Enough About 'Fake News,' Let’s Talk 'Fake Search Results'

04/24/2017 08:59 am ET

By Joe Beccalori

One of the world’s leading authorities on search engine optimization for the past 20 years, Danny Sullivan, recently provoked some serious thought in an article about Google’s featured snippets.

Sullivan, who founded Search Engine Land, searched “presidents in the klan,” and Google’s featured snippet — a highlighted box of answers at the very top of the page — reveals four presidents, though no conclusive evidence is available to back up these claims.

We took Sullivan’s challenge to the next level and found a few other examples where Google’s featured snippets provide seemingly false information about what's well-known. We also brought Google Home into the mix to test voice searches — and what we found across all platforms is that the search algorithms are massively different.

Millions of people rely on search engines daily for fact checking, and Google’s featured snippets are clearly providing misleading information for some simple questions. What is the point of having these featured snippets displayed prominently at the top of the page when the information provided is false, and seemingly gets worse on newer search technologies such as the voice-activated Google Home device?

Our interactive agency keeps a close eye on client-featured snippets search results and will periodically inspect information and measure for accuracy. If you own a digital marketing agency, it's important that you also pay attention to these issues.

Examples of 'Fake Search Results'

Sticking with the presidential theme, in early March, we tested a Google search for “U.S. Presidents assassinated in office.” We took screenshots and video recordings during all testing to document the results.

Out of hundreds of thousands of results, the Wikipedia article attributed to the Google-featured snippet is correct ("List of United States presidential assassination attempts and plots"), but the bulleted feature displayed this at the top of the screen:

Presidents Assassinated:

  • Abraham Lincoln.
  • James A. Garfield.
  • William McKinley.
  • John F. Kennedy.
  • Andrew Jackson
  • William Howard Taft.
  • Theodore Roosevelt.

At first glance, which is often as far as many searches will go, there were seven “presidents assassinated."  Picture a high school student seeing the eight results above, and using this featured info as fact in a report. It must be true — Google said so, right? This type of false information puts Google in a sour place.

If you click through and read the Wikipedia article, you can tell that Google is pulling the seven names on the “Contents” article, which first mentions Lincoln through Kennedy as “Presidents assassinated,” followed by Jackson through Roosevelt under “Assassination plots and attempts.” This all-important grouping is not picked up accurately by snippets, thus leading to the harshly inaccurate list that appears in actual results.

We delved further, finding complete nonsensical answers when we completed a search of “Living Presidents USA.” Out of nearly 21 million results, the Google Snippet provides a Wikipedia article with the correct information, “Living Presidents of the United States.”

But the five bullet points for quick reference revealed five presidents: John Adams, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Thomas Jefferson and Nixon. Again, this is clearly false facts from the world’s most trusted source. Google has since seemed to fix the error in its featured snippet, but things only get more convoluted when we add voice search into the mix from Google Home.

Comparing Google Search and Google Home results

When you type into Google “how many presidents were there,” the entry begins: “43 People have served as President of the United States. This includes Barack Obama, currently serving his second term.” Again, the featured snippet is attributed to an article that has the correct information, “How many presidents has the United States had,” but highlights some older information from that article.

Now, if you ask Google Home, you get various answers. Depending on how you ask, the answer is 43, 44 or 45. How can we expect to gets the facts straight when the largest search engine in the world that everyone depends on every second for knowledge is not correct?

Concluding Thoughts

While we rely on search engines every day and regularly use them to fact check, how do we rely on them for info when Google can’t even answer simple questions? And what is the impact of prominently displaying them at the top of the search engine when people rely on this daily?

For the largest search engine in the world that students and the public at large take for granted or verbatim, Google has some work to do. But as this hopefully gets sorted out in future algorithms, digital marketing agencies and fact-checkers alike should monitor search results closely, and aim to correct any false content that appears in these featured snippets.

As my mom once told me, “Don’t believe everything you read.” This statement seems truer now than ever before.

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Joe Beccalori is a 20-year digital marketing veteran, an industry thought leader and the CEO of Interact Marketing.

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