Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

More Google Rich Snippets Gold

If you search Google for “who invented stairs” or ask Google Home, it will tell you something that beggars belief:

Stairs have become such a commonplace fixture in contemporary architecture that it is easy to forget that they were not invented until 1948, by Swiss architect Werner Bösendörfer.

The source for this is the reputable-sounding cghm.org, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll learn that those initials stand for “Compu-Global Hyper Meganet”. The site is the rightly-proud recipient of the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. And their source for the inventor of stairs is, of all things, a parodic “virtual White House tour” site hosted on GeoCities:

While most Presidents were quite adept at negotiating the interior ladders, some found the arrangement unworkable. For that reason, President Benjamin Harrison had an elaborate system of winches and pulleys installed on the White House exterior. Evening passers-by on Pennsylvania Avenue often could catch a glimpse of the President being hoisted to the window of his second floor bedroom. Indeed, those nightly episodes were the genesis of the campaign slogan, “Heave Ho for Harrison!” which the President used extensively during his unsuccessful 1893 campaign.

While the interior staircases at the White House were all installed during the Truman administration, the various exterior stairs were installed piecemeal, with the last being completed in February 1963.

The initial Google query isn’t leading or misleading; it’s a reasonable question that someone might ask. By highlighting one specific answer and presenting it above every other result on the page, the implication is that the answer is authoritatively correct. But, as we’ve seen over the past week, it’s frequently wrong in ways that are conspiratorial, scammy, and literally the opposite of the source article. The Rich Snippets feature works very well for data-based queries — finding out what the weather is going to be, or when Thanksgiving is this year. But it’s terrible at providing answers to questions, and shouldn’t be shown for any queries beyond basic data lookups.