When Algorithms Go Bad

October 14th, 2007; updated December 12th, 2009; August 18th, 2010; November 8th, 2010;
December 24th, 2010; September 27th, 2011, October 20th, 2012, November 16th, 2012


I am very much a believer in algorithmic approaches to problem-solving. The alternative (data-intensive approaches) is just too dumb and hard to work with. A good algorithm can accomplish so much more. Besides, I’ve always harped about the importance of process intensity (based on algorithms) versus data intensity (based on data tables)

However, the algorithmic approach has its own particular problem: you can never be certain that it will produce results that are quite what you intended. You must be very careful in designing your algorithms to avoid this problem.

Google is one of the primary exponents of algorithm-driven approaches to computing, and I believe this fundamental philosophical outlook is a major factor in Google’s success. However, there is one place where Google’s algorithms fall a little short, with hilarious results. The Google news system picks out the best news stories to present to the viewer, and that story-picking algorithm is pretty good. However, it has another algorithm that picks a good image to accompany the story, and that algorithm has a few problems. I present here for your entertainment some of the better examples of this phenomenon, which I call "Google Bobbles".


"If we can’t play our way, we won’t play at all!"


No more Mr. Nice Guy with the protesters!


"C’mon, kid, quit whining about your missing leg and chase those damn Easter Eggs!"


The End. Oblivion. Nothingness.



It seems those astronauts have been spiffing up the place.



Continental Drift Strikes Georgia!



Looks like they jettisoned it.



I think it actually "fired" them.



I *knew* Star Trek was right!



Clinton, Schminton, they’re all the same anyway, right?



There are no Mac clones on this ship. We’re on a... diplomatic mission.



Oh no! We shut down the company but the Spam-making machine is still grinding them out! We’ll have to bomb the factory!


It’s that Nintendo dieting game that makes the difference.



Yuck! These worms are particularly ferocious!



Hey, Obama’s black, right? Close enough!



Yep, those Israelis in Al-Walajah, Alabama, are pretty mean.


Looks like Mr. Obama is going down in flames.


That new iPad is a killer! (image is from the movie “Jaws”)


You never knew that Muhammed Ali also was known as “The Terror Bird”, did you? (Note article header)


Yep, that beach looks so pristine.


Kermit is the real green candidate


California, Florida, what’s the difference?


Sarah Palin: blonde or brunette?


get the Feds out of the Grateful Dead!


Next time, with their new lawyer, they’re gonna win, fer shure!


Yep, we can all agree to go sit on the beach and watch the babes.


No comment.


Those dirty Republicans and their cheap card tricks. 




There’s something wrong with this image search.




They called it “The Long March”




Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah! I got a Nobel Prize and you didn’t!




Tonight, George Will sleeps with the fishes.




Yes, that is a cloud all right.




Tweet, tweet, tweet.




We cover both sides of every issue.




She sure looks like a skunk to me.



This “news” story appeared on Google news on November 12th, 2012:




Yep, they left out the Hamsters of Death




Cat food just gets more and more expensive every day.




All the designer needed here was a visual break between the headline and the time stamp.




A few problems with the captioning algorithm




It’s so tiny!


And we’ll be watching you.

Tick Ad

Not quite the right place to put this ad.

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Man, the firefighter’s job is getting tougher every day: fire, smoke, collapsing buildings, and now sharks.

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I never knew that snails had eyes and feathers; maybe that’s what makes this snail so rare.

NYPD Smoke Canister

And he has such lovely curls!

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Old Al may have a raspy voice, but he’s got a big butt.

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Interesting mismatch between headline and content.

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He’s got them stopped dead on the 30 yard line.

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We ain’t takin’ no more guff about our sexuality! Got it?

Black Republican Chairman

Look closely… see that darker shade of white? He counts as black!

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Yes, the new Stephen Colbert is much older now.

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Va va va BOOM!

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Sorry, guys, but the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Churchill has been dead for 50 years.

Segolene Royal

Looks like the poor woman lost all her hair.

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The content-text algorithm needs to talk to the headline algorithm.

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A 14-year-old kid with a beard???

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Michele likes to wear big hats.

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The Senate adjourned and went to Palm Beach County.

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Of course! Those clever orangutans were using scuba gear to hide from us!

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One good error deserves another.

A special award for media gravitas.

A blonde? Turkey? Russia? World War III?

Don’t worry: Mr. Obama has captured the militants.

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Who, me? No, I’m no Neanderthal, I’m the scientist who did this research.

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Leonardo da Neanderthal is angry about the diseases he got from those damn humans.

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Up, up, and away!

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The bacteria in Nome, Alaska are VERY big!

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 8.35.05 PM

Such a glamorous candidate!

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Gee, Fox News isn’t biased against Hillary Clinton, is it? (See photos along bottom).

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 9.34.21 PM

It’s not looking good for those Europeans.

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I think that the photo-searching algorithm was a little too literal.

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Gee, Stephen Colbert must have grown a moustache and beard and dyed his hair. He looks so much younger now!

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That’s a really cute rat.

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And the spacecraft looks so much bigger now!

Logrolling can get you shot.

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Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is the cause of human poverty.

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This one has me stumped. What in the world was the algorithm thinking? 

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Um… right.

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The headline and the text don’t quite match up, do they?

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 8.44.24 PM

Those clowns at NASA have done it again!

Screen Shot 2016-10-27 at 7.26.45 AM

We’ve slashed the prices on sharks!

Screen Shot 2016-12-18 at 1.50.20 PM

They’re going to tackle the problem…

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No comment.

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 2.15.03 PM

But Mr. Trump has problems finding Libya on the map

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Gee, I never knew that he was a transexual…

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Google’s photo-selection algorithms have a crush on Mary Tyler Moore.

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Yes, we’re going replace those big, expensive airplanes with drones. 

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It battered her, it lashed her. Debbie is a wife-beater. I presume this means that she is lesbian?

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Egad, that thing is ugly!

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Oh, yes, he sure is shining

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Negotiations were short

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One way or the other, the truth will out.

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Gosh… I didn’t know that they were both blondes.

Peanut Worm

That’s a REALLY fat worm.