When you type a question into Google Search, you’ll often get a complete answer right at the top of the page. These featured answers can be a great time-saver, but they can also be dead wrong.
Why would Google be giving you incorrect information front and centre? Well, the video above from the Vox YouTube channel spills the beans. These short bits of information at the top of a Google search page, known as “featured snippets”, are considered to be “rich answers”, or answers that are given special priority beyond the usual results you’ll find below it. Basically, rich answers give you the desired information without you having to click on any links. Or if you have a Google Home, those rich answer snippets are usually what you get when you ask the personal assistant device a question.
As The Outline explains, Google determines those snippets using technology similar to its Knowledge Graph database, but also doesn’t limit itself to verified sources the way Knowledge Graph does. That means Google’s featured answers can be pulled in from almost any top search result, even if it’s a third-party website. So how do they get to be at the top? Part of it is popularity, but that isn’t all. Google places priority on links that directly answer common questions, links that answer those questions in fewer words than others, and it likes links that offer the information in a list format. It doesn’t matter if the information is accurate or not. For example, if you asked Google “why fire trucks were red” in the past, you’d get a quote from Monty Python. Other past examples include Google listing Barack Obama as “King of America”, or a snippet saying dinosaurs never existed.
And a whole lot of questions get those snippets. In fact, one study found around 31.2 per cent of 1.4 million searches had a snippet sitting pretty at the top. Not all of those rich answers are wrong, of course, but many of them could be and Google’s search police are unaware. Why? Google Search uses an automated process that decides whether it should keep a snippet or change it out based on the snippet’s performance. So a totally false statement could be a top featured answer until someone points it out. Google is usually pretty quick at fixing these things when someone takes notice, but they can’t catch everything before it potentially does some damage. So, as you go about your online searches, don’t always believe the first thing you read.