Auto Completely Confusing

Search Auto Complete has been helping the lazy or dimwitted for several years. As you type a search long before you complete the phrase Google starts to suggest what you might actually be searching for and in some cases it displays results for what you might be looking for on the page before you have finished typing. It’s a neat feature but has recently been featured in some interesting online controversies.

The perpetual battle between content owners and those wishing to pirate that content has been fought in the trenches of search for several years it’s now moving into the search bar. Last year an attempt to make it illegal for search engines to return potentially copyright infringements in search results was defeated in the US but it remains a hot topic. They should. Search engines are not the police of the internet…they are the road signs. Most search engines comply with notices from courts of competent jurisdiction to delete offending content. However a critical reason for search engines ability to function at all is the fact that in DMCA and other legislation they are granted safe harbor provided that they are searching not curating the content with human editors. So were Google to (say) come up with a huge service packed with content taken without permission from thousands of content owners which was managed and maintained by them (like You Tube) they might get into legal hot water.

In any event the search engines have adamantly opposed this kind of legislation as unfair and unworkable. A couple of months ago Google announced that they would be factoring in DMCA take-down notices when calculating results, the theory being that sites with potentially problematic content would be punished. That’s an interesting departure and leans somewhat towards them ‘curating’ content, but this time algorithmically by weighting that factor into the equation.

Another wrinkle has surfaced in the equation as Google has stopped filling out auto complete for several leading torrent site like thepiratesbay.org. I have to imagine that simply not filling out the last few characters of someone trying to come up with the full name of thepiratesbay will have little or no real impact on the down-loaders but I guess it points to a certain willingness on the part of Google to make the job of those down-loaders very slightly more difficult.

The auto complete feature is based on which terms are frequently searched. For example if you type in “Mitt Romney” Google suggests  “Mitt Romney Mexican, Mitt Romney VP and Mitt Romney Tax Return” the Tax return aspect is obviously problematic as might be the fact that “work at home scam” is an auto complete which pops up as soon as you type “work at home.” This has caused quite a lot of pain and suffering for companies which have (for better or worse) become inextricably linked with a specific search terms. There have been cases where there have been concerted efforts by political enemies to link a rival with a politically damaging topic like prostitution or drugs. I have also seen some pretty convincing case studies where unscrupulous SEO companies have organized auto complete campaigns where they managed to ‘trick’ search engines into auto correcting to a brands advantage. It’s less clear how many searches it takes before a phrase becomes an auto-complete and although I’d love it if the search ‘Tim Judd‘ auto completed to ‘Tim Judd’ search genius I’m not holding my breath.

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