Google Autocomplete: Is Smart Help a Hindrance?

September 10, 2012

You may have heard of the deep extraction company Attensity. There is another company in a similar business with the name inTTENSITY. Not the playful misspelling of the common word “intensity.” What happens when a person looking for the company inTTENSITY get when he or she runs a query on Google. Look at what Google’s autocomplete suggestions recommend when I type intten:

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The company’s spelling appears along with the less helpful “interstate ten”, “internet explorer ten”, and “internet icon top ten.” If I enter “inten”, I don’t get the company name. No surprise.

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Is Google’s autocomplete a help or hindrance? The answer, in my opinion, is it depends on the users and what he or she is seeking.

I just read “Germany’s Former First Lady Sues Google For Defamation Over Autocomplete Suggestions.” According to the write up:

When you search for “Bettina Wulff” on Google, the search engine will happily autocomplete this search with terms like “escort” and “prostitute.” That’s obviously not something you would like to be associated with your name, so the wife of former German president Christian Wulff has now, according to Germany’s Süddeutschen Zeitung, decided to sue Google for defamation. The reason why these terms appear in Google’s autocomplete is that there have been persistent rumors that Wulff worked for an escort service before she met her husband. Wulff categorically denies that this is true.

The article explains that autocomplete has been the target of criticism before. The concluding statement struck me as interesting:

In Japan, a man recently filed a suit against Google after the autocomplete feature started linking his names with a number of crimes he says he wasn’t involved in. A court in Japan then ordered Google to delete these terms from autocomplete. Google also lost a similar suit in Italy in 2011.

I have commented about the interesting situations predictive algorithms can create. I assume that Google’s numerical recipes chug along like a digital and intent-free robot.

I do see in this news item three issues which relate to search and content processing:

First, how many other examples exist of the unintended consequences of predictive outputs for search results? My hunch is that as the mavens pitching predictive analytics as the next big thing push forward, most users of these systems will be blissfully unaware of certain issues until something egregious surfaces such as the alleged situation with “Bettina Wulff” semantic linkages.

Second, what does this tell marketers about the importance of company and product names’ findability. Tight control of brands and names is becoming more important. That means that quirky spellings and the use of popular words and phrases can make it difficult to locate information on some topics. I mentioned issues with such company names as Brainware, Sinequa, Thunderstone, and, now inTTENSITY. I myself was hamstrung when looking for Centrifuge Systems which was comingled with pump and pipe vendors. Companies which have protected their online identities are few and far between.

Third, if Google can edit autosuggest associations, what other aspects of the software based system can be tweaked? Online search, in my opinion, should be objective; that is, the numerical recipes rely on content alone to generate a results list. I may be out of step but if Google can control autosuggestions, what are the other adjustable components of the company’s ubiquitous search system? I cannot recall seeing a list of controls. Let me know if you have a link.

Stephen E Arnold, September 9, 2012

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