When Google gets it wrong: How to avoid mistaken identity in knowledge panels


by Jennifer Bridges

Young adult Caucasian twins wearing white shirts having idea, blue wall background

What would you do if Google thought you were dead? 

Google invented knowledge panels—the text boxes that occupy the top-right side of a search results page—to provide searchers with “clickless” authoritative factual information about individuals and other entities. However, knowledge panels for individuals occasionally mistake a person for someone else with the same name. The results of these mixups can be amusing—or horrifying—depending on who Google thinks you are.

Read on to learn how this happens, what the ramifications are, and what you can do if it happens to you.

Why does Google display someone else’s information?

Google collects the data for its knowledge panels from authoritative, third-party sources, such as news sites, The CIA World Factbook, and Wikipedia, as well as from its internal knowledge graph (the company’s understanding of people, places, and things). However, Google doesn’t vet the accuracy of knowledge panel data, except for panels about health disorders and political candidates.

Additionally, algorithms—not people—choose the content to display. This means that if there are several people with your name, then there is a chance the algorithms will not be able to identify which information goes with which individual.

Google’s algorithms famously erred in choosing what to include in the knowledge panel of its former CEO, Eric Schmidt. Although Mr. Schmidt is the author of several books, it was another Eric Schmidt who wrote Pharmacy Technician Exam Certification and Review.

Source: www.wsj.com

Why it’s so important to fix incorrect knowledge panels

You should be concerned if your knowledge panel is mixed up with someone else’s because your knowledge panel has a significant effect on your online reputation.

Here are some reasons why knowledge panels carry such weight:

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  • Knowledge panels dominate the search results for your name—Because of its prominent positioning on the page, the majority of people will view this information about you. A Path Interactive study bears this out, showing that over 90% of searchers viewed knowledge panel results. What’s more, nearly 40% of these users felt no need to click any of the organic links after reading the knowledge panel.
  • Knowledge panels have a larger reach than regular search results—In fact, they are the source of information that Google’s and Amazon’s smart speakers use to answer questions.
  • Knowledge panels are more believable than other search results—Google’s algorithms select the data in these panels to provide the best answer to the searcher’s query. This means that knowledge panels carry the authority of the company behind them.

Unfortunately, the algorithms that select the data for these panels can pull malicious or misleading content, thus spreading and magnifying false information or hateful rhetoric that can reduce your chances of getting a job, a date, or even an insurance policy.

One example of a knowledge panel broadcasting reputation-damaging information is when Google associated comedian Sara Silverman’s picture with the term “self-hating jew” in 2019.

In response to complaints about Ms. Silverman’s picture being included in this panel, a Google spokesperson explained: “These panels are automatically generated from a variety of data sources across the web. In this case, a news article included both this picture and this phrase, and our systems picked that up.” 

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is for Google to declare you to be dead. This happened to actor Paul Campbell and Rachel Abrams, a reporter for The New York Times.

For much of the last week, I have been trying to persuade the world’s most powerful search engine to remove my photo from biographical details that belong to someone else. A search for ‘Rachel Abrams’ revealed that Google had mashed my picture from The New York Times’s website with the Wikipedia entry for a better-known writer with the same name, who died in 2013.

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However, there’s a good argument to be made that being declared a serial killer (which happened to software engineer Hristo Georgiev) or a mass murderer (which happened to technology consultant Martin John Bryant) is an even bigger reputation disaster.

Luckily, most errors in knowledge panels aren’t this egregious. There are also things you can do to fix any mistakes you find.

How to fix mistakes in a knowledge panel 

There are several ways you can avoid being mistaken for someone else in a knowledge panel, depending on whether the panel is yours or belongs to someone else. 

If you have a knowledge panel

If your knowledge panel is showing the wrong information, you need to add authoritative sources of information to the web that Google can use to populate your panel with the correct data.

Follow these steps to edit a knowledge panel: 

  1. Create a Google account, if you don’t already have one.
  1. Get verified by following the instructions on the Get verified on Google page.
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  1. Correct errors in your knowledge panel by following the steps in the Update your Google knowledge panel page. However, Google won’t automatically make your suggested changes. First, it will compare your edits to what its algorithms find across the web.
  1. Designate an Entity Home page (such as the About Me or homepage of your personal website) to serve as the definitive source of information about you. This site should explain who you are, what you do, and your relationships to other entities (like companies or organizations) Google might be familiar with. You should also be sure to use Schema.org markup on your Entity Home page. This will provide context that Google’s algorithms can use to better understand you and your page.
  1. Promote articles and other reliable online sources that talk about you and link back to your Entity Home page. For example, you can share snippets of content (with links to the rest of it) on your social media channels, include content in an email newsletter, or submit it to a content promotion network like Viral Content Bee. These promotional steps will ensure Google finds corroborating evidence for the authority of your site—as well as the information it contains. When Google thinks you are an authority for your name, it will rank your site near the top of your search results and use your content to populate your knowledge panel.

Google will add any new data it considers trustworthy to its knowledge graph and make the relevant adjustments to your knowledge panel.

If your data appears on someone else’s knowledge panel

If you’re showing up in someone else’s knowledge panel, then you need to clarify your own online presence to help Google distinguish between you and the other individual.

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Here are some ways to do so:

  1. Make a Google account for yourself, if you don’t already have one.
  1. Suggest changes by clicking on the word “Feedback” at the bottom-right of the other person’s knowledge panel that contains your information. Next, click the edit icon next to an entry and choose the issue you want to address. You can then add further details and click “Submit.”
  1. Similar to what you would do to correct your own knowledge panel, you need to create or designate a website to serve as your Entity Home, if you haven’t already done so. Make sure it uses Schema.org markup and contains the most important facts about you, as well as any relevant people or organizations you are connected with.
  1. Consider using a different version of your name in all your online properties to help Google differentiate between you and other people with your name. This step is especially important if you have a common name like James Smith or Maria Gonzalez.

If these actions cause Google to create a knowledge panel for you, you’ll need to verify and update it according to Steps 2 and 3 in the previous section.

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As you can see, the key to avoiding or fixing mistaken-identity problems in Google’s knowledge panels is to educate Google about where to get the best information about you.

Unfortunately, doing so requires creating and promoting a robust, well-defined online presence, which often takes a lot of time and effort. 

In addition to the steps outlined above, you may very well need to:

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  • Continuously search the web to find new instances of mistaken identity and other factual errors (and verify that old problems have been corrected). 
  • Regularly create content to post on your website and reputable third-party sites, as well as encourage others to write content about you on authoritative websites, while making sure to follow Google’s best practices for search engine optimization (SEO).
  • Encourage the linking of these third-party sites to each other and back to your own website using Google-sanctioned techniques, in order to increase your website’s importance and visibility in the search engine’s eyes.

If this seems like a lot, it’s because it is, and knowing where to start can be difficult for those who don’t have a robust online presence already.

Thankfully, this is the type of problem that our ReputationGrower service was designed to solve. It builds an entire online presence for you, including social profiles and a customized, personal website—complete with detailed biographies, a personal mission statement, and photographs and videos, all of which help differentiate you from other people with the same name.

To learn more about whether ReputationGrower is the right fit for your situation, feel free to give us a call.