April 25, 2017

Late last year, Google tweaked its search algorithm to fix a pesky problem: Users who asked the search engine whether the Holocaust occurred were served a post from the White supremacist site Stormfront denying its existence as a top result.

Similar problems occasionally arise with Google’s featured “snippets,” the prominently displayed boxes that highlight highly-cited answers from around the web.

For instance, at the time of publication of this article, searching for “first black president united states” yielded a featured snippet with creative views.

Screen shot, Google

Screen shot, Google

Today, in another change to its search engine, Google has strengthened the feedback tool that lets users alert the company to featured errors. This will be globally accessible within the next 24 hours.

Google also announced an update to the guidelines for quality raters — people asked to evaluate search results on an ongoing basis — that includes language on flagging hoaxes, misinformation and conspiracy theories as low-quality results. The search giant also shared, somewhat nebulously, that it has adjusted the hundreds of signals that feed into query results to “demote low-quality content.”

The most visible change for everyday users, however, is the expanded feedback option on autocomplete suggestions and the featured snippets.

Snippets are often useful. They appropriately highlight, say, the expected time of arrival for Delta flight 1 or the GDP of Liechtenstein. But they can also grossly misfire, as noted in a recent article on The Outline.

In a blog post announcing the latest changes, Google VP of Engineering for Search Ben Gomes hints at this challenge.

“There are trillions of searches on Google every year. In fact, 15 percent of searches we see every day are new—which means there’s always more work for us to do to present people with the best answers to their queries from a wide variety of legitimate sources.

So come on, help Google out. The new “This is misleading or inaccurate” feedback option seems apt for the John-Hanson-as-first-Black-president snippet. If you see it in your search results, flag it as misleading or inaccurate (although “unfounded” would be even better).


Update: A sentence was added to indicate that the feedback feature had not yet been updated globally. A spokesperson for Google told Poynter it will be rolled out to all users by tomorrow.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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