If you Google the phrase, “who is king of the United States,” Google will provide the following answer:

In this quasi-self-referential response, Google returns an article from Search Engine Land discussing how Google is attempting to answer the query’s question. The dynamic result displayed above is an example of Google’s rich snippet feature, where the search engine tries to provide compelling results that answers a user’s question right in the search results.

What Are Featured Snippets?

To help Google return richer search results, webmasters can use featured snippets, a form of structured data, to give Google additional signals to understand what a page is about. Snippets are the lines of text that appear underneath each search result and rich snippets provide more detailed information to help users with more specific queries.

There are multiple ways snippets can appear, meaning it could impact both businesses and individuals in different ways. The knowledge graph is a type of result that returns for business and individuals that can share bio information, wikipedia previews, data about organizations, affiliations, etc. Other types of rich snippet results are: answer boxes (like the Obama example above), People Also Ask, carousels for shopping results, carousels for travel results, and those about a specific category of person (i.e. Google “Scam Artist”), recipes, queries for sports scores, and the weather.

Incorrect information appearing within any of Google’s rich snippet features has the potential to be misleading or even damage a reputation. With so many types of rich results available, being vigilant about your online reputation is paramount.

Search Intent and Google’s Algorithm

Going back to the “King Barack Obama” example, how did Google generate this factually inaccurate response to the searcher’s question? Because of all of the mentions about “President Barack Obama” online, one would assume that Google should return a reputable article that defines democracy for the confused searcher.

The Search Engine Land article described how a recent Breitbart article titled “All Hail King Barack Obama, Emperor of the United States of America” appeared in the same dynamic answer box position. The Search Engine Land article was published in November 2014, drawing attention to the Breitbart problem. Despite the coverage, the issue has yet to be corrected in Google’s search results.

To further examine this example, the search query, “who is the king of the United States” is  typed as a question, so Google’s algorithm then looks to answer the question as succinctly as possible for the user. For this particular search query, two popular websites (and probably many others) are writing content using the terms “Barack Obama” and “king” together and cause the search results to change for that specific query.

It’s important to understand how dynamic Google’s search results can be. Does this search result negatively affect President Obama? Probably not, but think about how this same situation could be applied to the digital reputation and the search results that appear for your name or your company.

Rich Search Results and Your Reputation

This isn’t the first time Google returned factually inaccurate results because of the contextual signals that websites and users were sending. There are numerous examples that illustrate how search results can be affected by incorrect information with potentially damaging results – results with staying power despite bringing the inaccuracies to Google’s attention.

Featured information in the search results is useful when done correctly. But if the search results are not monitored by an individual or organization, there is room for error. Examples of errors appearing across different types of queries demonstrate how something can easily go awry. In some cases, (i.e. the Barack Obama example) the misinformation can be a long-term problem and difficult to correct.

For individuals and businesses who are interested in taking a closer look at their search results and working to influencing any type of rich snippet with positive information that benefits their reputation, they should work with an expert in the industry to carefully develop content, update and monitor websites capable of being pulled into rich snippets, and update websites with structured data to assist Google in pulling in the most accurate and relevant results for their users.

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About the Author

After earning her Master’s in New Media Management from Syracuse University, Brianna now serves as Brand Strategy Supervisor and oversees multiple reputation management projects.

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