How Google Autocomplete Can Affect Your Brand’s SEO & ORM Strategy

Have you ever typed a company name into Google and been instantly greeted with words like ‘scam’ or ‘complaints’ by Google Autocomplete? That can’t be good for business, and it is a situation that more and more organizations are finding themselves in.

Google AutoComplete Screenshot showing negative/bad values

Being part of a firm that is heavily involved in Online Reputation Management (ORM), we take on a wide range of tasks. There is a bit of everything, from helping individuals clean up search results for their names to partnering with corporations to identify and fix reputation problems.

One of the most common issues we get now, from organizations both large and small, is to take on the task of developing and implementing strategies that will influence Google Autocomplete.

These clients look to us to help them identify the source of the problem (e.g. do they really have some bad business practices or is it an upset former employee or competitor?) and consult on how to address and fix the issues. We then develop a strategy to influence Autocomplete to highlight the positive aspects or activities associated with the brand and push negative values out.

A Data-Driven Approach

Data drives our efforts to help our clients, so a few months ago, we set out to take a deep dive into Google Autocomplete. There is some other research online about how Autocomplete may work, but we figured it might be best if we started fresh with our own data.

We began by building a dataset made up of what Autocomplete suggests for a large number of companies, and then performed analysis on this data to identify if it could help us with many of our reputation management projects.

Consistently hearing from businesses with similar Autocomplete problems helped us hypothesize that by looking at the Autocomplete values for hundreds of companies, we could identify a list of values that Google favors when providing Autocomplete suggestions to searchers.

Our intention would then be to use these ‘favored values’ in our efforts to influence Google Autocomplete for other brands and larger companies.

While we won’t go into exactly what we do to promote a specific word in this article, it is worth noting that based on our testing, we believe the Autocomplete algorithm is comprised of 3 main influencers:

  1. Search volume and searcher location – the amount of searches performed for a keyword along with the location of the searchers
  2. Mentions of the keyword on the Web, crawlable by Google’s spider
  3. Social Media mentions of the keyword on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+

If you can obtain these 3 items in large quantities for your desired keywords, you may be able to influence Google Autocomplete.

If you are interested in learning more about white drives Google Autocomplete, this Google Instant/Autocomplete article provides a strong background on the subject, and Google also pulls back the curtain a tiny bit on their Autocomplete support page.

Removing bad words showing in Google Autosuggest

Methodology

The first thing we needed to do was identify our starting point:  what companies do we look at to determine if there is an Autocomplete bias?

We decided that we would use the Fortune 500 to get a list representative of very large companies. We then also chose the INC. 5000 to complete the dataset, as this list contains companies ranging in size from very small to medium/large.

The companies selected from the Inc. 5000 were limited to the 500 at the top and 500 at the bottom of the list.  The top would represent mid to large sized businesses, and the bottom would be the small businesses.

We analyzed them all separately and broke out the data so that we had findings that pertained to small business, medium-sized businesses, and large businesses. We noticed that there was some overlap between the top 500 on the Inc. 5000 and the Fortune 500, so for the top of the list, we skipped the first 100 on the Inc. 5000 and grabbed the 500 that followed.

Next, we used an undocumented Autocomplete API from Google that displays the top 10 values for any given word or phrase.

This is the format that the API uses (you can access it right in your browser):

http://google.com/complete/search?q=YOUR+PHRASE+HERE&output=toolbar

We used some Google Docs magic to scrape the Autocomplete values for the 1500 different companies and then dumped the data into Excel for some more sophisticated data crunching.

Analyzing autocomplete - the process

What This Raw Data Looks Like

Want a visual representation of what the Autocomplete value results look like?  This Wordcloud (thanks Wordle.net) is made up of the 13,500 Autocomplete values we pulled (9 values for each of the 1,500 companies).

Autocomplete wordcloud courtesy of Wordle

Once we had the data in Excel, we were able to analyze it and find data points such as the most frequently appearing values by occurrence, differences between top values in large and small businesses, negative keyword occurrences, and more. We’ve dug through the data to find the most interesting and actionable information for you.

