A Brilliant Google Goof

(Or Did You Mean: Your small business is screwed?)

Google’s search algorithm (GSA) is among the most robust automated projects ever undertaken. More than just a new verb it’s given us new research methods, new techniques for marketing businesses and, of course, new problems.

Google’s Did You Mean functionality can be useful, well-reasoned and compassionate:

Google’s Did You Mean function can even be hilarious:

Much of the time though, especially for small businesses, Google’s Did You Mean is a nightmare. And when paired with Showing Results For it can do active and measurable harm by obscuring a business’ results or pushing them down the ranking.

Good News, Bad News, A Little Background

The good news is Google, many small business owners and digital marketers are aware of this issue already.

The bad news is there isn’t a simple solution. Why not? Well, Google has its own sort of modern usage dictionary (a default spelling database) that learns words from the documents it crawls while performing searches. Ubiquitous, but strictly speaking incorrect, usages like “alright” as well as common but newfangled words like “lol”, “muggle” or “noob” are added to Google’s spelling database once they’re found a certain number of times in a certain number of crawled documents.

Before the feature launched (around November of 2008), GSA analysts noticed a non-optimal behavior that was occurring tens of millions of times: a user searches a term, doesn’t find the results she want and then lightly edits her query. This was a huge issue for Google – for a sense of scale, look at three weeks’ worth of misspellings of Britney Spears.

You can imagine the tidal wave of positive feedback data that must have come in immediately after the feature’s release: all of a sudden, those minor query edits might have dipped 10, 20, 30 percent, since not only do most people misspell and typo all the time but the Did You Mean placement is located in prime visual real estate, atop all results.

The problem is, as with any machine learning or algorithmic solution, that what works in 90 plus percent of all cases might not work in the remaining 10. And for new, obscure or acronym-based business names, Did You Mean not only doesn’t work but can actively deter growth and visibility.

What’s To Be Done?

If your business has this problem, there isn’t a hard and fast way to fix it. For one thing, Google hasn’t provided any formal mechanisms for requesting term inclusion in their spelling database: no form to fill out, no way to make a request (no humans, just algorithms maintaining the dictionary). This makes a perverse, Age-Of-Internet-Giants kind of sense: why would Google provide a solution to something it doesn’t view as a problem?

So the harsh reality is that time and growing traffic to your site will heal this wound more than most other efforts. That said, there are some simple SEO activities your business can start work on today that will help increase the probability of Google including your business name in it spelling database more quickly.

Below are a few relatively-easy-to-implement tricks that will, in time, help resolve this issue.

  • So much of SEO is getting other sites to link to yours. Link building campaigns are available, but often costly, so don’t forget the simple stuff: are there links to your website on your LinkedIn account and other social profiles? Do you have links to your website included in email marketing content and other customer messaging? Do you have partners or friends who run their own blogs and websites who might link to yours?
  • On-page SEO is the least you can do to make your site more visible to Google. Fixing things like Title tags and Meta tags on all your site’s pages to include full, explicit references to your company’s name and, if necessary, url is a big step in the right direction.
  • Search yourself. At the end of the day, Google Search is a fully automated endeavor that responds best to humans using it. If you’re not happy with your search results on Google, one slow but steady way to train it is to search for your own business on Google, ignore the Did You Mean suggestion and click your own link anyway. This won’t deliver results quickly (but it may give you peace of mind).

Has your business encountered the dreaded Did You Mean problem? Do you know anyone whose business has been affected by Google’s suggested results? If so, contact nick@oliverandsons.com – I’d love to hear your story.