Red Label News is not exactly a household name. But yesterday afternoon, it was one of the top news sources on Google News for stories about Apple's iTunes song previews.
How'd that happen? Red Label News, it appears, is a cleverly designed collection of links and headlines meant to game Google News rankings.
CNET stumbled upon Red Label News after doing one of the most basic Google searches: the vanity search. In this case, we were attempting to figure out how many news outlets were writing about Apple's decision to extend iTunes song previews to 90 seconds, news my colleague Greg Sandoval first reported in August and further revealed yesterday in a letter that was part of an effort to gain the upper hand in negotiations with small record labels.
The first Google News cluster was home to reports from some of the usual tech industry suspects: CNET, BetaNews, PC Magazine, and others grouped within the "all articles" section. But underneath that cluster was a second, more interesting grouping, comprised solely of stories from Red Label News all with slightly different headlines based around the iTunes news.
Upon clicking on any of the Red Label News stories, it became instantly clear that all of the stories were pure spam: ads from Google's AdSense and Amazon's affiliate program wrapped around barely cohesive sentences of SEO-friendly keywords along with a few links to other stories about the news.
With a little more digging, CNET has learned that Red Label News is just one of 44 news-related domains owned by a Los Angeles-based company called 70 Holdings, according to a WHOIS listing and a separate report from Domain Tools listing the various URLs owned by that company. Some of those sites are inactive, but others, like ElectronicTechNews.com, appear to be playing the same game of blending ads and SEO keywords with little to no usable content on the page.
For example, one of the Red Label News stories supposedly about the iTunes song previews (linked here but may not last the day) began by saying this:
If you are trying to find the hottest Apple sales at locations like Best Buy or Amazon.com you are at the best website. The Sales season is upon us and now is the best time to buy Apple at major department stores--there are gigantic bargains at all major retailers on the most popular electronics of the year. We have put together the latest news, sales & info here so that you won't need to spend countless hours looking for the hottest Apple sale around.
The story then went on to link to a PC World report about the song previews with a three-sentence blurb lifted from that report. Another 70 Holdings site, Electronic Tech News--a name under which one might expect to find electronic tech news--ran several "stories" on Monday before Election Day on the California gubernatorial race and the state's proposition on legalizing marijuana, hot search topics as election results started to come in Tuesday night.
70 Holdings' strategy exposes a hole in Google News: its inability to quickly detect these types of spammers in the first few hours after a breaking news event or a search term begins to spike on Google Trends. This creates an opening for companies like 70 Holdings to create ephemeral content in hopes of enticing clicks and ad impressions on that content simply because it ranked among the highest--and supposedly most trustworthy--results on Google News. Building a long-term news brand isn't exactly the goal here.
Google said in a statement that it could not comment on individual publishers within Google News. "We have certain guidelines in place regarding the quality of sites included in the Google News index. We do this to ensure that we offer a high-quality experience for Google News users. Our support team periodically reviews news sources, particularly following user complaints, and takes action when appropriate."
With over 50,000 publishers around the world contributing stories to Google News, it can be extremely difficult even for a company with Google's resources to detect every single publisher that is violating its quality guidelines, which cover both regular Google search and Google News. Some of the obvious violations of those guidelines committed by Red Label News and 70 Holdings include:
"Don't load pages with irrelevant keywords," also known as "keyword stuffing."
"Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content." At one point on Wednesday, Red Label News had published 42 separate headlines tangentially related to the iTunes song preview news that weren't all that different from each other.
"If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first." Even the most strident content-farm defenders would have trouble standing behind the uniqueness and relevancy of Red Label News' content.
The number listed for 70 Holdings on its WHOIS record led to a cell phone with a Maine area code, and answered by a man who said that I had the wrong number when asking for 70 Holdings. Repeated calls to the number, registered to a company that provides prepaid mobile numbers to resellers, were forwarded automatically to a voice mail recording.
A source familiar with the Google News review process said to expect content from Red Label News to start disappearing from Google News over the course of the day. However, the vast number of domains owned by 70 Holdings (certainly not the only company in the world pursuing such a strategy) shows that Google is forced to play Whac-a-Mole every time something like this comes up, relying on reports from users, employees, or the media to find such sites.
Google News is a white-list system, in that publishers have to be approved by a human at the company in order to appear within Google News results. An algorithm then ranks stories from approved publishers according to the Google News secret sauce.
As demand for instant news increases, both Google and news junkies will increasingly encounter sites like Red Label News. People flock to Google in times of breaking news or rumors to try and confirm what they've heard on TV or from a friend, and this is a huge opening for unscrupulous publishers to attempt to trick users into clicking on their content simply because it contains a few keywords related to the search of the hour.
Google has always faced this kind of struggle as it has grown into the dominant source of information on the Internet, and keeps the lion's share of spam attempts out of Google. But if the company is unable to train its algorithms to detect this kind of news spamming strategy, one of Google's greatest fears--that people will rely more on information curated by friends on Facebook or Twitter as opposed to search--could come true.
Updated 2:37 p.m. PDT: After this story went live, Google's Webmaster Central Blog released a post reminding Webmasters how they can help Google identify Web spam.