Google Word Completion and Search Query Suggestions from Social Network Connections?

When you type a query into a search box at Google or Yahoo or Bing on your desktop computer, chances are a drop down listing of suggested query terms will appear below the search box.

If you use a smart phone, and start typing into a text box on your phone, your phone may also offer you some suggestions to complete the word you are typing.

In the case of a cell phone where you need to press numbers to represent alphabetical characters, those suggestions can help save you from typing a lot of keystrokes. The phone offers terms from a dictionary stored on your phone to help you complete those terms.

A recent patent application from Google describes how they might add words to a dictionary like that, taken from social networks where you might be a member. What’s interesting about that is how much information the search engine captures about your use of words on the Web, and that of people whom you might be connected to on the Web.

Why might Google look to social network information for this kind of information?

The patent tells us:

The theory is that a user is more likely to use terms that their friends often use. For example, if a teenager has identified various users as friends on a social networking web site, the content of those friends’ pages and other similar content may be analyzed in determining popularity of terms for the user.

Such a user, for example, may be much more likely to use certain forms of slang in their communication–something that would not be picked up by a dictionary that is premised on more general usage of terms across a wider population.

The patent application is:

Textual Disambiguation Using Social Connections
Invented by David P. Conway and Andy Rubin
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20100114887
Published May 6, 2010
Filed October 17, 2008

Abstract

The subject matter of this specification can be embodied in, among other things, a computer-implemented method that includes receiving a request to provide a dictionary for a computing device associated with a user; identifying word usage information for members of a social network for the user; and generating, with the word usage information for members of the social network, a dictionary for the user.

The text associated with a member of a social network might include content such as:

  • Pages on which they post information,
  • Profile pages from places such as Orkut or Facebook or MySpace
  • Discussion pages or text message logs of communications between the members of a social network.

The patent filing provides details on how they might score different words used by members of a social network to decide which words to add to a dictionary. This score aims at predicting words that someone might use in the future.

As an example, we’re told in the patent filing that:

If the users are teenagers, the analysis may identify many phrases that would not have appeared in a review of standard English usage, such as OMG (“Oh my God!”), “like,” “totally,” “sick” and other such slang terms.

In addition to helping phone users complete words taken from a dictionary, the patent filing also describes how the information from someone’s social network could be used in a search at a search engine to offer suggestions of terms to use.

This method for deciding upon words to present as suggestions could also look at information found from someone’s computer, taken from word processing documents, calendar items, contacts, history from a browser, and more. So, if someone frequently visits the baseball pages at ESPN and those files are in their browser’s cache of temporary internet pages, when they start spelling b-a-s, the computer they are using might offer “baseball” as a query suggestion.

Information located on a network that someone uses, such as their email account, might also be a source of data that could be used in helping someone fill out a text box on their phone, or in suggesting a query term.

Conclusion

I’ve written a few posts before about patent filings from the search engines on predictive queries:

At least one of the patent applications those posts describe hints at the possibility that words shown as predictive queries might be taken from a group that someone is a member of, but it didn’t provide much detail.

Interestingly, this patent seems to focus more upon the auto-completion of words on a phone than it does upon providing query suggestions to a searcher. Given Google’s entry into smart phone software, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The patent filing also includes software and hardware details about a phone that might use a dictionary like this, and the images from the document show details about a phone running Google’s Android system.

What I find most interesting is how much attention Google may be paying to the words we use in our conversations on the Web.

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34 thoughts on “Google Word Completion and Search Query Suggestions from Social Network Connections?”

  1. There is bound to be a scare if the private messages on social networks are going to be used to improve on search results but I am personally starting to get a little desensitised to the “fear” aspect of been watched. I might be getting old or lazy but I am starting to think giving up a little privacy in exchange for a better service is a good trade off.

    Google has a huge dominance over the search market and the above just shows they dont plan on letting any of it slip any time soon. It may have looked as though mobile search was not dominated in the same way non-mobile was and that this could be a chink in googles armour but it seems that they are taking steps to position themselves ahead of the game on that front too.

