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Google’s “One True Answer” problem — when featured snippets go bad

Obama's planning a coup? Women are evil? Several presidents were in the KKK? Republicans are Nazis? Google can go spectacularly wrong with some of its direct answers.

Here we are again. Google’s in hot water because of what I call its “One True Answer” feature, where it especially highlights one search listing over all others as if that’s the very best answer. It’s a problem because sometimes these answers are terribly wrong.

When Google gets facts wrong

At the end of last month, Google was spotted listing several US presidents as being members of the Ku Klux Klan, even though there’s no conclusive evidence of any of this:

What’s happening there is called a “featured snippet,” where Google has taken one of the 10 web listings it normally displays and put it into a special box, to highlight it as seemingly the best of all the results, the listing that may fully answer your question.

I’ve taken to calling this Google’s “One True Answer” feature, because that’s effectively what it is to me. Google is expressing so much faith in this answer that it elevates it above all others. Google’s faith in Featured Snippets is especially profound when they emerge through its Google Home voice assistant:

One more. As best I can tell, no US presidents were in the KKK yet Google lists five of them.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) March 5, 2017

Yesterday, President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him, causing paranoia in some quarters that Obama was plotting a coup. In fact, it’s one of the top things Google currently suggests if you type in “Is Obama….” into Google’s search box, indicating it’s a search with some degree of popularity:

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Google’s “One True Answer” problem — when featured snippets go bad


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