While the web is full of legitimate, creditable resources, anyone can buy a domain and fill it with undocumented, unreliable information. If the person doing this is good at Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices, they can make their pages show up toward the top of Google searches, lending some degree of seeming credibility.
But, according to a new paper from Google, the search engine may, at some point, be able to use factual accuracy as a significant factor in a page’s search ranking. And that’s a huge deal.
Have We Voluntarily Given Too Much Power and Trust?
People tend to trust Google, and this trust is what gives Google power over information. The search engine has worked so well that we’ve come to reduce the other ways we seek information. While that’s our fault, and not Google’s, do we (and should we) trust the company to not just to find us the information we ask for, but also determine which information is true? Or is it simply no different than the faith we used to place in the printed word, in encyclopedias and libraries?
Truth and Truthiness
Even Google critics will agree that a more factual web would be beneficial, but Google will have to convince those critics that it can actually do so. The Google paper claims that determining factual accuracy is pretty easy for their computers. When presented with a “fact,” Google servers have millions of reference points they can use to crosscheck that information. Theoretically, the truth never changes, but what we perceive to be the truth certainly does. Consider fundamental shift in understanding that the Earth revolves around the sun, and vice versa.
Would new thinking and theories that contradict established “truth” find it harder to gain acceptance? Would Copernicus and Galileo be as remembered today if they’d had to convince Google’s computers that their new ideas were correct? What about Einstein, or Hawking?
Keep Using Your Head
I’ll admit to being one of those who thinks we should always watch the watchmen, keeping them honest. But, in this case, I am not sure it’s Google we should be watching; we should be watching ourselves. Google is only one of the world’s most influential tech companies because we made it such. I think the real concern is not that Google will do something evil or wrong, but that all of us will let our critical thinking slip just a little bit more because “of course it’s true—it’s the first result on Google.” And if you don’t think that can happen, just ask any teacher how many times their students cite Wikipedia as a credible resource.
Did You Know You Can’t Google “Gullible”?
Some would say that the Internet in general is making us less skeptical, and more likely to believe everything we read. It’s more likely, though, that the Internet is just making it a lot easier for people who do believe everything they read to out themselves.
Should Google apply fact checking to its search algorithm, we do need to apply the same degree of healthy skepticism toward Google’s version of the truth that we apply to any other source. That would mean that no, we shouldn’t trust Google’s information without question—but then, who should we trust without question?
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