Tag Archives: Google

Targeted ads for outreach on skeptic topics

HBO premiered the Alex Gibney Scientology documentary “Going Clear” last night. It airs many more times on various HBO channels through April and on their on-demand service – I encourage you to check it out. It is based on the 2013 book oGoing Clear by Lawrence Wrightf the same name by Lawrence Wright, which detailed many abuses that have gone on in the church. Both the book and the documentary feature damning testimony by many ex-members of the church, some of whom had very high ranking positions.

The church itself, needless to say, is not amused. In typical fashion it has waged a PR war against the film, starting with an expensive full-page ad in the New York Times on January 16. It has continued its assault with a series of articles printed in their own “Freedom Magazine”. (The material there largely consists of a series of ad hominem attacks on the former Scientologists interviewed in the film).

But how is the church expecting any of this additional material to be seen by the general public? Freedom Magazine is not well known outside church circles, and the New York Times ad has not repeated.  Who is going to bother to go to this obscure website to read these attacks?

The answer is in online advertising. How the church is using online ads may have some interesting lessons for skeptics.

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Google promoting trusted health answers in Knowledge Graph

Google Knowledge graph splash screenIn 2012, Google introduced a feature to their search engine they call Knowledge Graph. The company has compiled millions of facts into a database, and offers them up on the right-hand side of search engine result pages in a handy box. The graph is also the source of many of the answers you get in the voice response versions of Google, such as in Google’s smartphone apps.

The answers come from many sources including the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia. At the time this was launched, I wrote how skeptic efforts editing Wikipedia were paying off in a new way, exposing the public to skeptics and skeptical topics in these knowledge graph boxes.

Low back pain on Google Knowledge Graph Feb 2015On February 10 Google announced an enhancement to this product, adding a whole new class of data – answers to medical questions. As they explained in their introductory blog post:

We worked with a team of medical doctors (led by our own Dr. Kapil Parakh, M.D., MPH, Ph.D.) to carefully compile, curate, and review this information. All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.

This has a great potential to combat the infamous “Dr. Google” syndrome. This is a popular term for the tendency of incorrect or even pseudoscientific information, by virtue of its prominence in the search engine, misleading the public. Who can forget the 2007 sound byte from the Oprah Winfrey Show, when Jenny McCarthy stated, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from“? How many others are out there learning incorrect info from bogus websites pushed up into the Google results via SEO techniques?

Many different studies have shown that search engine users rarely move beyond the first page of results. Thus the placement of these knowledge graph results prominently on the first page of results might have a good effect. It remains to be seen whether these knowledge graph boxes will help draw attention from potentially dangerous organic search results.

You can recognize the new additions because they typically appear in boxes offering separate tabs on general info, symptoms and treatments. They also always contain advice to consult a medical doctor for advice. (See diagram).

I searched several medical topics and was pleased that I could not find any in which alternative medicine had been included. For instance, the lower back pain topic shown here does not offer acupuncture or chiropractic as an option. This is a good sign, but skeptics should keep an eye on this feature. I’m sure the alternative medicine community will eventually pressure Google to include their nonsense.

If you do notice spurious alternative medical information appearing in one of these results, you can click the word Feedback at lower right. The box will highlight and show a prompt to click on the error. You can then select which piece of information is incorrect – you will be prompted to explain why you think it is wrong.

“Right to be Forgotten” may affect skeptic outreach

"Forget-me-not and Blue sky" by Heike Löchel licensed under Creative Commons

“Forget-me-not and Blue sky” by Heike Löchel licensed under Creative Commons

Because skeptics constantly criticize the claims of others, we often provoke angry reactions. Ideally this provokes some educational debate, but sometimes it goes sour. That can take the form of trolling, harassment or even escalate to legal action. In the United States the legal option tends not to be too successful, thanks to our First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t apply outside the US.

Some opponents of skeptics seek out more creative ways to shut down our commentary. A few years ago a German named Claus Fritsche was paid by homeopathy manufacturers to create spam websites that would poison the search engine results for Edzard Ernst’s name, in an effort to discredit his critiques of alternative medicine. Numerous skeptics have been targets of spurious DMCA claims on YouTube over the years.

Recently the European courts have created a brand new way for the people we criticize to tamper with (at least in Europe) our ability to reach an audience. It is called the “right to be forgotten” and skeptic webmasters need to stay on top of their tools in order not to get blindsided by this.

Read on and I’ll explain.

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Virtual Skeptics webcast – August 15

Here’s the first edition of our new experiment, a live webcast with a panel of five skeptics – Virtual Skeptics.


The panel, from left to right:

We plan to continue with new episodes being webcast every Wednesday at 8 PM EDT (Midnight GMT).

Click through for the links from my stories.

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Google Knowledge Graph benefits from skeptic Wikipedia efforts

Last week Google introduced a new feature to their flagship search product, which is called Google Knowledge Graph. I believe it has only rolled out for users in the United States so far, so you may not see it if you live elsewhere, yet.

There are several interesting aspects of Knowledge Graph, and I encourage you to read more about it. The technology behind modern search engines is surprisingly complex, and this is the latest advancement.

But one of the main user-visible features of this product is a panel that you will see on the right side of many search results. This panel shows a summary of what Google believes you are looking for.  The aim is that many times the answer you seek will be right there on the results page.

Because this new feature draws a great deal of information from Wikipedia, all the great effort by Susan Gerbic and the other skeptics who work on her skeptic Wikipedia project is now paying off in yet another big way.

Let’s look at a few quick examples…

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To reach out to non-skeptics, you’ll need some basic SEO

There are many different skeptic blogs. Some (like this one) are mainly intended to be read by other skeptics. On blogs of this type we talk about what we are doing, how we are doing it, build community and discuss goals. These blogs can build their reader community organically by various means.

But if you are trying to reach out to the general public with your skeptical content, you need to think a little bit harder about visibility. Your brilliant expose on the latest UFO sighting or bogus herbal remedy is not going to have its optimal effect unless it is seen by people who have also been exposed to the original item. If a debunking falls in the forest, does it still debunk anything?

Of course, the time-tested way to make your posts visible to the general public is to simply make sure your site shows up in Google and the other search engines. Getting into search engines is not that hard, in fact its hard not to get Google to notice you if you are writing good content.

But simply getting noticed and getting optimal visibility in search engines are two different things.  If you’re not putting some thought into this issue, your posts may not be having the impact they could.

Fortunately, although there is some snake oil being peddled in this area, the basic techniques involved are not that hard. Collectively they are referred to as SEO or Search Engine Optimization.

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Slate snubs skeptics in an item on misinformation in Google

Yesterday Slate posted a piece by Evgeny Morozov that asked the question, “Does Google have a responsibility to help stop the spread of 9/11 denialism, anti-vaccine activism, and other fringe beliefs?” On its face it is an interesting question, one that goes right to the heart of what this blog is about. But except for a one nugget of wisdom which I applaud, the bulk of the article reveals the author’s naivete about matters skeptics deal with every day.

The article comments on a peer reviewed paper in Vaccine that analyzes the “tactics and tropes” of the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately I don’t have access to that journal to comment on the paper directly. But I can say the author of the Slate article could have avoided some pitfalls had he availed himself of the large body of skeptic literature in addition to that one paper.

News flash: we’ve been fighting these battles for decades, and are well familiar with the tactics listed. We’ve even been going head-to-head with these communities in Google and on Twitter and in the rest of Web 2.0, using the very same techniques. The evidence easy to find in Google, I’m not sure why Morozov can’t see it.

In the rest of this article I’ll point out how the piece’s proposed solution lacks vision, and suggest some other avenues that don’t require Google to get involved.

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