Autocomplete Analysis For The Fortune 500

The Fortune 500 is made up of the largest companies in the US by gross revenue.  You can view the 2011 list of companies that we used here.

We first analyzed the Autocomplete values for these companies, and the following are the top 10 Autocomplete values for them based on occurrences (occurrences follow each of the words in parenthesis).

  1. Careers (227)
  2. Jobs (153)
  3. Wiki (145)
  4. Investor Relations (140)
  5. Stock (108)
  6. Locations (87)
  7. News (72)
  8. Foundation (52)
  9. Coupons (42)
  10. Headquarters (40)

It is interesting to note that ‘Careers’ and ‘Jobs’ occupy the number one and two spots in frequency.

Job and Career prominently show up in Autocomplete Our takeaways on the prominence of jobs/careers in Autocomplete are:

  1. Your company should make an internal decision on what you’ll call your employment area. Will you call it ‘jobs’ or ‘careers’? Whatever it is, be consistent with it across your organization.
  2. It is clear that people search for company name + jobs/careers a lot. Make sure you have a well-built out area on your site catering to job seekers. Also consider syndicating your job listings to sites like indeed.com, careerbuilder.com, snagajob.com, etc so that you build a strong correlation in Google’s algorithm between your company and the concept of employment.
  3. Encourage candidates interested in work to search for “Your Company name + jobs/careers”. So, instead of sending someone a link to your job listings page, tell them to just Google “Brand Name Careers” to see all of your listings. The searches this generates signals to the Autocomplete algorithm that people are interested in that search phrase.

Here are a few more quick-hitter thoughts on the top 10 values and how you could use this data for your own brand:

  • Wiki – Consider starting a Wiki that is associated with your brand name. If you are a big business, you can probably create a wiki all about your company. If you are smaller, it may make more sense to build a wiki about your niche or industry.
  • Investor Relations – You don’t necessarily need to be a public company to have ‘Investor Relations’. Consider creating a section for this on your site, with resources such as press releases, letters from the CEO, a news feed, contact information, analysis reports, links to important blog posts, etc.
  • Locations – If you have multiple locations, build out a dedicated page for each location on your site.
  • News – It may be old school, but have a ‘news’ section on your site if you can keep it up-to-date.
  • Foundation – Consider being a do-gooder and start a foundation. Many organizations already do things to give back to the community and society, so why not consider formalizing that a little more through a foundation.
  • Coupons – People are always searching for these. If you are in a business where these make sense, take control of it and develop a strategy to use it to your advantage.

These top 10 words appear to be very popular in Google Autocomplete for the Fortune 500. In fact:

Breakdown of Autocomplete popular words

Other Interesting Notes From The Fortune 500

  • McDonald’s shows ‘Coffee Lawsuit’ in the 9th position, nearly 18 years after the landmark coffee trial took place. It is clear that negative values just don’t go away on their own, and that you must actively work to keep them from displaying for your brand.
  • There are quite a few companies that have negative Autocomplete values lurking.  Google displays just 4 Autocomplete values for most users, so values in positions 5+ don’t display. Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, News Corp, New York Life, Qwest, Bristol Myers Squibb, and a bunch of other well known brands have negative values such as ‘lawsuit’ or ‘layoff’ lurking in those deeper positions, but they could rise up at any time. These companies should be actively working to push these negative values out of their top 10, because if they don’t, a negative value could move up into their top 4 and cause some serious branding issues.

Autocomplete Analysis For Small To Mid-Sized Companies

It also made sense for us to analyze companies that are quite a bit smaller than those on the Fortune 500. This would provide results that would be more meaningful for small businesses. We decided to use the Inc. 5000, which is comprised of the fastest growing companies in the US.

By grabbing the companies at the end of this list (500 of them), we could pull a good representation of what the Autocomplete landscape is like for small businesses, and what other small businesses could do based on the data gathered.

