When you conduct a search looking for some specific information, like how the dodo went extinct or when Henry VIII ruled or who starred in Jurassic Park, you tend to trust the results almost immediately. You’ll get a snippet of information in a box or in a featured snippet, probably pulled from a recognizable authority like Wikipedia or IMDB.
But can we really afford to trust Google to show us the most trustworthy sites in its SERPs? And if not, what recourse do we have?
The Importance of Trustworthy Sources
I shouldn’t have to do much explaining on why it’s important to be able to find trustworthy sites. Most of us conduct dozens of searches per day, even if it’s for something small, like looking up the local weather or defining a word we’ve heard for the first time. Getting relevant, factual information can help us go about our day successfully, have better conversations, and look better in front of our peers and colleagues.
On a bigger scale, trustworthy sources provide us a foundation for our shared reality. If someone encounters an untrustworthy news story and believes it to be true, it could influence how they vote in elections – or radicalize them, causing them to affiliate with other like-minded radicals who believe the same false “truth.”
Collectively, it could also lead us down a dark and dangerous path; it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a handful of untrustworthy stories result in a butterfly effect-style cascade of events ultimately culminating in an existential threat. For example, a false story could motivate dissidents to commit an attack on a nuclear armed power, who then uses the attack as an excuse to escalate an international conflict.
How Google Works
Let’s pump the brakes on the trustworthy discussion and focus on Google – the centerpiece of this conversation. How exactly does Google work, and how did it become our default indicator of trustworthiness?
Google rose to prominence as the best search engine in the world because it makes users happy. Its entire algorithm is all about providing users with search results that are both relevant and authoritative. The “relevant” side of the equation is easy to understand from a conceptual level; Google tries to provide content topically related to your search. It’s a no-brainer.
But how about the “authoritative” side of the equation?
If Google has 1,000 relevant results to show you, it wants to rank them preferentially in terms of how trustworthy they’re deemed to be. The more trustworthy a site is, the higher it ranks and the more visible it becomes.
Makes sense – but what exactly is that “trustworthiness?”
Much of this trustworthiness is determined by the quality and quantity of links pointing to a website. The more links it has, and the more authoritative those links are, the more trustworthy the site will be, and the higher it will rank.
Google also uses a combination of more than 200 ranking factors to determine rank, including things like:
- Content quality. Though we can’t be sure exactly how it works, Google does evaluate the type and quality of content you have on your site. Better content makes a site more trustworthy, allowing it to rank higher.
- Website loading speed. Faster-loading websites lend themselves to a better user experience, making them preferred by Google.
- Mobile friendliness. Similarly, since most users rely on mobile devices for the majority of their searches, mobile friendly sites get an advantage.
- Site security. Secure sites that have been coded and maintained correctly are considered more authoritative and trustworthy as well.
The Issue With Determining Trustworthiness
So what’s the issue?
As far as search algorithms go, Google is on top of the world. We’ve all had repeatedly good experiences finding what we’re searching for – and coming up with correct answers to tough questions.
But the central issue lies with Google propensity to equate links with trustworthiness. The quality and integrity of a site aren’t determined by a set of objective factors, like their research process or their specific credentials, but rather the fact that lots of people on the internet are pointing to it.
What’s to stop a site from artificially generating links to make itself appear more authoritative than it is? What’s to stop a popular yet misleading article from becoming widespread and commonly accepted as fact?
Now, to be fair, Google does have security measures in place to protect against this kind of thing. It employs a very regimented formula to determine whether or not a link is “natural,” thus negating the results of would-be ranking manipulators – but this only goes so far. As long as you’re able to replicate a “natural” link, you can get around this system.
Additionally, Google reserves the right to take manual action against egregious offenders who violate its terms of service – and it’s delisted plenty of sites in the past for spreading fake news and misleading the public.
On top of that, Google is always evolving. It’s constantly looking for ways that people are exploiting the system and finding ways to counter them.
Even so, it’s not hard to see that this system of establishing trustworthiness is flawed.
A Better System?
So is there a better system we can use to determine trustworthiness?
The short answer is no – or at least not right now.
One approach is to designate a single authority to review sources and establish trustworthiness. But no single authority is perfect at this job. We’re all subject to bias, so it’s only a matter of time before this system would throw out some truly legitimate, trustworthy sources while promoting less trustworthy ones, often in pursuit of supporting our own viewpoints and reinforcing our assumptions (or keeping us in power).
Google’s approach, essentially decentralizing the trustworthiness evaluation process, is a good alternative. But it can be manipulated by sufficiently motivated individuals and groups – plus, the general consensus on a given topic isn’t always what’s correct.
We’re going to run into these problems no matter what kind of trust-evaluating system we come up with in these two models.
So if there isn’t much space for a “better” solution at this point, but we can’t trust Google to always provide us with trustworthy sources, what are the solutions?
- Identify your own trustworthy sources. As consumers, it’s our responsibility to do our own independent research and find our own trustworthy sources. By looking at a wide berth of different stories, reviewing credentials and accolades, and trusting recommendations from people we respect, we can select examples of publications that can always (or at least mostly) be trusted. Then, when we find them in Google search results, even if they’re multiple ranks from the top, we can make them our personal top choice.
- Review multiple entries. Google displays multiple pages in its SERPs for a reason; it’s to give us more information to explore. You shouldn’t assume that the top result is the “best” result, either in terms of relevance or authority. Instead, review multiple sources for each of your queries, and phrase your queries in different ways to eliminate potential sources of bias.
- Use multiple search engines. While you’re at it, consider using multiple search engines to do your research. Google is universally revered, but it’s not the only game in town. DuckDuckGo, Bing, and a growing roster of competitors each have their own advantages when it comes to search – and in some cases, they may be able to connect you to more trustworthy sources.
- Recognize your own uncertainty. Finally, and most importantly, acknowledge your own uncertainty. The truth is often murky and complicated – not something that can be answered in a single sentence. Take everything you read on the internet with a grain of salt – even if it’s Google’s top recommendation.
Google may have its issues, but it’s still (arguably) the best internet search tool we’ve got – and there’s no doubt that searching the web is an important function for all of us. Scrutinize your own sense of authority and trust on the internet, even when you’re dealing with so-called “authoritative” sources and don’t invest too heavily in stories or facts you haven’t verified.