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Please Don't Ask Google 'Who Runs Hollywood'

Why the robotic "direct answers" in search can surface the underbelly of the Web.

LUNAMARINA / Thinkstock

In recent years, Google has toyed with new ways of doing search, placing bits of information in the results rather than sending searchers outbound with links. Then last year, Google grew more daring. It starting inserting a clean white box above the blue links where it put answers to more complicated queries, culled from the websites it crawls.

Google calls the box “direct answers,” because that is what they are. How do I make French toast? Here are the directions, steps 1, 2 and 3. Who invented French toast? It came from the 15th century court of Henry V, it turns out.

Google being Google, the box is produced by smart algorithms, not humans. Predictably, that can go horribly wrong. On Thursday evening, it did.

A search for “who runs Hollywood” produced a direct answer box and link from a right-wing website denouncing the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish advocacy group. The writer Josh Fruhlinger first flagged the issue on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/jfruh/status/639673450538266624

At some point Friday morning, Google removed the result.

This issue has always existed for Google. Since the dawn of its search, the company has remained steadfastly agnostic about its search results. So searches for conspiratorial questions — as “who runs Hollywood” is — will product nasty, conspiratorial results. Still, the “direct answers” service smacks users in the face with it much more than the ten blue links do.

We reached out to Google for comment. Here’s what a Google rep told The Guardian: “We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google.”

Google ran into similar trouble in June when a search for “what happened to the dinosaurs” prompted a response from a Creationist website. That response is still there, followed by stories about its presence.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.