Google Related Searches – Cheaters Rejoice

I have a tradition every Sunday morning: no matter how much work I need to catch up on, I always start the day with the New York Times crossword puzzle. I almost always finish it, too. (Thanks, Brandeis University Department of English and American Literature. It seems a liberal arts education has a purpose after all.)

Now and then — very rarely, I assure you — I find myself stumped. In such cases, I swallow my pride and run a web search to see if the internets hold the elusive answer. That happened today: 85 Across asked for “Carnaval sur la plage” artist and I was at a loss. I’d never heard of the painting, so I had no idea of who the painter might have been.

I went over to Google, ran the search, and there was my answer within the snippets of the second and fourth results on the SERP. I didn’t even have to click through to find out that it was that famed Belgian painter, immortalized by They Might Be Giants.

But here’s the really interesting thing: above the regular results, Google had inserted links to a couple of “searches related to carnaval sur la plage artist”:

carnaval sur la plage artist google search

Erm… “Ron Guidry nickname?” “Mario Puzo sequel?” Those searches are related to this painting?

Carnaval sur la plage by James Ensor

I don’t see any pitchers or gangsters in there. So how can those searches be related to the search I ran?

Well, if I cheated more, I might have noticed right away, because if you go to today’s puzzle, you’ll see that the clues for 94 Down and 21 Across are “Nickname for Ron Guidry” and “Mario Puzo sequel.” They’re related by the fact that they’re in the same puzzle.

I tried running searches based on other clues in the puzzle to see how much of the puzzle the engine had determined to have this relationship:

  • 4 Down: “My Fair Lady” composer returns related searches for Mario Puzo and Bad Moon Rising — the clue for 49 Down is “__ bad moon rising” – 1969 song lyric
  • 21 Across: Mario Puzo sequel returns related searches for Mario Puzo books and balalaikas — the clue for 22 Across is relatives of balalaikas
  • 22 Across: relatives of balalaikas returns no related searches
  • 54 Across: Chinese dynasty before the Shang and 103 Across: harmonica-like instrument both return related searches, but without any connection to the crossword
  • 42 Across: Chief city of Moravia and 48 Across: “Revelations” choreographer return no related searches

So apparently, Google hasn’t indexed the content of the puzzle and related every clue to it. Rather, it looks like it has detected a trend: someone searches on some of the clues, someone else searches on the same clues, someone else searches on some of those and a few others, and this all happens within a few hours, so Google determines that the searches are related to each other based on that, so when I come in and search on one of the clues, Google offers up some of the other searches that were run today by other people who ran that same search.

Interestingly, I’m finding that a search on the exact clue for 94 Down, Nickname for Ron Guidry, isn’t returning any related searches. That only comes up when I search on Ron Guidry nickname, which is the more likely search syntax, considering the absence of the stop word. (And by the way, the related searches now coming up for that one are now Mario Puzo sequel and state flowers — the latter being the theme of this week’s puzzle.)

Apparently, this is something new. A search for [google related searches crossword] didn’t give me any useful information, but I did locate a post from just over a week ago on the Official Google Blog: Two new improvements to Google results pages. Here’s some of the text from the post:

Starting today, we’re deploying a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search, and one of its first applications lets us offer you even more useful related searches (the terms found at the bottom, and sometimes at the top, of the search results page).

For example, if you search for [principles of physics], our algorithms understand that “angular momentum,” “special relativity,” “big bang” and “quantum mechanic” are related terms that could help you find what you need.

We are now able to target more queries, more languages, and make our suggestions more relevant to what you actually need to know. Additionally, we’re now offering refinements for longer queries — something that’s usually a challenging task. You’ll be able to see our new related searches starting today in 37 languages all around the world.

There’s nothing in there about tracking groups of searches over a short period of time and relating them to each other, but that seems to be what’s going on here.

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What Does Google Mean When It Asks What I Mean?

I have a client who is a Minneapolis interior designer. (Yes, that’s a plug for them. As if you wouldn’t do the same thing.) Earlier today, I was checking out the progress of their rather new site using Google’s webmaster tools, and was pleased to see them starting to move up, and even get some traffic, for searches like [interior designers minneapolis] and [interior design firm minneapolis]. They’ve got a ways to go, but they’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Google also listed them at #4 for [interior designersminneapolis] (note the missing space). That’s a little troubling. They rank higher for the search with the typo than without. I took that to mean that either someone’s linking to them with the typo in the anchor text, or they’ve got the typo somewhere on the site. I couldn’t find either one, though.

I was further confused by Google’s attempt to correct me:

Google search result for interior designersminneapolis

Google wants to know if I meant “interior designers minneapolis” and if I meant to search for “interior designers minneapolis.” Wha? Obviously, if I meant it, I meant to search for it. What else would I be doing at a search engine?

And the two searches being offered to me are indeed identical. The first one links to
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=interior+designers+minneapolis&spell=1 and the second to
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=1&ct=result&cd=1&q=interior+designers+minneapolis&spell=1

So what’s the point?

