Google is warning users when its search results might be unreliable

When search results are rapidly altering around a breaking topic, Google will now notify users. Some searches will now display a warning that “it appears that these results are changing quickly,” with a subheading that “if this topic is new, it can sometimes take time for results to be added by reliable sources.” The company suggests that users check back later when it has found more results in a blog post.

The warning will first appear on English-language results in the United States “when a topic is fast growing and a variety of sources hasn’t yet weighed in.” Google plans to expand the tool’s presence to other regions in the coming months.

“While Google Search will always be there with the most beneficial results we can provide,” the company explains, “sometimes the credible information you’re looking for isn’t online yet.” “This is especially true in the case of breaking news or emerging subjects, where the initial information provided may not be the most reliable.” Following up on a tweet from Stanford Internet Observatory researcher Renee DiResta, Recode reported on the feature yesterday.

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The phrase “ufo videotaped traveling 106 mph” appears in a Google search screenshot, which appears to be a reference to a recent tabloid article concerning a 2016 UFO sighting in Wales.

(At the moment, that specific search result does not have the warning.) “Someone had a video of a police report released in Wales, and it gained a little bit of news attention. But there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it,” Google public liaison Danny Sullivan told Recode. “However, we can tell it’s starting to trend because people are presumably looking for it and may be sharing it on social media. We can also see that there isn’t a lot of necessarily good stuff available. We also believe that additional material will become available.”

Apart from that amusing example, Google has unwittingly highlighted false information following mass shootings, where early government accounts are frequently inaccurate and deliberate misinformation is rampant. (Data gaps, or terms with limited search results that can be easily hijacked by malicious actors, can compound this.) This warning isn’t guaranteed to prevent inappropriate content from appearing, and it’s unclear how Google assesses what constitutes a broad range of sources. However, it has the potential to remove some of the misleading legitimacy that early, inaccurate search results might gain from high Google placement.

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