Posted September 27, 2010 10:15 am by with 8 comments

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May I suggest that Google CEO Eric Schmidt cancel any plans to ski the French alps this year–the authorities may not let him in!

Not after he (and Google proper) were convicted of defamation for results showing up in Google Suggest:

The new function, which suggests options as you type in a word, brought up the words “rapist” and “satanist” when the plaintiff’s name was typed into the search engine, reported.

The court ordered Google to make a symbolic payment of one euro in damages and take measures to ensure they could be no repeat of the offence.

Whether the plaintiff deserves the reputation cast down by Google Suggest, we won’t discuss here, however this could be the kind of precedent needed for someone to test this in a US court.

During last week’s SEOChat on Twitter, the topic of reputation management for Google Suggest was a hot one. For anyone that is lost, here’s how Google Suggest looks:

How Google Suggest Works

How does Google come up with the suggestions? Well, its defense in the aforementioned case gives a very broad explanation:

The statement said that the Google Suggest function simply reflected the most common terms used in the past with words entered, so it was not Google itself that was making the suggestions.

In practice, it’s not quite that simple. After some testing, it appears that Google Suggest takes into account the following:

  1. What was the first keyword search? For example, someone searches for my company, Trackur.
  2. They then decide to refine those results by changing their search to “Trackur Free”–which was what they were looking for all along.
  3. If enough people make that refinement, compared to simply searching Trackur, then it starts showing up in Google Suggest.

What’s not known is the time frequency of the above. Does this have to take place over days, weeks, months? Perhaps only hours? Also, not concrete is how much the actual results play a role. If Google has a lot of matching results for “Trackur Free” does that increase its chances of becoming a suggested search phrase?

The Dreaded Google Suggest “Scam”

What frustrates a lot of people is that new companies–or those without much of a reputation–tend to end up with the dreaded “Scam” suggestion. 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.

All of this simply highlights the importance of being proactive in your reputation management. If you don’t give Google searchers enough evidence that you are NOT a scam, they’ll go and check. That’s when you create your Google Suggest nightmare.

Of course, some legitimate companies are beyond that stage. They’ve already been hit by the Google Suggest “scam” label. It’s those companies that I suspect we’ll see test the US courts to see if they’ll agree with their French counterparts.

  • Jerry

    Well, to be fair…if this guy had just CHANGED his name like Schmidt recommends, this wouldn’t be an issue.

  • Great post and thanks for the detailed information you presented in #seochat this past week.

    I particularly liked the concept of building out a page for:

    Is A Scam

    and fill that page with information proving you’re not. This could be done with detailed product information, user-gen content, testimonials, how-to videos, etc.

    I really liked that idea!

    In addition to search refinement, on Google Suggest, I believe the results play a role in that news & social results titles are compared for common words and strings.

  • nice one sir!
    keep it up!


  • I would suggest that since this is a French ruling that it be dismissed on the grounds of it being French.

  • Although I am sure the strength of their opinion changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the problem with Google’s argument (“all of these queries were typed in by other people before we displayed them”) is that they are taking PRIVATE INFORMATION and sharing it publicly. Although they are protecting the privacy of the searchers, that public sharing makes them a first-degree publisher. The people typing in those queries are for the most part unaware that those queries may be shared with other people.

    Hence, Google’s actions may very well be defamatory by many well-established legal precedents. They cannot make a valid safe harbor claim because no one is using their system to republish opinions — Google is expressing its own opinion that “these queries may be important to you”.

    Regardless of whether an algorithm is involved, Google is solely responsible for the content of Google Suggest. I think the French court made the right call.