The premise behind Google Instant is simple and not altogether innovative as it was offered, in some capacity, on other search engines before Google introduced it in September of 2010. By offering suggested results as the user types their word or phrase into the search bar, Google estimates that it saves users 2 to 5 seconds in every search, which adds up to a collective 11 million seconds per hour. There’s been a great deal of discussion about what people plan to do with all the time they save through all these emerging technological time-savers, but we’re not all that interested in that; we’ve got things to do. What’s more interesting to us, at The Computer Newspaper, is the insight this feature provides into the peculiarities of our collective curiosities.
Up until Google Instant, our search and browser histories were mercifully, a private affair. Three years ago, if certain members of the 1548 Cook Street household (more specifically, all four members) spent thirty minutes searching the internet for a full-frontal of Michael Fassbender to see what sort of girth might inspire George Clooney to reference it at the Golden Globes, we could just erase our browser history and not worry about holding our breath when a friend asks to check her email on our computer. Now, when you type in “Michael Fassb” into the search bar, the second suggestion Google offers is “Michael Fassbender Frontal.” Should we take consolation in knowing there is community in our most bizarre curiosities? Maybe so, but that comfort shrinks when you find curiosities that you don’t share. When you ask Google “Is it wrong to sl…,” Google encourages you to find out if it’s wrong to sleep with your mother, cousin or dog. My initial validation to this discovery was that Google, which is a young, clever company, is fucking with us. Surely there aren’t enough people seeking affirmation for potential exploits of incest and bestiality to warrant such a quick recommendation from the world’s most popular search engine, and even if that is the case, does Google really want to save them the 2-5 seconds it takes to type their query out, or should we cross our fingers and hope that spelling the phrase out might give them second thoughts. Judgment aside, if Google Instant is simply intended to expedite our queries, then are the recommendations it offers a true representation of our peculiar, and often perverse nature? The disturbing truth is well, kind of.
The Google Autocomplete feature is a complex algorithm that filters its suggestions through a series of user, content, and region specific qualifiers. The first couple of suggestions may be drawn from previous searches on that individual computer (on my computer, when I type in “Co” the first suggestion is “Conor Oberst,” on Justin’s the first couple of suggestions are “Costco” and “Cool Math Games”). Even though nearly 40% of all the content on the internet is pornography, Google Instant blocks all suggestions that are considered adult-only (if you type “tittie” into the search bar, Google feigns ignorance and refuses to provide that extra “s”), based on the Google Blacklist, which I’ll get to later. Not surprisingly, Google also provides suggestions that are both culturally relevant at the moment – type in “tra” and Trayvon Martin is one of the first things that will pop up, and regionally significant – if you manually change the location on your computer, you’ll get slightly different results. Mostly though, the suggestions are drawn from the most popular searches in our collective Google history, which is a baffling proposition when you take a closer look.
While looking at the following examples, it’s important to know that there are plenty of Google Instant suggestions that make no sense and do not warrant deeper consideration. People are strange, but not strange enough that a significant amount of us wonder whether midgets have night vision. I hope. If Peter Dinklage (from Game of Thrones) has taught us anything, it’s that Small People possess supernatural acting abilities and maybe the power of manipulation, but it’s a stretch to assume they can see like cats just because they’re similarly sized. Still, I would assert that there is plenty to be learned from Google Instant – about the nature of people, technology, and what is a surprisingly peculiar list of censored words and phrases by one of the world’s biggest companies.
I’ve separated them into three categories: Absurd, Scary/Surprising, and The Blacklist.
I have a hard time believing anyone would actually ask this.
I assumed this was an anomaly until I actually googled “can I eat my period.” I suggest you don’t take this particular Google Suggestion.
This might be my favorite one. Is it surprising that people have turned to Google seeking out the answer to the central question of our existence? Not especially. The entire purpose of a search engine is to find what you’re looking for, and lots of people are looking for God. Still, I love the idea of some pimpled thirteen year old opening a tab next to his Facebook, Twitter, and Four Square to briefly unearth the Truth between gulps of Mountain Dew Code Red. More interesting, perhaps, is that if you Google the word “God” (not “the word of God”) four of the first six suggestions that come up are about God of War walkthroughs (a video game). The other two are lyrics to a Blake Shelton song. If you Google “The Devil,” all ten suggestions that Google provides are movie titles. It seems as if people are searching for the truth about the existence of His Majesty, but not all that many people are interested in reading about Him.
