Google’s auto complete, a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Google’s auto complete feature suggests the search words/phrases that most commonly match what you are typing in real time.

For example, if nearly everyone typing “and” end up typing “android”, Google will suggest that through it’s auto complete feature, designed to save you time. It’s also designed to “help” your searching by showing you what the majority of other people typing similar phrases selected.

From Google’s help site:

As you type, autocomplete predicts and displays queries to choose from. The search queries that you see as part of autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google. If you’re signed in to your Google Account and have Web History enabled, you might also see search queries from relevant searches that you’ve done in the past. In addition, Google+ profiles can sometimes appear in autocomplete when you search for a person’s name. Apart from the Google+ profiles that may appear, all of the predicted queries that are shown in the drop-down list have been typed previously by Google users or appear on the web.
For certain queries, Google will show separate predictions for just the last few words. Below the word that you’re typing in the search box, you’ll see a smaller drop-down list containing predictions based only on the last words of your query. While each prediction shown in the drop-down list has been typed before by Google users or appears on the web, the combination of your primary text along with the completion may be unique.

But does this really benefit users? Sure, it’s a time saver, but it may also steer people away from less common phrases that may in fact be more accurate.

Google Auto Complete
Source: Google — Sample of auto complete feature for “new…”

Why does that matter?

As more people use auto complete and select the most common results for the suggested phrase, the more Google will continue to show those suggested results, further pushing down the less popular results.

Showing more popular results is part of nearly all search engine algorithms, but if you consistently steer users towards one option over another, that other option will be artificially increased in affinity/popularity.

This could be really bad for a business. Let’s say someone searches for a company and they want to read about negative reviews/scams. So they search for the company’s name + scams. If a few more people do it, it may get picked up by the auto complete algorithm.This means every time someone searches for the company’s name moving forward, “scams” will be suggested until enough people stop clicking that phrase to tell Google otherwise. Wouldn’t a user who otherwise was not looking to read scams be somewhat intrigued to click that suggested term, even if that’s not their original intent? And every click reinforces “scam” as a suggested term. It then becomes harder and harder for a business to reverse this – even if there are no scams or negative reviews to begin with.

This is very similar to the term “google bombing“. Where users can potentially “game” Google’s search algorithm. Albeit, the good folks at Google are always working on improving the algorithm to reduce this, it can still happen.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Google. But, I’d love to see some studies on the psychological and socioeconomic impacts of suggesting terms.