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Don’t believe Google Autocomplete when it comes to scams

February 7, 2011 5 Comments

There were a couple of posts today based on the idea that Google Autocomplete (where it makes suggestions based on what you've typed so far) is a good test of whether a brand is a scam or not. Here's why that's no guide to anything (EG do you seriously think that many people need a hitman?)

Google thinks we all want a hitman

Google thinks we all want a hitman

The claim

Harry Brignull wrote:

Take a look at the Google instant autocomplete suggestions on if you type the word “creditexpert” followed by a space.

and pointed out that the answers were cancel, login, voucher and then scam. Martin Belam followed up by referring to the "longer-term damage done to your brand online".

Wrong search term

But it turns out that hardly anyone searches for creditexpert - they search for [credit expert], as this graph from google insights shows (red line is for credit expert, blue barely visible line is for creditexpert).

Graph of search results using Google Insights data

Searches for Credit expert are 11 times more popular than for creditexpert

With the more popular [credit expert] search term, the Google autocomplete suggestions are login, cancel, phone number and voucher code. Nothing brand-damaging there.

But even for the search term [creditexpert], the fact that Google shows the word scam as a suggestion doesn't actually mean anything.

The suggestions are meaningless anyway

What makes Google suggest the word scam after you've typed a brand name?

Here are several posts that show it's not necessarily to do with people searching for "brand + scam". Although once Google is suggesting it, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because people click on it to see if it's true.

Google seems to have started to suggest “ scam” because 2 sites have scam on the same page [ie not because people are searching for it]. Now that Google has suggested it, people will now click on the suggestions because of human nature to check out anything negative. This does not effect us but it is effecting 1000?s of companies around the world, and many business owners are not even aware of it.

New Age Website Marketing

We recently read of a case study where a brand new domain had acquired a ‘scam suggestion’ from Google Suggest. It was evident that nobody had searched for this domain, let alone searched for the domain with the word ‘scam’. What the domain owner found was that two scraper sites had scraped content from his site, and those two scraper sites had the word ‘scam’ buried in the URL.

Paid Content

The Centre National Prive de Formation a Distance (CNFDI), a long-distance learning institution, last year brought a defamation suit against against the internet giant, based on the terms that follow “CNFDI” when you type that term into The first one that comes up after the abbreviation is “arnaque”, which translates as “scam” or “swindle”... Originally, the French court had sided with Google, which claimed that the terms are generated by an automated algorithm based on search terms that users enter. Now the higher court says that Google should remove the offensive expression.

Paid content, a network of user-edited news portals, was sued by a local BMW dealer, Zwartepoorte, because a Google search for Zwartepoorte + bankrupt returned a result for with this summary: “Full name: Zwartepoorte. Specialty: BMW … This company has gone bankrupt." In fact, no-one at had ever written a story about Zwartepoorte going under - Google’s algorithm had joined together two unrelated sentences from the site for its index abstract.

Marketing Pilgrim

This isn’t necessarily due to the company being a scam, but because the searcher is unable to find proof that the company is legitimate, they end up doing their due diligence. They add “scam” to the company’s name, just to make sure. That then creates a self-fulfilling Google prophecy, with Google Suggest showing “scam” and creating a reputation nightmare that doesn’t actually exist.

Google forum

I am the Media Manager at The Hunger Project and it has recently come to my attention that one of the top Google Suggest suggestions resulting from a search for "The Hunger Project" (no quotes in actual search) includes the name of the organization along with the word "scam". Clearly, this is a potentially damaging situation for our organization, which works to end hunger and poverty in the developing world. We are an effective, United Nations accredited non-governmental organization, with 501c3 status, which has received recognition from top charity watchdog agencies, including a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. Unfortunately this negative Google Suggest result occurs when searching for my organization, but also for other well-respected organizations in the non-profit field as well.

Google forum

Google merely has populated that term into the Suggest results from the authoritative complaint sites and the number of times a term is searched is NOT the only factor that goes into keyword inclusion in Suggest and in some cases, may not be a factor at all.


What’s scary for bloggers is the search tool’s potential to become a negative echo chamber. It’s natural, if not a bit healthy, for a handful of readers to take issue with a post or express dissatisfaction with an info product or business practice. But negative comments and keywords in online reviews and other user-generated content can coalesce, gather stream and finally snowball until it’s picked by Google Suggest. A couple readers griping about your “scam” or “rip-off”— on your site or elsewhere — can spur a feedback loop that ties unsavory characteristics to your blog and brand in the formerly clean slate that is a Google search field.

To sum up. No one searches for creditexpert. The fact that the word scam is suggested by Google is indicative of nothing. The end. (Thanks to Rishi Lakhani (@Rishil) for some of the links)

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  • Mat says:


    I saw the link to this article on

    I see where you are going with the point you are making, and of course we mustn't believe what Google tells us, in the same way that we mustn't believe what the media - or even our friends - tell us, without checking the evidence.

    However, I believe your argument has a logical flaw.

    You rightly state that "credit expert" is a more common search than "creditexpert", however quantity of searches is not the only factor to assess in search data analysis; the quality of search intent is also relevant. You haven't touched on the correlation between search intent and the search terms people use.

    Searches for "creditexpert" are presumably many times more likely to represent a search intent for the specific service provided by UK company Experian called "Creditexpert" (all one word) than searches for "credit expert", which implies a completely ambiguous search intent (and one for which the pool of searches is far larger, geographically speaking).

    Let's assume that people who want to find Experian CreditExpert type either "credit expert" OR "creditexpert" into the search engine. If you had to choose one of these terms on which to base an analysis, which one should you therefore choose?

    Lesson: a larger sample size doesn't always provide more meaningful results.

    Also I feel you have completely misinterpreted the implied search intention with your statement about the Google search "Where can I hire a hitman". Firstly this doesn't necessarily mean the searcher is looking for a hitman, from which you can conclude that lots of people actually want to hire a hitman (this is what you implied it meant in your article) - it could mean they are looking for the reference in a script of a very popular film, for example. Secondly, and more interestingly from a position of global liability law, who says that this search suggestion *should* reflect the search intention of the user? Why should Google not be allowed as an independent company to skew search results by suggesting things to users that they may not want, for the sake of amusement or interest? No - it's not great if you do want to hire a hitman, but that's the way the web works: learning through distraction.

    I do however agree with your point that online brand degeneration can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when things are suggested to users. But Google is an independent company working in a market; who says they have a moral responsibility to provide users with some form of absolute truth?

    Interesting article nonetheless.

  • [...] Don’t believe Google Autocomplete when it comes to scams, Malcolm Coles [...]

  • Mat - thanks for the comment. The related searches that Google shows at the bottom of the page when you search are a good indicator of intent - and all the related searches for creditexpert suggest that people are in fact searching for the Experian service (one of the related terms is in fact Experian).

    I don't think I explained the hitman thing very well - I was trying to show what you are saying. You can't conclude that lots of people are trying to hire a hitman just because Google autosuggests the phrase - in the same way that you can't conclude a brand is a scam just because Google says so.

  • [...] Don’t believe Google Autocomplete when it comes to scams, – was an interesting article by Malcolm Coles that highlights some wonky suggestions and well… I just thought it was interesting. Worth a read. [...]

  • [...] In fact a few weeks ago, Malcolm Coles and I were having a discussion on Twitter about this very phenomenon and he has put together a number of other people reporting exactly what I am – that Google Suggest does NOT rely on volume. [...]

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