September 09, 2010

Unintended Consequences: Google Instant and the "Suicide Search" (and a Solution)

Greetings. I hadn't planned to be blogging anything for now regarding the launch of Google Instant (GI). It was all over the media yesterday, including a nice spot on NBC Nightly News.

But a troubling note I received this morning has inspired this posting -- the specifics in a moment.

So far I've primarily been viewing Google Instant (which isn't yet available to all users in every country) as a superb engineering achievement with the potential to significantly improve the user search experience in various ways.

The scaling issues alone warrant hearty congratulations for all who were involved in GI's development and deployment. In fact, most of my discussions regarding GI yesterday in forums such as Google Buzz were focused on how such a feature might be implemented via browser toolbar searches (currently GI is tied to Google Home Page searches, where the rapid display changes triggered by entering a search don't conflict with an already displayed non-Google page). My orientation shouldn't be too surprising -- keep in mind that I'm basically a technical geek who morphed over the years into heavy involvement in the policy arena.

I've seen some griping about GI in various venues -- almost all of which strikes me as fairly silly. Even though Google asserts that search rankings aren't affected by GI, there are concerns about how the new search mechanism will affect SEO (Search Engine Optimization) -- the business of trying to (often artificially) boost search result rankings.

Personally, I promote the concept of creating quality "organic" content and letting the chips fall where they may. While GI is now the default mode where available, it's straightforward to disable -- both on the Google Home Page and via logged-in user preferences. As usual with defaults, it's pretty safe to assume that the vast majority of persons won't change this setting, and will use GI without a second thought.

So what's the problem?

That note I received this morning was from an old friend who works in suicide prevention. When GI was announced, he tried his standard search of the word "suicide" and was very confused -- and then concerned -- about what he saw.

When he typed "suicide," he was presented with page after page of results for "" (a custom car parts firm), instead of the usual pages of suicide-relevant results that prominently feature suicide prevention discussions -- including a Google-inserted Suicide prevention hotline number at the very top of the listings. I could appreciate my friend's upset -- you want people searching on the topic of suicide to find relevant factual listings as fast as possible without confusion.

So what's going on?

The effect my friend noted, and that I verified with various other searches, is a fundamental aspect of how Google Instant is implemented. Since GI continuously updates pages of result listings as the user types, they are presented through Google's estimation of what the most appropriate results might be for partial search terms as they are being entered in real-time.

The "problem" appears with words that are partial elements (substrings) of other words and terms. Human nature being what it is, the GI interface tends to suppress the previously standard behavior of typing a newline (the "Enter" key) after entering a search query.

So when you type the search term "man" -- there is a tendency to stop typing at that point (after the letter "n") under GI. This currently results in pages of search results for "Mandalay Bay" (the letters m-a-n are bold, and "dalay bay" are in a dim gray text in the search input box).

To get the actual desired results for the single word "man" under GI you need to ignore the search results that have appeared up to that point, and either enter a newline after the m-a-n or remember to explicitly click the Search button on the right at that juncture.

In this example, the search results are obviously "wrong" for someone who wants to search for the word "man" -- but will every searcher then think to enter a newline or click Search at that point? After all, "man" is already in bold. Reports I'm getting suggest that this is a confusing aspect to potentially a considerable number of users.

Now it's clear how the "suicide search" problem occurs.

If a user simply enters "suicide" into GI and stops, the search results presented -- for "suicidedoors" -- are wrong and potentially confusing from that user's point of view.

The user however sees "suicide" in bold text in the search box. So at this point, they must take extra actions to get the results that they really wanted. That means remembering to enter newline in the search box (there's no prompt to suggest this), or knowing to click Search in this particular case, or perhaps choosing "" (which could be almost anything!) from the suggestions display (as it appears today). It does not appear to be currently possible to use standard Windows techniques to highlight and delete the unwanted, grayed out ("") section of the displayed search string.

It's possible to easily find significantly similar cases. A search for "health" -- without a terminating newline after the word "health" in bold text -- doesn't yield general health listings, but rather seemingly endless results for "Health Net" insurance, which is the first item on the suggested list. Good news for Health Net, perhaps not so wonderful for most health searchers in a hurry.

What this all suggests is that while Google hasn't actually changed search results rankings per se, the actions of the GI interface can drastically alter the perceived searching and search results sequences for users.

It appears that most of the time the result of these changes will probably be neutral or positive overall. But I believe it's fair to say that there are clearly some cases where negative effects could be especially confusing to users -- and these situations should be worthy of special handling.

Interestingly, a potential solution is already at hand, because Google has already acknowledged the need to "special case" some search terms under GI. As various observers have already noted, Google apparently has established a "blacklist" of "not family nor work friendly" terms that are not processed in real-time by GI, including a variety of slang. The concern of course is that searches that matched those terms as substrings would display pages of results during the typing process that could prove embarrassing either to the searcher, onlookers, or both.

When search strings on the blacklist are entered, the normal GI real-time listings display does not appear, the user is specifically prompted to enter a newline to receive their search results, and those results are displayed in a manner very similar to that of the pre-GI search procedure.

Given Google's laudable propensity to avoid manual intervention in the search results process, they no doubt wish to minimize the length of this blacklist.

However, I would suggest that strong consideration should be given to using this same mechanism to avoid the sorts of effects noted above involving searches related at least to basic health and safety concerns.

Words like "suicide" and "health" could presumably be easily added to the GI blacklist, along with a relatively few others of similar import. The effect would be to return searches on such words back to their pre-GI behavior, helping to avoid the risk of searcher confusion on these often crucial queries.

If it's worthwhile to block some slang words to avoid unnecessarily embarrassing Google searchers in various instances (and I agree that this is true), then I believe that it should also be appropriate to employ this same mechanism to help assure that a small set of critical search terms reach the most relevant results with the least possible confusion for potentially distraught searchers in a hurry.

This seems like common sense to me. I hope that Google agrees.


Update (September 11, 2010): As of late today at least, GI searches for "suicide" are now showing more relevant results, though searches for "health" are still returning primarily many pages of "Health Net" listings. This suggests the continuous updating of "search suggestion" lists that could cause the kind of "irrelevant" results noted above for "suicide" to return at any time, absent changes by Google to the way these words are being handled under GI. Obviously, these search results will all bear watching over time.

Posted by Lauren at September 9, 2010 11:52 AM | Permalink
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