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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Google Suggest and the Term 'Scam'

There are so many positive, non-controversial uses of Google Search, it makes it hard to believe that sometimes there are serious problems in it that constitute the proverbial "growing threat" that you'd expect to see flagged in a USA Today Editorial.

Take, for example, the search results for my latest query. Needed to use up some ingredients in my kitchen, needed to build a tasty winter dish around that need: immediately thought of tex mex chili.

Do a search - get some recipes. This is fun! No controversy. No Google Suggest results leading me to search for "tex mex chili SCAM!"

You can just imagine it, right?

At texmexchiliscam.net, rico88 writes a review. "Oh sure, first it all seems innocuous, with the need for tomato sauce, chili powder, beans, and meat. But that's when they HOOK you. NO ONE tells you about the 2 CANS OF CORN you have to buy to make this so-called 'easy' 'dish'. I am betting the Green Giant is behind the whole thing."

nochilinocry chimes in: "There's one reason he's called the GREEN Giant, and that's the $$$$ he rakes in on a daily basis for this Tex Mex Chili $cam!!"

Yeah, that's never gonna happen.

That's why I love making chili. No tinfoil hat required.

So...

One of those growing threats -- on searches that really do lend themselves to the use of controversial, value-laden terms -- is the presence of words like "scam" in the Google Suggest results. The problem is real: that's proven by yesterday's Google lawsuit loss in France. Google must remove the term "arnaque" manually from Google Suggest phrases in relation to a specific company. (There have been complaints from other companies, too.)

The problem seems trivial until you realize just how widespread it is. And it could grow further.

As more consumers see Google Suggest results, just imagine how pervasive the problem of oversimplifying all criticism of businesses into the word "scam" can be. I tried a few queries to get the hang of it, and I saw legitimate, legal companies being hung with this term. As we know with memes, some of them are almost too easy to spread. Scam is a nice, neat word. That totally overstates the case when it comes to disagreeing with a business's practices or having a particular complaint. The next thing you know, more vocabulary-challenged customers are calling your business a "scam". I just watched a nine-minute video of a guy describing a "scam" by a utility company that plainly wasn't.

Big problem: Google Suggest can start to reflect this overheated rhetoric, and the problem escalates for the business in question, even if they move to respond to specific customer complaints. Before you know it, the phrase Tex Mex Chili Inc Scam is the most popular Google Suggest Result for Tex Mex Chili. And subsequent customers keep selecting that result, algorithmically perpetuating its high standing. That business is permanently harmed because Google Suggest may have the effect of keeping a long term red flag hanging over the company, using a word that does a poor job of truly capturing specific complaints about a business.

All of that could happen in a relatively normal situation. That leaves aside malicious potential -- say, competitors, SEO's, or the publishers of certain online forums finding a way to benefit from putting up these kinds of negative reviews, putting SCAM in the title tag.

That's why I think the French court was probably right about this. Google Suggest may work simply "algorithmically," but they've nipped in the bud what could become a growing problem for many legitimate businesses: the problem of an all-too-casually-used meme to become permanently entrenched as a high ranking Google Suggest term, creating a harmful environment for business.

Google will have to study the impact of Google Suggest in locking in pernicious phrases that harm legitimate businesses and people, much in the same way that link bombing can be defamatory.

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