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Google’s search-result Snippets rely on algorithms rather than human fact-checkers

Google says it will soon alter its Search tool to provide “diverse perspectives” where appropriate.

The change will affect the boxed text that often appears at the top of results pages – known as a Snippet – which contains a response sourced from a third-party site.

At present, Google provides only a single box but it will sometimes show multiple Snippets in the future.

The change could help Google tackle claims it sometimes spreads lies.

But one expert warned the move introduced fresh risks of its own.

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Snippets provide a quick response to queries but are sometimes based on opinion rather than fact

Google introduced Snippets into its search results in 2014, placing the boxed text below paid listings but above other links.

The idea is to provide information that users want without them having to click through to another page.

Google acknowledged at the time that “fact quality” would vary depending on the request.

But it has been accused of providing “shockingly bad” information in some cases, including Snippets that suggested:

  • women were evil
  • the food additive monosodium glutamate caused brain damage
  • anti-fascist campaigners held an overly simplistic view of the world

Google offered a less controversial example of a problem, in a blog detailing its new approach.

It said that when users asked if reptiles made “good pets” they were given several reasons why the answer was yes, but if they asked if the animals made “bad pets” they were given contradictory advice.

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Google’s current system can deliver contradictory advice

It said this happened because its system was designed to favour content that aligned with the posed question, and suggested that offering different viewpoints would therefore be a better option.

“There are often legitimate diverse perspectives offered by publishers, and we want to provide users visibility and access into those perspective from multiple sources,” wrote Matthew Gray, Google’s Snippets chief.

But one company-watcher has doubts.

“Both Google and Facebook are trying to address claims that they played a part in disseminating misinformation,” said Joseph Evans, digital media analyst at the consultancy Enders Analysis.

“Google is addressing one of its most controversial products in this context.

“But it still looks like a refusal of responsibility to say that, ‘Sometimes we’re wrong, but we can solve the problem by offering multiple viewpoints.’”

He added Google now faced the challenge of when to present more than one point of view, as it was nearly always possible to find a source that contradicted conventional wisdom but not always wise to present it.

Voice search

One consequence of the update is that publishers will face having their unsponsored links pushed further down the Search results page.

But part of the reason the issue is pressing for the US company is the fact its Google Assistant virtual helper relies on Snippets to provide voice-based replies.

Unlike on the web, links to other material are not presented – meaning a potential source of balance is lost.

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Media captionWATCH: Google Home’s odd answer

This became apparent in March 2017, when BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones’s Google Home smart speaker told him former US President Barack Obama “might be in bed with the Chinese” and plotting a coup.

“People were taken aback by Google saying this out loud,” Mr Evans said.

“Voice makes Snippets more influential.

“But we don’t know how the change will play out: will users be given multiple responses or be asked if they want to know more after the first?”

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