Here's Some Potentially Troubling News About Google Search

Chris CrumSearch

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So you know those answer boxes Google has been showing in search results for a while now? The ones that extract text from third-party websites (possibly your own), to answer users' queries without them having to click through to the site? Well, it looks like they've dramatically increased the frequency with which they're doing this, and at times it's inaccurate or outdated.

Is this feature really the best for users? Does it harm webmasters? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Moz has a new report finding that last week, Google jacked up the number of direct answer boxes it's showing by as much as 98%. The report includes this graph showing the jump:

The report says that many of the answers come from Wikipedia, as you'd expect, but Google clearly gets its answers from all kinds of sites. For example, it once turned to phillytown.com for this gem:

It should be noted that after that one got some attention, they stopped showing a direct answer box for that query, in favor of the classic ten blue links-style results, which are led by Urban Dictionary with an even more disgusting (though not necessarily inaccurate) description.

I guess Google didn't want to own that one. This is followed by another Urban Dictionary result for "Upper Decker Double Blumpkin," which you probably don't want to read if you're easily offended. Interestingly, the original phillytown.com result that Google once considered "the answer" to the question, isn't even in on the first page of results.

Not to get too far off base here, but the point is that these "answers" could easily come from any number of sources.

Dr. Peter J. Meyers, the report's author, says, "Many of these new queries seem to be broad, 'head' queries, but that could be a result of our data set, which tends to be skewed toward shorter, commercial queries."

He notes that one four-word query with a new answer box was 'girl scout cookies types'.

The fact that Google is increasing the number of direct answer boxes so drastically (and will probably continue to do so) is concerning to webmaters as it could mean Google sending them less traffic - particularly for their content that the search engine is actually showing to users. Remember, Google is also extracting data from websites now for its new "structured snippets," which provide users with bits of information that keep them from having to click through to learn.

Another concerning angle to Google's approach is the accuracy of the answers it's actually displaying.

Google launched its Knowledge Graph over two years ago. We've seen quite a few times that it can provide questionable, outdated, and/or inaccurate results.

In August, we learned about the "Knowledge Vault," which is apparently the source of these third-party site-based answer results. From the sound of it, these answers are even riper for outdated and/or inaccurate data.

Meyers points to one of his own articles that Google uses for one of the direct answers. He notes that the information in question was outdated, as it was an older article. He went in and updated the content to reflect accurate information, but Google hadn't caught up with it even after two months.

Google's Knowledge Graph doesn't always update as quickly as it should, but this appears to be even worse. Much worse, and that's troubling considering how much they're cranking up the volume on this type of search result.

"At this point, there's very little anyone outside of Google can do but keep their eyes open," concludes Meyers. "If this is truly the Knowledge Vault in action, it's going to grow, impacting more queries and potentially drawing more traffic away from sites. At the same time, Google may be becoming more possessive of that information, and will probably try to remove any kind of direct, third-party editing (which is possible, if difficult, with the current Knowledge Graph)."

It's interesting to think about Google becoming "possessive" of information it's getting from other sites.

Of course Google isn't for sites, as the company frequently reminds us. It's for users. Unfortunately, inaccurate and outdated information isn't good for them either. Sadly, much of the inaccuracy and outdated information is likely to go unnoticed, as people aren't likely to dig deeper into other results a lot of the time. The point is, after all, to get users the info they're looking for without them having to dig deeper.

Is this the right direction for Google Search to be taking? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image via Moz

Chris Crum

Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.