The best sentence I read today, 7:46 a.m. edition

by on November 11, 2009 at 7:54 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

Someone once told me that there is nowhere we are more honest than the search box.

That's from still-a-Wunder-but-no-longer-a-Kind Ben Casnocha.  Read the whole post (drawing upon Michael Agger), it's one of the best I've seen in some time.  For instance:

There are some remarkable contrasts between "dumb" searches and "smart" ones. People who start their search "how 2" are more likely to search "how 2 get pregnant" or "how 2 grow weed." People who start their search "how one might" are more likely to search "how one might discover a new piece of music" or "how one might for the rise of andrew jackson in 1828."

Another contrast is between people who type in "is it wrong to" vs. people who type in "is it unethical to."  If you type in "is it wrong to" the first suggestion is "is it wrong to sleep with your cousin."  Number two is (yes, I tested it in Google): "Is it wrong to sleep with your step dad after your mom dies."  If you type in "is it unethical to," the first suggestion is "is it ethical to sell customer information."  Next comes a question about animal experimentation.  You'll see the lists of comparisons behind the first two links offered above.

Andrew November 11, 2009 at 8:06 am

You tested what, exactly?

Brent November 11, 2009 at 8:42 am

I remember a while back (I’m pretty sure it was in Marginal Revolution comments) there was a discussion of asking college professors if you can sit in a class for free, and one person said he had even gotten a recommendation from one of these professors after the class. Does anyone know what post that was on?

liberty November 11, 2009 at 8:56 am

“wrong” and “unethical” are slightly different.

Also, it is a better interpretation, I think, to say “people are nowhere as honest as in the search box” than to say “people who start their searches…” because it is also in the mood or moment of the person.

For example, if I am searching for something relating to work, I am more likely to ask “is it unethical to sell customer information,” if I am searching while researching for a paper, I am more likely to ask “Hegel ethics” and if I am searching while having a drunk google chat with someone who thinks that everyone in the south sleeps with their cousin, then I am more likely to ask “is it wrong to sleep with your cousin in the south” … although I never start with “is it” because I thought google ignores those words. I guess I don’t try to use the google completion. All my searches look like “Hegel ethics” generally.

erik November 11, 2009 at 9:44 am

The suggestions seem to be country-specific. If I try the same phrases in the Dutch version of Google, then nothing is unethical (i.e. no suggestions) and the only three “wrongs” are:
1. is it wrong to be strong
2. is it wrong to drink blood
3. is it wrong to eat your dog

Bill November 11, 2009 at 10:18 am

I think Google is missing an opportunity to have an INSTANT Ann Landers column with this format. You chose the type of advisor you want to answer the question.

So, to Ann Landers you could ask: What should I do if I suspect my husband is….

Or, you could flip it and have Google respond as if it were a different personality other than Ann Landers.

What advice would you receive from: Machiavelli or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or the Pope.

abc November 11, 2009 at 10:21 am

I can see how different social groups with different interests use different language, which would explain the results, but how does that make the searchers or their searches “dumb” or “smart”?

Jayson November 11, 2009 at 10:36 am

Quote from sean: I’m surprised people search using such standard English questions.

Excellent point. I think we learned more about how the author of the article searches than how the general population searches. I can’t remember the last time I typed the word “how” into a search box…

Jason November 11, 2009 at 11:04 am

Google definitely returns “groomed” search results. Putting aside any safe-search like features (for example, cannot get any pornographic results), there are other things going on too. I was actually playing with this a few weeks back and typed in a pretty generic question start (something along the lines of “what is” or “how do you make”) and one of the top results had something to do with Totem pole construction. Another example: just now typed in “what are” and it completed to: “what are these strawberries doing on my nipples i need them for the fruit salad.” I think its a book or movie or something, but i still highly doubt that’s the top search after the words “what are.”

I would be very interested if anyone had any insight as to how things get to the top of google’s auto-complete.

BB November 11, 2009 at 11:37 am

You do realize that there are books that teach you how to direct people to your site by exploiting google’s internal programming? I am sure there are ways to make the most popular search term be whatever you want it to be if you have enough time and resources.

Sean P. November 11, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Relevant XKCD link: http://xkcd.com/467/

bob November 11, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Although I’ve enjoyed other things on Ben’s blog I sort of felt like Hamilton about this one.

This is not my real name November 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm
D. Watson November 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Right now, if I type “is” into Google, it pops up with “Is Lady Gaga a man?”

Now that’s the third option, with isohunt being number 1. Clearly if it changes that rapidly, it can’t mean anything

Steven November 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm

“is ” –> “is lady gaga a man”
“is” –> “isohunt”

The space at the end makes a big difference.

vanya November 11, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Wouldn’t people who type “how one might” be far more likely to be British than American?

Right Wing-nut November 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

To complete the list of xkcd-relevant comics:

http://xkcd.com/155
http://xkcd.com/500
http://xkcd.com/522

I especially like 500. Our searches can be more honest with us than we are with ourselves.

doctorpat November 11, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Is it wrong to be strong? What does that even mean?
I googled it myself just to see if there was some church teaching that doing bench presses are a sin.

Nothing relevant came up. But now it has an even higher rating because I just searched on it.

Maybe it’s a self accelerating search meme?

nahhh November 12, 2009 at 5:38 am

It looks to me like those are not (just) search queries, there are a bunch of text extracts in there. The “how is it that” series are clearly rhetorical questions found in their text corpus, not “smart” people writing search engine queries. The google engineer is probably right if you enter a typical search. But if you enter an unlikely search it must fall back on some larger list of sentences Google has seen that ended with a question mark.

Sadly, that doesn’t convey the same frisson of supposed insight into the interests of others…

Ryan Vann November 12, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Real smart people (or at least those with basic understandings of search) don’t search using sentences or phrases (at least not without quotes), and might even throw in Boolean operators or a wildcard.

Bob Glassberg November 12, 2009 at 4:38 pm

And if you enter “what is the probability”, the first one you get is

“what is the probability of successfully navigating an asteroid field”. Wow, where did that come from?

glasses November 12, 2009 at 10:23 pm

good bifocals on line

discount supra shoes April 10, 2010 at 12:08 am

I do not know when oneself begin to learn to disguise supra shoes discount, perhaps the child of Pisces is destined the tears can only stay in one’s cheap supra shoes;own heart, lick and lick the wound alone. Night falling asleep, cranky at the beginning, I think he, be homesick, think I grandfather dear Papa and Mama of disease, want in younger brother that distant place go to school, want for; Supra Terry Kennedy;elder sister and elder brother that life rush about, think the work which I can not still put down, think whether I am sober or has fallen asleep on earth. . .

Designer Handbags July 2, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I will miss you Tabrett.Legend of the Seeker was the best show on Televison.It was something that made me look forward to watch.I watched it four times over the weekend.That’s how much I cared for it.It was my only thing of enjoyment.I wiil miss you seeker.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: