The team behind Google Search is changing its featured snippets — the text boxes that sometimes spread false information while trying to offer help. The company announced an update that is supposed to make answers more accurate and avoid the problem of false premises, or questions where a definitive-sounding answer would make no sense. It’s combined with an expansion in Google’s “about this result” option and warnings for low-quality data gaps, as well as a new partnership in information literacy lesson plans for middle and high school students.
Snippets show up in many searches, but because they seem to directly answer questions by quoting pages, they can backfire in ways that standard query answers don’t. In a presentation to journalists, Google offered some examples of these problems and how it is trying to fix them. When looking at how long it takes light to get from the Sun to Earth, for example, Google at one point offered a snippet that highlighted the distance from Pluto.
The solution, according to VP of search Pandu Nayak, lies in finding a consensus: matching facts across multiple top search results. In a call with reporters, Nayak clarified that this consensus check comes from pages that Google has already designated as high-quality, something Google hopes can prevent a snippet-equivalent Google bombardment. “It doesn’t establish that something is trustworthy, it just looks at the best results,” says Nayak. But by looking at multiple pages Google already trusts and then trying to find common ground, he hopes he can avoid highlighting the wrong details.
A separate issue is the “false premise” issue, a phenomenon where Google tries to be a bit also useful with fragments. For years, if you’ve entered a trick question about something that never happened, Google has often offered snippets that seem to confirm its truth, drawing bits of text out of context from a semi-related page. The search team’s example, for example, is “When did Snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln?”, which at one point offered the date of Lincoln’s death in a snippet. Google calls such cases “not very common,” but says it has been training its systems to better detect them and not offer any featured snippets, and promises it has reduced the incidence of these inappropriate appearances by 40 percent.
This does not necessarily solve all problems with fragments. Nayak acknowledged that neither system would help with an issue identified last year in which Google offered the just the opposite of good advice on seizure management, listing a series of “don’ts” as guides on what to do. “That kind of thing is really about making sure our underlying algorithms properly extract enough context,” says Nayak, who says Google continues to make improvements that could prevent similar issues.
But the goal is to make snippets go haywire less often and increase trust in search results, something that’s emphasized by other Google changes. For about a year now, Google has been placing warnings about unreliable search results that can occur in breaking news situations. Now you’re expanding them to more general situations where you determine there aren’t high-quality results for a search, adding a notice before letting people scroll down the page to see the results. It doesn’t prevent anyone from seeing the content, but ideally it helps manage expectations about the reliability of the information.
Google is also expanding “About This Page,” which allows you to see details about the website a given result came from. Until now, the option has been available in Search, but now it’s rolling out in Google’s iOS app in English: you can swipe up while browsing any page through the app to get more details about it, which theoretically helps you assess its reliability. The system will launch on Android later this year and in other languages in the coming months.