News, Software

Google updates search feature to squash fake news

Google has introduced a new series of blog posts explaning ‘How Google Search works’. It has also explained when, where and why they provide featured snippets.

Featured Snippets are the descriptive boxes that provide quick answers to Search results.Google

The feature, which was introduced in January 2014, became an ongoing source of controversy for Google given occasional and, sometimes, blatant errors.

However, Google said that the top of result pages would soon display multiple viewpoints on topics for the first time ever.

The move comes as Internet companies face increasing political pressure to rid their services of misleading or fake news, extremist content and hoaxes.

“Because featured snippets are so useful, especially with mobile and voice-only searches, we’re working hard to smooth out bumps with them as they continue to grow and evolve,” said Danny Sullivan, Public Liaison for Search, Google in the blog post.

“Last year, we took deserved criticism for featured snippets that said things like “women are evil” or that former US President Barack Obama was planning a coup. We failed in these cases because we didn’t weigh the authoritativeness of results strongly enough for such rare and fringe queries.”

To improve on these aspects, the Internet company said it included updates to its Search Quality Rater Guidelines to provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories. “This work has helped our systems better identify when results are prone to low-quality content. If detected, we may opt not to show a featured snippet,” said Sullivan.

Google typically plucks snippets from third-party websites and shows them in a large box before the traditional list of links in search results. Snippets are relied on by Google’s virtual assistant to read out answers to searches conducted through smart speakers such as the Google Home.

Sullivan explained that showing more than one featured snippet may also eventually help in cases where you can get contradictory information when asking about the same thing but in different ways.

For instance, people who search for “are reptiles good pets” should get the same featured snippet as “are reptiles bad pets” since they are seeking the same information: how do reptiles rate as pets? However, the featured snippets we serve contradict each other.

According to Sullivan, this happens because sometimes our systems favour content that’s strongly aligned with what was asked.

“A page arguing that reptiles are good pets seems the best match for people who search about them being good. Similarly, a page arguing that reptiles are bad pets seems the best match for people who search about them being bad. We’re exploring solutions to this challenge, including showing multiple responses.”

“There are often legitimate diverse perspectives offered by publishers, and we want to provide users visibility and access into those perspectives from multiple sources,” Matthew Gray, the software engineer who leads the featured snippets team, told Sullivan.

Finally, Sullivan said that featured snippets will never be absolutely perfect, just as search results overall will never be absolutely perfect. “On a typical day, 15 percent of the queries we process have never been asked before,” he said.

He then encouraged users to share their feedback to help them improve the feature.

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