Remko Tanis • 08 November 2018

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While doing some technical stuff to clean up this site’s presence over at Google, I was bombarded with repeated demands to proof I’m not a robot.

Many sites use this captcha to determine whether they’re being visited by a robot/spambot or an actual human being.

If you’re able to resist going full Nietzsche and don’t start questioning the basis of your human existence, a simple click will do to proof to the system you’re not a robot.

The six most infuriating words in English: Select all squares with street signs.
— Reddit user Ovoutland

The other day though, Google had something else in store for me. The stuff I had to do was necessary to guarantee this site shows up in search results, so I didn’t have the luxury to just shut it all down and go for a walk or something.

Instead, I spent way longer than is healthy identifying squares on photos with (parts of) cars, fire hydrants, store fronts and traffic lights in them.

This is just a fraction of the captcha’s I got:

Solving one just seemed to encourage Google to present me with another to determine who in this dialogue was the robot (Google, ironically!) and who wasn’t.
Seems sending out these captcha’s is a way for the Google systems to learn what traffic lights, bicycles, fire hydrants, etc. look like. So that when someone does a Google Image search for ‘fire hydrant’, they get photos of, well, fire hydrants.

The store fronts are the worst. Does a wall with a store sign or advertisement on it count as a store front, or not?
— Reddit user AthenaMom, taking captchas very seriously.

So looking at it from that perspective, I’ve been working for Google last week, clicking on all those photo squares. Had I known, I’d have joined the #GoogleWalkout.

A, of course, Google Search returns plenty of frustration with these photo square captchas. And even some insecurity, strangely enough. Apparently some people fear a wrong answer to these captchas will have similar results as failing a college entrance exam.

Conversation on Reddit, with some surprisingly fair points:

  • DanBlather: “In a reCAPTCHA, does "select all squares with a street sign" also include the sign pole? If I click on the signs, but not the poles, I'm rejected, and bounced to another captcha. If I click on the signs and the poles, I'm bounced to another captcha. It takes five or six attempts for me to get a reCAPTCHA right.”

  • D3ATHfromAB0V3X: “What about the squares that have the very corner of the sign? I feel like it doesn't recognize those squares contain parts of a sign.”

  • PainTrane117: “No, it does NOT include the sign pole. Source: I literally did 14 captchas today at work for customers and I tested this theory. Did not select poles and it worked every time.” (I wonder what PainTrane117’s job is.)

  • AthenaMom: “I agree. I never match the signs. I also hate click on store fronts. How do I know it's a store when the sign is in another language above a building. Maybe it's an apartment or hotel or whatever. The store fronts are the worst. Does a wall with a store sign or advertisement on it count as a store front, or not?”

Next time I’m getting one of these picture square captchas, I’ll try to approach it with the zen-like attitude of Reddit’er Tyzbit:

I don't think there's a wrong answer, when talking about what makes a sign a sign.