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‘JFK Death Penalty’ Brings Up Some Kid’s Middle School Essay

“JFK was an interesting man.” At least, that’s the first thing you read if you follow the top Search result for variations of “Did JFK support the death penalty?” Google turns up 7.5 million results, but for some reason, it starts you off with a Google Doc that appears to be a middle schooler’s homework assignment.

The first page of results for the phrase “JFK Death Penalty” brings up a variety of sources. Second among them is an entry from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, dedicated to a law the former President signed abolishing capital punishment in Washington D.C. But don’t let the thought police tell you we should rely on some library just because it’s responsible for upholding JFK’s “official” legacy. Google’s robots can see through that kind of noise: the internet giant decided that a document titled DEATH PENALTY holds the most authoritative information.

The essay, first spotted on Twitter, opens strong. “JFK was an interesting man. He made a lot of decisions and made a lot of stances in his time on this planet,” the author writes. “On behalf of the issue with the death penalty, I believe that JFK would have been completely against the concept of it.” They follow through with several examples from Kennedy’s time in office, including the law referenced by the JFK Library, and the time the President commuted a sailor’s sentence in 1962, changing his punishment from the death penalty to life in prison. “Obviously, it seems as though he would have been completely against the concept of the death penalty,” the writer concludes.

Screenshot: Gizmodo / Google

I’m no teacher, but that reads like A+ work to me. Our star student didn’t include their name at the top of the paper, though, so they might have lost points for formatting. That leaves us with no obvious way to identify them. That’s probably a good thing. People shouldn’t have to deal with unwanted attention just because Google is being weird. (If this is your homework, though, we’d love to hear from you.)

Whatever brought that poor kid’s homework to the top of Google, I’m happy (or sorry) to say we’ve rectified the problem. Giving weird internet phenomena a lot of attention is often the kiss of death, and after we reached out to Google for comment, the student’s Google Doc was stripped from search results. The good news is we’ve mirrored the essay for posterity. You can read it here, complete with the relevant portions that were originally highlighted by your friends at Google.

Children’s essays or otherwise, it’s bizarre for Search to turn up Google Docs for anyone who isn’t looking for them specifically, let alone for the subject of a President’s policy positions.

“We build Search to surface high quality information from reliable sources, especially on topics where information quality is critically important,” a Google spokesperson said. “Sometimes, there’s just not a lot of great content on the web to show for a particular search. It’s uncommon for Google Docs content to appear for a featured snippet, and we agree that we could surface a better result here. We’re looking into it further to see how we can improve on queries like this.”

In Google’s defense, the waters are a little muddy given the fact that the similarly named former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy weighed in on capital punishment. Then there’s the sad reality of John and Robert Kennedy’s unfortunate associations with the word death. On the other hand, this doesn’t seem like a hard one.

Over the past few years, consumers and experts alike have complained that Google Search is getting worse. That’s a difficult issue to measure; how do you judge whether search results are good or bad? The company certainly has metrics of its own, but Google isn’t about to tell the world its products are deteriorating. I’ve asked various Google employees about it in the past. Most swear that Search is still great. But at the very least, it’s gotten so bad that many people now add the word “Reddit” to searches to increase the chance that they’ll find something useful. Still, Google’s spokesperson said that numerous third-party studies have found the company’s Search tool is best in class.

A screenshot of the essay about JFK's stance on the death penalty

Google’s top choice for JFK’s stance on this thorny political issue, featuring a delightfully off-center title.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

What we can say is Google has been trying all kinds of shenanigans on its flagship product. For one, Google Search increasingly favors Google products, picking its own services as the first answer in many cases. Then there’s the fact that the company loaded up Search with so many ads over the years that they practically spill off the edges of your screen. Some Searches fill the entire screen with marketing content that you have to scroll past to find actual results. At the same time, Google shrunk the labels disclosing that you’re looking at an ad, making things harder to parse. Criminals have caught on to that phenomenon. It’s so bad the FBI recommends you use an ad blocker to avoid search engine ad scams.

Google’s spokesperson said the company works to provide a valuable and relevant advertising experience. Google maintains that ads only showed up at the top of 20% of searches over the past four years. The spokesperson said the “highly prominent” labels it places on its ads are industry-leading and designed to catch users’ attention.

Search is also a victim of the tech industry’s effort to shove AI into every corner of our internet. Google’s “Search Generative Experience” now pulls up chatbot answers for some queries, though this is an opt-in feature—for now. It isn’t always great. For example, we caught Google’s AI Search doling out justifications for slavery and cooking instructions for poisonous mushrooms. Google is so keen on AI that it quietly removed the suggestion that content be “written by people” in its recommendations for websites that want to do well in Search results.

Meanwhile, website owners’ desperate attempts to game Google and show up high on the page through “Search Engine Optimization” have reached absolute chaos. In 2023, a Gizmodo investigation found the tech news outlet CNET deleted thousands of articles because its team felt that would aid in the site’s Search Performance. Google told Gizmodo it doesn’t recommend this practice, though some experts suggest the company’s official guidance says otherwise.

It’s like I said, JFK was an interesting man.

Update 2:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with Google’s comments about the unusual search result. As of this afternoon, the query stopped surfacing the child’s essay.

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