SEO Makes It Too Late for Truth for ‘Ground Zero Mosque’

It's not at ground zero and it's not just a mosque.

A number of news outlets have gone to great lengths recently to correct this falsehood.

PolitiFact has made several rulings on the issue. The Associated Press last week sent out a memo telling reporters and editors not to use the term. NPR uses the phrase "Islamic Center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan." The Wall Street Journal started using the phrase "Mosque near WTC site" or "Mosque near ground zero" recently. Before that the Journal had frequently employed the oversimplified and erroneous term "ground zero mosque" in headlines.

Another wave of recent stories and columns documented how a blogger and then a New York Post columnist took control of the narrative and the language, reducing a planned Islamic center with a pool, community rooms and offices to a mosque and locating it at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Google Trends show us that interest in this story spiked dramatically this month.

But now that the story has peaked, now that we know the real facts, can anyone possibly correct the record? Not if Google has anything to say about it.

That's because accurate or not, people are searching for the term "ground zero mosque." So if you want to reach people who are looking for information, you have to use that term.

It's easy enough to do in a story meant to debunk the phrase. All you have to write is, "It's not a ground zero mosque." But, what about ongoing coverage? Must you keep using the inaccurate term?

Sadly, the answer is yes, according to people familiar with SEO practices.

"I was trying to make fun of the inaccuracy by referring to it as ‘the non-Ground Zero non-mosque,'" Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon, wrote in an email. "But friends told me that even such negative repetition reinforces the subliminal message [that it is a mosque at ground zero]. This sort of framing is very difficult to wriggle out of anywhere, not just on Google."

The Associated Press has tried valiantly. On Aug. 18, Tom Kent, the AP's deputy managing editor for standards and production, issued an advisory pointing out that the AP had deliberately avoided using the term and would continue to do so.

"The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area," Kent wrote. "We should continue to say it's 'near' ground zero, or two blocks away."

Yet AP's stories, even when they appear on by Yahoo News, don't show up on the first page of a Google search or even on the first page of the more refined Google News search. When you search for ground zero mosque that is, unless the headline over the AP content, presumably written by Yahoo's editors, includes the words "ground zero mosque."

"It may be inaccurate, but if that's what the public is searching for, then using it speaks to what they seek," Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, explained to me in an email. "Once they arrive they can be further educated."

He recommends using language like "so-called mosque at ground zero, which is really two blocks away."

But headlines are even trickier, because having the words in the exact order of the phrase that people are searching for, and putting that in the HTML title tag, is exactly what improves their Google ranking, Sullivan said.

Steven Colbert frequently points out that if you repeat something loudly and often enough, people will believe it's true. There are numerous polls of late that bear this out, including the persistent rumor that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and that he's a Muslim.

This problem is not new. "Sadly, loud and short have always beaten careful and accurate in journalism," Rosenberg pointed out.

But it's worse in August. Remember, this story has been kicking around for months. Back in May, anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller wrote about the project. A few days later, New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser picked up on Geller's phrase "monster mosque."

"August is the time of factual mischief," Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact, told me during a phone conversation this week.

Congress goes on break. Yet our collective news hole is larger than ever, thanks to the endless space afforded by the Internet, the growing number of bloggers and other opinion peddlers, and 24-hour cable news. Last year it was death panels. In 2004, it was Swift Boat. This year, it's the ground zero mosque.

With the rise in the number of voices that can command an audience, it stands to reason that the number of distortions will also rise. The role of fact-checking rumors and distortions is growing in significance for journalists everywhere. It's PolitiFact's reason for being. On Sunday, PolitiFact, (which is part of the Poynter-owned Times Publishing Co.) celebrated its third birthday.

Now that we know that August is the month of distorted facts, and now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions -- even when we know better -- we should be prepared. We can start ramping up in late July, toning our fact-checking muscles, warning our gullible relatives to be wary. Next year, maybe those who care about the truth will get ahead of the curve.

That way we won't have to live forever with the distortions of August.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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