Content Marketing Blog

Will legal action change Google auto-complete?

Google could be forced to change the algorithm it uses to generate auto-complete suggestions when users start typing search queries after it faced a defamation suit.

It emerged this week that the Ballymascanlon Hotel in Ireland has taken legal action because "Ballymascanlon Hotel receivership" pops up in the list of suggested searches when you get as far as "ballymas".

Understandably, the owners are concerned that with so many web journeys starting with a Google search, potential customers could be put off, particularly as the hotel specialises in hosting weddings.

This is not the first time Google has faced legal action over its auto-complete tool, with previous cases having been fought in France and Italy.

Google's stock response is that auto-complete works on popularity, so it is driven by user behaviour. If "Ballymascanlon Hotel receivership" is a suggested search, lots of people must be running that search (well, they certainly are now).

It is likely that other factors (personal search history, location etc) contribute alongside simply the number of searches (more how auto-complete works here). Google is also thought to have taken action in the past to filter out illegal or offensive searches.

So far, no special adjustments have been made in the Ballymascanlon Hotel. The offending term still pops up as a suggested search and all the media and blog coverage (while sympathetic to the hotel's difficulties) is adding to the problem by encouraging yet more people to run the search.

As it is an algorithm, auto-complete is not immune to the sort of gaming tactics that give SEO a bad name. This is a great article about manipulating the auto-complete function from just a few months ago.

With this in mind, an interesting angle to the story popped up on Google's Webmaster Central forum, with one helpful user spotting a dodgy-looking site that appeared to have been set up for the very purpose of promoting the receivership term.

It is understood that the owners of the Ballymascanlon Hotel tried various avenues in their attempts to get the suggestion list changed and that legal action was a last resort. They're probably wondering now if they may have been better-off trying to manipulate the suggestions themselves.

If you're feeling cynical and wondering if a bigger brand might have had more luck getting corrective action, type "Google is" into the search box and check out the list of suggestions.