Don’t believe everything you search on Google – USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCOÂ âÂ Don’t believe everything you search.Â Or at least, not the featured snippetsÂ that Google puts at the top of search results.
The featured snippets are one of the 10 top search results Google displays in a special box. And they areÂ in the spotlight thanks to longtime Google observer Danny Sullivan, founding editor of the blogÂ Search Engine Land. SullivanÂ says the snippets, which he has dubbed Google’s “one true answer” feature, can beÂ deeply flawed. How flawed?Â “Sometimes these answers are terribly wrong,” Sullivan says.
Recent examples? One featured snippetÂ claimed some U.S. presidents were members of the Ku Klux Klan. (False). Another claimed President Obama was planning a coup d’etat. (Only if you scrolled down did you stumble on an ABC news story debunking the snippet).
Google isn’t even telling you the truth aboutÂ how long it takes to caramelize onions (“28 minutes if you cooked them as hot as possible and constantly stirred them, 45 minutes if you were sane about it” but definitelyÂ not about five minutes), according to Gizmodo. Or on whether MSG can kill you. (We’re pretty sure it can’t, at least we hope not).
“The featured snippetsÂ feature is an automatic and algorithmic match to the search query, and the content comes fromÂ third-party sites,” Google said in an emailed statement. “Weâre always working to improve our algorithms, and we welcome feedback on incorrect information.”
Users can report incorrect information through a “Feedback” button at the bottom right of the featured snippet, Google said.
“Many of Googleâs direct answers are correct. Ask Google if vaccines cause autism, and it will tell you they do not. Ask it if jet fuel melts steel beams, and it will pull an answer from aÂ Popular MechanicsÂ article debunking the famous 9/11 conspiracy theory,” reports The Outline. “But itâs easy to find examples of Google grabbing quick answers from shady places.”
This is not a minor issue. About 15% of searches return a featured snippet, according to MozCast, a website that tracks the Google algorithm.
And, as Sullivan points out, featured snippets have been returning some pretty wacky answers for a couple of years now. It’s a problem that will only get worse as people become more and more dependent on voice-activated assistants such as Google Home to fetch quick answers.
The featured snippets problem comes as Google and Facebook are taking heat for doing too little to curb fake news during the presidential election.
So what does Sullivan recommend?
“The easy solution would be for Google to stop using featured snippets,” he says. “That doesnât mean that Google wouldnât come under criticism for bad results. After all, featured snippets come from one of the 10 web listings that are presented. One or more of those listings might still be problematic. But at least a problematic result wouldnât get elevated to such exalted status, subjecting Google to greater criticism.”
UnfortunatelyÂ that would undercutÂ Google as it battles with Apple and Amazon for dominance in the next wave of search, voice-activated assistants, so a non-starter.
ButÂ wait, what’s the answer?
“In the end, I donât know that thereâs a perfect answer,” Sullivan says. “But Google clearly needs to do something.”
Good news for folks who don’t want to play Russian roulette with featured snippets: You can opt out of them.