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What is Auto-Complete?

As you type a query into Google, the search bar will offer up suggestions relevant to the characters you have entered. These auto-complete suggestions are generated based on how often certain terms have been used in web searches, and how often they appear online.

It is generally accepted that the number of clicks on these suggestions is factored into Google algorithms generating auto-complete forms. This is because clicking on suggestions triggers web searches, which in turn increases the number of total searches made with the suggested terms. Consequently, search terms offered through auto-complete are likely to retain their place as popular suggestions, being part of a self-perpetuating cycle.

The implications of self-perpetuating auto-complete suggestions

For most, auto-complete suggestions can either be a tremendous convenience, or a fun gateway to some internet off-roading. For business owners, there are seriously negative implications of self-perpetuating auto-complete suggestions.

Because the auto-complete suggestions are generated by search term volume and frequency, these auto-fill forms can leave your company with a negative reputation even when the associated terms are outdated or untrue. Due to its primitive design, bad press can attach itself to your business through auto-complete suggestions, even when negative search terms are used to verify your company’s positive reputation. If many searchers query Google about “Your Business Name complaints” as a means of eliminating any doubt of the company’s validity, an auto-complete association will be built between the company name and the word “scam.” This has obvious negative implications for a company’s reputation. Auto-complete can thus act as a reinforcer of bad press, whether it be true or not. Squeaky-clean companies with an active interest in their online reputation are also at risk. Searching your own company name alongside negative terms to seek out internet slander or bad reviews has the same effect.

Auto-complete suggestion generation can fabricate unjustly bad press for your company, and also perpetuate the circulation of outdated but sensationalist headlines. Google gauges the level of interest in certain sites by sporadically displaying chosen web content on the first page of search result listings, and monitoring the amount of click-through activity it receives from this privileged position. If any of your company’s bad press is selected for this interest test, you may be in trouble, and left at the mercy of a snowball effect. If your business has had a bad review from a disgruntled ex-employee, or if legal documents were circulated, you can expect that this scandalous search headline will attract many curious clickers. Bad news is sexy in every medium, and this elevated traffic level will influence Google to buoy this negative press to the top of the search listings. The popularity of negative terms translates to their on-going inclusion in auto-complete suggestions associated with your company.

What are search engines doing about this problem?

The troubling reality is that search engines do very little to control the reputation implications of their auto-complete suggestions. They are often unwilling to acknowledge its snow-balling effect, or its negative perpetuation of potentially outdated information. The bottom line is that auto-complete suggestions have the potential to create an unfair public perception of your company.

Google has made an effort to suppress the use of the word “scam,” as well as disallowing any racist, sexist, or obscene terms to be attached to company names in auto-complete suggestions. Still, many defamatory terms are still allowed. Google does not regulate whether your company’s suggestions include the words “lawsuit,” “scandal,” “overpriced,” or “class action,” for example.

Google and Bing will both take down negative search results if presented with court orders establishing their content to be harassing or falsely defamatory, but they offer no such service for auto-complete suggestions.

What can be done about damaging auto-complete suggestions?

Though you cannot actively manipulate auto-complete suggestions without violating Google’s terms of service, there are some white-hat practices that can be employed to minimize the damages resulting from negative term associations.

1. Promote search terms through marketing efforts

It is very common nowdays for companies to steer their searcher audiences towards certain terms by stressing key words in radio and television advertisements. As these terms are used more often by searchers, auto-complete suggestions will begin to reflect your preferred search term’s popularity.

Aside from it’s reputation management benefits, asking your audience to Google key words can be a more effective advertisement than one providing a website URL. Encouraging certain search terms is often easier for the audience to remember than the perfect spelling of a web address. Furthermore, this approach gets the person thinking about your company in definitive terms rather than passively memorizing a brand name. Coaching certain general terms can also increase your visibility by leveraging auto-complete to insert your brand name after these general terms are used.

2. Encourage your network to popularize your desired search terms

If you have a severe reputation management crisis on your hands, this may be your best bet. Basically, you approach your friends, family members, and employees, and ask that they Google your preferred search terms as often as possible to build up the auto-complete association. It is important that they click on your company’s search listing for better results.

Conversely, you need to stop all negative searches. You may be seriously tempted to gauge your online reputation by searching negative terms, but you must resist. Each time you run a search with negative terms, you contribute to damaging auto-complete suggestions.

3. Research your brand’s top terms, and build on existing positives

Ubersuggest is a valuable tool for this research, and will allow you to pinpoint your focus. Instead of trying to construct some entirely new positive search terms, try to bolster existing ones that have been proven as popular among searchers.

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