Is Google manipulating autocomplete results for UK political parties?

What do the autocomplete results for the UK’s political parties tell us about the the corporate and political world, and how are they corrupting your search results?

It’s a conspiracy! Political sabotage! Search engine optimisation in the hands of evil puppet-masters!

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last 12 hours you will probably have seen a few posts similar to the following…

This is bonkers

Searchers have discovered that if you type in “labour are” or “lib dems are” the most popular automatically generated results for completed queries are negative phrases such as “finished”, “a joke” and “scum”.

labour are search

However if you type “tories are” or “conservatives are” you get nothing.

tories are search

And of all the places this discovery has been revealed (or at least popularised), it’s the Daily Mail.

As you can imagine, there are many calls of conspiracy. The most popular of which are that Google has wiped the autocomplete suggestions for the Conservatives and ‘bumped up’ negative autocomplete suggestions for their rivals as part of a ‘secret deal’ or a ‘thank you’ for allowing Google to get off its outstanding tax balance so lightly.

My first reaction when looking at the story is to say “that’s not how Google works! You need to go into an incognito window to see true results that aren’t based on your own search history, profile and preferences.”

As cynical as I am about Google and the current government, I’m even more cynical about the Daily Mail, and if we cry “sensationalism and lies” about stories that don’t align with our own sentiments, we also have to do the same with their stories which do.

But then… Google’s autocomplete feature isn’t really about your own search history or preferences. Everyone all over the UK is getting the same results.

Google states that autocomplete predictions are “generated by an algorithm without any human involvement. [It’s] based on a number of objective factors including how often others have searched for a word.”

autocomplete

So autocomplete doesn’t necessarily reflect your views, but it will show results based on questions you’ve asked before.

What could be going on here? Perhaps large numbers of the Tory party who are spread across the country have been tasked with mass-typing in queries such as “Labour are finished” in order to manipulate the autocomplete? That probably sounds far-fetched.

But my biggest question here, which does tie-in to the conspiracy thinking, is why aren’t there any Tory autocomplete suggestions at all?

Google has issued a statement saying, “We do remove offensive or inappropriate content from autocomplete predictions.” Which leads you directly to believing that yes Google has removed results for the Conservatives. However if we remember the inconsolable reaction of Labour voters last year when the Tories won the general election, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the “offensive or inappropriate content” generated by angry non-Tory voters and removed by Google would be far, far worse than “are finished”.

Then again, why is “Labour/LibDems are scum” allowed to remain? Is that not offensive to the Labour party and its voters?

If we look at Google trends for “Labour scum” and “Tory scum” you’ll notice the massive difference between search volume between each party, with the Tories rising to the top. Yet this isn’t affecting the autocomplete suggestions.

Google Trends scum

Ultimately though, maybe it’s just down to how we use Google and how we use certain phrasing around different parties.

For instance, rather than typing “Conservatives are” try instead “the Conservative party are” and you’ll see the autocomplete results are just as negative as other party’s.

conservative party are search terms

I’m writing this post not to answer these questions myself, as I clearly don’t know what’s going on, instead I’m opening up the floor to our readers, experts and commenters… what do you think is happening here? Something sinister or something easily explainable?

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