Friday, May 23, 2008

Fake News Punishable by Google-Death?

On May 9th, a story was posted at (which sounds reputable enough) in which it explains how "Ralph Hardy, a 13 year old from Newark, Texas confessed to ordering an extra credit card from his father’s existing credit card company," taking his friends on a $30,000 spending spree "culminating in playing ’Halo’ on an Xbox with a couple of hookers in a Texas motel."

The story got a lot of attention, both online and on television, but there was only one problem... the story was a complete hoax. Apparently, the authors were simply trying to manipulate Google's search algorithm, figuring that a fake attention-grabbing headline would generate a ton of inbound hyperlinks (which, in turn, boosts the entire website's search ranking).

Since the hoax was unmasked there have been a storm of varying opinions circulating the blogosphere. Was it a fair way of gaming the system? Or did it violate the spirit and letter of Google's search policy? Some observers, including several Google employees, are now contemplating what should be the proper role of Google itself in policing these types of activities. In other words, should the company hold itself responsible for removing such content from its listings, or perhaps even change its algorithm to mitigate effects?

These are some big questions that address the proper role of search engines as arbiters of internet content. Blogoscope sums it up nicely:

I wonder if it should be any of Google’s business when a page games humans – and whether it should only be of their concern when a page games Google. Otherwise, Google risks becoming an editor for the web, additional to their existing strong traffic channeling power. In that role, they would have to decide what is correct reporting and what is not. In that role, Google would need to answer a lot of new questions, and they may not always be the most qualified to answer them.

One can envision a pro-active Google de-listing certain websites and stories from its search results, essentially relegating those sites to the internet's dark corners.

Thankfully, the company is sending out signals that this is not to be the case, and that "Google-deaths" are far from becoming a reality. That said, it still goes to show the immense vulnerability all websites face as they remain unquestionably at the mercy of the search engine giant's whims.


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