It was an odd, unanswerable question. Still, it was on the mind of at least one Google user in India.
What is the country’s “ugliest” language?
For anyone who typed the question into the platform’s search bar recently, its algorithm produced a fact box confident of the answer: a tongue called Kannada, spoken by tens of millions of people in India’s south.
Informed of that result, many of them weren’t happy.
Several politicians in the state of Karnataka, where most Kannada speakers live, went on social media this week to register their outrage.
Google apologized on Thursday for “the misunderstanding and hurting any sentiments.” It also deleted the fact box about Kannada.
But its faux pas — and the response from Mr. Limbavali and other members of the state’s conservative political brass — had already been picked up by major Indian news outlets. By Friday, the top results for the search “What’s the world’s ugliest language?” were articles about Google’s apology for having answered it.
The episode illustrates the fallibility of the fact boxes, a function that Google created seven years ago. The boxes, known as “featured snippets,” contain information that the company’s algorithms pull from third-party sources. They appear above the links that usually pop up in Google search results.
The company has said that featured snippets work well, based on usage statistics and evaluations from people paid to evaluate the quality of its search engine’s results. But it also admits that they sometimes get the facts wrong — or stray into the realm of opinion.
“Search isn’t always perfect,” Google India said in its apology on Thursday. “Sometimes, the way content is described on the internet can yield surprising results to specific queries.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Earlier this year, a search for why Google was banned from China returned a fact box — garnered from a nationalist state-run tabloid, The Global Times — noting that Google had left the country of its own accord after deciding that Chinese laws did not “conform with its so-called democratic values.”
The box made no mention of a cyberattack that the company had cited as an immediate reason to stop running its search engine in China. Nor did it mention that most Google services are widely blocked from China’s internet.
Google is also unreliable on the question of whether it is a reliable source of information.
The search “Does Google lie to you?” produces a fact box with this answer: “Google does not give answers (sic) to questions and therefore it does not lie.”
That is from an article in the newspaper The Australian that quoted a businessman who accused the company of stealing content and putting it up directly on its site. The quote was used in the article as a sarcastic reference to the first result for the search query “Does Google ever lie?”
Kannada, the language that Google’s fact box said was India’s ugliest, is part of a family of Dravidian languages that are native to southern India and go back thousands of years.
The snafu this week was not the first time that Kannada speakers have said that their language was disrespected.
Karnataka inspired many of the novels and short stories by RK Narayan, one of India’s most famous novelists. A popular 1980s television adaptation of his work was made in Hindi, the country’s most common language, with Kannada subtitles. Even though Mr. Narayan wrote in English, some critics said the adaptation should have been made in Kannada, or at least dubbed into it.
“It could very well have been dubbed when it was made,” the critic Prathibha Nandakumar wrote in 2012. “Why was that not thought of?”
Google has no fact box for that.