In its ongoing effort to answer the world’s questions (and sell ads), Google has been putting increased emphasis on its “featured snippets” – the little boxes of text extracted from whatever source Google has calculated to be most relevant. If I want to see whether my dogs can catch the flu, I can quickly see that, yes, it’s possible.
However, a recent Wall Street Journal article (“Google Has Picked an Answer for You—Too Bad It’s Often Wrong“) looked at the increased frequency of these quick answers that appear at the top of search results. (Note that these are not the Knowledge Panels, which are sourced from Wikipedia and other neutral sources.)
According to a study commissioned by the WSJ, these featured snippets are often excerpted from unreliable or biased sources. Google’s algorithm favors a web site with text that most exactly matches the query; as a result, the researchers found that the extracted text was more likely to come from a less-authoritative, biased or dodgy clickbait site.
Worse yet, since featured snippets are designed to closely match the query, they can feed confirmation bias. The featured snippet for the query “is milk good for you” says “Milk can be good for the bones because it provides vitamin D and calcium…” The featured snippet for the search “is milk bad for you” says “Animal milk has long been claimed as the go-to source of calcium by the dairy industry, but as it turns out, milk is bad for you .”
Since most people have been trained by Google to trust the first answer that appears, it’s even more important to practice some information hygiene before relying on the first answer from a search engine.