February 17, 2011

Autocomplete Part III: The Automatic Completion of Place(names)

The results of Google autocomplete results gathered in Lexington, KY USA and Oxford, United Kingdom (and hopefully other locations submitted by Floatingsheep readers) show how different Google's autocomplete suggestions are from place to place. Having highlighted examples in an earlier post we now want to go a bit further and think about what these results mean relative to some of the broader processes we've outlined in our research.

One of the fundamental questions (that we note and has come up in various places over the web) is why, when attempting to replicate the searches in Dorothy Gambrell's map of the United States, the results come back different for different people.

Some have argue that this is flaw in the mapping but actually this difference is inherent in the function of Autocomplete. Moreover, it potentially is a means of getting a better understanding of (1) how search varies over space and (2) how Google's search algorithm works (at least until they tweak it again).

In the interest of not reinventing the wheel, it's best to simply let Google explain the idea of Autocomplete themselves:
“As you type, Google's algorithm predicts and displays search queries based on other users' search activities. These searches are algorithmically determined based on a number of purely objective factors (including popularity of search terms) without human intervention. All of the predicted queries shown have been typed previously by Google users. The autocomplete dataset is updated frequently to offer fresh and rising search queries. In addition, if you're signed in to your Google Account and have Web History enabled, you may see search queries from relevant searches that you've done in the past.”
Although Google's Autocomplete feature isn't inherently spatial, the parallels to our concept of "DigiPlace" are significant. The three central characteristics of DigiPlace, as outlined in the Zook and Graham 2007 article in Geoforum are...
  1. DigiPlace is automatically produced.
  2. DigiPlace is highly individualized.
  3. DigiPlace is dynamic.
Although it's not entirely necessary to rehash the arguments Matt and Mark make in that article, the implications for an analysis of Autocomplete are plentiful. Using DigiPlace as something of a framework for thinking about Autocomplete, the differences between Dorothy's original map and the many attempts to reconstruct it, including our own, are not bugs, but features. It is the 'automatic production' of these results - that is, the fact they are generated by a complex software algorithm - that makes this process hard for many to understand. The differentially produced search results based on a combination of a user's location, time of search and search history are intentional. They are meant to provide for a highly individualized series of search results based on what Google knows, or thinks they know, about you.

In some sense, however, the idea of Autocomplete runs counter to the individualization of experience online. Indeed, the entire idea is to suggest things that you may be searching for based on what others have already searched for. So Autocomplete is simultaneously guiding users along a particular search path that has been made by others, but one that is also constructed based on the individual's own interests. The fact that this path can be continually redrawn over time, however, further complicates the process. Sudden surges of interest in a certain topic, perhaps based on recent events or news items, may cause Autocomplete to generate an entirely new set of suggested searches than were previously available. However, Autocomplete doesn't allow one to go back in time to view what searches were suggested prior to the present circumstances.

To summarize, the extent to which Google's Autocomplete can be explained by DigiPlace is probably unknown. Regardless, we think DigiPlace provides a pretty good heuristic for thinking about the social implications of new web applications like Autocomplete and how the spatio-temporal context of internet activity is very much important in producing our experience of these technologies.

Editor's Note: Taylor apologizes for the lame attempt at a play on words using the title of a seminal Thrift and French paper, "The Automatic Production of Space". He has been appropriately shamed and has been tasked with compiling the autocomplete results for the entire Oxford Unabridged Dictionary in an effort to keep him out of trouble.

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