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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Has Google Gone Too Far with the Bias Toward Its Own Content?

Posted by ajfried

Since the beginning of SEO time, practitioners have been trying to crack the Google algorithm. Every once in a while, the industry gets a glimpse into how the search giant works and we have opportunity to deconstruct it. We don’t get many of these opportunities, but when we do—assuming we spot them in time—we try to take advantage of them so we can “fix the Internet.”

On Feb. 16, 2015, news started to circulate that NBC would start removing images and references of Brian Williams from its website.

This was it!

A golden opportunity.

This was our chance to learn more about the Knowledge Graph.

Expectation vs. reality

Often it’s difficult to predict what Google is truly going to do. We expect something to happen, but in reality it’s nothing like we imagined.

Growing-Mustache-Meme.png

Expectation

What we expected to see was that Google would change the source of the image. Typically, if you hover over the image in the Knowledge Graph, it reveals the location of the image.

Keanu-Reeves-Image-Location.gif

This would mean that if the image disappeared from its original source, then the image displayed in the Knowledge Graph would likely change or even disappear entirely.

Reality (February 2015)

The only problem was, there was no official source (this changed, as you will soon see) and identifying where the image was coming from proved extremely challenging. In fact, when you clicked on the image, it took you to an image search result that didn't even include the image.

Could it be? Had Google started its own database of owned or licensed images and was giving it priority over any other sources?

In order to find the source, we tried taking the image from the Knowledge Graph and “search by image” in images.google.com to find others like it. For the NBC Nightly News image, Google failed to even locate a match to the image it was actually using anywhere on the Internet. For other television programs, it was successful. Here is an example of what happened for Morning Joe:

Morning_Joe_image_search.png

So we found the potential source. In fact, we found three potential sources. Seemed kind of strange, but this seemed to be the discovery we were looking for.

This looks like Google is using someone else’s content and not referencing it. These images have a source, but Google is choosing not to show it.

Then Google pulled the ol’ switcheroo.

New reality (March 2015)

Now things changed and Google decided to put a source to their images. Unfortunately, I mistakenly assumed that hovering over an image showed the same thing as the file path at the bottom, but I was wrong. The URL you see when you hover over an image in the Knowledge Graph is actually nothing more than the title. The source is different.

Morning_Joe_Source.png

Luckily, I still had two screenshots I took when I first saw this saved on my desktop. Success. One screen capture was from NBC Nightly News, and the other from the news show Morning Joe (see above) showing that the source was changed.

NBC-nightly-news-crop.png

(NBC Nightly News screenshot.)

The source is a Google-owned property: gstatic.com. You can clearly see the difference in the source change. What started as a hypothesis in now a fact. Google is certainly creating a database of images.

If this is the direction Google is moving, then it is creating all kinds of potential risks for brands and individuals. The implications are a loss of control for any brand that is looking to optimize its Knowledge Graph results. As well, it seems this poses a conflict of interest to Google, whose mission is to organize the world’s information, not license and prioritize it.

How do we think Google is supposed to work?

Google is an information-retrieval system tasked with sourcing information from across the web and supplying the most relevant results to users' searches. In recent months, the search giant has taken a more direct approach by answering questions and assumed questions in the Answer Box, some of which come from un-credited sources. Google has clearly demonstrated that it is building a knowledge base of facts that it uses as the basis for its Answer Boxes. When it sources information from that knowledge base, it doesn't necessarily reference or credit any source.

However, I would argue there is a difference between an un-credited Answer Box and an un-credited image. An un-credited Answer Box provides a fact that is indisputable, part of the public domain, unlikely to change (e.g., what year was Abraham Lincoln shot? How long is the George Washington Bridge?) Answer Boxes that offer more than just a basic fact (or an opinion, instructions, etc.) always credit their sources.

There are four possibilities when it comes to Google referencing content:

  • Option 1: It credits the content because someone else owns the rights to it
  • Option 2: It doesn't credit the content because it’s part of the public domain, as seen in some Answer Box results
  • Option 3: It doesn't reference it because it owns or has licensed the content. If you search for “Chicken Pox” or other diseases, Google appears to be using images from licensed medical illustrators. The same goes for song lyrics, which Eric Enge discusses here: Google providing credit for content. This adds to the speculation that Google is giving preference to its own content by displaying it over everything else.
  • Option 4: It doesn't credit the content, but neither does it necessarily own the rights to the content. This is a very gray area, and is where Google seemed to be back in February. If this were the case, it would imply that Google is “stealing” content—which I find hard to believe, but felt was necessary to include in this post for the sake of completeness.

Is this an isolated incident?

At Five Blocks, whenever we see these anomalies in search results, we try to compare the term in question against others like it. This is a categorization concept we use to bucket individuals or companies into similar groups. When we do this, we uncover some incredible trends that help us determine what a search result “should” look like for a given group. For example, when looking at searches for a group of people or companies in an industry, this grouping gives us a sense of how much social media presence the group has on average or how much media coverage it typically gets.

Upon further investigation of terms similar to NBC Nightly News (other news shows), we noticed the un-credited image scenario appeared to be a trend in February, but now all of the images are being hosted on gstatic.com. When we broadened the categories further to TV shows and movies, the trend persisted. Rather than show an image in the Knowledge Graph and from the actual source, Google tends to show an image and reference the source from Google's own database of stored images.

And just to ensure this wasn't a case of tunnel vision, we researched other categories, including sports teams, actors and video games, in addition to spot-checking other genres.

Unlike terms for specific TV shows and movies, terms in each of these other groups all link to the actual source in the Knowledge Graph.

Immediate implications

It’s easy to ignore this and say “Well, it’s Google. They are always doing something.” However, there are some serious implications to these actions:

  1. The TV shows/movies aren't receiving their due credit because, from within the Knowledge Graph, there is no actual reference to the show’s official site
  2. The more Google moves toward licensing and then retrieving their own information, the more biased they become, preferring their own content over the equivalent—or possibly even superior—content from another source
  3. If feels wrong and misleading to get a Google Image Search result rather than an actual site because:
    • The search doesn't include the original image
    • Considering how poor Image Search results are normally, it feels like a poor experience
  4. If Google is moving toward licensing as much content as possible, then it could make the Knowledge Graph infinitely more complicated when there is a “mistake” or something unflattering. How could one go about changing what Google shows about them?

Google is objectively becoming subjective

It is clear that Google is attempting to create databases of information, including lyrics stored in Google Play, photos, and, previously, facts in Freebase (which is now Wikidata and not owned by Google).

I am not normally one to point my finger and accuse Google of wrongdoing. But this really strikes me as an odd move, one bordering on a clear bias to direct users to stay within the search engine. The fact is, we trust Google with a heck of a lot of information with our searches. In return, I believe we should expect Google to return an array of relevant information for searchers to decide what they like best. The example cited above seems harmless, but what about determining which is the right religion? Or even who the prettiest girl in the world is?

Religion-and-beauty-queries.png

Questions such as these, which Google is returning credited answers for, could return results that are perceived as facts.

Should we next expect Google to decide who is objectively the best service provider (e.g., pizza chain, painter, or accountant), then feature them in an un-credited answer box? The direction Google is moving right now, it feels like we should be calling into question their objectivity.

But that’s only my (subjective) opinion.


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