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Encyclopdia Britannica Wants to Fix False Google Results

In January 2014, Google made a fundamental change to its search product: It started showing answers to user queries directly in so-called snippets, no further clicks required. But what started out as a time-saver has morphed into a repeated source of misleading and outright false information, thanks to Google's frequent reliance on untrusted sources. The product has, among other things, declared that Barack Obama is the "king" of the United States and reported that dinosaurs are being used to trick people into thinking the world is millions of years old. It's a distinctly modern problem that finds one possible solution in a 250-year-old business: Encyclopædia Britannica.

Snippets aren't all bad. When you ask Google why the sky is blue, it offers a reasonable explanation: "Blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules of air in Earth's atmosphere," an answer it sourced from NASA. But in many other circumstances, Google has instead featured incorrect information from Wikipedia and random blogs. It's those failures that Britannica wants to help mitigate with its new Chrome extension, Britannica Insights, which supplements Google's featured snippets with accurate information.

When you search Google with Britannica Insights installed, the extension will populate information from the encyclopedia above or alongside Google's own featured snippet. For example, next to the result from NASA, Britannica Insights displays its entry for "Rayleigh scattering," the technical term term for the physics phenomenon that turns the sky blue. The tool works best for that sort of scientific or historical question. It likely won't help mitigate, say, fake political news. If you search for "Who is Alex Jones," Britannica can't help you. Which is fine by the encyclopedia. It says it seeks only to play a part in a hopefully collaborative fight against false information online.

"It's not one organization that's going to sit there and make a difference. We would love to collaborate with any of the search engines and social media networks as well," says Karthik Krishnan, who was appointed to be the CEO of Encyclopædia Britannica Group late last year. "We don’t say Britannica is the only company providing verified information. The world needs to know that there are multiple sources to get good information."

What the Google result looks like without Britannica Insights installed.
Louise Matsakis
What results look like with the extension installed.
Louise Matsakis

Britannica Insights also potentially gains the company some relevance in the Wikipedia era. A number of platforms, including both Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, now use Wikipedia to help establish ground truth. Because all of its articles are Creative Commons works, tech companies can freely use the volunteer-run encyclopedia for all sorts of purposes, like training voice-enabled assistants and other types of artificial intelligences.

Tech companies haven't leaned on Britannica in the same way partially because it's a for-profit company; the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation runs Wikipedia. Like many digital media businesses, Britannica runs ads and offers exclusive content to paying members. (Though it says it isn't collecting any data from the Chrome extension.) Unlike Wikipedia, its business model allows it to employ a paid staff who edit articles. That makes Britannica largely immune from the sort of digital vandalism that has caused a series of headaches for Google recently.

Just last week, furious members of the California Republican Party noticed a Google featured snippet said their ideology was "Nazism." A rogue Wikipedia editor had briefly inserted the false information; it was edited out again six days later. These sorts of troubles plague Google's featured snippets fairly regularly, but this instance caused particular alarm because it occurred less than a week before California's primary elections. A day later, another snippet misleadingly labeled one of the same state's senators a "BIGOT" by relying on information from a 2012 blog post.

Aside from serving up misinformation, Google's snippets have also cratered online media businesses that rely on traffic from search engines, as The Outline has previously reported. Despite all the trouble it causes, Google likely won't ditch the feature, especially because it keeps people on their platform. Featured snippets are also often correct and provide users with quick and easy-to-digest answers to their questions, even when they're inherently subjective, like "How do I be a good person?" (That query serves up bullet points from a 2014 Inc. article). They also are likely going to become especially important as voice assistants become more prevalent.

Britannica knows all this, so instead of continuing to solely write comprehensive articles, it has chosen to get into the featured snippet game itself, circumventing Google entirely.

'The world needs to know that there are multiple sources to get good information.'

Karthik Krishnan, Encyclopædia Britannica Group

It might seem strange for Britannica to suddenly build web tools. After all, the organization is best-known for selling hardcover encyclopedias, even though it shuttered its print edition five years ago. But that notion doesn't take into account Britannica's long history with the web. It joined the internet in 1994, four years before Google was founded and six years before Wikipedia launched. Its new Chrome extension is also far from its first online experiment; in 2008 it briefly tried allowing anyone to contribute edits to its articles, just like Wikipedia, except edits were approved by staff members.

At least for historical topics, Britannica Insights does seem more adept at surfacing relevant facts than Google snippets. If you look up the French Revolution for example, it gives you a list of links to key events, people, and topics—handy resources any time-crunched student would appreciate. Google's knowledge panel, meanwhile, suggests you also check out the American revolution.


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