As it turns out, this is not Google’s doing. I run a Greasemonkey script called GoogleMonkeyR. I use it to number G’s results. If I disable it and run the search again, I only get the “Did you mean: interior designers minneapolis” line. I have no idea why it’s adding that extra “Did you mean to search for” bit.

So, problem solved, for the most part. I’ll write to the script’s author about the bug, and I’m no longer freaked out about tripping over a bug in the all-knowing Big G.

It’s still a bit odd that my client is ranking for that search containing a typo, though.

Anyway, it gave me a decent excuse to link to them.

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Google Me This

I received a piece of mail a few days ago — old fashioned, analog mail, that is. It was a bright yellow postcard from a local company that provides a service to homeowners. I don’t want to give their name away, but it’s three words: an adjective expressing a quality of service, followed by a noun (the thing they work on), and a noun based on the action they perform. Let’s say it was Best Floor Refinishers, just to make things easier.

So… Best Floor Refinishers sent me (“RESIDENT”) a postcard offering a $30 “off-season” discount rate. (Yes, I know floor refinishers don’t have an off season. The name is just an example. Pay attention.) The postcard also displayed the logo of some apparently authoritative national agency, implying that they have every right to use that “Best” (or something like that) in their company name. There was a toll-free telephone number, along with three other numbers for specific towns in the area: Cambridge, Needham, and Medford (say it with me: “Meffa”).

The postcard also contained a message addressed to “Dear Past Customer or Current Resident,” about the importance of refinishing my floors (or whatever) for safety’s sake. “BE SAFE, CALL TODAY!!” Moreover, I needn’t worry, because my “satisfaction is GUARANTEED !!!!!!”

Fascinating as all that may be, the thing that really caught my attention was right under the company’s name and logo: It was the word “Google” in a font very similar to Google’s own logo, but in all black letters, followed by a colon and the first two words of their company name, mashed together into one word and intercapped. Sort of like this:

Google:
BestFloor

OK, fine. I ran the search, and here’s what I got:

Google result for search on BestFloor: Did you mean Best Floor?

Well, no Google. I meant “BestFloor,” because that’s what the postcard said to search for.

At any rate, the top result for both [Best Floor] and [BestFloor] was the same site: bestfloor.com, which happens to be the site of Best Floor Refinishers. Pretty impressive, eh?

No! It’s not impressive at all. What are they trying to tell me — are they bragging that they rank #1 for the first two words of their company name? That they rule the SERP for their domain name? Wowzers.

I think they just wanted to let me know where to find their site, but rather than just telling me the URL, they tell me to search for the domain.

I’ve known plenty of people who navigated around the web this way. If they wanted to go to Qwerty’s Qoncepts and they knew the URL, they’d go to Google or Yahoo and search for qwertysqoncepts.com. This is what we in the search marketing business refer to with the technical term “stupid.”

It’s doubly stupid for a company to promote itself by telling people to search for its domain name, especially without the TLD. What would happen if their competitors over at bestfloor.net got to work on improving their site and took the top spot for [bestfloor]? Our postcard pals would be sending their potential customers straight to the other guys.

A word to the wise: if you want your print material to let people know where they can find your website, give them the damned URL. A one-step hunt for it is one step too many. At best it’s stupid. At worst, it’s an advert for the competition.

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Universal Search Mocks Me

Oy, Google. Why do you do this to me?

I have a client who is very happy with the service I’ve provided him. Since I got started working on his site, he’s expanded the business considerably and still can’t keep up with all the customers he’s getting. He’s so happy, in fact, that he keeps telling me he doesn’t need me to do any more. He doesn’t even want me analyzing his traffic.

Now, I’m not going to waste my time having ClickTracks go through his log files just to satisfy my own curiosity, but now and then I’ll check up on some aspect of the site to see how it’s doing. Today, I was in Google Webmaster Tools, checking on a couple of sites and figured I’d have a quick peek at the data for this guy. When I went to look at his top clicked queries, I saw this:

Google top clicked queries

See that on the first line? It says the site is #4 for searches on mouse. Just mouse. The single word. That’s number 4 out of a total of 261,000,000 results. There are 11,500,000 results for pages with the word “mouse” in their titles. I know I’m good at what I do, but damn, that’s good.

Obviously, I just had to go to the SERP and see what pages we’re sharing the top five with.

Google results for mouse

Just look at that: two pages from Wikipedia, and two from Apple. That’s some serious company to be in. But where’s my client’s site in this fancy-schmancy neighborhood? No, I didn’t cut off the image before his page’s listing. See those three pictures at the top of the results? The first one — the cute little mousie backed into a corner — that’s from my client’s site.

Damn you, Google! Don’t call that the number four result. It’s just a picture. Yes, the page on which it’s published is optimized pretty well for the word “mouse”. So put that at number four! So, people who want a picture of a mouse land on his page. Do they call him? Do they hire him? No! All they do is look at the picture, probably steal a copy of it, and make his server work a tiny bit harder than it ought to.

