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How SEO Is Helping Archaeologists Debunk Conspiracy Theories

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How SEO Is Helping Archaeologists Debunk Conspiracy Theories

The opinions expressed within this story are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Search Engine Journal or its affiliates.

You may have heard about “Ancient Apocalypse”, a series in which host Graham Hancock proposes controversial theories about the origins of ancient civilizations.

It spent a week trending in the global top 10 on Netflix, accruing around 24,620,000 watch hours between November 14th and November 20th, 2022.

Netflix lends authority to the show by categorizing it as a “docuseries,” and IMDB classifies it as a “documentary” and “history.”

But online, it’s been shrouded in controversy, and search algorithms might be rewarding good-faith critiques about the show from scientists and educators – as some working archeologists have deemed the show unsubstantiated pseudoscience at best, and dangerous misinformation at worst.

The Society For American Archaeology wrote a letter to Netflix asking it to reclassify and contextualize the show, citing the host’s “aggressive rhetoric,” the show’s “false claims,” and the associations that the theories presented have with “racist, white supremacist ideologies.”

But this is a story about the role SEO plays in the controversy – how scientists and science communicators present their critiques of the show, and how audiences find them.

Search algorithms get a lot of critiques for how they can be used to spread misinformation.

But in this case, I’ve seen support for educators and scientists who have committed to pushing back on popular pseudoscience.

Creators Rebutting “Ancient Apocalypse” Get A Boost From SEO

I first learned of the controversy from YouTube creator “History With Kayleigh,” who, while not an academic or accredited archaeologist, creates educational videos about ancient history and archaeological sites.

She interacted with Tweets from scientists who had responded and “decided to try and write a fair rebuttal to the show,” as she told me.

Kayleigh’s video about “Ancient Apocalypse” isn’t the best-performing video on her channel. Still, it was definitely performing above the average of her recent releases in a short amount of time, at 67,000 views on December 1st.

Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022screenshot of

But then, I took another screenshot of the channel after the weekend, on December 5th.

Kayleigh released a second video, and the first “Ancient Apocalypse: Fact Or Fiction?” had already grown to 104,000 views.

Screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of the

Kayleigh wasn’t the only creator to publish content about the Netflix series.

Dr. Bill Farley, an archaeologist and associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University who runs a small YouTube channel about archaeology in his free time, made one of the earliest YouTube videos critiquing Hancock and the show.

And while his reach is much smaller, his videos about “Ancient Apocalypse” exploded.

A screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022A screenshot of the
Screenshot of the Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of the

Dr. Farley shared screenshots of his YouTube analytics, demonstrating that his first video about Graham Hancock drew more traffic than usual from Google searches.

The below screenshots are from November 22nd, when the video was still around 5,000 views.

For that particular video, the “external” traffic source was around 28%, compared to his channel average of around 10%. A third of that external traffic was from Google.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel
A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

The following screenshot is the overall channel data for comparison.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

He also shared the search terms the video was performing best for within YouTube search.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

I checked in again with his channel on December 5th.

Screenshot of Screenshot from YouTube, December 2022Screenshot of

This first video still gains most of its traffic from search terms. External views on it were about 11% lower on December 5th than they were on November 22nd.

This makes sense with publications picking up the story and filling up search engine results pages (SERPs).

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

The second video has wildly different statistics, being pushed mostly by YouTube’s browse features like recommended videos.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

This time, YouTube seems to have recognized the interest in a trending topic and pushed the video accordingly.

In the first video that he made about “Ancient Archaeology,” Dr. Farley addressed Hancock directly with a critique focusing on the relationship between the theories posed in the show, and white supremacy.

In the second video, Dr. Farley focused on debunking the specific falsehoods in the show.

He told me, “There is a MARKED difference in the reactions to the two videos. In video #1, I mention white supremacy and the history of Atlantean myths with racism. That video has … hundreds of disparaging comments [that] are misogynistic, racist, and homophobic.

The second video also has some comments like this, but many more positive comments or constructive criticisms. This video just spoke directly to some of the falsehoods in the show but does not directly address racism or white supremacy.”

Even with the negative reaction, the fact remains that people watched and engaged with the video, as this screenshot of the video’s engagement statistics shows.

