The algorithms that built the empire are proving inadequate for Google and Facebook today
The systems designed to deliver search results, top stories, and customized content, are failing the techs as the web is filled with fake news, conspiracy theories, and the like
There was once a time, believe it or not, when you could do a search for a general term item like “construction” and only come up with a couple thousand results. I thought that was amazing back then, a couple thousand seemed like a lot. But within months a couple thousand evolved into over a million and the search engine, Webcrawler in this case, no longer would give the user an actual number, just 1 million+.
Google didn’t come along until later. But Google’s search engine quickly became the default way the world searched the web and the verb “google” was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006. (You know, that really wasn’t that long ago.)
But the way Google found and organized its search results, which drove the company’s success is proving inadequate today. Not only will a search of Google produce sometimes frightening results, but the company wants to use its search engine in its new products, such as Google Home, which makes the situation even worse.
This story and tweet really as much of the media upset:
And here's what happens if you ask Google Home "is Obama planning a coup?" pic.twitter.com/MzmZqGOOal
— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) March 5, 2017
The problem, of course, is that Google Home will repeat back to the user whatever story comes up first in its search results. In this case, asking Google Home “Is Obama planning a coup?” came up with a fake news story, that was even out of date.
If you ask the same question right now, using the online search engine, what you come up with is a link to stories about Google Home’s messed up response.
Google and Facebook are the center of a major controversy now. Each day, millions of people who use their services are being delivered fake news, conspiracy theories and the like. But one has to feel at least some sympathy for the companies. What has worked, no longer does. Google isn’t intentionally delivery crazy results, they are simply delivering what their algorithms result in.
But it is a fun game for some journalists to play: do a search for a crazy conspiracy and watch Google provide the results that seem to show Google complicit in the conspiracy.
“Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites,” Google told Recode. “Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content. When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance. We apologize for any offense this may have caused.”
Google – and Facebook, too – are, in essence, playing whack-a-mole. When informed that someone embarrassing is being produced by their system, Google dutifully deletes it. Even Google must realize that this is a terrible way to solve the problem.
What Google, and I fear many other techs, do not seem to understand is that these stories are the equivalent to a front page editorial for The New York Times. That when Google’s search results show that the former president is planning a coup, linking to an obviously wacky story, it is as Google is certifying the story as accurate… at least in the minds of those who are susceptible to such information.
This example, with screenshot from Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land is a perfect example because the story itself is so obviously crazy. First, Obama’s term didn’t end in 2016, it ended January 20, 2017 when Trump took the oath of office.
“By the way, many often assume that these problematic answers are the result of overt actions by right-wing people that somehow know how to manipulate Google into doing whatever they want,” Sullivan wrote on Sunday.
“That’s not the case. There are indeed things people can do to increase the chances of being a featured snippet, but most of the problematic examples I review don’t appear to have been deliberate attempts. Rather, they seem to be the result of Google’s algorithms and machine learning making bad selections.”
Sullivan suggest the problem lies with One True Answers which he calls “its competitive advantage with Google Home.”
But not all search results show a featured response. For instance, this search result is likely not what the White House would prefer:
So, I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that the techs have a serious problem on their hands. One they may feel can be dealt with though simply measures because, after all, there is nothing malicious in what their system is delivering.
But these are crazy times. If Breitbart were to feature Google or Facebook on its front page, with a story about some search results or fake news stories about the president, what would Trump’s reaction be. Would he calmly say “oh, that’s just what their algorithms are producing?” or would be jump on Twitter and begin threatening the company?