When you punch a common question into the search bar on Google, you’re presented now with an answer that’s emphasized above all the others. Often it contains enough detail to satisfy your curiosity on the spot, with no need to click further. It’s what the search company calls a “featured snippet,” and it looks like this:
Featured snippets can be highly convenient. They also can be highly misleading. And it’s unclear how Google plans to navigate the uncomfortable spot between highlighting select information for users and not claiming responsibility for its veracity.
We can look at the problem through the experience of Gizmodo Media’s Tom Scocca, who in 2012 wrote an article for Slate about the time it takes to caramelize onions. Challenging the onion establishment, Scocca wrote that the process would take home cooks at least 28 minutes, and possibly as many as 45 minutes. He took specific aim at a recipe from the New York Times food section, quoting and then refuting its claim that the onions would soften and turn dark brown in five minutes and become fully caramelized after five minutes more.
So Scocca was surprised when he recently googled the phrase “how long does it take to caramelize onions” and was served up a snippet that contained the five-minutes-and-then-five-minutes-more instructions—and attributed the answer to his article for Slate. Rather than using the answer that Scocca arrived at, it appears Google grabbed and highlighted his quotation of the Times article—a complete misrepresentation of the point of his Slate piece.
“Five years after I thought I had buried the falsehood about quick onion cooking, Google is dragging it out of its grave to send it shambling into unsuspecting users’ kitchens,” Scocca wrote on March 7 for Gizmodo.
Since the publication of Scocca’s Gizmodo piece, the featured snippet on how long it takes to caramelize onions has changed. It now cites the correct information from Scocca’s Slate article. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Featured snippets don’t technically bear the full weight of Google’s artificial intelligence tools, as the feature’s help page notes.
This isn’t the first time Google has come under fire for its snippets. In 2015, Motherboard discovered that asking “What happened to the dinosaurs” returned a snippet from a creationist website claiming dinosaurs were a myth to indoctrinate children by “evolutionists.”
That snippet has since been changed, and now cites National Geographic.