A video is making the rounds that claims Google is manipulating its Autocomplete results, those suggestions you get as you type out your keywords, to hide terms related to Hillary Clinton’s criminal activities.
Since this is my area of expertise, I though it would be appropriate to chime in. Not often does SEO, let alone Google Autocomplete, make national headlines. Unfortunately, most people have no clue how any of this search stuff works, so it’s a bit like the Aquatic Ape Theory in that it’s really easy to pass off something completely nonsensical as true if it sounds simple enough for laymen to understand.
Google Auto-Complete is not simple, though. I’ve spent years manipulating it for clients, and it’s a tough nut to crack. I do a lot of Reputation Management work, and there’s almost always less than flattering terms in Google’s suggestions that people want my help to suppress. While search volume is definitely important, it’s not the only factor at play. So when the video above shows that “hillary clinton crime reform” gets almost no searches according to Google Trends when compared to “hillary clinton crimes” (nevermind that the latter likely includes the volume of the former), they put their case to rest. Google must be in bed with Hillary’s campaign. Cut and dry, right? More searches for “hillary clinton crimes” than “hillary clinton crime reform” and yet “crime reform” is the top suggestion with “crimes” nowhere to be found!
I know what you’re saying. “But Bing! What about Bing!” To which I say, “What’s Bing?”
Yes, on Bing/Yahoo you get “hillary clinton crimes” and more. So what gives? There is definitely some differences in the Bing vs Google demographics that could change the search volume there. Also, I highly suspect Bing pursues more tabloidy suggestions as it seems like controversial terms more readily appear in Bing searches. But this brings us to why Google doesn’t offer up these results. It goes beyond Hillary Clinton, and therefore isn’t some biased conspiracy to elect the first male First Lady in US history, finally shattering that glass ceiling for men everywhere. No. It’s not political; it’s legal.
Google has been experiencing lots of legal issues over its search query suggestions, particularly overseas. Negative suggestions open them up to defamation cases, and so it’s my professional opinion that Google purposefully discounts or suppresses particular negative terms from people name queries. This would explain why “crimes” isn’t suggested for Hillary Clinton. To see that this isn’t unique to her, I did a few more searches. Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich and OJ Simpson.
The only one with anything related to crime in the suggestions is OJ Simpson, and he was acquitted once. The suggestion is “crime series”, probably a reference to the TV show and not a crime spree. Now, I’m no lawyer, but it certainly seems to me that Google is just playing it safe. When you hear a news reporter talking about crimes, even when we know with 100% certainty the person is guilty, you hear them say things like “alleged shooter” or “suspect”. They don’t call anyone a criminal. My guess is that it’s a legal issue, and that would explain Google’s suggestions here in regards to Hillary Clinton. Yes, Trump’s suggestions show he’s a racist. And Bernie Sanders’s suggestions label him a socialist. But it’s not illegal to be a racist or a socialist, and both terms are open to interpretation. I doubt you could get away with calling Bernie Sanders an arsonist, though, even if he does make you feel the Bern.
Here’s another reason why I suspect it’s a legal issue. Take a look at “hillary clinton cha” suggestions. Here we see “hillary clinton charged with crimes” and more. So again, this is just Google trying to avoid legal trouble by keeping “criminal” suggestions out of people name search queries and going with safer suggestions instead.
As Rhea Drysdale points out, the makers of the video may have purposely picked words that should appear in Hillary’s suggestions but don’t while ignoring those that should appear in Donald Trump’s or other’s but don’t. In her example, she used “rape” citing accusations of rape by Trump’s ex, Ivanna Trump. Ivanna later recanted and nothing legal came of the accusations. However, Google doesn’t show “rape” as a suggestion for convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw either. Again, this is a case of Google avoiding the pairing of defamation words with people’s names.
So let’s agree that Google purposefully discounts or outright bans “criminal” and “crimes” from queries about people. That seems to be what’s going on here, not a grand political conspiracy.
In addition, to further show the Google Autocomplete isn’t as straightforward as search volume, you can have a look at suggestions like “twitter” or “bio”. You’ll often find these suggested after a person’s name, even when the search volume is lower than other terms. This is because Google understands such queries are important in people-related searches, and therefore gives them higher importance. For example, “hillary clinton twitter” vs “hillary clinton trump”.
Maybe it’s a weird political fanfic shipping, or maybe more people are interested in Hillary Clinton’s Trump than they are her Twitter. Even with Google Trends reporting higher interest in “hillary clinton trump”, Google doesn’t suggest “hillary clinton trump” first. Instead, it suggests “hillary clinton twitter”. This is because “twitter” is given a boost for people name queries. When someone’s searching a person, they sometimes want their Twitter profile.
Google Autocomplete is more complicated than you think. It’s not as simple as search volume, though that is an important factor. There are other factors at play, and Google certainly tweaks their algorithm to show what it feels is better (or more legal) results. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t purposefully hiding Hillary Clinton’s alleged criminal activity she obviously did, but it’s pretty unlikely. What I’ve seen, and what’s been reported in the video claiming Google is biased, doesn’t look like manipulation to me. It looks like Google Autocomplete working as intended.
Update: Google issued a statement saying, “Our Autocomplete algorithm will not show a predicted query that is offensive or disparaging when displayed in conjunction with a person’s name.” This according to the Washington Times.