clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Google is warning users when its search results might be unreliable

New, 5 comments

The feature is aimed at rapidly changing news stories

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google will now tell users when search results are rapidly changing around a breaking story. Some searches will now bring up a warning that “it looks like these results are changing quickly,” and a subheading will explain that “if this topic is new, it can sometimes take time for results to be added by reliable sources.” In a blog post, the company suggests that users might want to check back later when it’s found more results.

The notice is initially appearing on US-based English-language results “when a topic is rapidly evolving and a range of sources hasn’t yet weighed in.” Google will expand the tool’s presence to other markets in the coming months.

“While Google Search will always be there with the most useful results we can provide, sometimes the reliable information you’re searching for just isn’t online yet,” the company explains. “This can be particularly true for breaking news or emerging topics, when the information that’s published first may not be the most reliable.” Recode reported on the feature yesterday, following up on a tweet from Stanford Internet Observatory researcher Renee DiResta.

A Google search result for “ufo filmed traveling 106 mph” with the warning label. Image: Google

A sample Google search screenshot features the query “ufo filmed traveling 106 mph,” an apparent reference to a recent tabloid story about a 2016 UFO sighting in Wales. (Currently, that precise search result does not actually include the warning.) “Someone had gotten this police report video released out in Wales, and it’s had a little bit bit of press coverage. But there’s still not a lot about it,” Google search public liaison Danny Sullivan told Recode. “But people are probably searching for it, they may be going around on social media — so we can tell it’s starting to trend. And we can also tell that there’s not a lot of necessarily great stuff that’s out there. And we also think that maybe new stuff will come along.”

That whimsical example aside, Google has inadvertently showcased incorrect information after mass shooting events — where early official reports are often inaccurate and deliberate misinformation is common. (This is sometimes exacerbated by “data voids,” or keywords that have few search results and can be easily hijacked by bad actors.) This warning won’t necessarily stop bad content from surfacing, and it’s not clear exactly how Google determines a sufficient range of sources. But it could remove some of the false legitimacy that high Google placement can confer on early, unreliable search results.