Google Owl: What You Need to Know About the Latest Update


Google Owl: What You Need to Know About the Latest Update - Eric Sachs SEO

At the end of April 2017, Google announced it was doing its part to combat fake news with an algorithm update and a procedure change for managing the results for fake news content. Google refers to this type of content as “offensive or clearly misleading content.” Like any other algorithmic update, Google is aiming to improve results quality for their customers – searchers like you and me.

Feedback Form

With the new feedback form that appears underneath Google’s suggested searches, users will now have the ability to report any information they believe to be inaccurate, inappropriate, or offensive. Users will also be able to find the link to a feedback form under “Featured Snippets.”

When users see a search suggestion they believe shouldn’t be there, they can fill out the feedback form to let Google know what the issue is. If it’s a prediction issue, you’ll be asked to mark which predictions were inappropriate. Then, you’ll be asked to describe the predictions as either:

  • Hateful
  • Sexually Explicit
  • Violent
  • Dangerous and other harmful activity
  • Other

And you’ll have the option to leave additional comments if you feel it necessary to do so.

If the issue is with the search results, rather than the search suggestions, there’s an option to report inappropriate results at the bottom. You’ll get a form similar to the one used to report inappropriate search suggestions.

A New Kind of Quality Issue

The changes were implemented because of some quality issues with search results. For example, in December 2016, a pro-Nazi website was the first result for “did the Holocaust happen“. In addition, Breitbart was featured as a top site for a query about the Great Barrier Reef. Clearly, these were not isolated incidents, or we wouldn’t have seen Google take such swift action to correct it.

Because of these changes, this is no longer the case – results now show information from credible sources, with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum being the number one result. Now, instead of getting a bunch of results suggesting the events never actually happened, users can find answers to the most common questions about the Holocaust. The snippet even reads, “Hitler did not make the Holocaust happen by himself.”

Google is dealing with a series of queries it’s not necessarily had to deal with before – where people are searching for content that reaffirms their point of view, regardless of whether or not that content aligns with actual facts.

Add to the fact that people are searching for rumors, racial slurs, urban myths, and other derogatory content with enough volume to influence the search suggestions Google offers, and in many cases, they’re influenced in offensive and potentially dangerous ways.

These searches are a problem because they don’t fall into the areas where Google has taken action – they’ve been dealing with spam for a long time. Google has also dealt with poor quality content showing up in popular searches, and it has also had to do deal with piracy. But these particular problematic queries aren’t any of that.

They are fake news and heavily biased content. People have completely made things up, bought into rumors, spread conspiracy theories, and perpetuate myths. They can include offensive or shocking information, and thus, presents Google with an entirely new quality issue.

Though it represents only a small portion of their overall query volume, it’s worth addressing, and I for one, am glad to see the changes being made. Google says the issue affects ¼ of a percent of searches, but when you consider they handle nearly 6 billion searches per day, that’s quite a bit of misinformation they have the potential of spreading.

Placing More Emphasis on Authoritative Content

Google already places weight on site authority when it determines rank in the search engine results. With the Google Owl algorithm update in place, additional weight will be placed on authority, but the specifics are unclear as to how it will work.

Search quality ratters have also been instructed to start flagging content they consider offensive or upsetting. Quality raters and the Google employees who are monitoring the forms are using the feedback to strengthen the algorithm to prevent further issues like this from happening in the future.

What Does This Mean for Brands?

Right now, there’s not much of anything this update has done for brands. If you’re a brand that’s producing content that Google considers inappropriate or controversial, you’ll see a change, of course. But if you’re not, you probably won’t notice much, if anything at all.

Does that mean you should ignore what’s going on? As much as I wish I could say yes, I can’t. As the program expands and gets more feedback from users, there could be more implications for brands.

Given the current feedback form, there’s nothing to stop marketers from flooding Google to push for their version of correct information. Right now it doesn’t seem there’s a way for the feedback forms to distinguish between feedback advertisers or marketers and between traditional users.

Google hasn’t clearly stated what it considers to be “authoritative”, so it’s possible branded content may not be considered such. While branded content isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could mean it shifts to a lower priority in the search results than informational-based websites.

If your brand already has high ranking authoritative content, you may see a boost in ranking because you’ve become more relevant. Because it seems Google is pushing for more information-based (facts, rather than opinion) content, you could bring in more interested leads organically.

If you’ve already shifted away from a promotional-based content strategy to a more informational/educational-based approach, you’re on the right track, but if you’re using this update as the motivation to make the change, you may see a boost in your ranks.

If you get the increase rank, you in theory would see more qualified traffic arriving on your website, making it easier to market to them and possibly convert them after the initial site visit.

Ultimately, this change will hold all content creators more accountable to keep their content as accurate as possible. Information changes quickly these days, and to keep authority for ranking purposes, marketers will likely need to make more effort to provide reliable information.

Customers are already researching your brand, products, and services well before they ever contact you, so the brands that are providing the most current and reliable information will more than likely be those that rank higher – simply because they’re providing a better user experience.

This could also translate to pushing old and outdated content down the ranks – giving marketers the incentive they need to keep things fresh.

What Does This Mean for New Websites?

Basically nothing – unless you’re building a new conspiracy theory website, or satire site with tons of fake news. New websites should not have a harder time ranking, and larger brands won’t be at an advantage over small businesses in terms of ‘authority’.

If you’re building a brand new website, build it with principles of providing a good user experience in mind. Follow current SEO guidelines for good on-page SEO. When building backlinks and working on off-page SEO signals, make sure you’re reaching out to high quality websites. Keep an eye on your backlink profiles to make sure you’re not falling victim to a negative SEO attack that involves building a backlink profile full of spam.

For Now – It’s a Waiting Game

The changes were first made in December to address the immediate issues, but didn’t go into effect full force until just last month. As such, it’s really too soon to tell how this will affect marketing efforts. The most important, and best thing to do, is to focus on creating quality, factual content. When you do this, you’re likely to avoid falling victim to any kind of Google penalty, because you’re acting with the user’s best interests in mind.

Chances are you’ve not really seen an impact on your sites because of Google Owl, but if you have, let me know what you think in the comments. Feel free to share your thoughts on this update as a Google user, too.

SEO virtuoso, CEO @Sachs Marketing Group. Focused on being of service to business owners - helping to better position them in the eyes of their audiences.

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