A screenshot of YouTube channel Screenshot of internal analytics of the “Archeology Tube” YouTube channel, November 2022A screenshot of YouTube channel

One could argue that this is a fluke – and that these seemingly successful performance metrics are simply about capitalizing on a trending keyword.

But YouTube algorithms work differently from Google Search.

YouTube uses metadata about videos to estimate relevance, but it also uses user engagement signals such as watch time to test the relevance of videos to particular queries. YouTube’s top ranking factor is viewer satisfaction.

“History with Kayleigh” has a large following already that likely gave her videos a boost. But Dr. Farley doesn’t have a large following, and the reach of his videos comes down to organic discovery.

People Search For Information About “Ancient Apocalypse” And Discover Critique

Other scientists, with small and large followings, have also seen unusually high traffic about this topic on other platforms.

Dr. Flint Dibble, an archaeologist at Cardiff University, wrote a rebuttal for The Conversation and noted the popularity of the piece on Twitter:

Screenshot of Tweet by user @FlintDibble on TwitterScreenshot from Twitter, November 2022Screenshot of Tweet by user @FlintDibble on Twitter

I reached out to Dr. Dibble for his perspective. He stated: “I’ve gotten a wide range of responses to my thread. Plenty of abuse, and plenty of praise. Several people clearly found it while searching for more info on the show.

Some, especially within the first week of release, mentioned they were searching Twitter to find reactions to it either before watching or mid-watch.

The people who mentioned finding the thread through a search were all glad for quickly getting a clearer context for the show.”

He shared an example of a Twitter user who went looking for information about the show while they were watching it and appreciated the critique he posted on the platform:

Screenshot of Tweet from user @LUnderstated on TwitterScreenshot from Twitter, December 2022Screenshot of Tweet from user @LUnderstated on Twitter

Dr. Andre Costopoulos, an archaeologist at the University Of Alberta, wrote about the show on his personal WordPress blog and shared his blog analytics with me in late November.

The content he wrote about “Ancient Apocalypse” became the best performing on his website in a matter of days, with Google Search making up the clear majority of traffic.

internal analytics of archeothoughts.wordpress.comScreenshot of internal analytics from archeothoughts.wordpress.com, November 2022internal analytics of archeothoughts.wordpress.com

Overall, this isn’t a huge amount of traffic. What’s interesting here is how the content about the show compares to other content by this creator, especially because the site is relatively small.

Dr. Costopoulos believes that scientists can reach audiences hungry for information if they learn the tools.

“Scientists can use these tools just as well as our pseudo-alters,” he told me, “and often to better effect, because we actually have evidence to back up our claims.”

How SEO Can Be Used To Spread Misinformation

Search algorithms are hotbeds of misinformation.

Dissemination of conspiracies and misinformation has been a hot topic on many different platforms, from YouTube to Facebook.

Google has been reckoning with misinformation and how best to solve it for years.

People who peddle conspiracy theories and pseudoscience know this. They’re expert marketers and storytellers, and they’re good at SEO.

That can make it much more difficult to communicate good science than misinformation. Scientists have demanding jobs outside of marketing and publishing, and their conclusions are often difficult to communicate effectively.

They’re not trained to do it, and academia is slow to adapt to digital trends.

That paves the way for a conspiracy theory to take off with little more than a good story and good marketing.

Dr. Farley said: “By and large, I think academics have no idea how to do SEO (I’m just stumbling around in the dark myself), and misinformation folks are much, much better at it. Academics, frankly, don’t have the time to learn this stuff.

It would be really cool if our universities would help… but I’ve found the media departments at unis are very old school. If I brought this to them, they’d pitch a media statement to the local newspaper.

Our media department is great and has great intentions, but by and large, they’re early in the game on using social media as a media tool.”

So we have a conundrum where scientists, who aren’t necessarily trained in communications and marketing, face off against professional marketers of ideas. And they’re doing it with personal passion projects on top of their existing jobs.

When it comes to organic reach, scientists need allies.

Is Critique Of “Ancient Apocalypse” Having An Impact?

The results don’t seem as encouraging when you zoom out and take a look at the SERPs for “Ancient Apocalypse.”

I opened an incognito window in Chrome and made sure my VPN was turned on (United States location), then searched for [ancient apocalypse].

Screenshot of Google search [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google search [ancient apocalypse]

The results here are a bit of a mixed bag.

The first result is just a link to the show. That’s to be expected.

