We’re barely passed the first month of the new year and we’re already seeing major changes to the Google platform. Thanks to its powerful search algorithm, Google has become the go-to place for answers. However, the company became a lightning rod for criticism last year when people manipulated the system so Google would give fringe answers to basic questions. Google tweaked their algorithm last year to address this issue, but now they’ve unveiled a new tactic: adding more snippets.
Essentially, Google had been catching flak from some circles for allegedly discouraging discourse on topics by providing answers in the form of snippets. For example, a person with a question about the Kennedy assassination would get a snippet with an answer that parrots the official government account, but probably wouldn’t mention conspiracy theories. These sort of omission are understandable when Google has to select one answer that the algorithm thinks is the best, but it makes some people think Google is trying to suppress alternative viewpoints.
In general, snippets are very accurate. Last year, a third-party analysis found snippet answers were right 97% of the time. But even Google realizes they had to make changes to address the issues that arose in the past few years.
In a blog posts explaining how snippets work, Google stated, “Last year, we took deserved criticism for featured snippets that said things like “women are evil” or that former U.S. President Barack Obama was planning a coup. We failed in these cases because we didn’t weigh the authoritativeness of results strongly enough for such rare and fringe queries. To improve, we launched an effort that included updates to our Search Quality Rater Guidelines to provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories.”
Even with these changes, Snippets aren’t perfect. Depending on the way a search query is worded, snippets can give contradictory information. Google gave the example of asking whether reptiles are good pets. One way of asking led to a snippet from an article on the reasons reptiles make good pets, while asking another way led to an article snippet listing reasons why it’s cruel to keep reptiles. Google is hoping to ameliorate the situation by offering multiple snippets from a more diverse range of sources.
Google hasn’t shown exactly how a multiple snippet system would work, but it’s clear that the direction the company wants to go. In statement that was quoted by the BBC, Matthew Gray, Google’s snippets chief wrote, “There are often legitimate diverse perspectives offered by publishers, and we want to provide users visibility and access into those perspective from multiple sources.”
Getting snippets right is important for several reasons, besides the optical issues of having Google recommend fringe theories. It’s easy for desktop and mobile users to disregard snippets and jump into the search results. However, snippets are also used for the answers Google gives via voice search, Google Assistant and Google Home. Adding a more diverse range of voices to the snippets would let Google avoid criticism for having inaccurate information or being accused of trying to drown out alternative viewpoints.
For content creators, the changes to snippets could be a good thing. If Google is choosing from more sources, there is a greater chance that their site about a topic may be surfaced for part of the answer. We’ll have to wait a little longer to see how the multiple answer snippets are used by Google.
For more recent information about changes to online marketing, read this article about recent changes to Facebook’s branded content tool.