How fascinating is that? The prompt here was simply the word “is,’ and four of the top ten responses are about whether a celebrity is gay.
A survey recently conducted by Gallup estimates that 61% of adult Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in nearly all situations. This example suggests that a lot of people oppose the concept of abortion, but might react differently if they were personally confronted by an unplanned or forced pregnancy.
This is where it gets really interesting. Because such an overwhelming amount of the content on the internet is either pornographic or (considered) violent and inappropriate, Google Instant created a list a words and phrases that it will not suggest. Google’s Johanna Wright said these restrictions are in place to protect children, which is a necessary step for a company that is as widely used as Google is. What’s interesting about the Blacklist, is what Google has deemed appropriate, and what is considered inappropriate. To be clear (and consistent with The Computer Newspaper’s policy of Using Disclaimers to Avoid Ever Actually Taking a Side), this piece – and section specifically, is not intended to admonish Google for their censorship strategy. When the Hacker Zine 2600 released the Google Blacklist in 2010, Google received flak for some of the words that made the list and others that were left off. There were a lot of people who were upset when it was discovered that both “lesbian” and “bisexual” were blocked by Autocomplete, but “gay” was not (Google has since unblocked “lesbian,” though “bisexual remains censored). Though I can understand the knee-jerk response, it’s important to remember the type of internet content one would find if they googled “bisexual” compared to “gay.” The internet feeds every pervy hunger pang we might have and I shudder to think what Google Instant might suggest if it operated entirely on what is actually googled most often. A prompt as harmless as “Bisexual” might bring up “Bisexual teenage art dealers jerkin’ crotchety old salmon slingers.” It’s foolish to think that Google has an agenda outside of making as few people mad as possible, and while some omissions are certainly curious, it’s important to remember that this is an evolving list, and changes daily. This is a statement Wright released regarding Google’s censorship policy:
“There are a number of reasons you may not be seeing search queries for a particular topic. Among other things, we apply a narrow set of removal policies for pornography, violence, and hate speech. It’s important to note that removing queries from Autocomplete is a hard problem and not as simple as blacklisting particular terms and phrases… This system is neither perfect nor instantaneous, and we will continue to work to make it better.”
Most of the words and phrases that Google will not suggest are sexual and pornographic prompts. Those seeking to save 2 to 5 seconds while searching for Cleveland Steamers will be disappointed, but it’s not as if Google has blocked people from actually searching for it, they simply won’t suggest it. One of the most interesting additions to the Google Blacklist is “Pamela Anderson.” Google Instant will suggest Pamela Adlon, Abrams, and Austin, but not Pamela Anderson, presumably because of her sex tape with Tommy Lee. The Blacklist blocks searches for all the famous porn stars, but Pamela Anderson is just a celebrity who had a sex tape that was leaked, not unlike Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, both of whom are not blocked by Autocomplete. Interestingly, “Consensual Intercourse” is also blocked by Google Instant.
Aside from the sexual content, most of the remaining blacklisted words and phrases are about hate. Google won’t suggest “White Power,” “Faggot,” or any of the racial slurs I could think of. They do, however, suggest some really bizarre stereotyping:
Google has become a powerful tool to better understand how our country (and world, really) work. Political strategists have found that they can accurately predict how many of the primaries and caucuses will unfold based on the nature of search trends in that area. Google and Facebook have made amateur sociologists out of all of us, allowing us to peek in on the lives and thought processes of people we have no real investment or interest in, which can be alternatively funny and horrifying. This might seem hypocritical 2,000 words into this article, but Google Instant is a relatively small idea that a lot of people didn’t even notice when it was initiated in 2010. It’s designed to be intuitive, which means that its only real weakness is that it forces us to acknowledge how splintered our world is. It may be alarming to you and me that there are a lot of people googling “blacks are out of control,” but it’s a good reminder that ignorance and stupidity persist even if we aren’t confronted by it by the people we choose to surround ourselves with.
For the full Blacklist, you can click on the following link: