It’s time to stop trusting Google search already

Last weekend, in the hours after a deadly Texas church shooting, Google search promoted false reports about the suspect, suggesting that he was a radical communist affiliated with the antifa movement. The claims popped up in Google’s “Popular on Twitter” module, which made them prominently visible — although not the top results — in a search for the alleged killer’s name. Of course, the was just the latest instance of a long-standing problem: it was the latest of multiple similar missteps. As usual, Google promised to improve its search results, while the offending tweets disappeared. But telling Google to retrain its algorithms, as appropriate as that demand is, doesn’t solve the bigger issue: the search engine’s monopoly on truth.

Surveys suggest that, at least in theory, very few people unconditionally believe news from social media. But faith in search engines — a field long dominated by Google — appears consistently high. A 2017 Edelman survey found that 64 percent of respondents trusted search engines for news and information, a slight increase from the 61 percent who did in 2012, and notably more than the 57 percent who trusted traditional media. (Another 2012 survey, from Pew Research Center, found that 66 percent of people believed search engines were “fair and unbiased,” almost the same proportion that did in 2005.) Researcher danah boyd has suggested that media literacy training conflated doing independent research with using search engines. Instead of learning to evaluate sources, “[students] heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.”

Google encourages this perception, as do competitors like Amazon and Apple — especially as their products depend more and more on virtual assistants. Though Google’s text-based search page is clearly a flawed system, at least it makes it clear that Google search functions as a directory for the larger internet — and at a more basic level, a useful tool for humans to master.

Google Assistant turns search into a trusted companion dispensing expert advice. The service has emphasized the idea that people shouldn’t have to learn special commands to “talk” to a computer, and demos of products like Google Home show off Assistant’s prowess at analyzing the context of simple spoken questions, then guessing exactly what users want. When bad information inevitably slips through, hearing it authoritatively spoken aloud is even more jarring than seeing it on a page.

Even if search is overwhelmingly accurate, highlighting just a few bad results around topics like mass shootings is a major problem — especially if people are primed to believe that anything Google says is true. And for every advance Google makes to improve its results, there’s a host of people waiting to game the new system, forcing it to adapt again.

Simply shaming Google over bad search results might actually play into its mythos, even if the goal is to hold the company accountable. It reinforces a framing where Google search’s ideal final state is a godlike, omniscient benefactor, not just a well-designed product. Yes, Google search should get better at avoiding obvious fakery, or creating a faux-neutral system that presents conspiracy theories next to hard reporting. But we should be wary of overemphasizing its ability, or that of any other technological system, to act as an arbiter of what’s real.

Alongside pushing Google to stop “fake news,” we should be looking for ways to limit trust in, and reliance on, search algorithms themselves. That might mean seeking handpicked video playlists instead of searching YouTube Kids, which recently drew criticism for surfacing inappropriate videos. It could mean focusing on reestablishing trust in human-led news curation, which has produced its own share of dangerous misinformation. It could mean pushing Google to kill, not improve, features that fail in predictable and damaging ways. At the very least, I’ve proposed that Google rename or abolish the Top Stories carousel, which offers legitimacy to certain pages without vetting their accuracy. Reducing the prominence of “Popular on Twitter” might make sense, too, unless Google clearly commits to strong human-led quality control.

The past year has made web platforms’ tremendous influence clearer than ever. Congress recently grilled Google, Facebook, and other tech companies over their role in spreading Russian propaganda during the presidential election. A report from The Verge revealed that unscrupulous rehab centers used Google to target people seeking addiction treatment. Simple design decisions can strip out the warning signs of a spammy news source. We have to hold these systems to a high standard. But when something like search screws up, we can’t just tell Google to offer the right answers. We have to operate on the assumption that it won’t ever have them.


Is this a Google only issue or does this happen on other search engines too? It would be interesting to find out.

I don’t think Bing has enough traffic for people to game the algorithm to spread BS so it may be better in this respect.

That’s a stupid comment. Bing gets ~30% of all searches. More importantly, search engines are not built for "truth" but for what is trending, and what they can best glean to be valued search results from non-valued search results based on searcher behaviors. Suggesting that a search engine is an arbiter of truth vs. fiction is naive and all search engines who follow this model will have this problem.

Bing gets ~30% of all searches.


This is US data, but then this is a US story. Bing is ~20% and Yahoo (powered by Bing) is ~10% for a total of ~30%.

Yahoo can have up to 50% of its searches powered by google.

Stop trying to make this not significant. And, the article needs to stop trying to blame Google for the stupidity on the internet that it just shows us. People need to learn, not Google. The Internet is full of trash. Search ANYTHING and you will uncover trash. I would not trust another company to sort through that trash well enough to not end up brain washing those it tries to make think it’s perfect.

The article doesn’t just blame Google, the headline does. If the article does not implicitly state that other, less popular search engines are not guilty of the same thing, it’s safe to assume that you can lump them all together since they are all doing the same thing behind the scenes.

Your caps lock is sticking. Might want to get that fixed.

I think you have completely missed the point of the article. The author’s underlying point is that Google, and any other search engine that relies on algorithms such as Google’s can never be trusted to give us authoritative results that absolve the user of being a critical thinker.

The author also points out the potential danger on the road ahead of "intelligent assistants" that primarily just aggregate the results of the underlying search engines of the vendor, and face the risk of further limiting the user from not only "taking the results with a grain of salt" but eliminating the user’s access to the tools necessary to even see the trend.

In essence, the headline tells the whole story. It’s not that Google necessarily needs to make wholesale changes. It’s that we, as users have a responsibility to use it as the tool it is, without relying on it as an authoritative source of news.

Plus remember the default search on Apple phones is Bing so a lot of people are searching Bing and don’t even realize that they are.

At least that was the case when I had my 6S. Not sure if they changed that with the 7 or their current phones. But bottom line, Bing is definitely not Google. But it’s also not Ask Jeeves like a lot of people think it is. It’s significant.

No, it isn’t.
It was default in Siri up until recently but default search has always been Google

Ah that’s what it was. Just siri I guess. Still millions of people were using it daily and probably assumed it was Google.

It was in the past. Currently, Siri defaults to Google.

Search it up on Google

3 of us here use Bing? 7 use Google.

I’m one.

Absolutely agree. Google is giving you results. You should still pursue the truth.

Yep, Google is just a reflection of the Internet. Google is NOT the internet. This is not a Google problem, or a Bing problem, it is an Internet problem. Open your browser only when you have your full gullibility shield up. And, if your shield sucks, get help.

In the US perhaps, not globally.

Is 30% in the US trivial? What about 24% in the UK as well?

What ZigZang said.

The phrase garbage in/garbage out comes to mind.

The Search Engine is just showing us what we seem to indicate we like to look at. If anything, the Internet, which gave all of us an megaphone, has shown us that most of us really shouldn’t have a megaphone.

I would be sure that Bing does the exact same thing.

Bing doesn’t update search results for breaking news the way google does.

When there is a major incident good luck using google to find information about a similar incident, the results are just flooded with "relevant" stories about the current news. Bing is far less sensitive to that kind of issue which probably negates the issue where Google promotes stories it thinks people want which leads to spreading fake news.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