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Google is demoting misleading and offensive content in its search by updating algorithms and offering users new ways to report bad results.
The change follows increased attention to flaws in top search results, including the promotion of fake news — and deliberately misleading or false information formatted to look like news — during the 2016 presidential election.
Google said it has updated its algorithms to better prioritize “authoritative” content. Content may be deemed authoritative based on signals such as affiliation of a site with a university or verified news source, how often other sites link to the site in question and the quality of the sites that link.
“We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content, so that issues similar to the Holocaust denial results that we saw back in December are less likely to appear,” writes Ben Gomes, Google’s executive in charge of search, in a blog post published today.
Additionally, users can now flag autocomplete features and highlighted results that are offensive, false or otherwise problematic. “We plan to use this feedback to help improve our algorithms,” writes Gomes.
It’s been a rough year for Google’s oldest and still most core product, search. As Search Engine Land founding editor Danny Sullivan wrote recently, search results may not actually be any worse than they used to be, but people increasingly see them as problematic. And that perception is a problem for Google.
Autocomplete and highlighted result snippets are two search features that have gotten attention for not performing as expected.
Previously, if you typed “are Jews” into search, one autocomplete option that surfaced was “are Jews evil?” Google tweaked autocomplete suggestions last year, shortly after it became aware of the problem, so things like this wouldn’t happen. The new flagging option is aimed at preventing future controversies.
Google drew criticism again this year when its highlighted top result for the query “is Obama planning a coup” was a snippet from a site called “Secrets of the Fed,” which said that the former president is trying to overthrow the government. (He is not.)
On top of Google drawing attention to the result at the top of text search, the snippet was what Google’s Assistant software on its Home device and Pixel phones would read aloud when asked verbally.
These latest attempts from Google to curb fake news follow announcements earlier this year that it had banned 200 publishers from its AdSense network after implementing a policy against fake news, and was introducing a fact-checking tag to search results.