Web Culture

Can Google Use an Algorithm to Determine Truth?

Dann Albright 24-03-2015

What is truth? In the near future, Google might address this question in a new search algorithm. Though the search engine’s focus is usually on things like domain authority, updates, and social activity, Google has begun researching whether its algorithm could include truth as a ranking factor. What does that mean for the web?


Just How Smart Can Google Get?

Google is the biggest, most popular search engine out there, thanks in large part to the Google team’s assiduous work on the engine’s search algorithms, which receive so many updates that it’s hard to keep up 7 Best Resources to Monitor the Latest Google Search Algorithm Changes Do you worry a lot about Google's next major algorithm change? The skill is to know exactly when the change took place in the algorithm, and to understand exactly what changes were made. Read More . When you type in a search query, a large portion of the Internet is scoured by bots and crawlers, and the results are ranked depending on a range of factors. Which factors? Back in 2013, Entrepreneur magazine put together a list of 200 search result ranking factors, including the following:

  • domain age
  • content length
  • keyword in description tag
  • priority of page in site map
  • mobile optimized
  • bounce rate

Although the exact factors and their weights are a closely guarded secret, you can bet that there are even more today.

So why does Google spend so much time and money on perfecting their algorithms? In short, to keep you coming back. The better their search rankings are, the happier you’ll be with the results, and the more earning potential Google has. It only makes sense that they’d try to factor truth into their rankings to further improve the results that you get from a search.

How Could a Search Engine Determine Truth?

On a technical level, it’s fairly simple. Google has a massive internal database called the Knowledge Graph An In-Depth Look at Google's New Knowledge Graph Read More that stores information about people, places, and things, as well as their connections. These pieces of information are stored in triplets. For example, a triplet could be “Megadeth, recorded, Rust in Peace.” We have two entities and their relation. Another example, given by Google in a report, could be “Barack Obama, nationality, American.”

The way in which Google would measure the veracity of a particular triplet lies in a simple cross-referencing. If that triplet is repeated on many other sites, and those sites are of high authority, and if the other triplets on the site in question are well-verified, it will get a high “truth score,” contributing to its overall ranking. A more technical explanation can be found in Google’s published research paper on the topic at arXiv.


What Does This Mean for the Internet?

I’ve been relatively blasé so far in this article, but this could be a monumental development in search engine technology. Now, backlinks, social shares, keyword density, and other easily manipulable factors will be verified by the trustworthiness of the site based on the veracity of the facts that it contains. That’s amazing!

It’s clear that this could change the fields of search engine optimization Demystify SEO: 5 Search Engine Optimization Guides That Help You Begin Search engine mastery takes knowledge, experience, and lots of trial and error. You can begin learning the fundamentals and avoid common SEO mistakes easily with the help of many SEO guides available on the Web. Read More and online marketing — but what’s less clear is the implications that it has for the Internet at large. Suddenly, having false facts on your website could hurt your ranking score — which means fact-checking would be much more necessary when building or maintaining a site. In most cases, this is great — the more emphasis we place on truth, the better informed we’ll be. Definitely a good thing for the Internet.

But what happens when it comes to disputed facts? For example, the birth and death dates of the Islamic prophet Muhammad? Or the existence of a slave rebellion conspiracy in Antigua in 1736? What about who holds sovereignty over the South China Sea? This is a tiny sampling of a huge range of facts that people don’t agree on The Top Three Sites To Debate Topics With Others Read More . And these are relatively simple ones; disagreements over truth can range to much more complicated issues (just look at history’s repeated clashes between religion and science, explanations of which can fill entire volumes).



Of course, it seems likely that Google would find a way to keep the Knowledge Graph from taking stances on controversial issues: they certainly don’t want to alienate any of the people who could be making them money. But even on less controversial issues, there’s still some cause for concern. What about political issues, for example? Just because a certain viewpoint is more common on the websites that Google has crawled doesn’t mean that it’s any more valid or correct.

Although Google presents a relatively apolitical face (at least outside of DC), its San Francisco Bay origins mean it’s quite left-leaning, by American standards, which could influence — if even subconsciously — how the Knowledge Graph works. And Google most certainly does have political interests. According to a 2014 article in the Washington Post, Google pushes its political agenda through “financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in nonprofit advocacy groups across the political spectrum, and funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects”.


And even if Google isn’t tempted to use the Knowledge Graph to sway public opinion, who’s to say other search engines won’t? What about Bing? Or Wolfram Alpha The True Power of the Wolfram Alpha Knowledge Engine Read More ? Tech companies are just like other companies: they have interests, and they’ll use the means available to them to further those interests.


That doesn’t even begin to touch on the potential of blackhat SEO 5 Blackhat Tools Used By Internet Spammers Email spam is annoying, but pretty easy to ignore nowadays. But have you ever wondered how and why your favourite forum died and was suddenly filled with viagra adverts? How about those nonsensical blog comments... Read More practitioners who will try to find ways to scam the Graph so that whatever company they’re working for is portrayed positively by search results. Again, it’s in Google’s best interest to make the algorithm as scam-resistant as possible, but people are pretty inventive when it comes to getting their websites high on the search engines results pages.

A Whole New World of Issues

Of course, much of this is speculation — a research paper on this truth-detecting algorithm has been published, but we have no details on how exactly Google would integrate this tech into their search algorithm. It feels like a safe assumption to think that it would be quickly added to the page ranking factors, but it’s entirely possible that Google has something else up their sleeve that they’ll use instead.

What’s clear, however, is that “truth-detecting” algorithms bring up a lot of interesting issues. Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. That’s still true today, though “the victors” now win marketing and media wars, not physical ones, and we now have to interpret if what they’re saying is true in the context of what we believe about truth. Is the truth of a fact incontrovertible? Does it reside somewhere outside of society and our beliefs about it? Or is truth decided by democratic means, where the fact with the most support across the Internet wins out?

