How Autocomplete has Rewritten the Rulebook, and Why Your Campaign is Doomed if You Don’t Adapt August 5, 2014

In August of 2008, Google rolled out a new feature that quietly changed the search engine user experience forever. Initially called “Google Suggest,” when users began typing their search queries into the engine, Google would analyze their keystrokes as they typed and display several suggestions for complete search terms that the person might be looking for based on the fragment of the search that they already entered. The feature has since been renamed “Autocomplete,” and in the time since its debut it has become integrated into the search experience to the point where all of the other major search engines have added this feature and users don’t even notice it anymore.

However, this seemingly small change has had profound implications for how people and brands are portrayed on search engines.

Anyone who is conscious about how search engines the impact the public perception of their reputation, from large brands to local businesses, from high-profile executives to everyday job-seekers, needs to be aware of how Autocomplete is influencing their appearance.

This post will show you how Autocomplete works, the benefits and drawbacks for users and for brands showing up in the results, and finally advice for how you can make sure that the suggestions that people see when they search for you portray you in the best light possible.

We will use the generic term “brand” to refer both individual people as well as organizations being referenced by search engines for the rest of this post.

Understanding the Autocomplete Feature

Autocomplete works by collecting information about you, such as the sites you visit and your search history, location, and then uses predictive algorithms to guess what you want to search for as you begin typing your query. The algorithms factor in things like what other people who have similar traits have searched for in the past, your location, the most common searches that begin with the partial keyword you’ve entered, and more.

I’m looking for “blue shoes“. Let’s start a search!

To illustrate how location impacts Autocomplete recommendations, see the example below:

It’s also important to note that the autocomplete result “blue stone” is tied to a popular restaurant outside of Baltimore.

Are residents of the Philippines having trouble with their PC’s?

If your search engine knows where you are located, either based on your IP address or your mobile phone’s location detection feature, if you begin typing a term that matches the name for something in your near vicinity it can suggest that you might be searching for it. And on it’s most basic level, if Google knows that a large percentage of searches beginning with the characters you typed end with a certain keyword, they can show you the search with the highest probability of matching what you’re looking for.

Google uses the information they have about you as well as your search and browsing behavior to show you what it thinks are the most relevant keywords based on your partially entered query. You may be asking “What’s so bad about that?” and it’s true there are definitely some upsides. However, there are also tradeoffs that can negatively impact your reputation if you’re not aware of them. Before we can define what is good and bad, it’s important to understand the overall impacts of Autocomplete how it has evolved since its inception.

The Impact and Evolution of Autocomplete

According to the announcement for Google Suggest, which later became Autocomplete, “The mission of Google Suggest was to aid users when they developed queries, so that the queries would be more complete, have fewer spelling errors, and save keystrokes.” Because Autocomplete was so smoothly and subtly implemented, it’s taken some time for us to become aware of the full impacts on user behavior. However, we now understand how it is able to affect user behavior even before they visit a Search Engine Results Page.

Users can begin entering a query with the intent to search for one subject, but when they see the recommendations from Autocomplete they change their mind based on the suggestion. For example, someone looking for a new car may start off with the intention to search for “Toyota Camry Dealership.” But if, after they type the first two words, they see the term “Toyota Camry Breakdowns” or “Toyota Camry Recall,” instead of continuing to search for the dealer to begin shopping this user’s intent to purchase could go away temporarily while they look for details about the problems — or worse, may begin researching competing car companies.

This example shows how the Autocomplete suggestions have become at least equally important to the first page of search results, if not even more so. It doesn’t matter if your company has the first position for a given keyword’s SERP if Autocomplete is suggesting a different set of keywords to your prospects and sending them elsewhere.

Like search engines 5-7 years ago, Autocomplete is still relatively new and early in its stages of development. Back then it was fairly easy to fool search engine algorithms using metadata, keyword stuffing, and spammy backlinks to make your website show up at the top and push your competitors down the results. As search algorithms have developed, they have become harder and harder to manipulate and the same evolution can now be seen with Autocomplete.

