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Web searches reveal what we wonder

Quentin Hardy and Matt Richtel (via SMH) | Nov. 26, 2012
There are the questions you ask friends, family and close confidants. And then there are the questions you ask the internet

In't Ven added that he and his Microsoft colleagues have often discussed some of the strange questions. A few months ago, they became interested in the frequent inquiries from search engine users about cultural stereotypes.

Type "why are Americans" and the autocomplete choices include "fat", "stupid" and "patriotic". For "Chinese" the autocompletes include "skinny," "rude" and "smart". If autocomplete is any indicator, search engine users regularly wonder if Jews are smarter and whether African-Americans are better athletes.

In a statement, Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi, a Google spokeswoman, wrote: "The search queries that you see as part of autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of all web users." She declined to give an interview about autocomplete but added in her note that Google tries to accurately reflect the diversity of what is on the internet, good or bad.

There are other possibilities for why these questions yield impolitic results.

One is the nature of language. Questions beginning with "is" might be more likely to lend themselves to asking about someone's sexuality than questions beginning with, for example, "where". However, on Bing, sexual orientation also is a regular topic with questions beginning with the word "was" (Was J. Edgar Hoover gay?).

Another explanation for the autocomplete patterns could be some meddling by pranksters trying to game the system. That can happen with search engines. Recently, Bettina Wulff, wife of Christian Wulff, a former German president, asked Google to cease suggesting terms like "prostituierte", after her name. Google refused, saying that the terms had been individually typed in many, many times.

The development of the autocomplete feature reflects the insatiable demand for speed among computer users. A reason the search engines offer the service is to cut down on misspellings, so web pages can be delivered more quickly and accurately.

But another is to help people just feel as though things are moving faster, saving them the time of typing a few extra words. In an experiment several years ago, Google found that people reported more happiness with search even when the results were delivered a few milliseconds faster, at a rate below what the conscious mind can perceive. Since then, Google and Microsoft have spent billions on returning faster searches to impatient users.

 

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