Google’s search algorithms have been haphazard for a long time, but over the past year we’ve seen a number of incidents where top results are spreading wildly inaccurate and offensive material. The latest has Google highlighting an offensive meme from the sjwhate subreddit as part of its search result for the “gender fluid” query. The offensive image is the first thing you see for the term, alongside a Wikipedia entry.
The slip-up comes just a month after Google briefly gave its “top stories” stamp of approval to two 4chan threads identifying the wrong suspect in the recent Las Vegas mass shooting tragedy. This latest search result problem appears to be related to the company’s snippet feature. Featured snippets are designed to answer queries instantly, and they’ve often provided bad answers in the past. Google’s Home device, for example, used a featured snippet to answer the question “are women evil?” with the horrendously bad answer “every woman has some degree of prostitute in her.”
So why does this keep happening? As my colleague Adi Robertson points out, Google’s original PageRank algorithm was built to deliver the most popular and influential results for any search query regardless of accuracy. The algorithm has developed into providing instant results, and we’ve seen those algorithms manipulated by third parties or duped by inaccurate sources.
The dominance and popularity of Google means people use the company’s name as a transitive verb to define information searches. And with little competition, Google becomes the de facto source for all the answers we seek. People trust Google more than most tech companies, as highlighted in a recent Verge survey, thereby giving its search results and featured snippets an enhanced sense of authority.
While Facebook understandably receives a lot of attention for the “fake news” epidemic, Google’s search results are a big part of this problem. Google has an important role to play in managing its own platform and internet search results correctly, and over the past year its shown it has a lot of work to do.
“Featured snippets are algorithmically generated and are intended as a way to find the information you need more quickly,” says a Google spokesperson. “We’re always working to improve our processes, and we welcome feedback on misleading or low quality information. If a particular Featured Snippet is in violation of our policies, we take action to remove.” The offensive image appears to have now been removed from the search result.
Update, 9AM ET: Google statement added to article.