Immediately below are the video results. The second video result appears to support the show. It had around 60,000 views when I took the screenshot. That’s a significant amount of reach compared to the examples we looked at above.

The third video result has much fewer views but critiques the show.

We can also see, on the information panel, that the critiques from the scientific community may not be having a widespread impact. Audiences review the show well.

Underneath the video results, we do see critiques from The Guardian and Slate. Let’s flip over to the news results.

Screenshot of Google news results for [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google news results for [ancient apocalypse]

These are mostly critiques of the show published on large media platforms. Journalists are helping scientists get their message out.

I checked in again a few days later, using an incognito guest Chrome browser with my VPN turned on (United States location). There was an interesting change in the SERP:

Screenshot of Google search results for [ancient apocalypse]Screenshot from search for [ancient apocalypse], Google, December 2022Screenshot of Google search results for [ancient apocalypse]

It looks like Google picked up on the controversy and the newsworthiness of the search. The video results were gone, replaced by a “Top Stories” search feature that appears above the organic results.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

Archaeologists Saw A Boost From SEO With Limited, But Important, Impact

Archaeologists did see a boost from SEO on this topic. But we can see from Google results that the show is popular, and the show’s supporters have a lot of traction too.

The limited effect of this collective effort demonstrates the hurdles facing science communicators. The impact of their critique seems to be a drop in the bucket compared to millions of people who watched the show.

But we shouldn’t discount the success of these scientists and educators, either.

They’re building communities, providing information for people who search for it, and changing minds. When you look closely, you can clearly search algorithms rewarding these creators for their efforts.

Interested users do discover legitimate scientific research when they look into the series. The content is reaching people, and it’s inspiring them to examine the show critically.

This is encouraging news for the overall quality of search.

I think marketers can help here.

SEO professionals have the knowledge and resources to help amplify these messages. Perhaps we could consider it a little bit of search community service.

More resources: 


Featured Image: Elnur/Shutterstock

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New Google Ads Feature: Account-Level Negative Keywords

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New Google Ads Feature: Account-Level Negative Keywords

Google Ads Liaison Ginny Marvin has announced that account-level negative keywords are now available to Google Ads advertisers worldwide.

The feature, which was first announced last year and has been in testing for several months, allows advertisers to add keywords to exclude traffic from all search and shopping campaigns, as well as the search and shopping portion of Performance Max, for greater brand safety and suitability.

Advertisers can access this feature from the account settings page to ensure their campaigns align with their brand values and target audience.

This is especially important for brands that want to avoid appearing in contexts that may be inappropriate or damaging to their reputation.

In addition to the brand safety benefits, the addition of account-level negative keywords makes the campaign management process more efficient for advertisers.

Instead of adding negative keywords to individual campaigns, advertisers can manage them at the account level, saving time and reducing the chances of human error.

You no longer have to worry about duplicating negative keywords in multiple campaigns or missing any vital to your brand safety.

Additionally, account-level negative keywords can improve the accuracy of ad targeting by excluding irrelevant or low-performing keywords that may adversely impact campaign performance. This can result in higher-quality traffic and a better return on investment.

Google Ads offers a range of existing brand suitability controls, including inventory types, digital content labels, placement exclusions, and negative keywords at the campaign level.

Marvin added that Google Ads is expanding account-level negative keywords to address various use cases and will have more to share soon.

This rollout is essential in giving brands more control over their advertising and ensuring their campaigns target the appropriate audience.


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Google’s Gary Illyes Answers Your SEO Questions On LinkedIn

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Google's Gary Illyes Answers Your SEO Questions On LinkedIn

Google Analyst Gary Illyes offers guidance on large robots.txt files, the SEO impact of website redesigns, and the correct use of rel-canonical tags.

Illyes is taking questions sent to him via LinkedIn direct message and answering them publicly, offering valuable insights for those in the SEO community.

It’s already newsworthy for a Google employee to share SEO advice. This is especially so given it’s Illyes, who isn’t as active on social media as colleagues like Search Advocate John Mueller and Developer Advocate Martin Splitt.

Throughout the past week, Illyes has shared advice and offered guidance on the following subjects:

  • Large robots.txt files
  • The SEO impact of website redesigns
  • The correct use of rel-canonical tags

Considering the engagement his posts are getting, there’s likely more to come. Here’s a summary of what you missed if you’re not following him on LinkedIn.

