Future Tense

Why the Heck Is a Spice Girl in the Search Results for James Comey?

A screenshot of the search result mistake
Photo illustration by Slate. Screen grab via Google.

He’s a fired former FBI director. She’s a Spice Girl and recently departed judge of America’s Got Talent. I’m not sure even Kevin Bacon could connect James Comey and Mel B. So why does Google think they have something in common?

Someone who may be less than up-to-date on the Mueller investigation (certainly not me) found herself Googling Comey on Tuesday, upon which she discovered this curious connection. In the so-called knowledge panel that Google calls up in search results for topics and figures of note, the search engine includes a selection of pictures and names that “people also search for.” For Comey, four of the five listed were the usual suspects: Rod Rosenstein, Andrew McCabe, Robert Mueller, and Hillary Clinton. But the fifth person whom people Googling James Comey also search for was, according to Google, one Mel B.

Zigazig Lordy! The mind reels. How did these 2 become 1? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any crazier, the Spice Girls are material to the Mueller investigation? Google, if it’s what you say, I love it! That’s getting ahead of ourselves, though. Surely there must be a more sane explanation. I reached out to Google to ask for precisely that. No one from the company got back to me, but Mel B did mysteriously vanish from Comey’s results by the time I checked this morning. Gee, thanks, Google—but bigger thanks to the screenshots, which last forever.

Even though the Mel B–Comey tie has now been severed, that it ever existed in the first place remains worthy of further study. It even puzzled Barry Schwartz, a news editor at Search Engine Land.* “When I did some research around Mel B and James Comey, I found nothing,” Schwartz told me—no recent news that would connect either one, no references to the other on their Wikipedia pages, nada.

As for where the “knowledge” in knowledge panels comes from, Mark Graham, a professor of internet geography at the University of Oxford who has written about Google’s “Knowledge Graph,” told me in an email, “Google is notoriously secretive in sharing information about where it pulls the various datasets that it uses” to generate results.

When Google first introduced these information boxes, they were full of all kinds of errors, but these days they’re usually quite sophisticated, and when something that seems wrong pops up, there’s often an explanation, Schwartz said. This seemed to be just another glitch. Graham added that while it was unlikely that Mel B ended up in Comey’s results as a result of Google employee meddling, it might have been an intervention, possibly human, in one of the third-party data sets that Google pulls from. But how, and why!

In an email, a spokesman for DuckDuckGo, a search engine (and therefore rival of Google’s) that focuses on protecting user privacy, hypothesized that Google was personalizing its results to me: “[P]erhaps that result has something to do with your search history and the search history of people with similar profiles, since Google makes that data last forever.” While I cannot deny that I and any internet browser associated with me have a long history of Spice Girls fandom, psssh. Obviously I asked other people I work with to duplicate these results before launching into investigation mode, and my colleagues in both New York and D.C. reproduced the strange Mel B/Comey nexus. Next!

Alexander Halavais, a professor who studies social media at Arizona State University, had a more specific theory to offer over email: “[B]ecause of Mel B’s job change”—her America’s Got Talent departure was announced last week—“she is being searched by the same folks who are searching for the others. Indeed, if you follow the news stories for each, you’ll find Mel B in the headlines of the stories that are recommended.” Huh!

So maybe it’s not that weird after all. However, Halavais also had an additional note: “What is a bit more curious is that the list of ‘those who search for’ Mel B also search for … well, the sorts of people you would expect. The lack of reciprocity seems to suggest something a little strange. Basically, it says those looking for Mueller-investigation-related news are also interested in Mel B’s legal issues, but those who search for Mel B, on the whole, do not care nearly as much about ‘hard news.’ ”

So that’s probably it: The Venn diagram of people (the heroes, I should say) who care about both James Comey and Mel B manifested the Spice Girl into Comey’s knowledge panel. But I may just keep imagining that Mel B has something on Michael Cohen anyway—it spices up my life.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2019: This piece originally misidentified Barry Schwartz as Bryan Schwartz.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.