Dave Gershgorn | Quartz | March 9, 2017 | 0 Comments

Google Will Always Answer Your Questions, But You Shouldn’t Always Let It

Evan Lorne/Shutterstock.com

When you punch a common question into the search bar on Google, you’re presented now with an answer emphasized above all the others. Often, it contains enough detail to satisfy your curiosity on the spot, with no need to click further. It’s what the search company calls a “featured snippet,” and it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-03-08 at 2.44.19 PM
A snippet about snippets.

Featured snippets can be highly convenient. They also can be highly misleading. And it’s unclear how Google plans to navigate the uncomfortable spot between highlighting select information for users and not claiming responsibility for its veracity.

We can look at the problem through the experience of Gizmodo Media’s Tom Scocca, who in 2012 wrote an article for Slate about the time it takes to caramelize onions. Challenging the onion establishment, Scocca wrote the process would take home cooks at least 28 minutes, and possibly as many as 45 minutes. He took specific aim at a recipe from The New York Times food section, quoting and then refuting its claim that the onions would soften and turn dark brown in 5 minutes and become fully caramelized after 5 minutes more.

So Scocca was surprised when he recently googled the phrase “how long does it take to caramelize onions” and was served up a snippet that contained the 5-minutes-and-then-5-minutes-more instructions—and attributed the answer to his article for Slate. Rather than using the answer Scocca arrived at, it appears Google grabbed and highlighted his quotation of the Times article—a complete misrepresentation of the point of his Slate piece.

“Five years after I thought I had buried the falsehood about quick onion cooking, Google is dragging it out of its grave to send it shambling into unsuspecting users’ kitchens,” Scocca wrote March 7 for Gizmodo.

Since the publication of Scocca’s Gizmodo piece, the featured snippet on how long it takes to caramelize onions has changed. It now cites the correct information from Scocca’s Slate article. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Featured snippets don’t technically bear the full weight of Google’s artificial intelligence tools, as the feature’s help page notes.

This isn’t the first time Google has come under fire for its snippets. In 2015, Motherboard discovered that asking “What happened to the dinosaurs” returned a snippet from a creationist website claiming dinosaurs were a myth to indoctrinate children by “evolutionists.”

That snippet has since been changed, and now cites National Geographic.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • It’s Time for the Federal Government to Embrace Wireless and Mobility

    The United States has turned a corner on the adoption of mobile phones, tablets and other smart devices, outpacing traditional desktop and laptop sales by a wide margin. This issue brief discusses the state of wireless and mobility in federal government and outlines why now is the time to embrace these technologies in government.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • A New Security Architecture for Federal Networks

    Federal government networks are under constant attack, and the number of those attacks is increasing. This issue brief discusses today's threats and a new model for the future.

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Software-Defined Networking

    So many demands are being placed on federal information technology networks, which must handle vast amounts of data, accommodate voice and video, and cope with a multitude of highly connected devices while keeping government information secure from cyber threats. This issue brief discusses the state of SDN in the federal government and the path forward.

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.