  2. Hi Jimmy,

    It is interesting to see how Google can bring something a little new to a technology like word completion dictionaries, and also to predictive query suggestions at the same time. Will Google succeed as well with mobile technology as they have with internet search? I’m not sure, but it looks like they are trying to make things interesting for everyone.

    Good point on privacy and private messages on social networks. The patent filing didn’t really address any privacy issues, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this approach was adopted that privacy would be one of the larger issues that they consider.

  3. That’s a good article, Bill. I’m sure that the patent for this word completion will prove to be a valuable one in the future. It seems like a natural progression from the auto-completion when speed texting, from which the patent holder must’ve made a considerable sum over the years!

  4. I kind of agree with Jimmy. If it makes my life easier, I’m kinda of OK with Google, as you put it in the illustration, offering baseball as a suggestion if I frequent the ESPN baseball page.

    Many, I’m sure won’t feel the same way though.

  5. Well, I guess if you’re on the internet, there’s nothing private anymore. But, I hope, Google will know their limitations. That they’ll also know when a thing is really private and when it is not.

  6. Great article as usual.

    As stated before privacy is a hot topic when discussing the internet and new technologies.
    This is the next logical step for suggestions – personalised one.

    Google already has this information and can probably profile a person from what they search, what the read and also what they say/do on their social networks.

    So personally I can find that it would be useful when i text on my android phone. The information is already there, may as use it for something helpful (compared with say analysing data for adverts).

  7. Hi Lori,

    The privacy aspect of something like will probably bother many people. The patent filing does describe how they might let someone using a system like this take a close look at the information included in the dictionary so that they can edit it, and make changes to it. I think that would help somewhat. One important aspect of privacy is being able to be aware of the information collected about you, and having the ability to control it somewhat.

  8. Hi Web Search Workshop,

    Thank you. You know, I haven’t done the research to look back on whom might have patented the idea of auto-completion of text within textboxes, or to see if that has even been patented by someone. I’m wondering how valuable a dictionary like this might be when it takes information from social network connections from people who may have many thousands of connections, with people who have very wide ranges of interests and ways of talking.

  9. Hi Andrew,

    That line between private information presented in a social network and public information seems to become more blurred every day, as can be seen in places like Facebook and their many changes to their privacy policies. There probably should be some kind of boundaries involing what kind of information the search engines would collect under a process like this.

  10. Hi Steven,

    This does seem like a logical step – not only personalization, but also a personalization that considers how people you may communicate with also talk and which words (and slang) that they might use.

    The dictionary on my phone doesn’t always seem helpful, but it does sometimes remember words that I’ve used in the past and spell those out for me, and save me from pushing a few keys on my keyboard.

  11. I have a HUGE problem with google and the information they pull. I also don’t like how they make you do a privacy policy on your site if you serve their ads. What other ad companies do that? They decide who gets hits and who doesn’t – and little people like me just can’t compete with big companies who can spend all kinds of money link building etc. I am always unhappy when I have searched for something personally, even through BING, and then I go to a completely unrelated site and see ads for what I was previously searching on – Off Topic ads that is. Big brother is watching!

  12. Hi Katherine,

    You raise a log of valid points, and we do need to think about how many sites and services handle private information, and what we can do about it.

    Small sites can compete with big sites when it comes to things like link building, but that’s a little outside of the scope of this post and the privacy issues that you raise.

  13. It’s the digital age… and it’s not getting any less digital. Our lives are spent online now – that’s just a fact. Once the baby boomer generation is gone, we won’t be able to say anyone isn’t fluid in “internet.”

    With that, the lines of privacy, patent & copyright laws, and security are blurring faster than most of us can keep up with. We give out private, incriminating information on a daily basis on paper, online, via e-mail, via IMs, via txt messages… willingly. The only way to protect yourself is to police yourself… and sometimes that means sacrificing participation in certain services, programs and activities.

    Are we willing to do that, as a society? Doubtful. Did we join Facebook because our friends were doing it? Duh. Twitter? Yup. Do we want our experience to be as transparent, as quick, as fluid and as aesthetically pleasing as possible? Yup. Do we have to make sacrifices for all of this? You know it.

