspiracy theory that in turn validated outright fabrication.

This is still being done, at both extreme edges of the partisan agenda.

Here I will highlight one example from both the extreme right and extreme left as just two incidences among dozens of bad actors.

The Conservative Daily Post is a right-wing conspiracy site with articles all seemingly written by one woman, Georgette. It organizes the site so that top stories may be up to a year old, thus the April 2019 publication date of an article titled “House Dems Demand ‘Oversight’ Of Fox News Editorial Judgments” that came up when I looked at the website.[7] The sensational headline is not supported by the content within, but it doesn’t’ stop the CDP from citing to itself, 9 times in only a few paragraphs of content. This bolsters past articles as well as the current article, making it more likely that an article from the CDP shows up in searches.

Not to be outdone by its ideological counterpart on the right, far-left Wonkette published an article titled “Mick Mulvaney: Trump Committed Ukraine Crimes, It Was Awesome, GET OVER IT!,” and then cited to itself 13 times.[8] While the article might read like a satire piece, the website positions itself as a news site. Humor may be in the eye of the beholder, but fact is not.

Original fact reporting means boots on the ground, observing events as they take place and writing about the simple who, what, when, where, and how of journalism. Most news organizations can’t have boots on the ground at all corners of the globe. That’s why we have the Associated Press and Reuters. And when an agency does get the scoop on news in one location, it might bolster that original reporting with citations to the work of others. Say for example, one correspondent for the New York Times was covering protests in Washington DC and cited to the work of another correspondent from the Wall Street Journal who covered similar protests elsewhere. But what CNN Online has done above is masquerading rehashed reporting as original reporting, when it’s not.

If a journalistic production wants to be taken seriously, it should take steps to distance itself from the behavior of propaganda sites like Wonkette and Conservative Daily Post. While it might mean a few less link clicks, in the long-run we are all better off.


[1] These online volunteers fight fake reviews, ghost listings and other scams on Google Maps — and say the problem’s getting worse, by Jillian D’Onfro, CNBC, April 13, 2018 https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/13/google-maps-spam-fighters.html.

Bryan Seely is a whistle blower who set up fake Google Maps addresses for the Secret Service, forwarding the calls to his fake phone number to the actual phone number and then recording both sides of the call to prove how vulnerable US Security was because of the predatory nature of Google algorithms.

[2] Congress releases all 3,000-plus Facebook ads bought by Russians, by Alfred NG, CNET News, May 10, 2018 https://www.cnet.com/news/congress-releases-all-3000-plus-facebook-ads-bought-by-russians/ The Russian based Internet Research Agency bought over 3,000 Facebook ads promoting such disparate interests as black nationalism and Texas secession.

[3] The saga of ‘Pizzagate’: The fake story that shows how conspiracy theories spread, by BBC Trending, BBC News Online, December 2, 2016 https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-38156985

[4] Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source, by Elisa Shearer, Pew Report, December 10, 2018  https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/

[5] Mulvaney brashly admits quid pro quo over Ukraine aid as key details emerge — and then denies doing so, by Jeremy Diamond, Kevin Liptak and Katelyn Polantz, CNN, October 17, 2019 https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/17/politics/mick-mulvaney-quid-pro-quo-donald-trump-ukraine-aid/index.html

[6] I confirmed that the article was the top search hit with other people from four geographic areas and political ideologies as well as my own incognito search to ensure I was not trapped inside a Google algorithm bubble.

[7] House Dems Demand ‘Oversight’ Of Fox News Editorial Judgments, by Georgette, Conservative Daily Post, April 3, 2019  https://conservativedailypost.com/house-dems-demand-oversight-of-fox-news-editorial-judgments/

[8] Mick Mulvaney: Trump Committed Ukraine Crimes, It Was Awesome, GET OVER IT!, by Evan Hurst, Wonkette, October 17, 2019 https://www.wonkette.com/mick-mulvaney-trump-commits-a-lot-of-crimes-get-over-it