Google has started warning users when they search for a topic that is likely to have poor results, as part of its effort to tackle ‘data voids’ on the search engine.
The new warning was spotted by Renee DiResta, an academic who studies misinformation at Stanford University. “It looks like these results are changing quickly,” Google will now caution users. “If this topic is new, it can sometimes take time for results to be added by reliable sources.”“First time I’ve seen this response from Google Search,” DiResta said. “Positive step to communicating that something is newsy/breaking (my search was for a breaking culture war story), and highlighting that facts are not all known or consensus on what happened is still being formed.”
While social media is regularly linked with misinformation, researchers have long cautioned that search engines can be powerful tools for spreading falsehoods. Data voids, search engine queries that have little to no results, can often lead to fringe claims being given undue prominence – a particular concern for breaking news.
In a blogpost, Danny Sullivan, public liaison for search at Google, said: “We’ve trained our systems to detect when a topic is rapidly evolving and a range of sources hasn’t yet weighed in. We’ll now show a notice indicating that it may be best to check back later when more information from a wider range of sources might be available.”
The warning tends to appear for searches with a lot of recent hits, but few from reputable sites. For instance, a recent report of a UFO sighting in Wales had spread rapidly among conspiracy theorists, but had little mainstream attention.
That meant that a search for the terms “ufo 106 mph” briefly brought up the warning, Sullivan told the tech site Recode.