The top 10 values we found, based on occurrences, are:

  1. Inc (99)
  2. LLC (66)
  3. Jobs (57)
  4. Reviews (54)
  5. Review (49)
  6. Facebook (28)
  7. Coupon (26)
  8. Blog (23)
  9. Address (23)
  10. Careers (23)

It is important to note that a blank value was, by far, the most frequently occurring value, but we didn’t show it in this list above.  This means that a value was not returned in one or several of the positions for a company.

Key Takeaway For Smaller Enterprises

If you are a small business, use the analysis in this document to define and influence Google on what your Autocomplete values should be. If you wait for Google to fill-in your Autocomplete values, you could end up with brand name + ‘scam’, ‘complaints’, or worse.

This slide deck has some proactive tips you can take to protect your brand’s online reputation.

Benjamin Franklin Quote that applies to ORM

These are the other highlights from analyzing these smaller companies:

  • Jobs/careers again proves to be ultra-important, so follow the advice outlined in the Fortune 500 section for this topic.
  • Taking control over your reviews is important, as it seems almost inevitable that review or reviews will be associated with a company in Autocomplete. Make sure you are stockpiling positive reviews on Google Places, Yelp, industry review sites, and your own website, especially before you think you’ll need them. There is nothing like a negative review to throw everyone in your company into a frenzy.
  • Facebook has a strong showing, and so you know it will only become more and more important that you have an active presence on the social network. I’d imagine that when we run this exercise again in 12 months, with Google pushing Google+ so strongly, we’ll see Google+ somehow “work its way in” as well.
  • While not in the top 10 list, we did find many occurrences of ‘lawsuit’, ‘scam’, ‘layoffs’, and other unsavory recommendations. We won’t out any small companies here, but we do advise people to look at their Autocomplete values often. They change about every 6 weeks, and you don’t want to be caught off-guard with a negative value that can cripple your branding. We provided the API link format above, or if you want an easy input box you can use the one we’ve built here.

Autocomplete For 500 Mid to Large Companies On The Inc. 5000

Following an analysis of the 500 at the bottom of the Inc. 5000 list, we moved up to the top of the list and grabbed 500 from there (after skipping the first 100 due to overlap with the Fortune 500).

These represent mid to large sized companies who have shown tremendous growth over the past several years. For these companies, the top values occurring in Autocomplete are:

  1. Jobs (119)
  2. Careers (110)
  3. Reviews (76)
  4. Salary (62)
  5. Wiki (56)
  6. Inc (46)
  7. IPO (41)
  8. Address (34)
  9. LLC (31)
  10. Revenue (30)

What is interesting about this is that it shows elements of what we see in both the Fortune 500 list as well as the list from the smallest companies on the Inc 5000. This is evidence that a brand’s Autocomplete values shift as the company grows.

Here are some notes on the new values we see:

  • Salary – be aware that, for larger organizations, people will be searching out salaries. You’ll want to take ownership of the results, and make sure that you are representing your brand positively in those results. There are many sites like Glassdoor.com and SalaryList.com where most medium and large-sized companies are listed, and you’ll want to review how your company is represented on those sites.
  • IPO – I can only imagine that this shows up if there are talks that the company might be going public or has already gone public. This is another place where it pays to check your results. If there is negative content out there for it, develop a strategy to turn the discussion in a more positive direction. Negative Branding in any form could impact IPO or future stock prices.
  • Revenue – People will be searching this out. Have a section on your site dedicated to it, as it will rank at the top, and you’ll be able to control the message.
  • We also noted a significantly large portion of the Autocomplete values were city specific, typically the brand name + a large city name. This demonstrates that if you are present in multiple cities, they can be used to fill out your Autocomplete values.

Combining All Of The Data

While it was useful to segment the companies by their source (Fortune 500, Top of the Inc. 5000, Bottom of Inc. 5000) to understand the differences in Autocomplete values across different business sizes, we also stacked all of the data and analyzed it as a whole.

You saw the tag cloud at the beginning of this article that was the result of all of the values combined, here is the overall Top 10 list – at this point, there shouldn’t be any big surprises:

  1. Careers (356)
  2. Jobs (329)
  3. Wiki (207)
  4. Inc (162)
  5. Investor Relations (150)
  6. Reviews (140)
  7. Stock 130)
  8. Locations (109)
  9. LLC (98)
  10. News (95)

Categorizing The Values

After uncovering the Top 10 values, we then assigned categories to any keyword that appeared at least 5 times in the stacked data. By doing this, we could see which category of keywords appears most frequently overall.

