Anyone who has been following the constant battles to keep e-cigarettes available knows the war is fought on many fronts. There are national battles with showboating congressmen, state and local battles as well as clueless articles in the mainstream media. But there’s one front that hasn’t gotten much attention: Google.
What’s This All About Then?
Here’s a fun experiment: search Google for “are e-cigarettes bad for you“. You can click the link to open the search in an new window if you like.
Ok, so what did you see? A link to CASAA? Some of the excellent research by Dr. Farsalinios? ECF, or even my article titled “Are e-Cigarettes Bad for You?”
I’m going to guess the answer is no. Now search results are somewhat personalized, so you might not see what I did (hint, click the globe icon on the upper right to get non-personal results), but the results weren’t nearly so positive. The first page of results I got were pretty much universally negative including gems from the Mayo Clinic and HuffPo.
“But Steve, that’s an awfully specific example” you say. And yes, you are correct. But there’s a reason why I chose that one. Ok, two reasons, the first is that I was searching for that term to see where my article showed up in search. However, the reason it’s actually important is this: If you are someone thinking about trying e-cigarettes, what sort of thing are you going to search for?
So you’re curious and you want to do some due diligence and research e-cigarettes. Google sends you straight into the arms of the prohibitionists who are essentially saying “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
What the Heck is Going on Here?
There’s essentially a couple of things happening. First we have the tendency for media to go after the big scare stories. News outlets are much more likely to go for stories about scary-sounding chemicals being in e-cigarettes than ones that say hey these might be a good idea.
Don’t feel bad, they’re not picking on us. They do the same crap with drinking water and the health inspection reports from your local Deep Fried Chicken Parts ‘n Things franchise as well.
The reason that matters is the way Google works when it figures out what sort of sites to present in search results. Without getting too deep into the technical stuff, search tends to rank things with more links higher. By default, Google favors large national sites like the HuffPo as well as popular local news outlets and so on. Dedicated e-cigarette or THR sites while popular within a niche audience generally have a tiny of a fraction of links that these big sites enjoy.
In a nutshell, the sheer number of sites regurgitating prohibitionist drivel far outstrip sites that provide actually useful information.
What Can Anyone do About it?
Normally, I like to provide some kind of solutions when I go into these rants. I’m the kind of person that thinks if you’re going to complain about something, you should have an idea about how to fix it.
This time, I’m not necessarily complaining, but I am hoping a solution will present itself. I’ve been spending years trying to make a decent showing in Google for assorted e-cigarette related searches. My success has been middling at best. Clearly I’m the last guy in the world to say how to make better results show up in searches.
Not that I’m saying all the search results should point to my articles (but they are pretty good if I do say so myself.) I just think this is something we have to try and get a handle on. Perhaps this is a problem we as a community and industry can figure out how to crack and get more positive news articles to appear in search. I just don’t know.
That is the most frustrating thing about this battle. You sort of know who’s behind the prohibitionists and what they’re up to. With Google, they don’t have any sort of prohibitionist motives. They are also not human, and can’t be debated with or reasoned with like you would when speaking out against bad legislation.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.