Look Out, Charlatans: Google Considers Ranking Sites by Truth, not Popularity

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Google currently ranks websites based on their popularity, but they’re toying with the idea of ranking them based on something slightly more helpful: how truthful they are.

For the past few years, they’ve been building something called the Knowledge Vault, which automatically scans the Internet and identifies millions of facts that pretty much everyone can agree are correct, like that George W. Bush is 69 years old and Circus Peanuts are the most disgusting candy in existence.

The idea is that they could use this knowledge vault to give priority to search results that are truthful. This is a really exciting idea for those of us who promote science over much more popular pseudoscience. When people search “vaccines, autism” I want them to see well-researched and accessible links that will explain that the science shows us that vaccines do not cause autism. I don’t want the top link to be Natural News, where a homeopath named Feather will tell them that polio is a gift from the Earth that should be treasured.

homeopath named feather

If Google did institute something like this, it would be in sharp contrast to the direction they’ve been going for the past several years. Not only does Google show results based on popularity, but for the past few years they’ve also been showing people “personalized” results based on their own social media, which is, frankly, disastrous for the promotion of science.

Research has shown that Google’s personalized search results have increased the amount of nonsense being spread around, since it helps people stay inside their ideological bubbles and see only what the people they’re already following on Twitter are saying. These social media results have even been gamed in the past, as some researchers showed when examining the spread of a “Twitter bomb” in the waning hours of the election runoff between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley for Senate. Brown was trailing for most of the run up to the election, until his social media team kicked things into high gear. The same group responsible for the “swift boating” of John Kerry set up an attack website against Coakley. Hundreds of spam Twitter accounts then tweeted and retweeted the links to Brown’s fans, who then retweeted them. The links became so popular so quickly on Twitter that Google would display the tweets prominently in results when people searched for Coakley or Brown, even after Twitter banned the spam accounts.

As long as Google or something like it exists, people will find ways to game the system. But I have to say, it does seem like it’ll be a lot harder to misrepresent something as “truthful” than it is to misrepresent it as “popular,” especially if Google drafts actual experts in relevant fields to help out.

I’m still skeptical it will work, since “truth” is such a tough thing to get a handle on these days. And I wonder how the system would deal with satire, or pure opinion. But hell, it has climate change deniers like Anthony Watts freaking out, so I’m willing to sit back and see what happens.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Rebecca, you say “especially if Google drafts actual experts in relevant fields to help out”. This would be a key point.

    Ah, the reek of butthurt from climate change deniers is one of life’s sweetest treasures. This may actually make life worth living and like you I wait with sharpened anticipation…

    1. Jack99,

      I wouldn’t be surprised if the creationists of the world were equally terrified, especially if they’re one of the smarter ones who realizes that everything they’re saying is a lie, and they’re just trying to dupe the gullible out of their money.

      1. You can see where this is going. They will just set up an alternative search engine with a knowledge vault based solely on the Bible.

  2. Rebecca Watson,

    This will be great, if they can pull it off. They could still give people the option to search by popularity, if they wanted to, since some things clearly are just subjective options, and it makes even less sense to rank things like superhero comics or online fantasy novels by how factually accurate they are. Still I’m a bit worried that they won’t use actually experts to determined how true statements are on websites that purport to give out factual information.

    1. The biggest problem for this might be sites who point out common misconceptions (particularly ones which have made it into official sources), or “Well technically…” bits of trivia which contradict common knowledge.

      For instance, here’s one where Google’s Knowledge Vault is misleading: Ask it who the first president of the USA was. It will give you George Washington, who was the first President under the constitution (which it assumes is what you mean by “President”), but under the articles of confederation, there was also a “president” office (with a significantly different role, but with the title only differing in that it isn’t capitalized). So, if someone were to say “The first president of the USA was Samuel Huntington” (true, albeit for a different type of “president” than most people would assume on reading it), they might get downranked.

      Context clues would be needed in this case to figure out which definition of “president” is being used (since the capitalization convention isn’t always adhered-to). It might be possible, but it will certainly be tricky to program. And that’s not even getting into all the other places where common knowledge is wrong or debatable (Who made the first powered heavier-than-air flight? Probably the Wright brothers, but maybe Gustave Whitehead). But Google’s got a lot of smart people working for them. They can probably find a way to differentiate legitimate controversies or disagreements between experts from faux-controversies and laypeople disagreeing with experts.

  3. I both love, and fear this. On one hand: all facts, all the time, fucking love it. Kill all the snake oil businesses and eradicate the noise they introduce to public debate in one fell swoop.

    On the other – and I say this as a hugenormous fan of Google and pretty much all they enable – can we trust a for-profit corporation to always tell the truth, even if it runs counter to their interests and their shareholders’ interests?

    Can we trust Google to sell the truth?

    I, for one, feel that no single person or organization should have all that power – it must be distributed.

    (Also, YOU LIE, Rebecca – everyone knows Red Vines are the Devil’s pubic hairs.)

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