In the post-truth era, the quest to surface ‘credible content’ has only just begun

Google is making changes to deliver more credible content to more queries.

After a Google search for “did the holocaust happen” yielded a top result from white supremacist group Stormfront, Google has reportedly amended its algorithm to demote Holocaust denial sites.

In fact, in a statement to Search Engine Land, Google said:

When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these one-by-one. We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web. We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.

As Search Engine Land explained, Stormfront has not been banned from Google – it just no longer has the top result for this query. Although it’s worth noting search results are impacted by a great many number of factors, including previous searches and location, so the exact results each user sees varies. What’s more, in the days since these reports surfaced, Stormfront has reappeared on the first page, although it is no longer the top result. And results have also been impacted by the number of news stories that have since emerged on the topic.

As longtime Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan put it:

It’s not surprising that [Stormfront] has returned into the top listings. As loathsome as denial sites are, it’s also relevant to this search, at the very least for those who want to combat denial to understand what’s being said. What was objectionable was that it was coming first or outranking non-denial sites. That situation still appears fixed. It could change, as Google’s results change for a variety of reasons as the web itself changes. But if Google’s ‘fix’ is really working, I wouldn’t expect it to outrank authority sites.

The problem for Google and other search engines is that there are many more queries that yield similar results. It’s an issue Facebook has also recently encountered in the wake of the fake news brouhaha. And, like Facebook, Google has previously expressed reluctance to meddle as it wanted to preserve the integrity of its algorithms. It is, after all, something of a slippery slope to position oneself as an “[arbiter] of truth.” As a result – at least in part – as Search Engine Land reported, Google was “taking time to figure out the best and most comprehensive response” to fake news and inappropriate search suggestions.

Indeed, Fortune noted it was unclear how long the update would take and what sites would be favored to surface "more high quality, credible content."

And this is surely an issue we’ll see play out further in 2017.

“Dealing with the rise of fake news and the post-truth world isn’t easy. It’s not going to be a fast fix,” Sullivan added. “I think Bing’s done a better job than Google in the examples raised, but both have issues. Both will continue to have issues especially when cherry-picking infrequent queries.”

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