xkcd recently posted a webcomic that is quickly becoming a classic cartoon:
That comic sums up the internet in one sentence: the scrum of jostling opinions on the web and the optimism that truth can still win out. I was reminded of that comic when someone asked me about a particular way that someone recently tried to get links. Jonathan Crossfield wrote up a good background summary of the situation.
Believe me, I have no particular desire or plans to charge out onto the internet looking for fake stories; Snopes and other people on the web do a fine job of that. But this was an interesting case, because the proof landed in everyone’s lap. Someone spoke up afterwards and essentially admitted “I made up a story and actively promoted it. The story is utterly fake. By the way, I think any tactic to get links is fair game. I only care about whether a tactic to get links works.” A little while later someone else asked me point-blank for my reaction. I pointed out that Google’s quality guidelines already cover deceptive or misleading ways of getting links. The first two sentences in our quality guidelines say
These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here (e.g. tricking users by registering misspellings of well-known websites). It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it.
Google tries to return the most relevant, useful results to our users and protect them from deceptive or misleading tactics. For example, when someone spams a blog or a guestbook with a fake comment, we try to prevent that fake link from carrying weight in Google. If a spammer blitzes dozens of websites with fake referrers, we try to ignore those fake links. If a website claims to have high-quality information and then deceives the user and serves up malware or off-topic porn, Google considers that spam and takes action on it. Likewise, if a site says that they completely made up a story to get links, Google doesn’t have to trust the links to that site as much.
I really don’t view Google’s role as judging the truthiness of the web. That is, after all, what Stephen Colbert is for. But if someone is sloppy enough to get caught (or to admit!) making up a fake story, I don’t think Google has to blindly trust those links, either.
My takeaway from this brouhaha: There are plenty of ways to market a site creatively without deceiving anyone. Don’t burn your credibility by using fake stories. It’s a short-term tactic and makes people trust you less in the future.