Why Google Just Can’t Suggest

Part 1 – Introduction

Earlier this year, there were a spate of posts regarding Google’s Search Suggestions and how utterly, utterly terrible they are for UK users. I’m talking about both the AJAX suggestion feature when entering a search term (AKA Google Suggest) and the “did you mean” suggestions once you have searched. Some of the people who blogged on the subject were (in no particular order, they’re all awesome):

Wordle summary image - features all the content from the posts I've linked to. Magic.

And many more I’m sure. Most of these posts focus on the term search engine optimisation and the issues that surrounded it earlier in the year, but they all scratch the surface of what is an almighty problem with how Google handles search suggestions in the UK. 

Why am I so bothered?

My main issue is with Americanisation. I agree totally with Nichola’s points on this in her post above, but to me historical context isn’t that important. Nor am I really concerned that both “ise” and “ize” variants of words are technically correct in the UK. In the same way I don’t care that a polo shirt was originally called a tennis shirt, all that concerns me is current usage. I think Wikipedia actually sum it up quite well in their WP:COMMONNAME policy:

Common usage in reliable sources is preferred to technically correct but rarer forms, whether the official name, the scientific name, the birth name, the original name or the trademarked name.

So, if most people in the UK still write and search for the “English” version of words (or at least they did until Google Suggest came to the UK in March 2009), and Google is pushing the “American” version because of poor implementation of suggested searches, that really, really pisses me off.

Americanisation is far from the only issue.

Google is changing the way we search and this really bugs me. It’s not just Americanisation though; Google Suggest in particular is influencing the way people search for almost every term (as I’ll explain later) and I don’t feel Google should be doing this.

I want to explain why, without relying on what Google tell us.

I’ve seen lots of posts detailing how Google search suggestions are bad; what I want to do with this post is explain why they are so bad.

People often try to work out why on earth Google does things by using data from Google’s tools such as the Adwords Keyword Suggestion Tool or Insights For Search. Most SEOs will tell you to take data from the Adwords tool in particular with a pinch of salt. Believe me, a pinch isn’t anywhere near enough. I’ve summarised my view in this handy diagram:

Recommended Daily Allowance of Salt for Google Keyword Tools

Hence I’ll be trying to use data from keyword reports I do trust (such as Hitwise) where possible.

How I’ve structured this article

  • Part 1 – What you’re reading now, a short introduction
  • Part 2 – How Google Suggest works; this is crucial to understanding why it’s so bad
  • Part 3 – How Google Suggest affects SEOs and indeed everyone who searches using Google
  • Part 4 – The “Did you mean” search corrections; a brief look at how these work

Just to give you fair warning, this is probably the longest blog post EVER (and certainly the longest I ever intend to write) so don’t blame me if reading it ruins your daily schedule :) I should also say that I wanted to call this post “Why Google Can’t Suggest Sh*t” but thought better of it. Ho hum. 

One final thing…

Obviously, I don’t work for Google. Therefore you can safely assume I’m not on the Google Suggest engineering team in Israel. My analysis is based on what I see at a front-end level. This isn’t rocket science and I’m not trying to crack “the algorithm”; everything I claim in these posts you can verify yourself, simply by visiting Google.

That’s enough of an introduction I think; when you’re ready to start learning about the horror show that is Google Suggest, click below to go to part 2 :)

This entry was posted in Rants, SEO.

10 thoughts on “Why Google Just Can’t Suggest

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why Google Just Can’t Suggest -- Topsy.com

  2. Very interesting. On to of my post you mentioned earlier, I did one pointing to the creeping Americanisation of spellings in UK searches.
    Looking at the graphs again (for as long as WordPress deigns not to strip the javascript …), you can see a definite acceleration of the trend in May 2009 (for donut / doughnut) and June 2009 for yogurt / yoghurt – which would suggest that Google suggest might be having an effect. I’m not sure what’s happening with the doughnuts, but as I start typing yoghurt, all Google’s suggestions are for yogurt.

    • Doh. With the yoghurt thing, that was because I had already searched for it once and so it had personalised Google Suggest when I searched again. In fact, when you start typing yoghurt, you get a bunch of yoga suggestions. So it’s difficult to see how Google could be influencing the spelling (you get to yog and then you have to choose h or u as the next letter – but there’s no obvious leaning on one direction in what Google suggests at that point, due to the yoga stuff). Still, the timing looks suspicious – the acceleration of the trend is shortly after Suggest launched in the UK.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Malcolm (and the retweet). It’s a very good point that personalisation plays a key factor in suggested searches (as listed on this Google help page) so I was careful to make sure I was signed out, history cleared and so on when testing.
        For terms like doughnut and yoghurt which haven’t suffered “suggestion merging” with their US counterparts, Google Suggest should weight the English spelling more highly on Google UK and in theory avoid any issues. Although it’s also true that it won’t attempt to correct US spellings of these terms, so people searching for yogurt on Google UK will be non-the-wiser that maybe they ought to be searching for yoghurt.

  3. Did you see the xkcd colour survey? They’d used google to check the spelling of fuchsia … and hence got it wrong. It corrects to fuschia (and if you start typing that, it shows fuschia as a suggestion so you’ll think it’s right). And as you start typing fuscia (if you’re really unsure), it suggests fuschia. Hmm. I feel sorry for the owner of fuschiadesigns.co.uk …

  4. Excellent post Jon, and thank you for the reference to my earlier piece.

    I have a client within the personalised gifts sector, which was one of the main catalysts to my interest. I can completely support your case 4. research as we have seen a similar rise on volume for personalized [keyword] in their sector; thus the suggestion becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Luckily we saw this coming and opimised accordingly, so I don’t feel too bad about it from a business perspective; however as a Mum part of me is pissed that this half-assed approach to suggestive assistance, clearly leads to homogeneity in language and culture.

    I don’t know… maybe this increased internationalisation of culture isn’t such a bad thing, and we’re just naturally resistant to change?

    • Thanks for your comments Nichola and the insights from your own research. It’s a very fair point that internationalisation might not be such a bad thing; it would certainly make life easier if all English words were spelt the same wherever you were in the world!

      Having said that, I still don’t feel Google should be deciding our fate for us. Perhaps they are just accelerating the inevitable, or perhaps they’re creating a problem that might never have existed, I don’t know.

      I guess the other thing to consider is at what point would the internationalisation of English “stop”? Do I want to be walking down the sidewalk to buy a pink colored donut at my local grocery store next fall? No ta!

  5. Pingback: Why you shouldn't use Google's keyword tool for SEO » malcolm coles

  6. A bigger problem, IMHO, is when Google Suggest throws up ungrammatical suggestions. “Did you mean ‘Why is Google so ingrammatical?'” Believe!

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