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: