Google has promised to alter its search results to punish websites promoting extreme views, conspiracy theories and fake news.
The internet giant said it would demote “low-quality” websites and let users report offensive results after criticism that neo-Nazi groups and hoaxers were “gaming” the company’s search engine.
Google has been under mounting pressure in recent months for appearing to promote fake news and conspiracy theories in search results.
The company’s search engine, which is driven by computer algorithms, has often struggled to differentiate between reputable sources and unsavoury websites, leading it to include extreme viewpoints or lies in its results.
On Tuesday Google said it had hired a team of “evaluators” to assess the quality of its search results and said it had adjusted its algorithm to promote authoritative pages such as reputable news sources and government websites, and punish those deemed low-quality.
The changes come after Google’s search engine was found to prominently feature fringe websites in search results, including pages denying the Holocaust and claiming that Barack Obama is planning a White House coup.
The company has also been criticised over suggestions offered by its Autocomplete feature, which predicts what a person is typing, and the Direct Answers box at the top of its search results, which attempts to answer simple questions by quoting from a website, have also caused offence.
In one example, Autocomplete was found to suggest the phrase “are women evil” when a user begins to type “are women”, and the Direct Answer box would respond by asserting that “every woman has a little evil in her”.
On Tuesday Google said users will be able to report offensive suggestions from the Autocomplete feature and false statements in Google’s Direct Answer box, which will be manually checked by a moderator.
Inaccurate results are often featured in search results due to “Google bombing” tactics employed by internet-savvy groups that force a website to be ranked highly. These tactics include linking to the offending website from several other sources and hiding text on a page that is invisible to humans but which the search engine’s algorithms can read.
“In a world where tens of thousands of pages are coming online every minute of every day, there are new ways that people try to game the system,” Google’s Ben Gomes said. “In order to have long-term and impactful changes, more structural changes [to Google’s search engine] are needed.”
Technology giants including Google and Facebook have been under pressure to stem the rise of “fake news”: online articles that are deliberately false but created to bring in advertising revenue or spread misinformation.
MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee are currently holding an inquiry into the phenomenon amid fears that fake news has disrupted elections in the US and Europe.