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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Disclosing When Queries Are Autocorrected

Google Auto-correcting Queries
from Google Operating System notes that
Google seems to have moved beyond suggesting spelling corrections and now
automatically does them for you. Actually, I think this is the stemming feature
kicking in. However, it highlights that it’s useful for search engines to tell
you exactly what they’ve modified, if they do so.

Years ago, Google would automatically change your spelling if it found no
matches for what you looked for. That annoyed me, to the point I
for it to change in 2002. It annoyed several others in the search and research
fields. Maybe it didn’t annoy general users. But Google eventually dropped it,
so that it was no longer making some decision on your behalf.

The automatic change under discussion today is different. In a search for
oper labs,
Google instead automatically seems to be searching for opera labs. What’s wrong
with that? Nothing, as long as you know the search has changed.

Other search engines have done this before. In 2001, I recall MSN Search
spelling so that it flagged you when an auto-correction happened. I seem to
remember the AllTheWeb service also
experimenting with changing queries for you and disclosing if this was done, so
people could override the decision. AltaVista did various types of automatic
phrase searching behind the scenes beginning in 1998, such as I talked about
here. You
could tell this most of the time because it would show you somewhere exactly the
query that was done. You had to hunt for the disclosure, but it was there.

I’ve got no problem with automatic changes happening, as long as it’s clearly
shown somehow what you searched for. If Google wants to auto-correct spelling,
more power to them. But tell users if this is happening.

Want a good example of this? Search for

on Yahoo. Look at the bottom of the page, and you’ll see:

In order to get better results, we searched for more than what you typed.
To get an exact match for what you typed, use the plus sign:


Nicely done. And that type of disclosure helped William "IncrediBill" Atchison
understand why he disappeared from Yahoo last month when an automatically
spelling change kicked in. Don’t worry — Yahoo

got it
all fixed in the end.

It’s important to note that in the case at Google, something other that
automatically spelling correction might be making the change. I think it’s

Google does stemming, added in late 2003 and explained
here. This is
where a search where it seeks the word you searched for and variations of that
word. It might be looking for [opera] as a stemming variation of [oper].

Indeed, I suspect that’s the case. Consider this:

See how the second search is broader, brings back more matches than the first
one? This suggests that Google must be looking doing more than changing [oper]
to [opera], otherwise the counts would be the same. Instead, I think it is
looking for both those words and giving ranking preference to those that are
saying [opera labs].

Of course, we wouldn’t have to guess if Google somehow indicated that stemming
was happening. FYI, to override stemming, add a + symbol in front of words you
won’t want it to get variations of, such as:


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