We’ll just have to wait and see.


What do you think about Google’s research into truth as a ranking factor in its search results? What issues might it bring up? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Dictionary definition of the word Truth (edited) via ShutterstockGoran Tek-en via Wikimedia Commons, Robbie Shade via flickr

Related topics: Google, Google Search, Politics, SEO.

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  1. Michael Crumpton
    April 5, 2015 at 4:52 am

    So I am guessing that these truth algorithms would give greater weight to scientific journals and peer reviewed research papers over various flavors of politicians and pundits on questions about climate change and dangers of toxicity from fracking. That would probably be a good thing.

    • Dann Albright
      April 10, 2015 at 10:04 am

      Google is pretty good at recognizing authoritative sources, so I would imagine that the same tech would go into this project if they decide to pursue it. While popularity is a good measure of a lot of things, there are some that it's better to defer to science on!

  2. david
    March 30, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Well said, Dan.

  3. David
    March 30, 2015 at 7:50 am

    Hm. "Google: does God really exist?" I really doubt a mathematic formula can answer this question more adequate than my personal experience with God...
    On the other hand: truth is something we arrive at by democratic means? Really. Let's all vote that 1+1=3 and change history. If that was how we arrive at truth, the world would still be flat and none of the scientific developments of the last millennia would have come about, since most of the scientists before 1800 were all firmly founded in the ultimate truth (you know, Biblical truth, that lets be honest here, all Germanic tribes, Rome and all other ancient cultures were clearly voting against (with their actions))...

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 11:16 am

      Yeah, asking Google about religious or philosophical questions is sure to provide either controversial or hilarious answers (or maybe both). The engineers there are pretty smart, so I have to imagine that they'd find a way around causing controversy with questions like that. You're right about truth not being democratic, but if you move beyond arithmetic, I think you'll see that it gets a lot more complicated. Did the United States win the war on terror? That's a tough question; you have to consider whether or not the war on terror was actually a thing, whether or not it could be won, what the victory conditions are, and whether or not the US met them. All of those are open to debate, and I don't think there's any ultimate truth behind them—while I do believe in an objective truth, some things just need to be interpreted.

  4. Stone Sherrill
    March 26, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    i don't know about anyone else, but i'd prefer google to rank by perceived truth than how they rank by popularity.

    • dragonmouth
      March 28, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      "i don’t know about anyone else, but i’d prefer google to rank by perceived truth than how they rank by popularity. "
      Isn't that one and the same? Popularity determines the definition of truth?

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Seems to me like it depends on a lot of things—popularity does play into it, especially in Google's current experimental algorithm, but authority also makes a difference, and that's somewhat reassuring. Changing the rankings to truth-based also opens up the possibility of gaming the system by mis-representing what's true instead of what's popular. I'm not sure why, but that seems like a step in the wrong direction to me. Artificially (or even naturally) affecting truth rankings seems like dangerous territory.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:40 am

      That being said, I'm glad you weighed in, Stone! A lot of people seem opposed to this idea, but it's good to know that there are people on both sides; that makes for healthy debate and better decisions.

  5. dragonmouth
    March 25, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    "The Truth? You can't handle the truth!!!" Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.

    I don't want Google to be making the decision on whether or not I can handle the truth and altering it to what they think I can handle.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:37 am

      Agreed. I'd definitely rather have Jack Nicholson deciding. :-)

  6. dragonmouth
    March 25, 2015 at 7:02 pm

    "What do you think about Google’s research into truth as a ranking factor in its search results?"
    Not much. However, considering that every political, social, economic pressure and special interest group defines "truth" and "facts" in their own way, why not Google?

    We already have two Ultimate Arbiters of Truth and Fact whose names start with a "G" - Government and God (under all his various names). Google going into the Truth business brings us one or more steps closer to the world of OmniCorp.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:37 am

      I agree about everyone defining truth differently, but political, social, and economic groups aren't the gatekeepers to the collection of all of humanity's knowledge! Google is, and I think that's what makes the big difference here. It's expected that bias shows up in political and economic groups—and although Google is a company, they're in the business of providing access to information, so there's more of an expectation of unbiased action (that may be an unfounded expectation, but I'd say it's still there).

  7. Evan
    March 25, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    This article just summarized most the concerns I have about the Knowledge Graph. I especially agree that there could be subconscious bias. Sometimes things that seem trivial or even just silly can become incredibly controversial. It seems likely that the people at Google will sometimes be unaware that certain things are controversial.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:35 am

      I have to imagine that they know the controversy potential of the Knowledge Graph, but I agree that it seems like they aren't taking it seriously enough. And, of course, this is still in the research paper phase; there's no guarantee that Google will seriously pursue it for search purposes. But yes, it's hard, if not impossible, to predict which things will be controversial. You just never know!

  8. Brian
    March 25, 2015 at 12:14 am

    There is a difference between truth and fact, and even facts are gooey things. I don't want Google deciding what's "true" and what isn't by algorithims which cannot but prove to be inadequate and error-prone, thank you very much - any more than I want Google making determinations about beauty, utility, efficiency or a host of other characteristics related to data.

    The folks at Google are getting a little too big for their britches.

    • Dann Albright
      March 30, 2015 at 7:34 am

      The comparison between truth and beauty, utility, and efficiency is an interesting one; I agree that facts can be difficult to ascertain, and that's a great way of showing how difficult it is to create an algorithm that would work. People don't even agree on what truth is, much less where facts fall on the true-false spectrum.

      Thanks for your comment!