Google Is Trying to Be Wikipedia, and They’re Failing

July 14, 2017

10:50 am

Ever search for a phrase or a definition only to find Google offer up the answer in a handy snippet of information right below your query but in front of the first search result? It’s an algorithmic process that’s designed to use Google’s massive database to causally dip into a wide variety of tasks. The “featured snippets” tool is designed to quietly replace one of the internet’s biggest sites, Wikipedia. But it’s failing.

Featured Snippets Are Unreliable

One reason Google works so well is that it offers entire pages of results, letting people pick out the right one. But the featured snippet is just one result, and backed up by Google’s ubiquity as the all-seeing eye of the internet, it appears foolproof. It also offers up some truly terrible and incredibly inaccurate results.

The Outline reported on the problem earlier this year, and Google has since removed some of the worst snippets named in the article. They used to offer up five U.S. presidents in response to a google search for any presidents in the KKK, despite the fact that none were. A snippet also once affirmed that Obama was planning martial law, another falsehood pulled from a disreputable site. Still up? One snippet claims that MSG is dangerous in response to a search for “MSG dangers,” despite the fact that the stigma can be traced back to a single scientist who ate Chinese food once, got sick and hypothesized that the additive was responsible.

The reality is that, while Google can manually remove the featured snippets that gain notoriety, the process is automated — featured snippets pop up for an estimated 20 percent of the millions of searches users can make on the search engine. Wikipedia may not be an entirely trustworthy source, as any middle school English teacher is fond of pointing out, but Google is nowhere close to replacing its network of human volunteers.

It’s a Big Concern for the Future of Search

Writing in a forward-looking end-of-the-year article from a collection of Microsoft researchers, Susan Dumais, a scientist and deputy managing director at a Redmond, Washington, research lab, made a compelling prediction for the future of search engines in the next decade.

The search box will disappear,” Dumais said. “It will be replaced by search functionality that is more ubiquitous, embedded and contextually sensitive. We are seeing the beginnings of this transformation with spoken queries, especially in mobile and smart home settings.  This trend will accelerate with the ability to issue queries consisting of sound, images or video, and with the use of context to proactively retrieve information related to the current location, content, entities or activities without explicit queries.

As we head towards this prediction perhaps even sooner than 2027, Google’s featured snippets problem has yet to be addressed. It could get even tougher to root out if a similar approach takes over voice search as well.

But Google Can Still Crush Plenty of Other Businesses

The search engine’s data collection has allowed it to casually swallow up entire business models. The most recent example: Google for Jobs, which aggregates job positions from a vast selection of different job boards. Granted, the job boards still serve as intermediaries, since Google just redirects users to each individual job posting, but the job boards lose out on large amounts of data on how many users are searching, and for which positions. If Google wants to create its own job board, it already has more data than its competitors, and it can block them from gaining more.

In other cases, Google can (nearly) destroy entire businesses. is one example: the business calculates how much money celebrities are worth. That business model was dented, as a follow-up Outline article covered, once Google’s featured snippets started delivering the information to searchers, denying page views from the sites that actually did the math.

But the limits of Google’s steamrolling algorithm can be seen in every wrong answer they turn up, and this fact is never highlighted better than in it’s “featured snippets” tool.

Read more about what’s happening at Google at TechCo

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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