Everything you need to know about SEO, delivered every Thursday.
Everything’s Not Awesome: Google News Spammed With Pitch To Watch “The Lego Movie” For Free
It’s definitely not what you expect to make the top of a Google News section, a crappy article promising that you can watch The Lego Movie online for free, not when the film is still in theaters. But that’s what Google is delivering up.
The screenshot above shows the situation, which reader Vishvesh Agrawal of DhanInfo tipped us to, after coming across it when reading Google News. The “story” appearing at the top of the Google News entertainment section is all types of bad.
Supposed News From The Call & Post
Let’s look at a close-up:
Supposedly, this is a story from the Call & Post, a newspaper out of Cleveland, Ohio. But the Call & Post has no stories at all about The Lego Movie when you use the newspaper’s own search tool:
Whatever You Don’t, Don’t Click For More
Nor does clicking on the supposed story in Google take you to the Call & Post. Instead, you’re redirected to here:
That’s a page within a free website hosting service called Nation2.com that promises you can watch The Lego Movie — which is still in theaters and not available online anywhere in the US legally — for free after taking a survey.
Selecting a survey link takes you to places like this:
Or here, where you get a scary pop-up that tries to get you to install software:
I didn’t try any of these offers to see what would happen after completing them. Perhaps I might have actually been allowed to watch the film, in the end, which almost certainly would have been a pirated copy. More likely, nothing would have happened at all.
A Hack At The Publication?
How this is happening is unclear. The page that’s ranking tops seems to be one of several full video movie pages that Google believes actually are on the Call & Post site:
The stories do appear to have resided on the Call & Post site at one time, because Google’s cached copy shows them complete with author names, such as here:
However, trying to reach any of the pages generates redirections on the Call & Post’s server that point (via the TinyURL.com shortening service) to Nation2.com. Chances are, someone has gained access to the Call & Post’s server, both to plant the stories and establish the redirections, perhaps through a hack.
Hack Extends To Google News
Servers get hacked all the time by people trying to hijack existing top rankings in Google and send traffic elsewhere. But it’s extremely odd for a hack like this to hit Google News.
The Google News ranking system is supposed to reward sites that have authority and expertise in particular subjects. This site has no such demonstrable expertise in movie reviews — it doesn’t regularly do them at all. And yet, this apparently hacked page got rewarded with top billing by Google News. It’s a terrible relevancy failure.
It’s also not going to help with Google’s relations with Hollywood, which feels Google doesn’t do enough to stop people from locating pirated content.
We’re checking with both the Call & Post and Google about the situation. But no doubt, it’ll end fairly soon after this story goes up.
As for The Lego Movie, I thought it was excellent. So go see it in a theater. Here’s a trailer for it:
Postscript (4:50am ET): Originally, the headline was “Everything’s Not Awesome: Google News Spammed With Pitch To Watch ‘The Lego Movie’ For Free,” which I thought was fair enough to say. While the Google News server wasn’t hacked into, as in a security issue, the algorithm was effectively hacked for this page to show up. But after the comment from Alex below, I reconsidered and went with “spammed” as a more accurate term.
Postscript 2 (1:30pm ET): Google got back to me to say it’s checking on the situation. In the meantime, while the story is no longer featured so prominently, similar ones are appearing from other publications such as City News Ohio, the Anderson Valley Post and the Knoxville Metro Post:
These all seem fairly small publications, and this is shaping up to seem like all have been hacked, allowing someone to send this type of content into Google News. But so far, unlike the case over the weekend, the visibility of these stories seems small — only showing for those who are doing searches likely to bring them up.
Of course, one of the key groups doing such searches like “watch lego movie free” on Google are Hollywood industry groups, which as mentioned above, Google has had trouble with. For those groups, these stories showing up will just get added to the “Google doesn’t do enough” list.
Postscript 3 (Feb 26) – Google’s sent us this statement:
After our investigation we found that a number of small publisher sites were hacked. We believe we have resolved this specific instance of hacking. Hacked sites are hard to detect and we do more than almost anyone on the web to find them and warn sites of any problems.
The example that started this post is gone. However, a search for things like “watch movie hd” brings up two new publications hit with the same type of situation for other TV shows and movies. Clearly, it’s an ongoing problem.