Did You Mean Wetbacks?

Whilst entering a search for “hitbacks” into Google, one of our link developers encountered the following helpful message (and if anyone wants to call me out as being pretentious for using the term “whilst” like one of you ponces did with Jane, then let me tell you that I wrote this on my way back from London where I had tea with the Queen so I think it’s ok in this case):

“Did you mean: wetbacks”

Did you mean wetbacks?

Normally this is where I’d issue an offensive exclamation. Wetbacks?? Did we mean WETBACKS? Holy fucking shit. This is obviously done by Google’s spell checker, and, if you look closely, you can see that, indeed, hitbacks and wetbacks are quite similar in their spelling. I only say that because I’m becoming more and more wary of the intelligence of the majority of people after the Lyndon linkbait fiasco. Just wanted to draw attention to the bleeding obvious..

The question I have is what exactly triggers the spell check to give you an alternative suggestion? There are results found for the term hitbacks, after all, 2320 to be exact (at the moment.) There are, however, sadly, 150,000 results for the term wetbacks.

According to Google, “Google’s spell checking software automatically looks at your query and checks to see if you are using the most common version of a word’s spelling. If it calculates that you’re likely to generate more relevant search results with an alternative spelling, it will ask “Did you mean: (more common spelling)?”"

How on earth does this calculation work? Oh god, it’s another one of Google’s famous relevancy algorithms! Haven’t we seen how well those tend to work with links (um, and search results)?

Does anyone remember the infamous Google Jew Watch fiasco from a few years ago? Searches for the term “Jew” were bringing up an anti-Semitic website as the top result. As you can imagine, no one but my usual flight attendant (I’ll call her Cheryl since I once hated a Cheryl) liked this (Cheryl is always very nasty to anyone ordering a kosher meal, especially when he’s sitting with a shiksa wife, and she asks questions like “did Jew want more water?”) and Google was called out for being racist. There was definitely a relevancy factor there though, and it had nothing to do with racism or anti-Semitism or the hatred that some people show towards small Yorkshire terriers. Relevancy is not something that a machine can accurately determine. At the risk of almost defending Google (gag), I do think that they are simply fighting a losing battle by attempting to determine relevancy. As I wrote awhile back, when I had inspiration and more free time and it wasn’t so freaking hot where I live and my bloodhound wasn’t 100 pounds of drooling and destructive magnificence, you can make anything seem relevant if you’re slightly clever.

Obviously my main interest here is in finding relevant links, or at least finding decent links (and sometimes shit ones) and making them seem relevant, but this affects our work on many different levels…if you’re the tiniest bit bright, you can word content in such a way that it works, for example. So IF relevancy can be so easily manipulated and faked, why does it continue to be such a big thing with the engines? If you search for “google relevancy” in Google, you’ll see over 10 million results, so people are quite concerned with this, yet I can’t imagine how accurately the relevancy of anything can be determined. Searching for a phrase such as “American watch”, for example, could give you results ranging from watches sold in the States to a site devoted to keeping the public informed about all the stupid things this country does. If that’s the exact phrase that you enter, how can Google make an accurate determination on which results are the most relevant? There are a ton of examples like this, with words typically used as verbs being used as adjectives in YOUR mind, but being interpreted as verbs if that’s their typical meaning.

Google says this about how they determine results for a query:
“We use more than 200 signals, including our patented PageRankô algorithm, to examine the entire link structure of the web and determine which pages are most important. We then conduct hypertext-matching analysis to determine which pages are relevant to the specific search being conducted. By combining overall importance and query-specific relevance, we’re able to put the most relevant and reliable results first.”

Lots of room for error there…and you can also imagine all of the wasted money due to Google Adwords being shown and clicked on by some clueless spaz like, maybe, my mom. If you have an ad set to exact match for “stiff little fingers” because you’re selling joint cream or a carpal tunnel syndrome brace, some person with quality musical taste and a high level of impatience might excitedly click on your ad thinking she’s getting a new punk album. Those Irish boys were such jokesters anyway, so it’s an easy thing to confuse, or so I think. Humans will never be exempt from determining relevancy, no matter how hard the machines try to do it for us. You just have to figure out how to make everything fit the algorithms’ idea of relevancy.

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9 Responses to “Did You Mean Wetbacks?”

  1. Dudibob says:

    That was a brilliant read, seems Google has been tinkering with their spellchecker as Quadzilla got an interesting result too http://seoblackhat.com/2008/07/01/what-to-do-if-the-inside-of-a-girl-gets-wet/

  2. Julie Joyce says:

    Brilliant!!! God I love crap like that. Thanks for that link, that has made my day.

  3. Dudibob that’s HILARIOUS!! that has made my ehm very late afternoon =)

  4. DazzlinDonna says:

    That was freaking funny and a brilliant observation to boot. Really, Google, if YOU don’t know what’s relevant, how the heck can you judge what WE think is relevant? Oy. Don’t get me started. Really…just don’t.

    Great article! :D

  5. Julie Joyce says:

    Thank you Miss Donna. I felt ok about it until I read your brilliant conference post. Now I’m back in the corner swatting at imaginary flies.

  6. Lauren says:

    Seriously! I wonder if that one will be corrected

  7. QualityGal says:

    I’m conflicted as to whether or not I should Google hitbacks to find out what wetbacks are. I get the impression it’s rather NSFW… and I probably don’t want to know.

  8. Jane Copland says:

    I am late to this party (as always), but wonderful post. I assume you also saw this: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3161/2657044116_b072d74b07.jpg?v=1215727184

    Not a spelling suggestion, but a reminder that machines have no concept of inappropriate.

    Also, I am going to hell.

  9. Julie Joyce says:

    Jane!!! Haha feck that is brilliant. I’ll see you there. We can have some nice cold cosmos.

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