The following are the top 10 categories:

  1. Locations
  2. Employment
  3. Investment Information
  4. Company Structure (LLC, Inc, Co., etc)
  5. Social Network/New Media
  6. Complaints or Reviews
  7. General Information
  8. Coupons
  9. News
  10. Negative

What is interesting here is that while we have seen career and jobs dominate the top of the lists, when categories are assigned, ‘Locations’ is actually far more common. This is because ‘locations’ is made up of so many different values (the word location, locations, plus every city and state reference).

Business owners should also take note that ‘Complaints or Reviews’ is the 6th most frequently occurring category, and the negative value category (scam, lawsuit, etc) is the 10th most frequently occurring. Both of these areas are hotbeds for negative branding activity, so it pays to be proactive in maintaining positivity in these areas.

What Do We Do With All Of This?

Overall, what we have learned is that there isn’t nearly as much variability in Google Autocomplete as we first thought coming into this. There is clearly a correlation between keywords used for businesses and the values displayed in Google Autocomplete.

For a company proactively trying to take control of their Autocomplete values, the data we compiled into the top 10 lists provide a good start for the values to target.

Once you finalize a list of your target positive values, it just takes some ingenuity and clever thinking to get people searching those terms, mentioning them in social media updates, and including them in content published to the Web. A few months of that, at a decent volume, is typically enough to sway Autocomplete in the direction you want it to go.

Limitations

The data isn’t perfect, but we think it is strong enough to make decisions from when used in aggregate.

Some limitations include a location bias in the Autocomplete values (based on where the Google Docs IP address geolocates) and the fact that values for some companies are very specific (e.g Boeing where most values are plane models like 747, 757, etc) and one-offs like that don’t show up in reporting although it is important to note that some companies have this.

Also, because we input the company name directly into the Autocomplete API, we only received nine usable Autocomplete values because the first result was always the company name.

Next time around, we’d insert a space after the company name, as this will generally remove the company name as the first recommended value and would give us 10 values to fully analyze.

Is There Autocomplete Analysis That You’d Like to See?

We think that there is a lot more research to be done with Google Autocomplete, and we’re going to keep exploring. Robert Darlington, Dan Hinckley, and myself spent quite a bit of time figuring out exactly how to pull this experiment off, and now that we have the tools in place, we’ll be pulling even more data and performing even deeper analysis.

Is there something you’d like explored with Google Autocomplete? Let us know in the comments!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO | Google: APIs | Google: Instant | Google: Suggest | Google: Toolbar

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About The Author: is Go Fish Digital's Director of Client Services, and is responsible for researching and developing strategies for Online Reputation Management (ORM), SEO, and managing web development projects. He blogs on the GFD blog and can be found on Twitter@brianspatterson.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • User001

    So what’s the best way to avoid those negative reviews, and how to do a long term cure for them?

  • Pat Grady

    Nice negs to consider.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    The best way to avoid negative words in Google Autocomplete is to be pro-active; decide what positive words you want displaying, and do your best to get people using them on social media, use them on your website, and figure out ways to get people searching them on Google.com

    You have to make google ‘aware’ of the positive keywords you want to insert, and use them consistently and frequently in ways that Google can identify and understand. Hope that helps!

  • http://www.convonix.com/ Muzzammil Bambot

    Great Post Brian.

    Just a small doubt, when you say that these are the most suggested words by Google, do we need to concatenate our target keyword with these words and then naturally or artificially increase search volumes? or follow another process!

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    You need to concatenate words like ‘careers’ or ‘news’ with your brand name. So lets say your business is ‘Smith’s Widgets’, and you want to promote the words ‘careers’ and ‘news’ in Autocomplete.

