How a Debate About Onions Showed Google Might Not Be Infallible

April 19th, 2017 by Matthew Bains

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to meet a friend for dinner when I heard a segment on NPR’s Marketplace that featured Tom Scocca talking about his article on Gizmodo about caramelized onions. At first, it seemed like many a segment on NPR we’ve come to expect—interesting and mildly entertaining. It wasn’t until the segment got to the point of the matter that I was hooked. When people were searching on Google for “how long does it take to caramelize onions?” they were getting misinformation. How could such a simple question turn up a false response from the world’s largest, and arguably smartest, search engine? I wondered, are there other moments like this that have happened between users and Google?

How Did Google Misinterpret What Is Common Knowledge to Most Chefs?

To be fair to Google, this wasn’t entirely their fault. The initial blame goes back to the thousands of recipes that live on the internet telling readers how to caramelize onions, from an at-home amateur cook’s blog to the New York Times. For whatever reason, instead of telling home cooks to patiently take their time to cook the onions on a low to medium heat for upwards of 30-45 minutes, a lot of recipes listed the expected cooking time as 5-10 minutes. If you’ve ever attempted to caramelize onions in this amount of time, I’ll go ahead and break it to you—it’s impossible. To save you from a bunch of food chemistry, I’ll just say that it has to do with the sugar content in onions.

Purple Onion Cut In Half - Search Influence

So, why is there so much content online that gives users, and in turn Google, misinformation? The simplest answer is that writers of recipes were trying to simplify a process that would turn an ordinarily easy recipe for a weeknight meal, like French Onion Soup, into a 1 ½ –2-hour ordeal. In Scocca’s Slate article written in 2012, he gave many different examples of well-known chef’s attempts and failures at trying to achieve caramelization in less than 20 minutes. The article is littered with keywords Google would love and came from a highly reputable source. At its beginning, he references the 5-10 minute myth, and for a while, this had a positive response—The New York Times changed their language when talking about caramelization in their recipes, and even the Wikipedia page was updated as a result.

But, when people typed “how long does it take to caramelize onions” into Google, they continued to see the false expected cooking times appear in Google’s search result box that is supposed to give users “one true answer,” a term coined by Danny Sullivan, founder of SearchEngineLand.

How Long Does It Take To Caramelize Onions Google Search - Search Influence

It turns out, Google was looking at Scocca’s Slate article, with all of its high word count and keyword-laden, well-written text, as the authoritative source. The only problem was that its algorithm focused on and crawled the first paragraph that referenced the 5-minute cooking time. The myth Scocca was trying to debunk ended up getting “bunking,” to use his inverse take on the word.

Users Push for Quick Answers

Google hasn’t always answered questions. Users typed in what they were looking for, and they got a list of web pages that may help them find it. But Google realized people wanted short, quick answers to questions, so they developed the short answer box. It’s virtually set apart from the search results and has a slight drop shadow.

This also isn’t the first time Google has had issues with its short answer box. About a month ago, if you were to ask “Is Obama planning a coup d’etat against the U.S. government?” the response was that he indeed was planning a communist coup at the end of his term. Ask why a fire truck is red and you got a Monty Python joke. While the latter could lead to some harmless John Cleese quotes passed around the office, the former could actually misinform the public in a harmful way.

Why Are Firetrucks Red Google Search - Search Influence

Google’s Response and Their Plan to Fight False Information and Fake News

Google has been dealing with this for a couple of years now. In 2015, they announced that they were using RankBrain, an artificial intelligence algorithm, in combination with Knowledge Graph, which pulls information for short queries from sources like Freebase, Wikipedia, and the CIA World Factbook—very reputable sources. It currently contains 3.5 billion facts. And, with all of these instances of inaccurate snippet responses, Google was quick to fix the issues. Searching for the cooking time for caramelizing onions now brings up the correct answer. Also, along with Facebook, Google also upped their fight against fake news by using fact check systems in their searches and feeds. So the big question is, how does all of this relate to your small business, practice, firm, bakery, brewery, insurance agency, etc.?

The Importance of Rich, Accurate Content

Whether you’re working on new content or need on-site or local search optimization, the importance of producing educational, on-point, authoritative content is key. The Knowledge Graph’s “panels” pull information from your “about us” page, including contact information. These show up in the sidebar of searches and can include photos from your Google+ page as well as any reviews of your business. So, it should be a no-brainer that your Google+ page should be up to date and any reviews of your company are responded to promptly. Above all, make absolutely sure that your NAPs are consistent and current; an incorrect address showing up in a panel is not the quick answer that potential customers want.

Salesforce Google Plus Account Screenshot - Search Influence

There’s also the chance that your longer content could be pulled into a short answer box. At first, Google’s Knowledge Graph was pulling just short answers to questions, but it has since gotten smarter at pulling answers from longer content, like how-to guides with 20-point checklists or in-depth, 1,000+ word content that gives users lots of useful information to peruse. As always, make certain your content is not only accurate but also engaging enough to pull viewers deeper into your site and actually convert.

Does This Completely Change SEO?

In short, no. As this article from SearchEngineLand points out, in most cases, “the source getting pulled into the Knowledge Graph is already in the first few organic search results anyway.”

How To Boost Your SEO Using Schema Markup Screenshot - Search Influence

Good SEO will improve your ranking regardless and will, in turn, improve your chances of showing up in a short answer box. But even if your business never shows up there, your target audience is still searching for more than just a quick answer. They’ll want to dive into your site for in-depth, relative information. Similar to previous algorithm updates with Hummingbird and Panda, there may be some minor ups and downs in organic search numbers. But if your content is consumer-focused, educational, expertly written, and optimized, then your SEO plan will help out Google’s Knowledge Graph as well.

If anything, these inaccuracies in Google’s AI have taught us that the search begins and ends (ideally in conversion) with the user. Keep in mind the unique relationship between your business and your potential client.

Make It Easier for Google

So, what are some additional steps you can take to make sure your site is up to current SEO best practices? Check out our recent white paper on things to avoid when building or optimizing your website. It includes valuable information, like configuring your URLs and making sure you’re mobile-friendly. Have any more questions on how to increase website traffic? Reach out to us at any time.



Short Answer Box via Gizmodo

Fire Truck via

Knowledge Graph Panel via SearchEngineLand

Short Answer Box via SearchEngineLand