This is just unfair. It doesn’t give him business, and it doesn’t give me bragging rights. Universal search. Feh.

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Somebody Set Up Us the Googlebomb

googlebombAn old college chum of mine is a fairly well-known leftie political (and sex, religion and knitting) blogger. She also writes for Crooks and Liars, so yeah — she’s pretty big in that pond. About a week ago, she published a post announcing that she was joining a googlebomb associating the phrase “Liberal Fascism” (the title of Jonah Goldberg’s latest screed) with the word “fuckwad.”

Smarty-pants SEO that I am, I left the following comment on her post:

Sadly, googlebombs don’t work anymore. If they did, I’d be telling everyone to do this: lying sack of shit.

Anybody who follows these matters knows that Google modified their algorithm a year ago to diminish the chances of a googlebomb succeeding. Right?

Well, all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t have a hat, or I’d be eating it. In spite of the fact that, as liberals, their concerted effort wasn’t all that concerted — they didn’t all link to the same URL — it looks like they’ve pulled it off. Check out result #8 in the SERP below.

Google results for liberal fascism

Go ahead. Take a look at the page and its source code. No sign of either “liberal” or “fascism” in there, much less the exact phrase. Have a look at the page’s backlinks — left-wing political blog after left-wing political blog.

Go figure.

Update, January 13

As of this morning, the Urban Dictionary page is at #1 for the search. However, someone has edited the page to include two instances of the keyword phrase, so sadly, it doesn’t really count as a bomb anymore.

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Google Playing Dumb

I noticed today that someone came to my site recently via a Google search for [how to seo my site]. I’ve never checked that one before (and I sincerely doubt it’s ever brought me any business), so I ran the search myself, and found that my site is in fact number one, showing up before a couple of pages from Webmaster Guidelines. Pretty cool, apart from the fact that it’s a search just about nobody ever runs, and I’m not likely to ever earn a penny from any traffic it brings me.

Google results for the query how to seo my site

Then I noticed something else about the SERP. Have a look:

Google results for the query how to seo my site

Did you mean: how to use my site

Who do they think they’re fooling? Suddenly Google’s forgotten that “SEO” is a word? Sure, the acronym isn’t usually used as a verb, but I’ll bet more people are curious about how to seo a site than how to use one. After all, sites can be used in lots of different ways. The question is terribly unclear. You’d think that a search on [how to use my site] would bring up Did you mean: how to seo my site. It doesn’t.

I for one find this a bit insulting. I know Google doesn’t have the utmost respect for people in my line of work, but to pretend we don’t exist? That’s cold, Google.

Let’s look at Google’s competition. Maybe one or two of them will be more respectful.

  • Ask has no problem with the query. In fact, they put a couple of videos about SEO in the right column, and a link to “Seo Tips” in the left.
  • MSN doesn’t seem to be having any difficulty figuring out what the user is looking for.
  • Yahoo has the gall to ask, “Did you mean: how to see my site.” Duh. People really ask that? You’re looking at a browser right now, genius.

Worst of all, my site doesn’t show up on any of the SERPs apart from nasty, disrespectful Google. So am I better off with an engine that ignores me, or one that recommends me while pretending I’m a typographical error?

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Google’s Political Connections

No, I’m not talking about relationships between the company and any political figures. I just want to point out something I noticed regarding Google suggesting other searches when I look for information about a politician.

Let’s start with the names of the leaders of the two major parties in the US Senate:

I was planning on writing a post that would serve to mock Mitch McConnell’s minuscule mouth, so I ran a search on his name and then clicked “Images”. What did I see? This:

Google image results for Mitch McConnell

Why is Google suggesting I try searches for Durbin and Lott? And why are they leaving out Reid, who is (at least officially) the most powerful of the four? I doubt it has anything to do with the relative size of their mouths — only McConnell’s is comically tiny.

If I run an image search for Harry Reid, Dick Durbin or Trent Lott, I don’t get a recommendation to look at other people. It’s as if Google is telling me to avoid looking at pictures of McConnell, which is totally unnecessary. I know he isn’t pretty, but I can handle it.

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Google the Yenta

I was doing some research for a blog post earlier today. I needed to get some information on a member of Congress who’d officially come out as an atheist, so I ran a Google search for [atheist in congress]. Look what I got in the onebox:

Google results for atheist in congress

It seems my mother has been speaking with Larry and Sergey. They’re all in cahoots, trying to get me a date even when I’m not looking for one. A word of advice: I’m not going to date someone all the way down in DC, even if she is an atheist. I’m sure there are plenty of perfectly nice atheists right here in Boston, so stick that in your algorithm and smoke it, Google.

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Fun With Paranoia

Andy Beal points us to this video that suggests that Google may be using all the data it collects for… evil.

Yikes! This means that there may be a clone of qwerty at the Googleplex performing slave labor! And I’ll just bet that the clones there aren’t given access to all the great benefits they give the human googlers: free gourmet food, health care, daycare, massages, company stock, lava lamps… I guess “do no evil” doesn’t apply to artificially generated people.

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