Google, China and bad spelling. Inner.calm

February 2, 2006

Jennifer “Jay” Poole

China gave Google a bit of an ultimatum-censor searches from within the country according to Chinese government standards, or lose the ad revenue generated by the world's second-largest Internet population.

So Google complied, and blocked or "filtered" searches that involve whatever list of words, images and ideas the Chinese government found troubling- or as Google said in their company blog, "remove certain sensitive information" from search results.

For example, if you search for "Tiananmen Square," in the new (the suffix ch = China, dig?) you get some nice pictures of the Square and its fountains. Censorship in action.

The idea isn't new, the practice isn't unique- France and Germany have censored Nazi-related searches to some degree and filtering out child pornography is common practice Net-wide.


Despite the rules of the People's Republic of China and the technology revolution that is Google, the Great Firewall of China can be thwarted!

By poor spelling.

Honestly, how many people spell Tiananmen correctly the first time. Like a lot of things we look up, we type it in wrong, and then Google displays the results page with all the hits of other people who spelled it wrong too, and says something like, "Did you mean [correct word here]?" And then we blush and feel stupid. Or at least I do.

I would like to say something Zen, like "As water makes its own path, so goes the Internet," but the crux of the matter is that:

1. Search engines are only as smart as the person typing

2. Search engines are only as dumb as the person typing and

3. People spell very badly.

Google, Yahoo, MSN-they aren't the incredible brains we rely on them to be. You give Lexis-Nexis a phrase to find, and it finds it for you. Keyword is "you." The engine relies on your input. Ever not know how to spell a word at all and thumb cluelessly through the dictionary? Ever sit at your favorite search engine's entry field, cursor blinking impatiently, not knowing what you want?

Same gig.

(Now Amazon is another beast entirely. It uses a ratings and personal recommendations system to divine what you want, rather than hits-based alone. Although every once in awhile, you'll get a recommendation like, "People who purchased Black Sabbath also purchased Enya." And that's just wrong.)

And speaking of misspellings, anyone remember the great Napster debacle? (People are stealing music off the Internets! Oh noes!) Metallica sued Napster for copyright infringement. To circumnavigate the issue and placate the band, Napster agreed to block any search containing the name "Metallica."

Right. And that worked for about 5 minutes. Good on you, Napster. What about "M3ta11ica" or "Mehtallicka" or "|/|etallica?" As soon as the lawsuit came down, people changed their file names to terrifying iterations of the band's name.

And lo, Lars Ulrich threw a divine hissyfit.

Internet censorship isn't. Because we have access to a staggering amount of characters. And as water makes its own path, so goes the Internet.


Google, China and bad spelling. Inner.calm was published on February 2, 2006 in News

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