When Google Must Not Get the Answer Wrong

You have probably noticed that Google has been steadily elevating the prominence of the “question and answer format” for some time.

Google first introduced the People also ask box in 2015. For a while, it was a low-profile feature, often appearing midway or lower down the first page. As with virtually all new features, Google did extensive testing to ensure they are useful to searchers.

By early 2017, the feature began rising in prominence, including appearing for 10-15% of Fortune 500 companies. In November 2018, the People also ask box started appearing for about 80% of companies and grew from there, today appearing for over 90% of the F500.

It appears that Google has figured out not only the kinds of questions people often ask, but that people appreciate the format as an efficient way to find information quickly. 

This new format often presents questions we would have been unlikely to ask ourselves (a search for ‘gaming fingers’ brings up both ‘how do you play the game number fingers’ and ‘can playing video games cause trigger finger’), and returns answers with varying degrees of authority, simply because they seem to match well.

That is…unless getting the right answer is a matter of life and death. Then Google interrupts its regularly scheduled algorithms to present results much differently, cutting straight to the most authoritative answer. Nothing brings this home more clearly than the way Google is handling the COVID-19 crisis.

What is going on?  Let’s take a deeper look. 

The Paths of Search

When you search online, Google does quick triage: 

If there is one unequivocal answer – as in ‘Who is the Prime Minister of Canada’ – that answer will generally be delivered in the form of a Featured Snippet or Knowledge Panel. A question and answer box will appear below this, with related questions, answered by various sources. 

If your query is something less clear, like “gaming fingers,”  Google’s algorithm is not sure of your intent, so it will generally provide a variety of different results to help disambiguate what you are trying to find; you can pick a specific path or decide you know enough from what you’ve read on the search page. 

The People also ask box captures frequent intentions – and Google figures that your intent is likely to be similar to one of them. 

But what happens when there’s a lot riding on the answer?

When the answer is crucial, like in an impending weather emergency or a search related to suicide, Google overrides its own algorithm – and provides answers that have the greatest likelihood of keeping you safe.

A Tornado warning in the searcher’s area appears in red at the top of the page when they do a weather-related search. In the case of a suicide-related query, a toll-free hotline number appears in a large font at the top of the page, with the text ‘help is available.” 

In these cases, even if Google is not sure what you are asking — and even if there are probably a variety of accurate answers to a question like ‘how to kill yourself’ — Google will err on the side of caution.

In these cases Google sacrifices variety, balance, considerations of the searcher’s own history, and any other elements of its algorithm for the most direct route to possibly saving a life.  


The Coronavirus Connection

In our current moment, searches for coronavirus or COVID-19 bring up an expanded knowledge panel — almost a mini- site — featuring symptoms, prevention, treatments, and statistics. The area is branded as a red ‘COVID-19 alert’, and all information is provided only by highly reputable sources. 

The People also ask box is farther down the page than normal, and  is referred to as “Common questions” instead;  answers are sourced from highly authoritative sources – most prominently, the CDC.  

Along with this new way of presenting coronavirus answers, Google has a new initiative to help medical organizations optimize their sites, so that their information appears prominently in Google searches, and populates the results for these types of medical questions.

SEO Roundtable has summarized the initiative here, in which Google has provided guidance for health organizations on:

  • Mobile optimization 
  • The importance of good page content and titles
  • How to analyze the top coronavirus related user queries
  • How to add structured data for FAQ content

While it would obviously be easier for Google to simply give all worthy health organizations more weight in the algorithm (using some sort of ‘authority score’), it seems to prefer that these entities assert their expertise organically. 

Even more “interventionist”: As of end March, Google began heavily prioritizing local COVID-19-related results, giving more prominence to local publishers as each country began developing unique approaches to fighting the virus.  

Balancing Act

It seems that Google is scrupulous about accuracy only when there is a specific unequivocal answer, or when it thinks there might be a case of life and death. Maybe these are the only times Google won’t be called out for using influence in unfair ways?

Google’s opening gambit with health organizations, a half step between the democratic question and answer format and the tightly controlled emergency format, might be an interesting way forward in areas where more authoritative answers may not be immediately crucial, but would be appreciated by users – like nutrition or child-development.  

In fact, all companies and professionals, following a best practices optimization strategy (titles, query analysis, FAQ content, etc.) can help establish their expertise on the results page.  By assessing what questions people ask, and by answering them in the most relevant and easily understood way, companies may be able to make sure that the answers to the questions people ask are answered by their very own legitimate expertise.

It may not always be an emergency to get the answer right, but users would surely appreciate bumping into more true experts on their search paths.