Google Owl Update

Google’s Owl update proposes to clear up your search results and provide the end-user with clear and concise featured snippets, free from incorrect information and fake “news”. Despite this algorithm rollout sounding appropriate and a thoughtful update by Google in enhancing our search results, it has brought with it both outrage and a pushback from outlets proclaiming that Google is censoring them to instead push their own message over the ones published by them. Whilst the opposition is intense, Google has stood still in its changes, with their vice-president of engineering Ben Gomes coming out with a message in a blog post:

“..in a world where tens of thousands of pages are coming online every minute of every day, there are new ways that people try to game the system. The most high profile of these issues is the phenomenon of “fake news,” where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”

What’s fake news?

Fake news, a phrase that best came into use during the 2016 US Presidential election after a whirl of click-bait websites operating from locations across the world proclaimed the likes of Hillary Clinton adopting an alien baby, ISIS telling people to vote for Clinton and Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president – would receive millions of interactions and shares on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. With the term “fake news” becoming prevalent after being used by the two main US Presidential candidates at the time, media and technology outlets decided they’d get a hold of this fake news fiasco by investigating it themselves, with Google being one of the major tech companies to decide they’d take action against it. Introducing Google Owl.

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What’s Google Owl?

Google Owl, mentioned at the beginning of this blog post is an algorithm and “action” based change on the search engine that has launched a whole array of new changes released to clean up the presence of fake and negative content online.

One of the major updates focused on improving autocompletes search suggestions, which would normally see the search engine provide the searcher with a list of potentialities that they might be searching for underneath the search bar. Unfortunately, although most helpful to the user, the feature had always regularly responded with autocomplete results that were plagued with strange questions and inappropriate crude comments towards individuals that people apparently were interested in finding out. To remedy this, a new feedback form for reporting inappropriate predictions has recently been added with a list of autocomplete policies added for the first time as to why certain results may be hidden from the autocomplete function. Google is hoping that the feedback and reports it receives from its users will be sufficient enough in the near future to utilise into algorithmic changes.

Report inappropriate prediction

Another big update by Google saw the company target its aim at the Featured Snippets feature. Featured Snippets, which is seen as a query answering function on the search engine sees the top result pushed down by a special box and quoted text within that is normally used to quickly answer a users’ query, ensuring that they only need to access such featured site for additional information. Although the feature has been pretty effective in providing quick results to users on search, as well as those requiring information through voice search, it too has had its own problems. Responding back with incorrect answers to questions, vulgarities and misleading users, this helpful feature doesn’t always live up to what it can achieve. Google too had noticed this and has gone live with an improved feedback form which goes into more detail than the form before it. It also plans to make future algorithmic changes and figure out how to keep problematic snippets from appearing at all.

The third biggest update and the one most opposed of this Google Owl update trilogy is a crackdown on less reputable sites appearing in Featured Snippets and instructing its search quality raters to begin flagging sites that they decide are unreputable or offensive. In a statement to Search Engine Land discussing this new change, Google said:

“When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these (site pages) one-by-one. We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web. We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.”

..and so of course, with Google now preferencing the big dominant forces on the search engine as currently, the up and coming sites, as well as those that may pose an alternative view or argument to a query may be the ones to lose out in this change.

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What should be Google’s limitation?

But how far should Google go, should it crown itself the gatekeeper of information to ensure it can always deliver appropriate and/or correct information – or should it let its search engine become a wall of free-flowing ivy in the directions its users decide to take it to. Google isn’t Wikipedia, but it sure has more grandstanding.

Many will be wondering if the updates Google rolled out are to make a positive impact and to that, we can see such already. The query of “did the holocaust happen” on the search engine was pushed into centre place in December 2016 after numerous media outlets reported that the first result on Googles search engine provided a searcher with an unfactual and holocaust-denying result. Google responded to the media frenzy stating that it does not and would “not remove content from search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines“. Many thought that would be that, but since the roll-out of the new algorithm, the first result now displays a more factual piece on the holocaust written by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) with the prior result nowhere to be seen. This shows that Google is willing to take action when things just look wrong.

Google Search Results

The possibility of Google deciding to dabble in the search results provides a strong signal of the company being against any true authenticity on the search engines results page, as many would see this as the first major step into the world of manipulation and disorientation. For the first time ever, minus the addition of search engine advertisements, Google would cement themselves as a player in the so-called authentic results and this may be an argument to alarm many. Sure, such argument could be withdrawn in the slight faith that we’d expect Google not to take any more action that would target specific sites that they don’t like and that their recent updates were more of a clean-up, but Google did roll out these updates in retaliation to prior global events rather than naturally. A-and, it seems like they have.

In April 2016, Google was forced to put its hands up after a popular American YouTube channel and correlating website called InfoWars revealed documents that specified their site should be listed as “untrustworthy” in all instances on the search engine. The document, sent to them by a Google contractor, showed InfoWars as an example site that should be rated “low-to-medium” by all other (search quality rater) contractors working for Google, signifying that there was an agenda against the site. A spokesperson on behalf of Google confirmed to the Business Insider that the documents were, in fact, valid and said that “a vendor sent the information out without our knowledge” and that it was a “conflict with the intent of our guidelines and the vendor has taken action to remove these references in their training module”.

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These recent examples of Google taking action, either in the open or behind doors can mirror off a whole debate before it: some could say Google had courage for being able to take action against sites that do not display the image Google is hoping to portray, others would say they shown braveness for coming out and saying where they’ve gone wrong and plenty may even find Google shady in underhandedly playing the organic results. Whatever your thoughts are on this, the buck stops at Google for the avenue they choose to take for their organisation.  If anything, maybe we should look towards Google’s parent company Alphabet for that answer. With a company motto namely “Do the right thing” maybe, just maybe, their recent actions are them attempting to do exactly that.

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Michael Tucker

Search and Social Marketer at Silkstream Ltd
Hola! My name is Michael Tucker and I deal with Search and Social Digital Marketing here at Silkstream. Enjoyed reading my article? Why not check out some others I've written by clicking "Latest Posts" above!

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