Google: Sorry for the Bogus Content in Search Results
In its quest to index the internet, Google's search engine has come across quite a few questionable websites. That content occasionally shows up at the top of the search results as an embarrassing example of how its algorithms can't always discern the truth.
Google "Why are fire trucks red?" for instance, and the top suggested search result is a snippet of a Monty Python joke involving measurements, ships and Queen Elizabeth. Although it's a relatively benign joke, it's ultimately unhelpful. And as The Outline points out, some results are far more concerning: Google's algorithms have promoted websites that claim several presidents were Ku Klux Klan members or that Barack Obama intended to divide America so he could declare "martial war."
Google's systems have for years automatically selected the top answers to some commonly searched-for subjects based on several factors, including a "Knowledge Graph," and displayed them in a conspicuous box at the top of search results pages. That practice came under renewed criticism on Monday following The Outline's investigation of its inaccuracies, and amid the fake news stories that have come to the forefront of the national political debate in recent months.
And here's what happens if you ask Google Home "is Obama planning a coup?" pic.twitter.com/MzmZqGOOal— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) March 5, 2017
For its part, Google believes that the algorithmically selected answers -- which it calls "featured snippets" -- are a net positive for its users, although the company notes they aren't perfect.
"Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content. When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance. We apologize for any offense this may have caused."
So it appears that Google is hoping people in search of knowledge in a hurry will nevertheless take the time to do their own vetting of snippets by telling Google about incorrect results (there is a link to provide feedback at the bottom of every snippet). That's good practice for anything you do on the internet: despite Google's reputation for quality, its search engine is ultimately a catalog of other people's content.
And while many searchers take Google's featured results at face value, you can't discount the fact that there are plenty of Monty Python fans who just want a quick refresher on the fire engine joke, in addition to people who are genuinely wondering why fire trucks are red. Right now, it appears that Google's snippets are having a hard time telling the difference.