September 2, 2014

Do Search Engines Have An Obligation To Ensure Accuracy?

Editor’s Note:  A related post to this one also is here on TheWondersExpedition.com. 

The Aztec Calendar Stone--Not the Mayan Calendar

Throughout the process of producing the upcoming release of Dr. Mark Van Stone’s 2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya interactive book for the iPad, I’ve seen the wide-spread erroneous use of the Aztec Sun Stone calendar labeled as the “Maya Calendar” on dozens of sites across the Internet.  For example, if one uses Google, Bing or Yahoo! to search the term “Maya Calendar” all of them will bring up photos of this Aztec piece of art that never was seen nor used by the ancient Maya.

This begs two serious questions–1)  Can information published on the Internet be trusted? and, 2) Do search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo! have an obligation to seek out and correct gross distortions of the truth for the purposes of accuracy?

From responses to a query on Help A Reporter Out, a consensus is clearly understood–Google, Bing and Yahoo! do NOT have an obligation to make sure the information produced in their searches is actually accurate–they’re merely going out and crawling the Web and bringing back their findings for anyone who searches to see.  (They do what reporters are supposed to do: Go out, gather the facts and report back with them so a reader can make a decision about accepting their validity or not.)

But here’s the problem: 4.4 million results were found on Google alone, and scrolling through the first page of them, nearly 75 percent of them are WRONG! The other assumption is that the Maya Calendar/Aztec Sun Stone can’t the the isolated incident where this is happening on the Internet!

Greg Hluska’s Response–Issues with the ‘Growing Web’:

Marketer and web developer Greg Hluska was one of the first to respond to the questions posed.  He said the topic “gets to the very heart of the development of the way the web is organized.”  Hluska points out that  in the early 1990s, the web was a much smaller, more sparsely populated place. Content was largely distributed by:

  • Bad search engines
  • Human curated directories
  • Links pages (on websites)
  • Newsgroups/early social networks

He said that when the web was so new, “these extremely personal methods worked. Since individuals were heavily involved in the process, there was a certain amount of editorial control. So, if Kipp Teague posted something on the REM newsgroup, you could be fairly sure that it was accurate.”  But he says that as the web grew, the algorithm became more important. He pointed out that it is difficult for an algorithm to:

  • Figure out what a page is talking about
  • Decide whether or not it is accurate

According to Hluska, the “truth has been the biggest casualty in the growth of the web.  It is difficult to pinpoint responsibility here. A company like Google would have to hire people to read pages and check facts. With millions and millions of pages, they would have to hire thousands of experts in many conceivable areas.”  That clearly isn’t possible and just as clearly isn’t going to happen.

He pointed to services like StackOverflow and Quora as alternatives to helping better moderate the accuracy of information on the Net. “These are curated question and answer sites that are determined to deliver answers. Alternately, services like Reddit and Hacker News curate content – new articles are voted up/debated by users and this form of editing tends to distill the truth!”

Ari Herzog

Digital Media Strategist, Ari Herzog asked, “Why should a search engine have a responsibility to correct information that is not on their site?”  He pointed out that a search engine’s robots/spiders are merely showing information from other places. “It should be the responsibility of those other places that are indexed to have the correct information. Once corrected, the spider will return and notice the change and update it respectively.”

Herzog pointed out poignantly, that “Nothing on the web is correct–and yet everything is correct.”  His recommendation when doing research on the Net was to “take the so-called journalist perspective to double-check anything” unless it is  obvious the source is authentic.

Collin Jarman

Clickoptimize.com‘s SEO technician, Colin Jarman wrote that, “Unfortunately, it is not the responsibility of search engines to verify the accuracy of data they return. …Anyone can put anything they like on the web, and all Google does is find it. Unfortunately, if society at large is suffering from a misconception like the one you describe regarding the Aztec and Maya calendars, then that is likely what search engines will show.”  He recommended more reading here.

When we talked a little about people just accepting what they finding on the Net, he replied, “I think you sort of hit the nail on the head when you said, ‘the problem is most people just accept what they find on the Net and go with it.’”  Clearly, from the example of the Aztec and Maya calendars, one cannot afford to do that.

“People have always been able to say/write/produce whatever they like, and it’s always been up to the consumer of the information to decide whether or not to trust that information… it’s just that information is easier to get than ever nowadays.  Without getting too terribly technical here, there IS a metric that Google uses called ‘Page Authority.’  In essence, the more times your site is cited as a ‘source’ and linked back to, the greater your PA.  The greater your PA, the higher chance you have of coming up in the search results for any given term,” Jarman said.

He also said that in this way, Google does sort of evaluate the trustworthiness of a site.  “For instance, Wikipedia is often cited as a page of notably high PA due to all the people that link to it as an authority.  The Wikipedia pages do distinguish between the Mayan and Aztec calendars.  Good sources are out there, they just take more diligent research to find,” Jarman said.

His brilliant, and yet incredibly time-consuming idea was, “In the case of all the sites who got it wrong… well, someone needs to correct them!  It’s a pretty monumental task for such a widespread misconception, but hey, if you correct them maybe they’ll link back to you with a ‘Credit to TheWondersExpedition.com for correcting our mistake.’”

Follow Up

I really appreciate the dialogue generated with each of these Netizens.  So you know now, the Aztec calendar pops up when one does a search for the Maya calendar on multiple search engines.  Are there other topics where this happens?  Surely, if there’s one there are many others.   Have you personally tried to address this issue?  What would you recommend?   If you were at Google, Bing or Yahoo! would you be concerned about this issue at all?  How would you address it?

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