Disclosing When Queries Are Autocorrected

Google Auto-correcting Queries from Google Operating System notes that Google seems to have moved beyond suggesting spelling corrections and now automatically does them for you. Actually, I think this is the stemming feature kicking in. However, it highlights that it’s useful for search engines to tell you exactly what they’ve modified, if they do so.

Years ago, Google would automatically change your spelling if it found no matches for what you looked for. That annoyed me, to the point I pushed for it to change in 2002. It annoyed several others in the search and research fields. Maybe it didn’t annoy general users. But Google eventually dropped it, so that it was no longer making some decision on your behalf.

The automatic change under discussion today is different. In a search for oper labs, Google instead automatically seems to be searching for opera labs. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as you know the search has changed.

Other search engines have done this before. In 2001, I recall MSN Search changing spelling so that it flagged you when an auto-correction happened. I seem to remember the AllTheWeb service also experimenting with changing queries for you and disclosing if this was done, so people could override the decision. AltaVista did various types of automatic phrase searching behind the scenes beginning in 1998, such as I talked about here. You could tell this most of the time because it would show you somewhere exactly the query that was done. You had to hunt for the disclosure, but it was there.

I’ve got no problem with automatic changes happening, as long as it’s clearly shown somehow what you searched for. If Google wants to auto-correct spelling, more power to them. But tell users if this is happening.

Want a good example of this? Search for incredibal on Yahoo. Look at the bottom of the page, and you’ll see:

In order to get better results, we searched for more than what you typed.
To get an exact match for what you typed, use the plus sign: +incredibal

Nicely done. And that type of disclosure helped William "IncrediBill" Atchison understand why he disappeared from Yahoo last month when an automatically spelling change kicked in. Don’t worry — Yahoo got it all fixed in the end.

It’s important to note that in the case at Google, something other that automatically spelling correction might be making the change. I think it’s stemming.

Google does stemming, added in late 2003 and explained here. This is where a search where it seeks the word you searched for and variations of that word. It might be looking for [opera] as a stemming variation of [oper].

Indeed, I suspect that’s the case. Consider this:

See how the second search is broader, brings back more matches than the first one? This suggests that Google must be looking doing more than changing [oper] to [opera], otherwise the counts would be the same. Instead, I think it is looking for both those words and giving ranking preference to those that are saying [opera labs].

Of course, we wouldn’t have to guess if Google somehow indicated that stemming was happening. FYI, to override stemming, add a + symbol in front of words you won’t want it to get variations of, such as:

+oper +labs

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Search Features: Query Refinement | Search Features: Spelling Correction


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.seobythesea.com Bill Slawski

    Stemming is one possibility, though there may be others. Google came out with a number of patent applications that describe query refinements, including spelling corrections, which would also display of a number of pages in results that go with the refinement. Here’s a snippet from one of those:

    [0042] The method of displaying additional information (e.g., search results 304), about query revisions to help users better understand the revisions can also be used on the main results page 200. This is particularly useful when there is a single very high quality revised query (or a small number of very high quality revisions) such as is the case with revisions that correct spellings. Spell corrected revised queries can be shown on the results page 200, along with additional information such as title, URL, and snippet of the top results to help the user in determining whether or not the spell correction suggestion is a good one.

    There’s a method described in those patent applications, of defining a confidence level for different possible refinements above which it would display a refinement and associated results upon the original results page, and below which it would require someone to click upon the refinement to see results that go with it.

  • Gurtie

    Disclosure really is important, I don’t know anyone, who doesn’t work in search or development, other than people I showed, who knows you can add ‘+’ to a query, and there’s nowhere on that google ‘oper labs’ search which tells you or gives you the chance to change it back from opera. If you hit search a few times it does actually give you the oper search results properly.

    Who’s going to know that though?

    I can’t reproduce this on other searches so perhaps its just a test on a few techies to see how confused people get?

  • http://www.avalancheinternetmarketing.com dangerlarson

    This feature may work well somewhere down the road but there are just too many nouns that G just may not understand.

    I’d say this is going to have some impact on their market share over time unless Google wants to undertake effort to educate their users about the more advanced search features such as using quotes. How many times will someone keep using Google when they are sure they typed in the correct query – don’t see any results – but are sure their topic is not a figment of their imagination.

    Sure, Google will keep all the tech-heads but they aren’t the people clicking on Adwords, either.

  • http://thomascreekconcepts.com/ Tom Hale

    On a tangential note, this adds to my curiosity when it comes to the specifics of broad matching in AdWords. I shy away from broad matching unless I have metrics that indicate otherwise. Simply because you do not know what decisions, as to relevance, are being made by the AdWords AI.

    Count me in the -transparency please- crowd.


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