In 1941, Spanish author Jorge Borges wrote a short story called “The Library of Babel”. The titular library had an infinite amount of books with every possible combinations of letters, spaces and punctuation. Though such a library would contain every book that ever was or will been written, it would also contain an endless supply of gibberish and falsehoods. This 70-year old story works well as an allegory for the modern internet.
Separating truth from fiction can be difficult on the internet because there is so much misinformation mixed in with good sources. Google may have a plan in the works to fix this by including truthfulness as a ranking factor for search engine results in the future.
This may seem far-fetched but Google researchers have already shown that ranking websites on truthfulness is possible. In a study available on the Cornell University Library, a team of eight Google researchers published a paper where they explained how they were able to rank 119 million pages based on truthfulness and verified the results by checking subsets of the rankings.
The researchers tapped into the database that Google uses to answer questions in search to test the trustworthiness of web pages. It’s not a matter of being perfect. The researchers noted that a site with a few factual errors can still be considered “trustworthy”.
“In this paper, we address the fundamental question of estimating how trustworthy a given web source is,” the authors wrote in the introduction to their research. “Informally, we define the trustworthiness or accuracy of a web source as the probability that it contains the correct value for a fact (such as Barack Obama’s nationality), assuming that it mentions any value for that fact. (Thus we do not penalize sources that have few facts, so long as they are correct.)”
To make a long research paper short, the researchers were successful in creating a formula that calculated a Knowledge Based Trust score for each website that could be used in ranking and, theoretically, searches. The researchers could select a subset of the sites, rank them by truthfulness and then verify the results afterward.
Google hasn’t announced any formal plans to integrate Knowledge Based Trust into their everyday workings, but it’s likely they will do so in the future. Search engines function best when they help people find the answers they seek without sifting through useless pages. A truthfulness ranking can put better, more accurate information near the top. It will also encourage content creators to be more concerned about accuracy in their work, since it will affect SEO.
Though Google’s plan is more high-tech and actually considers the truthfulness of the source, Facebook sort of beat them to the punch with a similar plan to flag stories in the News Feed that are likely hoaxes or contain false. Facebook’s plan is based on feedback from users whereas the researchers at Google were concerned with verifying the factual claims in pages.
Either way, the research from Google is good news for those who want the internet to help increase knowledge among the population. There are a lot of topics where misinformation has spread because of the internet. It’s good to think that in the future, it will at least be easier for people to find the right information. Though to be fair, people self select the content they read, so it’s likely that people who want to read lies will choose to do so anyway. Think of it this way, when people search for a topic, they normally click the links where the headline or page title reinforces their beliefs or point of view.
Internet marketers should keep an eye on this development from Google. In the end, creating accurate, truthful content is in the best interest of the business. But in the near future, it may be in the best interest of a site’s SEO. With Google’s Knowledge Based Trust scoring, The Library of Babel just may have a new card catalog.