A major overhaul.

By Jeff John Roberts
April 25, 2017

On Tuesday morning, Google announced some major changes meant to fight the fake news and hate speech that keep polluting its search results.

The Google update, codenamed “Project Owl,” gives consumers two new ways to report what they perceive as problems in the search results. The company is also using teams of humans as part of an effort to get its algorithms to show more reliable information.

Here’s a plain English Q&A about the changes and what they mean to you.

Why is Google making changes?

The search giant has been under fire for search results that show false, offensive, or outrageous information about certain topics. For instance, Google prominently displayed links to pro-Nazi sites in response to queries about the Holocaust. Or when people started typing phrases about women or racial groups, Google would suggest queries like “Why are women so dumb?”

Needless to say this got a lot of negative media attention. Even though Google does not like interfering with its algorithms—which are supposed to find the most helpful answers to a given topic—the problem became big enough Google decided to take action.

What are the new ways consumers can report things?

The biggest change is to Google’s auto-complete function—that’s where the search engine suggests options to complete your query. Now, for the first time, there is a way to tell Google if you encounter something wrong or objectionable. As you can see below, the tool now comes with little line that says report inappropriate predictions:

If you click on the line, a box pops up that lets you tell Google the predictions are hateful or violent and so on. That’s one of the new ways consumers can report problems—the other is for the information boxes that Google supplies on its main page in response to many queries.

Now, there are more ways to tell if those information boxes (which Google calls snippets) contain inaccurate information—for instance, if a box about creationism appeared in response to a question about evolution. Here is a screenshot the tool in action for when someone asks “why is the sky blue.”

When do these changes go into effect?

A Google spokesperson says they are rolling out “gradually” but that most people should see them by tomorrow at latest.

What do you mean Google will focus on more reliable information?

The third big change coming to Google (the new feedback options are the first two) is the search engine will start giving more weight to what it calls “more authoritative” information. In the past, Google results may have given a high ranking to a site with false information so long as it was popular. That could still happen, of course, but since the new focus is on “authoritative” sites, there’s a better chance those will appear ahead of ones that are popular but wrong.

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How will Google decide what is “authoritative?”

That’s partly where the humans come in. For a few months now, Google has been paying quality raters to review and improve the search results. Their reports (the humans can’t change the search results directly) are supposed to help train the algorithms to better weed out the hateful or misleading stuff Google wants to downgrade.

So is this going to work?

It’s too soon to say, though it’s worth pointing out that Google already seems to have zapped a lot of the most egregious stuff. For instance, if you type in “Why do [insert racial group] people…,” the auto-complete no longer suggests a bunch of offensive things. Meanwhile, the Neo-Nazi sites that until recently dominated many searches for the Holocaust have been pushed off the front page of the Google results for some time now.

According to Danny Sullivan, one of the most authoritative voices on Google search issues, the changes will be an improvement but won’t fix things altogether.

“The reporting forms may help. They can certainly allow individual users to feel that they’ve got an easier way to tell Google when it’s going wrong. The search quality changes, if they work, will be even more important. Still, despite all that Google tries, it knows it won’t solve the problem perfectly.”

Anything else?

Yes, one thing to watch is which websites will be the winners and losers in all this. As Google is so big and its search results are such an important source of traffic, its algorithm changes can bring about a huge change of fortune for certain sites. In the case of one of Google’s last major updates, known as Panda, many websites discovered they had been downgraded unexpectedly—causing them to lose readers and audience dollars. Watch to see if this happens again with Project Owl.

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