Until June of 2014, it was fairly easy for companies to use VPN services like “Hide My Ass!” to access different servers around the world and manipulate Autocomplete results. VPN services gave SEO companies access to hundreds, if not thousands, of IP addresses — which to search engines all look unique computers. It made it fairly easy for SEO firms to enter a large number of “fake” searches that appeared as if each one came from a different computer, which would push that set of keywords higher up the Autocomplete hierarchy.

But not anymore.

In June of 2014, Google blacklisted all of the IP addresses from “Hide My Ass!” and other VPN services, so that searches from those IPs are no longer factored into Autocomplete and search results. And to make matters worse for SEO firms, they actually went back and made the blacklist retroactive, so searches done using those IPs even from several months ago were no longer counted in the suggestions and the old results (if corrected) reverted back to the way they were displayed originally. Not cool!

Not all of the changes are bad news, however. The updates have also seemed to help reduce the number of negative suggestions that are displayed. Terms that are blatantly sexist, racist (like the example below), or otherwise derogatory seem to show up less frequently than they once did. One good example is that if you now try to recreate any of the offensive Autocomplete searches used in the images in this post, they don’t show up anymore.

Negative search results damaging the reputations of businesses and individuals also made Google the target of some hostile feedback, and even legal action. In 2010, Google lost a suit in French court when they ruled that the word roughly translated in English as “scam” had to be removed from the Autocomplete results. For these reasons, it appears that Google has become more sensitive to showcasing negative results, but that doesn’t mean it has removed them completely. Plenty of businesses still struggle with having unfair negative suggestions show up when users search for their company, and as Autocomplete becomes more sophisticated that just means they are going to be increasingly difficult to remove. Fortunately at The Link Builders we have an experienced team that can help you tackle any Autocomplete or SEO problem. Let us know what you’re struggling with, and we’ll get back to you quickly to let you know what we can do for you.

As the technology behind Autocomplete gets more advanced, it means businesses have to start worrying about a new set of questions when it comes to organic search. For example, to what extent are Google and the other search engines biasing the Autocomplete suggestions to drive advertising revenue?

Pay-per-click advertisements on search engines are one of the core ways that the companies behind them make money. Every time someone clicks an ad, that’s another payment sent to the search engine. So if you were running Google, and you knew that you could influence user’s search behavior based on the suggestions you show in Autocomplete, what would stop you from programming your algorithm to make keywords with the highest click-through-rates on your advertisements show up first? The unfortunate answer is, probably nothing.

Here’s another one: Search engines have already shown that almost any part of their site is for sale. When they first introduced AdWords, Google began by only showing ads down the right side of the page, making them easy to separate from the real results. Then they decided to show ads at the top of the main search results column as well, making them harder to separate from the unpaid listings. Then they decided that they were going to start an email platform, so that they could also show us ads while we’re in our inboxes.

If this progression of search engines making virtually every part of their site for sale continues, it looks like it will only be a matter of time before the keyword suggestions within Autocomplete are up for auction as well. This will give an even greater advantage to large companies with big budgets over startups and smaller organizations. Not only will they be able to pay for the highest-positioned results on the SERPs, now they will even be able to pay to control the keywords that people enter in the first place.

These types of conflicts are why, in his book The Googlization of Everything Siva Vaidhyanathan suggests that it’s dangerous to let one company develop the primary lens we use to view the world. Even if they have honorable intentions, at the end of the day they have so much control and influence that at their scale even small distortions can have profound impacts on our perception.

While these concerns may very well wind up affecting us in the future as Autocomplete continues to evolve, for the time being we can only address the platform as it currently exists.

Now that we’ve put the impacts of Autocomplete into context, it’s time to break down the specific upsides and downsides for individuals and brands.

The Upsides of Autocomplete

Autocomplete certainly has its benefits. Obviously if there was nothing good about it, the search engines wouldn’t have developed it in the first place. Here are some of the positive outcomes that Autocomplete allows.