Keep Robots.Txt Files Under 500KB

Regarding a previously published poll on the size of robots.txt files, Illyes shares a PSA for those with a file size larger than 500kb.

Screenshot from: linkedin.com/in/garyillyes/, January 2023.

Illyes advises paying attention to the size of your website’s robots.txt file, especially if it’s larger than 500kb.

Google’s crawlers only process the first 500kb of the file, so it’s crucial to ensure that the most important information appears first.

Doing this can help ensure that your website is properly crawled and indexed by Google.

Website Redesigns May Cause Rankings To Go “Nuts”

When you redesign a website, it’s important to remember that its rankings in search engines may be affected.

As Illyes explains, this is because search engines use the HTML of your pages to understand and categorize the content on your site.

If you make changes to the HTML structure, such as breaking up paragraphs, using CSS styling instead of H tags, or adding unnecessary breaking tags, it can cause the HTML parsers to produce different results.

This can significantly impact your site’s rankings in search engines. Or, as Illyes phrases it, it can cause rankings to go “nuts”:

Google’s Gary Illyes Answers Your SEO Questions On LinkedInScreenshot from: linkedin.com/in/garyillyes/, January 2023.

Illyes advises using semantically similar HTML when redesigning the site and avoiding adding tags that aren’t necessary to minimize the SEO impact.

This will allow HTML parsers to better understand the content on your site, which can help maintain search rankings.

Don’t Use Relative Paths In Your Rel-Canonical

Don’t take shortcuts when implementing rel-canonical tags. Illyes strongly advises spelling out the entire URL path:

Google’s Gary Illyes Answers Your SEO Questions On LinkedInScreenshot from: linkedin.com/in/garyillyes/, January 2023.

Saving a few bytes using a relative path in the rel-canonical tag isn’t worth the potential issues it could cause.

Using relative paths may result in search engines treating it as a different URL, which can confuse search engines.

Spelling out the full URL path eliminates potential ambiguity and ensures that search engines identify the correct URL as the preferred version.

In Summary

By answering questions sent to him via direct message and offering his expertise, Illyes is giving back to the community and providing valuable insights on various SEO-related topics.

This is a testament to Illyes’ dedication to helping people understand how Google works. Send him a DM, and your question may be answered in a future LinkedIn post.


Source: LinkedIn

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Of all the many, many functions available in Google Ads, I have a few that are my favorites. And sitelink assets – previously known as sitelink extensions – are at the top of my list.

Why? Because they’re so versatile. You can do almost anything with them if you think through your strategy carefully.

For example, you can use the mighty sitelink in your advertising to:

  • Promote low search volume themes.
  • Push lagging products out the door.
  • Maximize hot sellers.
  • Highlight certain product categories.
  • Answer common questions.
  • Handle PR problems.

And that’s just a start! Sitelink assets can almost do it all.

Best Practices For Using Sitelink Assets Extensions

If you truly want to get the most out of your sitelinks, you need to think about your intention.

To help you with that, I’m going to lay out a few sitelink guidelines.

1. Get clear on your objectives. Before you start, you need to think about your goals. What are you trying to achieve with these assets? Are you advertising products or services? Will the asset work well with both branded and non-branded keywords? Your answers to these questions will help determine if your sitelinks are versatile and useful to the searcher.

2. Use sitelinks as part of your larger strategy. Don’t think of your sitelinks in isolation. You should also consider the accompanying ad, landing page, and other assets. Make sure they all work together in service to your overarching strategy.

3. Use a mix of sitelinks. Sitelinks can serve multiple purposes, so make sure you’re using a variety. For example, you don’t want to use every sitelink on an ad to promote on-sale products. Instead, use a mix. One could promote an on-sale product, one could generate leads, one could highlight a new product category, and one could direct prospective clients to useful information.

4. Create landing pages for your sitelinks. Ideally, you want to send users to landing pages that tightly correlate with your sitelink instead of just a regular page on your website.

5. Track sitelink performance and adjust. It’s not enough to set up sitelinks. You should also track them to see which links are getting traction and which ones are not. This doesn’t mean that all sitelinks should perform equally (more on this below), but it does mean they should perform well given their type and objectives.

Why it’s Better To Use A Mix Of Sitelink Assets

Let’s dive deeper into this idea of using a mix of sitelinks by looking at an example.

