Fact Checking the Search Engines

Scales-Of-Justice-12987500-300x300I laugh sometimes when I see how social media and other web outlets get a story very wrong. There is a whirlwind of stories going around right now about how Google is going to squash stories from Fox News and from other news outlets with which they don’t agree. And there is a huge gnashing of teeth by those who think this is a terrible thing.

The only problem with these stories is that they aren’t true. Google has recently introduced fact checking for medical information on their web site. They did this because they see that more than 1 in 20 Google searches are medical inquiries. People now largely go to the Internet first when they get a symptom. And so Google wants to make sure that people are getting reliable medical facts.

And there is good reason for them to do this. They way search engines work in general is that topics with the most sources on the web get ranked at the top of a search. So when somebody comes up with some quack medical tip, if that meme is then picked up on hundreds of other web sites and in social media, the new meme rises to the top of a search on that topic—regardless of how true it is.

There is a ton of quack medical and nutrition advice on the internet. Much of the quackery can be traced back to somebody with a motive to spread an untruth; generally that motive is financial. The pushers of nutrition supplements, pills to make you lose weight, books on curing cancer with herbs, etc. all stand to make money when what they are selling makes it to the top of a Google search.

Now contrast these spurious memes to good medical advice on the web. There are a handful of web sites like WebMD that provide very straightforward medical facts. But these sites are not often in the news and the symptoms of something like diabetes don’t make it into web articles at nearly the same rate as some crazy cure for diabetes might. And so over time the legitimate web sites get pushed further and further down a Google search list.

Google’s solution to the problem is to hire a doctor to list the medical sites that are legitimate and Google is going to arbitrarily boost those sites over other sources of medical information. You type in ‘symptoms of diabetes’ and you will now be led first to one of these sites and not to some crazy article. In doing this Google hasn’t suppressed anything and all of those other crazy medical sites and articles are still there in search – they just don’t sit at the top of the list. I think this is a wonderful idea and I laud Google for probably helping millions of people find the right medical facts.

However, it has been widely reported that this same thing is going to be done for all web searches and that Google is going to be the one to decide what is ‘true’ or not for all search topics. And so they would also decide what comes up first when you search for a topic on politics, religion, climate change, or the best recipe for brownies. Over the last few weeks Fox News made a huge deal out of this and stirred up the whole web over the topic. And since this is precisely what google does with shopping sites, the rumor sounds reasonable.

But it’s not true and Google is not doing this. There was a recent news release from Google about an internal Google research paper that talked about how Google might theoretically introduce more fact-checking. The report recommends that Google use what is called a ‘Knowledge Vault” that would contain verified facts of various types. The Google researchers use an example of websites that say that president Obama was born in Kenya. Since that is demonstrably not true, and if the president’s place of birth was listed in the Knowledge Vault, then a website making such a false claim would get a lower Google ranking.

The research paper goes on to recommend that only a few sources of information be used to feed such a Knowledge Vault, such as Wikipedia and Freebase which are crowd-sourced and largely self-policing. Unlike the medical searches, which Google is clearly tilting, they would not be the ones deciding what is factual, but would leave that up to sites that mostly get things right.

But none of this real. While Google has introduced the medical ranking system, the idea of introducing this for everything is nothing more than a research paper. It’s the kind of thought experiment you would expect a company that runs a search engine to think about. And even if Google ever decided to do this (and for topics like religion and politics that seems unlikely) they would not be the ones deciding what the ‘facts’ are, but would leave that up to the shared consensus on a dozen sites that are basically web encyclopedias. But since Google runs their search engine to make money I find it highly unlikely that they would ever be dumb enough to fiddle with politics, religion, or any of the other hot button topics—because they understand that as successful as they are, people could flock in mass to another search engine if they no longer trusted Google to lead them to wacky political web sites. Because if my Facebook feed is any indication, that is probably the second most popular search on the web these days.


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