Google Search Fail, Wading Through the Wrong Answer

Posted on Posted in General, News

Tale of a Google Search Fail.  A real weed, not THAT weed.

The May Apple (Podophyllum)

No Google, I am not searching for marijuana, just a weed that’s on my property. I consider myself above average on being able to quickly and easily find things on Google, but I found a big thunk in the omniscient search engine’s algorithm. Each spring I see these weeds growing in the shady section of my woods and I have always wanted to know more about them, but forgot to look them up. My sister was in from out of town and asked me “what are those weeds that look like palm trees?” I didn’t know so I decided to Google it.  I was thinking this would be a slam dunk, easy as pie search, so I typed in “Weed palm tree” into Google.   Whoa was I surprised!  Google returned tons of pictures, links and other fare regarding one of the biggest news items in the USA these days – weed/marijuana.  I could even buy a t-shirt or see the series “Weeds” on Netflix.   I decided to just look at image results, maybe I could just spot this weed and be done with it.  Nope.

I tried a number of different searches on my phone to try to get something that would tell me what this weed was.  I even tried replacing the word weed with the word plant, but I was inundated by results about house plants. Loosing patience I decided this would be better accomplished on my computer where I had a big screen.  I typed in keyword exclusions into Google to get rid of all weeds I didn’t want (double entendre there).

I told Google not to search for marijuana,  to do this, just precede the word you don’t want with a minus sign “weed palm tree -marijuana.”   This helped reduce a bunch of noise, but I still couldn’t find my weed.  Looking through this set of better results gave me another search term to add to my query: woodland.  Armed with my final query of palm weed woodland -marijuana,  I was able to find my plant and I was directed to a site which identified the plant as a May Apple (common name).  It is quite the interesting plant, the research of which I will leave to the reader.  Here’s the link that gave me the answer :  and here’s a link to Wikipedia 

The interesting lesson (at least to me) in this story, is that sometimes the popularity/trend of something can really cause us pain trying to find the answer on the internet or even in our own big data projects. Perhaps if I had picked better search terms at the beginning I would have found the answer sooner. However, when so much information on weed was thrown at me about a weed that I DID NOT want, it became a challenge to find it using that word. There’s a good chance that our data users may be doing the same thing.  Sometimes in a world swimming with so much data we have to work harder at getting the right answer. It pays to double check your results when doing your data analysis, or at least give the user the ability to exclude the things they don’t want.  Simply trusting the algorithm could lead to the wrong answer.

Daryl works at