For Users

According to former Google VP of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer, it takes a user roughly nine seconds to type their query. One of the primary objectives of Autocomplete is to cut this time down significantly. By correctly guessing your desired search after only a portion of the keystrokes, it allows you to stop typing sooner and simply hit “enter” to complete the search. While saving a few seconds here and there may not seem like much to you, when you factor in how many searches Google processes each day it can actually add up to hundreds of millions of hours saved each year.

The other two key benefits that Autocomplete has for users are helping with spelling mistakes and guiding them to enter more-complete searches. When it comes to spelling, if you enter a typo and Google suggests the correct spelling, you can simply click that result instead of moving forward with your flawed search.

As far as recommending more complete searches, if you enter two keywords, Google will often suggest a third one that will help you find what you’re looking for faster. For example, you may be looking to purchase a Baltimore Ravens jersey, so you start typing “Ravens Jersey,” but then you’re not sure what to put after that. Any of these words could potentially take you where you want to go: Store, Cheap, Numbers, 2014. So which do you choose? Autocomplete does its best to figure out which of them is the best fit for you and then suggest that term to you, so you don’t have to guess.

Autocomplete tries to reduce the number of errors in searches by users, and reduce the amount of time they spend searching by suggesting complete terms and reducing the keystrokes needed to execute a search but what happens when the “helpful suggestions” lead users down a wrong path? Click the #1 Organic Result to learn more!

Counterfeit items? What about my cheap Ravens Jersey?

For Brands

Autocomplete benefits brands in several ways as well. One of them is connected to the user benefit of fixing spelling mistakes. If you have a brand that is often misspelled, it can help more people find you without having to enter the incorrect term first and guessing from there.

Local brands benefit because geographic location is one of the elements that factor into the Autocomplete results. If you run a local steakhouse in Bozeman, Montana, you won’t have to worry about competing for search rankings with Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Smith and Wollensky, and other high-end, nationally established chains unless they open a location near you!

The last and most obvious benefit is that, if Autocomplete happens to suggest keywords that are a good fit for your brand and lead more people to your site, you’re going to see an increase in traffic. But beware, because the opposite could happen just as easily, which brings us to the discussion about the downsides of Autocomplete.

The Downsides of Autocomplete

“[Search Engines] serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

– Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble

For Users

As the quote from Eli Pariser above so eloquently describes, one of the primary downsides for users of search engines in general and Autocomplete in particular is that they strongly impact your perception of the world around you. By tracking and analyzing your browsing behavior and search queries, Google creates a definition for who they think you are and what you’re interested in, but they don’t make it clear how they have defined you when they show you suggestions using Autcomplete.

Without this awareness, it can lead to you living in an echo chamber where you only see the content that agrees with your point of view (since that’s what your most likely to click on), while being completely unaware that this selective filtering is happening. Unlike mass media, where you actively seek out the new sources yourself and have some level of awareness for how they bias their information, Google is doing all of this for you without telling you how they’re doing it. This ultimately causes us to significantly underestimate the popularity of beliefs other than your own and think that far more people in the world see things our way than actually do.

Another negative aspect of Autocomplete is that it can still reinforce some of the most negative and ugly aspects of human nature. Even with the fixes in place that have tried to limit these type of suggestions, they haven’t gone away completely.

The core of the problem is that people see search engines as more or less a tool they use privately. When they type in a search term, they don’t consciously think that Google is going to use their search to suggest searches to other people — in other words, we tend to operate as if our searches happen in a vacuum, when in actuality what we search for influences the search experience of others. Wild to think about right?

When this happens, people don’t think twice about expressing the most vulgar aspects of their nature, and if these searches are then used as suggestions to others it reinforces the same shallow behavior to them as well. Whether it’s derogatory sexist searches that were turned into ads for gender equality by the United Nation’s group UN Women, or racist suggestions like the one below, whenever these recommendations show up it only gives credibility to these nasty issues that we’ve worked so hard as a society to overcome.

The last issue that Autocomplete creates for users is what happens when it’s wrong.

