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April 7, 2011

Google Autocomplete Suggestions and the Meaning of Life

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The world thinks Google is their personal diary and best friend. If you don’t believe me, just look at any number of the autocorrect suggestions in a Google search query and you’ll find everything from profound to ridiculous questions about life and even statements that come from the heart. It’s almost as if the world believes Google is listening, and can somehow unlock the secrets to life.

Yesterday, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land published a post on how Google Instant autocomplete suggestions work. In my dream world, autocomplete staff at Google really does exist. But alas, it’s based on calculations and stuff.

Today, I want to give some commentary on Danny’s article, talking about some of the factors he points out that influence autocomplete paired with some examples of my own; briefly discuss Google’s stance and responsibility in protecting certain groups from slander in suggestions; and finally, dive into the minds of searchers everywhere, with some autocomplete fun.

You’re So Smart, Autocomplete

In his post, Danny talks about autocomplete being based on real searches and the popularity of those searches. He also says the suggestions you see are not in order of popularity, and that personalization comes first before anything else based on what Google feels is most relevant to you. This can be based on things like previously searched suggestions.

I did a quick search for “what is the” and was served up with the following results, which prove to some degree personalization was taken into account. (Click on any of the images to enlarge.)

What is the

While I haven’t searched on anything related to the illuminati recently, I do perhaps have a Web history of some related searches. But the “American dream” suggestion makes sense, since I looked up something related to it last for the post I wrote on telling the truth about being an entrepreneur.

But in Danny’s post, it says the suggestion would be in purple if had clicked on it before. I tried a bunch of times to make the suggestion go purple by clicking on the suggestion and websites related to it, but nothing happened. Hmmm.

Danny’s post also talks about how freshness in search factors into the suggestions, meaning some search terms spike in popularity due to more people searching for it based on an event. This is related to a concept we teach in our SEOToolSet® training course, where we use the death of Princess Diana as an example of how the index can shift when big events occur, which causes the results that you see to vary.

Before Diana’s death, the majority of the results for a search similar to “Princess Di” had to do with the various charitable causes she was involved in. After her death, because everyone was talking about the crash and the events surrounding it, there was a shift in the conversation and the results that were normally in the top rankings were no longer.

To illustrate the freshness aspect, a search for “what’s wrong with” shows what is on peoples’ minds right now:

What's wrong with

Clearly, everyone wants to know what in God’s name is wrong with Charlie Sheen. [Who is Leah and why do people want to know if there’s something wrong with her baby? –Susan]

This suggestion also showcases the location factor Danny was talking about in the post. The second suggestion down talks about Mark Kriski, a Los Angeles weatherman, who was stricken with pneumonia and had to take a leave of absence. And since I’m near L.A., makes sense.

And since tax season is coming to a close, people want to know:

Where is

And of course, knowing where Chuck Norris is should be a staple in everyone’s life.

I suppose the popularity factor is the same reason that a couple years back, the autocomplete suggestion for “I like to” was “I like to tape my thumbs to my fingers to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur.” I guess I’m confused on how that became a popular search term in the first place, but I can see how it quickly gained speed once people saw it was an option.

Today, the autocomplete for “I like to” is:

I like to

I like to move it. [Time to chair dance! –Susan]

Is Google Making the Best Decisions on What’s Protected Against Slander?

I’m just as confused as Danny when it comes to why some groups or things are protected against potential slanderous suggestions and some are not. In his article, he points out that religions aren’t protected but nationalities are. Google gave Danny a statement that said:

Simply put, nationalities refer to individuals, religions do not. Our hate policy is designed to remove content aimed at specific groups of individuals. So [islamics are] and [jews are] or [whites are] would possibly be filtered, while queries such as [islam is] and [judaism is] would not because the suggestions are directed at other entities, not people.

The problem here is that human perspective is influencing the results. Specifically, the confusion between a people and a religion. Jews, Islamics and Christians are a group of people that exist based on their respective religions. Why one aspect should be protected and the other not just confuses the entire situation.

And while we can fall back on the argument that it’s Google’s search engine and therefore, Google’s rules. And, if you don’t like it, don’t use Google. The issue is that there are billions of opportunities for people to see the autocomplete suggestions, and have that influence their perception. In turn, it can propagate more of the same.

I’m not saying to censor free speech or thought, but I feel like there’s a certain responsibility to try and be as consistent as possible.

Autocomplete Fun!

Now that we’ve got logistics and controversy out of the way, how about some fun? This is the part of the post where we can take a deep look into the human psyche by seeing all the hilarious and sometimes sad things people are typing into Google.

Google will help you defy genetics, or at least that’s what most people think. The last suggestion makes me laugh, too. How could she.

How can

And I don’t much like people either, but I never really thought of telling Google versus just complaining to the person closest to me. But I guess if you really don’t like people, Google is the only place you can go to vent.

I don't like

These are apparently the most hated things in life. I can’t tell if they are saying, “I hate you, Google search engine” or taking out their anger on Google for a hatred of someone else:

I hate

Why is there fuzz on a tennis ball? Inquiring minds want to know. That’s right up there with why there is political unrest in Egypt. Personally, I’m just as — if not more concerned — with why there is a new zodiac sign, than any of the other suggestions on there:

Why is there

If you can answer these burning questions, Google, you are truly the keeper of wisdom:

Why do

Finally, it seems like there’s an epidemic right now of boyfriends that suck, but in new and terrifying ways:

My boyfriend

Got thoughts on this post? Share them with us!

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9 responses to “Google Autocomplete Suggestions and the Meaning of Life”

  1. Nicola writes:

    Very Nice Post Jessica! Based on Danny’s post I made yesterday a similar search focused to Italy. I tend to believe that suggestions order is not that casual. It came out from my search that most on italian city names are related, first of all, to soccer and I think this is not far from true. If you want to take a look, ok it is in italian but it is simple to translate ;-) : http://www.holoview.net/webmarketing/italiaingooglesuggest/

    ciao!

  2. Adrian @ Search Engine Easy writes:

    I think it’s right that they don’t suggest everything is a scam. There’s too many sad people out there slandering the competition.

  3. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Nicola! Hope you are well. Thank you for the comment and link to the article. Some interesting research there. Have a great weekend.

  4. Jessica Lee writes:

    Yeah, it’s kind of like the equivalent of Google bombing for Google Instant suggestions. People want to know the truth, but maybe that’s best left for review sites.

  5. Chris writes:

    Wow I didn’t realise Google suggest displays personalised results based on your recent searches. I guess it makes a lot of sense though! Some of the suggestions though are so weird that they have to be planted there somehow right? I guess popular memes or something might influence the strange ones?

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    I’m just as baffled as to how some totally odd search terms become popular. Some queries might be related to pop culture somehow — like a song, TV show, book or some other trending topic. But, some are just plain weird. Have a great week, Chris!

  7. Jeffrey Gross writes:

    Jessica, A great article by you.. really loved reading it.. I have been using auto-complete for my keyword research and i have found out it to be of great assistance while doing doing the research. i dont reply complete on the result given by auto-complete.. but yes, it has surely made my life easy. i dont really think it matters whether the results are coming from my personal searches or the most searches on net..

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thanks, Jeffrey!

  9. Kent writes:

    Hahaha! Nice and interesting post. I will try to do it on Google Malaysia. :)



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