Saturday, December 1, 2007

If You Have Syphilis...

...Then You Probably Can't Spell It.

(How's that for an attention grabbing headline?)

In preparing my post entitled If You Liked "Sifl and Olly", I used My handy-dandy research assistant, The Firefox Google Searchbar, to check on the spelling of "Olly". I didn't know if it ended with "ie" or with "y". I figured that typing in "Sifl" would cause the searchbar's "auto-complete" feature to give me the correct spelling of his companion's name. I was wrong. In addition to giving me all the most likely spellings of "Olly", it also gave me these three, Non-Sock-Puppet-Related results:
At least three people wanted to know if they had "kuntracted siflus" from their latest "hookup" down at the Wildhorse.

To be fair, only two of these searches were totally mispelled, as "sifilis" is the Spanish spelling of the disease. Latinos looking for info were spelling it right.

For a while I just sat laughing, picturing the (almost certainly mullet-sporting) seeker of this information on his "dredded sextual dizeez" using the computer at the public library to find out if that might be the explanation for his new sore. It's mean, I know, but that's what I did.

Then I realized that I, winner of Doyle Elementary School's 6th grade spelling Bee (and 2nd place in the district-wide championship), didn't know how you did spell "Syphilis". I knew it wasn't "siflus", but I couldn't quite tell for sure how it was spelled. Again, I used Mr. Searchbar, and after typing the first three letters, this was what I got:The one listed third from the bottom fooled me. I was stupid enough to link through, but when I realized that the wikipedia entry was not one of the top search results, I realized that neither one of the top two results were correctly spelled. If I understand this Auto-complete feature, it is based on popularity. Which means that more people are searching for "syphillous" than "syphilis". Of course people who don't know how to spell a search term are likely to use and trust Google's "suggestion", making it a self-perpetuating cycle. Because it is the number one search result, more people will click it, keeping it at #1.

And the valuable lesson learned is this:

Google is used by people to find out about stuff. This means that the people typing in the search terms don't know about the stuff that they are typing (or trying to type).

Using the internet as a "back-up brain" is kind of like "asking the audience" on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It only works up to a point.

Speaking of which, check out this video, first featured here on TDBotD in the post entitled Good News, It's Not Just Americans!

P.S. The results are actually much more dramatic if you type in "syphi". that gets rid of all the syphon filter garbage, and you get ten Syphilis-related results, yet without the word syphilis spelled correctly anywhere amongst them.

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