In a long blog post, Google has announced that it is about to stop answering your stupid questions. Surprisingly, the more you look into it, the more it sounds like a pretty good idea.
In the beginnings of Google and for most of its history, Google has attempted to point you in the way of the information you need, bringing the most relevant results to the top of the page for you to explore yourself. However, in recent years it has tried to make things even easier for its users, by attempting to answer the question quickly without the need for you to explore further websites.
Whether it's a "knowledge panel" (the little block on the right-hand side which tells you information about a public figure) the "featured snippets" at the top, or the "people also ask" section, Google now attempts to answer your question quickly, without the need to leave the page.
While this is incredibly useful for well-established facts, or issues where there is a lot of consensus, there are other times when having what (to layperson users) looks like a definitive answer pop up can be less ideal, especially when the algorithm gets it wrong.
One problem is, you don't search like an actual robot. Questions can be misspelled (am I pergant? Am I pegarnt?) or just nonsensical in their premise. These are, understandably, a little harder for Google to deal with. If you ask a nonsensical question that somebody else has taken the time to write about, their answer could look to the algorithm like a definitive and relevant answer.
Take, for example, the time it informed people that five US presidents were in the Ku Klux Klan.
It's not the only example. As The Outline notes, if you search nonsensical questions, Google will often provide you with an answer. "Who is king of the united states" once yielded the answer "Barack Obama", while the question "is Obama planning a coup" sent back the answer "not only could Obama be in bed with the communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d'état at the end of his term in 2016" which is what's known as "huge if true".
Google is aware of the problem.
"For example, a recent search for 'when did snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln' provided a snippet highlighting an accurate date and information about Lincoln’s assassination," they write in their update about snippet panels. "But this clearly isn’t the most helpful way to display this result."
Essentially, when someone asks "when did Snoopy kill the president" you don't want it answering with "1865", even if you have suspicions about his involvement.
The answer they have come up with is essentially to stop answering your stupid questions.
"By using our latest AI model, Multitask Unified Model (MUM), our systems can now understand the notion of consensus, which is when multiple high-quality sources on the web all agree on the same fact," the team write in their update.
If the algorithm finds that there is a consensus on the topic – even if various articles word the fact in different ways – it can return a snippet with the relevant information.
"AI models are also helping our systems understand when a featured snippet might not be the most helpful way to present information," they continue. "We’ve trained our systems to get better at detecting these sorts of false premises, which are not very common, but are cases where it’s not helpful to show a featured snippet. We’ve reduced the triggering of featured snippets in these cases by 40 percent with this update."
Google will also add more context to the "about this result" section, to include information about ownership of companies, reviews about sources, and whether Google cannot find much info about a source, to help users think a little more critically about the information they are accessing through the search engine.
"Google was built on the premise that information can be a powerful thing for people around the world," the team conclude. "We’re determined to keep doing our part to help people everywhere find what they’re looking for and give them the context they need to make informed decisions about what they see online."