    In this case, you’ll want people searching “Smith’s Widgets Careers” and ‘Smith’s Widgets News”. You’ll also want them using those phrases in social media, and you wall to use them on other sites as well. You shouldn’t need to spam, just be natural and find places to work it in. Good luck!

  • http://www.webstatsart.com/ Webstats Art

    Google is cleverer than all of us and is a company that has invested millions in search and their autocomplete normally reflects what searchers are looking for first of all. Isn’t artificially changing the way things work against google’s policy? Isn’t this a way to protect companies who actually do have bad service and products? Should people be doing things to challenge what google deems to be bad? Some say that Google has made so many positive changes to their algorithm that there should not be any need for us to manipulate results?

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    I think you could use this same logic to argue that people shouldn’t do SEO, because Google should be smart enough to know what should rank for high-value keywords and we shouldn’t manipulate this.

    Influencing Autocomplete should be a part of an ORM strategy because the values Google suggests have an impact on your brand, positive or negative.

    I think most brands aren’t comfortable standing by and letting Google unilaterally decide what words should be associated with their brand. Standing by and letting Google define you would be the same as a large company not having a Public Relations department, with the assumption that traditional media will always do what is right for the business.

  • http://www.webstatsart.com/ Webstats Art

    Dear Brian, I am not having a go at you for what you do. I am just being difficult because part of the exercise is to create thinkers. Google really has no idea what goes on behind closed doors in business and so they cannot really know what is fair and right. They are not a company that interacts or knows what the populus experiences except for what they see in their web trends. They also cannot stop people manipulating the web. I was being a bit sarcastic in my previous post.
    Simply put, google juggles the good and bad and hopes that what they present to others will please the common users and get them to click on an advert. They don’t care about user experience unless it it affects their click money. Any company that is relying on ads for most of it’s revenue would do the same and anyone who denies this is simply telling lies about what/who is paying their salary.

    I know people who have had their technology stolen by techno thieves who know how to build great websites. The thieves did not spend the money on the developments of the products- No! .. they simply stole the technology and of course that means that they can start a new company without having to suffer or go through what was required to make those products. Despite that, Google ranks them as the number #1 maker of those products and the thieves are accusing their victims of theft. Google is not intelligent enough to know these things and that is why a GOOD SEO can be a savior for a company that has been victimized and this SEO should know how to manipulate google search results. Google cannot be fair, so we have to rely on those who can beat google’s unfair system to balance the power. This means that it is possible to be an honourable SEO

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    Agreed, Google is essentially an algorithm, a machine. That machine decides, based on input, how and where you are represented to the world on their results pages. Because there is no human intervention, it is fallible and often incorrect (although the same would be true if there was human intervention).

    As SEO’s/ORMs, we have to act in our or our client’s best interest to influence the machine to make its representation of us/the client positive.

  • http://twitter.com/AlliePatchell Allie Patchell

    Hi!

    I’d really like to see the difference between searches for desktop and mobile websites. Although we have certain keywords for our main sites, the mobile version should use keywords as suggested by the auto-complete function as mobile users don’t type as much as desktop users.

    It would be great to see actual examples from a niche (any niche) and compare the differences.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    That’s a really good idea. I’ll see if we can uncover a way to pull Autocomplete values for mobile, which are often different than desktop. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    Oh, and in regards to how long it takes… we’ve had some clear up in as little as a few weeks, but generally it is 2-4 moths, and Bing takes about twice as long.

  • http://www.orionweb.net/ Russ Offord

    Hi,

    I’ve tried to insert a space ‘before’ the search query, but I am not sure how to force it to return auto-suggest results with a space before in the google.com/complete/search?q= example given.

    For example, sometimes the auto-complete results change if you put a space before, like how forcing a space afterwards removes the original search query from the list.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSPatterson Brian Patterson

    Hi Russ, I never thought about putting a space before the search term Do you see that being quite different? I just did a couple of tests and I saw the same exact values being suggested as if I had not put a space before it.

  • http://www.orionweb.net/ Russ Offord

    Hmm, I believe using a space before the keyword used to make a difference, from previous testing (last year) that I did… but perhaps now it does not change the auto-complete results anymore.

 

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