AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It seems like you can find just about anything through Google. If you type a question in the search box, you get an answer and something called a featured snippet. Google's answers are handy, but sometimes they're just wrong. Jacob Margolis from member station KPCC reports.
JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: My wife Rachel and I traveled through Spain recently. The food was delicious. I mean, there were cheeses, fresh fruits, cured meats, great runny egg dishes, and that was only breakfast. But we ran into some problems.
RACHEL MARGOLIS: There's a lot of, like, stress with eating.
J. MARGOLIS: That's Rachel. She's pregnant. And the entire trip we were trying to figure out what she could and could not eat.
Can you eat prosciutto?
R. MARGOLIS: No.
J. MARGOLIS: Can you eat salami?
R. MARGOLIS: I don't know. I don't think so.
J. MARGOLIS: Can you eat bacon?
R. MARGOLIS: I think I can eat bacon 'cause it's cooked.
J. MARGOLIS: Can you eat buffet eggs?
R. MARGOLIS: Well, I don't know. I just ate them.
J. MARGOLIS: And like any terrified first-time parents, we turned to Google for answers. But as we looked at the results, I noticed that some of the answers were questionable and that some of them were flat-out wrong. So to find out more, I called up Dr. Leena Shankar Nathan, an OB-GYN at UCLA Health. I looked up the question, can pregnant women eat eggs? Here's what Google had to say.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: According to MomJunction, during your pregnancy you need to cook eggs properly until both the white and yolk turn solid.
J. MARGOLIS: That's true, says Nathan, because salmonella poisoning is a concern. But MomJunction continues.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Though salmonella poisoning will not harm your baby, it can be unpleasant for you as it could cause abdominal pain.
J. MARGOLIS: Salmonella poisoning can actually be very dangerous for pregnant women. After I asked MomJunction about the post, they changed it to say that it's unlikely to harm your baby.
LEENA SHANKAR NATHAN: Because in the first trimester it can actually cause miscarriage if you develop one of these bacterial gastroenteritides (ph). You can definitely lose the pregnancy because of it.
J. MARGOLIS: Dr. Nathan says that she hears from patients all of the time they get bad information from the Internet. And that's nothing new. What is new is Google's featured snippet, or the little answer at the top of search results. The product came about in 2014. And like we just heard, there can be factual issues with them.
DANNY SULLIVAN: You've had cases where people have done searches for, say, the king of America and it has come up with an answer like Barack Obama.
J. MARGOLIS: That answer's since been fixed. But Danny Sullivan's been looking into the results for his website Search Engine Land. The answers that Google displays don't necessarily have editorial oversight. The sources aren't always reputable. And whatever shows up in the snippet box was chosen by Google's algorithms.
SULLIVAN: When someone does a search, an ask or something, it goes through and it tries to find pages that seem like they're answering the question that you have. But it can't actually tell whether or not that's the right answer.
J. MARGOLIS: And research indicates that opinions are shaped by whatever shows up at the top of the search results.
HENRY BRIGHTON: The ordering is everything.
J. MARGOLIS: That's Dr. Henry Brighton from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He surveyed a group of people who were undecided about whether the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was a good thing. He asked them to search for information online to help them form an opinion, but he manipulated what people could see. For some he prioritized negative information on vaccines, while others saw mostly positive results.
BRIGHTON: We can manipulate people's health care decisions even when these issues are really, really important. And we can do that simply by changing the rankings of search results.
J. MARGOLIS: Google says that there are trillions of searches done each year on its platform, but that it's unclear how many snippets there are and how often they're wrong. But the company does recognize that bad answers can be an issue, and they've addressed that by letting users flag bad snippets. But if a user doesn't know an answer is wrong, why would they do that in the first place? When asked, Dr. Nathan recommends that if you have a medical question you should check with your doctor. Jacob Margolis, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.