Q&A, Reviews, and Fake News on Google: False Content Is Not Just a Facebook Problem
Mike: Spring has sprung—not! We are experiencing one of the longest winters ever in NY. Hopefully, Portland is just rainy and not wintry. I thought we could talk about Google’s responsibility to local businesses and the consumer to be sure that they deliver information responsibly and truthfully?
David: It’s been alternating between warm and cold here, sort of like small businesses’ relationship with Google.
Yep, that sounds like a great topic. It’s one I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as the whole fake news controversy has exploded on Facebook, and to a much lesser extent, Google. I actually think this discussion has implications for the local business space as well.
Google’s recent rollout of Q&A is representative of an aloof, un-empathetic attitude toward product management that has existed in Mountain View for as long as we’ve been in the industry. Small teams of a couple of computer science majors from Stanford dream up and unleash “cool” features on the world without any appreciation, let alone concern, for whom those features might affect, or how dramatically.
You and I have joked that Q&A was ostensibly released as a Minimum Viable Product, but that it is actually neither Minimum nor Viable in its current state.
Mike: I would agree with that. Google has achieved market dominance with these release-early, iterate-often development cycles. They have become one of the most profitable companies in the world… so it has been good for them.
David: 12-15 years ago before Google reached its current dominant—and in mobile search, monopolistic—position, I applauded Google’s creativity and experimentation.
Mike: Now that Google has reached a monopoly in local/mobile search, you are saying that they should be held to a different standard than the smaller platforms.
David: I am. They are effectively a media monopoly in mobile search. Even if they aren’t a technical monopoly, their market position is such that the opportunity for harm is great.
Just because existing laws have not kept pace in terms of either defining technology monopolies or protecting third parties online is not a reason to stick our heads in the sand and let Google (or any other Big Tech company) get away with its old, startuppy way of doing business.
Mike: By controlling, by my calculations, somewhere on the order of 90% of local search, they meet the criteria of being a monopoly. This is something they have strived for and achieved, and there is nothing illegal about it per se. Although it should result in greater responsibility and even oversight as to the company’s behavior — I agree.
David: Parenthetically, I would also agree that Google has come about most of its market position through legal means.
Mike: At some level Google (and all online platforms) operates with impunity under 47 U.S.C. § 230 of the weirdly named Communications Decency Act that protects them from any liability for use of their platform. Essentially, under federal law they are given blanket protection if a consumer (or a business acting as a consumer) creates inappropriate content. I assume that applies to Q & A, reviews, as well as fake listings that have been created on Google.
David: Well, then, it’s time to update that Act.
In the case of Q&A, the product has been live for months, and Google doesn’t even notify businesses who have claimed their GMB listing of new questions, new answers, or give them the opportunity to contest either. At least with reviews, businesses receive notifications, and there are clear guidelines written around what is and is not acceptable.
I fail to see how a fake news result for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the Las Vegas shooting is any different than a fake question, fake answer, or fake review on a small business’s Knowledge Panel. The public outcry for Google to mitigate and eliminate those results has been massive.
Mike: It probably isn’t any different, but we live in a country where regulating a company because of its competitive impact on other businesses is the exception, not the rule. If consumers “benefit,” then the companies are given great leeway. I think Google might argue that 90% of the questions are a benefit to consumers and that their “vaunted” AI or some other algorithm will clean up the rest. 🙂
David: That “benefit” is certainly debatable, but I don’t want to get sidetracked. 🙂
My argument is that given the primacy of Google’s market position, and the primacy of Knowledge Panels in SERPs—also a conscious product decision on Google’s part—the percentage of customers who are likely to come across that fake information is great. And it seems at least as influential in shaping that business’ reputation as fake news is in shaping opinions about nationally and globally relevant entities.
I wouldn’t necessarily hold Google to a higher standard than the Communications Decency Act you cited above when it comes to organic results. It would be hard to argue that Google is hosting or endorsing false information contained in these results.
But in the case of Q&A, Google reviews, and AMP’d fake news—these are hosted by Google in an interface that they fully own and control.
Mike: Those are exactly the things that the law protects. It was created in the 1990s to allow for innovation in the use of technology. It, however, creates a blanket legal protection in the cases you speak of. If I were in charge, it would be the law that I would look at changing so as to provide more ability for a small business to contest inappropriate content on Google and elsewhere.
David: Or any entity affected by Google-hosted or -generated Knowledge Graph information.
Mike: If not a judicial appeal, there should be some sort of mediation process to allow false information to be reviewed and removed when appropriate.
For sure, wrong information shouldn’t just be reported into a big black hole.
David: At the very least, lawmakers should require an appropriately staffed ombudsman department to deal with the real-life consequences of Google’s product decisions. France has forced the overreaching Right to Be Forgotten onto Google; the United States and other developed countries should at least force a Right to Contest in the case of Google-hosted information.
Mike: That solution still requires that an offended party be proactive in asking for a review. There should be more negative incentive built into the system to be sure that Google et al take proactive approaches to limiting the existence of fake information in the first place.
Fake reviews are a good example. No small team at Google has taken on the charge of making sure that fake reviews are caught and removed. For whatever reason, Google has only implemented minimal review filtering. So these fake reviews exist in the thousands and Google has no skin in the game of getting them removed.
In the case of fake reviews, both honest businesses AND consumers are negatively impacted. So I am with you on wanting a solution there.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.