If you enter a query and Google makes a suggestion, since they are often good at recommending the ideal search for you, more likely than not you will choose their keywords instead of the ones you planned to enter originally.

When this happens, you’ve let Google change your mind about what to search for, so if the suggestions from Autocomplete take you to a page of SERPs containing sites that can’t help you, and you spend time browsing pages that ultimately lead nowhere, all of that wasted time is attributed to Autocomplete. If Google never made the suggestion, you would have continued with your original search and possibly would have found what you needed sooner.

For Brands

From the perspective of brands, the most obvious case where Autocomplete harms them is when there is a negative term like “fraud” or “scam” listed after it. Again, the good news is that it seems the search engines have become at least a little more sensitive to showing these terms, but that means once they do show up it can be that much harder to make them go away.

Autocomplete can also harm entire industries. For example, someone may be looking to stream their favorite TV show and would be happy to pay for access to the episodes they watch. But if search engines have detected that most people searching for TV content want to pirate it, Autocomplete may suggest the term “free” after their search. When the person who originally had the intention to pay sees that suggestion, all of a sudden they may think twice about buying the show, and instead take the suggestion from Autocomplete and try to find a free source. This hurts revenues across all of the TV networks that have their shows pirated.

The last major drawback of Autocomplete occurs if you use affiliates to help sell your products and services, particularly if your affiliates incentivize of give customers they acquire a discount on your products or services. If they succeed in getting terms like “discount” or “coupon code” suggested after your company name, it could take customers who would have gone directly to your site and paid full price to your affiliates instead. Even if your affiliates can’t offer a discount, if they can use Autocomplete to direct traffic to themselves instead, they will end up benefiting from the extra conversions and you will be paying them a commission for a sale that you could have made on your own if Autocomplete didn’t get in the way.

How to Help Your Brand’s Autocomplete Appearance

Now that the potential problems Autocomplete poses for brands are clear, you probably want to know what you can do if you are experiencing any of them. Unfortunately the new updates to the algorithm have made it much more challenging for any individual business to influence their rankings. Now it almost always takes an agency with resources and experience dedicated solely to improving your company’s appearance on search engines, which is why individuals and organizations both large and small are coming to companies like The Link Builders for help.

If you insist on going it alone for the time being, there are a few suggestions for things that you can try below. Just know that if the problems persist, we’re always here for you.

One of the key factors that Autocomplete uses to make its suggestions are the number of times a given search term is used. If you’re going to be doing any media appearances, whether it be on TV or a podcast or a radio show, instead of only giving out your company’s URL, tell people to search for you as well.

TripAdvisor did exactly the same thing with their latest set of commercials. Instead of including a URL, they tell people not to just search for the city they want to visit, but to search tripadvisor and then the city (in this case, New York). It’s a brilliant move that will lead search engines to recommend the term TripAdvisor when users enter keywords related to travel destinations, boosting traffic to their site and revenue for their business.

Another option is to utilize multiple-word URLs. Since nearly every popular browser now uses a “unibar” (meaning if you don’t put in a www. or .com, it automatically performs a search engine query) if your URL has multiple words, chances are a lot of people will enter spaces just through force of habit. When they do this, instead of being a direct visit to your site, it turns into another search with the keywords in your URL, which will only help your company’s rankings for those Autocomplete terms.

As you can see, Autocomplete has completely rewritten the SEO rulebook, and that can be scary for some people, while leaving others confused. If you have any follow-up questions about this post, or want to pick our brains about anything else SEO-related, once again don’t hesitate to contact us — we’ll get back to you right away!

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Nick Cuttonaro

Nicholas Cuttonaro is an Internet Marketing professional specializing in search engine optimization, lead generation, and online reputation management.

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  1. Matthew • August 6, 2014

    Great write up! Very enlightening I was previously unaware of June's changes to the autocomplete algo. I hadn't realized what trip advisor was doing with their search advertising strategy either, it's pretty brilliant. Another solid post from TheLinkBuilders. Reply

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