    It’s the digital age – police yourself or follow the herd. Either way, things that make it easier to interact, easier to socialize, easier to have fun, and, yes, easier to give someone else your “identity” are going to move forward until we are as efficient and happy with how we interact as we can get – then we’ll discover something else.

    Sorry if I rambled there… regarding auto completion – give me an option and do some usability testing, and I won’t have to boycott services like that :-)

  14. Google freaks me out more and more each day. I think they know more about me then my mom does. That “Big Brother” fairytale is becoming real. And it seems that Google will be the “Big Brother” of the new age.

  15. It amazes me how the search engines recognize what I might be searching for, because they’re usually correct. I love this feature because sometimes I can’t think of how to spell a word, and then Google pulls it up, so I just click on that. It drives my husband nuts though, so he always disables this feature!

  16. Leaving aside the fact that nobody cares about privacy, Google, Facebook etc, these new improvements when searching for something are always welcomed. And if they weren’t then be sure that Google team would not implement its.

    However, I’m pleased to see always when searching something suggestions from G, but sometimes they are really hilarious and unrelated. :)

  17. Hi socialite,

    Very good points. Our notions of the law and how we communicate with each other are transforming, in no small part because of the internet.

    Regardless of our best intentions and attempts to avoid posting something online that we might regret, we have no way of knowing how someone else who might see it later might interpret what we’ve written in a blog post or forum or tweet or status update. That could be a potential client or employer, or even a friend or personal acquaintance.

    There’s been a real movement away from experiencing the web passively towards interacting with others online. In some ways, that could be a good thing or it could be bad.

  18. Hi Gareth,

    I’m not sure if we will see an actual tipping point, or if our notions of privacy will change slowly, one brick (or autocompleted text entry) at a time.

  19. Hi Andrea,

    The interesting thing is that features like spell correction don’t actually correct your spelling of something as much as they suggest a spelling of something in a way that other people may spell the term. If a misspelling is popular enough, Google might not even offer you the suggestion of a correction.

  20. Hi bogdan,

    I do think that there are a significant number of people who are still concerned about privacy. I’ve been reading a lot about privacy policy changes at Facebook recently, and there seem to be a lot of people concerned about those changes.

    I’m not always pleased with some of the search suggestions that I see as well.

  21. I’m thinking that this is getting a little scary. I think privacy is the latest big story. “1984″ is approaching us. I’d rather just type my search term as I see fit at the moment. Suggestions based on what others are searching is fine, but to dig into my social profile, I think that’s evil.

  22. Hi Donnie,

    I don’t know if I would call using information from a social network evil, but I can see how many people might. My question is whether or not it is actually useful.

  23. Hi Donnie,

    That’s a question that I believe philosophers have been pondering for centuries.

    In some instances, it’s likely that the approach here could help some people, as long as the people they are connected to share many common words within their vocabulary. My stance on whether or not it might be useful is that I suspect that many people who are connected to others through social networks may have a wide mix of interests, ways that they use language, and more that might not be much of an improvement over a default dictionary.

    I’m not sure that this approach would cause the system involved to uncover personal information that someone on a network would like to keep private, and I suspect that steps would be taken protect privacy.

  24. @Bill I am amazed at your ability to think things through in a reasonable way. That’s one of the reasons why I keep reading you!

  25. Hi Bill,

    Do you think that the privacy concerns regarding the patent could cause some backlash for the Google.

    Will Google go ahead and implement this patent without addressing privacy concerns? Google may face more heat especially from the European Union.

  26. Hi Max,

    I’m not sure that there would be too much of an issue with privacy regarding this particular patent, but its possible that some of the suggestions that might be added to a dictionary could result in some suggestions that some people might have trouble with.

    I’m thinking of the “scams” type query suggestions that have showed up in some of the search query suggestions at Google’s main search box, for instance.

    I would suspect that Google would try to address possible privacy concerns before launching this.

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