Google Realizes It Needs to Do More to Fight Misinformation in Searches

For years, the most widely-used search engine has let misleading information stream to the top of Google search results in its snippets section.

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Man Using Laptop Browsing Google Website while another person reads a book
Photo: Rawpixel (Shutterstock)

Try typing in “can I remove a tick with my teeth?” in Google search, and the first thing you’ll see is advice from the Centers for Disease Control to “pull upward with steady, even pressure.” Of course, the CDC is referring to using a tool like tweezers rather than your mouth, but Google doesn’t always get it correct. Word to the wise, don’t use your teeth to remove a tick.

Google is aware its searches can give misleading results, and now they want to fix that. In a Thursday blog post, Google’s VP of Search Pandu Nayak said they were making improvements to its featured snippets system, namely the box at the top of Google searches that try to offer the most pertinent result related to a query. Now, the company said it will use AI to determine whether multiple quality sources agree on the same fact before shoving it to the top of users’ results.

Google used the example “when did Snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln” to prove their point. The snippet in the current system reveals the accurate date and method for Lincoln’s death, but not the fact that snoopy was not standing behind the president with a loaded gun at Ford’s Theater. Nayak said the system now uses the company’s AI Multitask Unified Model that uses machine learning to detect such “false premises.” He claimed that this system reduces the triggering of featured snippets by 40%.

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Of course, odd snippets aren’t the only misinformation Google has to worry about. A survey released Thursday by Poynter alongside analytics firm YouGov showed 62% of respondents, both young and old, reported feeling like they were being bombarded with misleading or fake information online. More than that, young people are growing increasingly concerned their parents and grandparents are being shown false info. The younger you are, the more likely you will actually check to see if the source is reputable. The study was conducted with support from Google, according to the report.

Younger people are more likely to check social media comments and use a search engine to verify information they saw online compared to older folks, according to the Poynter report. They’re also more likely to use reverse image searches or conduct multiple searches across several tabs.

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Google said they’re launching more ways to verify information found on sites. Nayak announced they were including an “About this source” feature on any page in the Google app. It can be accessed by swiping up on the navigation bar, showing more information found online about the website from various sources. It certainly seems like a very handy tool for those looking to verify a page’s information without having to open another tab.

Google showing its “About this page” feature in action on the Google app.
Gif: Google
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In addition, the company announced they were expanding content advisories to cover more searches when the system doesn’t have “high confidence in the overall quality” of search results. In their blog post, the company said their ranking system tries to use “the most reliable sources available,” which in a perfect world would include primary sources and trusted news sources confirmed by multiple outlets.

But despite Google executives like Nayak’s stated commitments to helping people “find high-quality information and give them the context they need to make informed decisions,” Google search has proved to be pretty liberal in what it shows users at the top of their page.

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Recent reports showed that people living in anti-abortion states who searched for abortion clinics or abortion pills would see first-page results leading to anti-abortion centers rather than actual clinics. Those searches also included sponsored advertisements on the top of the page which linked to anti-abortion centers, often misleadingly called “crisis pregnancy centers.”

In addition, Google search ads have proved to be another buzzing hive of dubious products and occasional misinformation from shady actors like unregulated stem cell companies and stalkerware businesses. Though Google says it routinely removes offending ads that break their own policies, offending companies still manage to get their ads shown at the top of search results.