The Washington Post

‘Is Sarah Palin retarded/retired?’ Google autocomplete glitch gives glimpse of how the search engine works

The Google search engine’s ability to reliably return information on demand is a hallmark of the modern Internet. Pulling from its index of the world’s Web pages, Google returns results that are often taken as established fact by its users. But the sheer volume of the index and the entropic tangle of human activity that works on it everyday can reveal some quirks in the system.

A Reddit user found one of those unfortunate algorithmic byproducts over the weekend:

While it remained up for at least three days, as of 5 pm Tuesday, a Google search for “Is sarah palin retired” no longer offered this autocomplete alternative.


Google said the result was not an editorial opinion on the part of the company, but rather a quirk in their search algorithm. Some people may have easily been confused into thinking this was an Easter Egg, Google-bomb, or other well-known search trick. But Google says no.

A company spokeswoman explained that “the autocomplete predictions are a reflection of the search activity of all web users. Just like the web, the search queries presented may include silly or strange or surprising terms and phrases.”

In a Google bomb, a specific Web page shows up as the first result for a particular search query. For the better part of the last decade, President George W. Bush was the target of one of the most famous such bomb offensives. From roughly 2003 to 2008, his White House bio Web page topped the results list when users searched for “failure,” or “miserable failure” in Google, The page was eventually pushed further down the list when Google tweaked their search algorithm — after saying for years that it would be a bad precedent to hand-curate the results.

Meanwhile, Google Easter Eggs are HTML5 animation-like functions that alter the Web page itself when a user clicks “search.” They are serendipitously inserted by Google engineers for users to find. One of the most well known Eggs is the barrel roll.

But neither of these accounts for the unfortunate Sarah Palin result. Google’s spokesperson explained, “Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically determined based on a number of purely objective factors (including popularity of search terms).” And indeed, using Google’s publicly available Insights tool, you can see that at some point people were searching for the term “Is Sarah Palin retarded,” at far greater numbers than for “Is Sarah Palin retired.”


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