In a new client account, we created four different types of sitelinks:

  • Two sitelinks are product-focused (as requested by the client).
  • One sitelink connects users with an engineer to learn more about the product (“Speak to an Engineer”). It has more of a sales focus.
  • One sitelink allows users to learn more about the products without speaking to an engineer (“What is?”).

The “What is?” sitelink is outperforming the “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink when we measure by CTR. While we need more data before making any changes, I predict we’ll eventually swap out the sales-y “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink for something else.

The fact that the educational link (“What is?”) is performing better than the sales-y link (“Speak to an Engineer”) isn’t too surprising in this case. The product is a new, cutting-edge robot that not many people are aware of, yet. They want more info before talking to someone.

sitelink extensions - performance exampleScreenshot by author, January 2023

By using a mix of sitelinks, and assessing the performance of each, we gained a lot of valuable information that is helping to guide our strategy for this account. So going with a mix of sitelinks is always a good idea. You never know what you’ll discover!

Sitelink Assets Examples

Now, let’s look at some specific examples of sitelink assets in Google Ads.

Example 1: Chromatography

Sitelinks extension - Chromatography exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

Application Search: This ad is for a highly technical product that can be used in a wide variety of applications. (Chromatography is a laboratory technique for separating mixtures.) So putting “application search” in a sitelink here might make sense. It helps prospective clients find what they’re looking for.

Sign up and Save Big: A good sitelink for lead generation and potential revenue.

Technical Support: I’m not a big fan of putting technical support in sitelinks. Tech support seems more targeted to current users rather than prospective users. But who knows, maybe they really do want to help current users get tech support via their advertising.

Guides and Posters: Again, this sitelink is a bit unusual, but it might be appropriate for this product. Perhaps people are downloading branded posters and posting them in their workplaces. If so, it’s a great way to build brand awareness.

Example 2: Neuroscience Courses

Sitelink Extensions - Nueroscience courses exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

I love everything about these sitelinks! The advertising is using them to reach people in all phases of the buyer journey.

For people not ready to commit:

  • Study Neuroscience: This sitelink is broad and informational. It’s helpful to people who have just started to explore their options for studying neuroscience.
  • Get Course Brochure: This sitelink is also great for people in the research phase. And while we mostly live in an online world, some people still prefer to consume hard-copy books, brochures, etc. With this sitelink, the school is covering its bases.

For people getting close to committing:

  • Online Short Course: This is the course the school offers. It’s a great sitelink for those almost ready to sign up.

For people ready to sign up:

  • Register Online Now: This is the strongest call to action for those ready to commit. It takes people directly to the signup page.

Example 3: Neuroscience Degrees

Let’s look at another example from the world of neuroscience education: this time for a neuroscience degree program.

Sitelink extensions - neuroscience degree exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

In contrast to the previous two examples, the sitelinks in this ad aren’t as strong.

Academics Overview: This sitelink seems more appropriate for a broad term search, such as a search on the school’s name. If the searcher is looking for a specific degree program (which seems like the intention based on the term and the ad), the sitelinks should be something specific to that particular degree program.

Scholarships: Just as with the above sitelink, “Scholarships” doesn’t seem very helpful either. The topic of scholarships is important—but probably doesn’t need to be addressed until the person determines that this school is a good fit.

Example 4: Code Security

Next, let’s look at two Google search ads for code security products.

Sitelink extensions - code security exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

 

The sitelinks in these two ads look like typical assets you’d find for SaaS, cloud-based, or tech companies. They click through to a lot of helpful information, such as product plans and success stories.

I particularly like the Most Common Risks sitelink in the second ad. It leads to a helpful article that would be great for engaging top-of-funnel leads.

On the flip side, I’m not a big fan of the Blog sitelink in the first ad. “Blog” simply isn’t very descriptive or helpful.

Still, there are no right or wrong sitelinks here. And it would be interesting to test my theory that blog content is not a top-performing asset!

Sitelink Assets Are More Than An Afterthought

I hope I’ve convinced you of the usefulness and versatility of sitelinks when created with specific objectives that align with your broader strategy.

So don’t create your sitelink assets as an afterthought.

Because if you give them the careful consideration they deserve, they’ll serve you well.

Note: Google sitelink assets were previously known as sitelink extensions and renamed in September 2022.

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