Can autocomplete be a tool for reporting?

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By David Poulson
Important, great, cold, dangerous, low, polluted, big, clear, rough are reasonable adjectives for describing the Great Lakes.
But salty?
C’mon, they hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. Their nickname is the Sweetwater Seas.
And yet “salty” is the ninth option autocomplete provides when you do a Google search on “Why are the Great Lakes so.”

Autocomplete is that mysterious mechanism that uses everyone’s searching behavior to anticipate what you want to search on. You can use it to check on what people wonder about a particular subject.
The Atlantic wrote about searching for extreme adjectives describing states last January.
But results evolve. The autocomplete gremlins change what they anticipate your search to be. It varies with Googlers’ searching behavior, so it makes sense that current events prompt them to change.
I recently gave the Great Lakes states and provinces a try with “Why is (state or province name) so” inserted into Google search to get a sense of what people want to know about them.
Some broad observations:
Apparently weather is a big deal. “Cold” shows up in the autocomplete lists for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Quebec. The New York list produces “cool” but I’m betting that’s more of an attitude than a temperature that people are checking out.
It’s not just cold. People often wonder why Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania are so humid. Others wonder why Michigan is so cloudy.
Politics are of interest. People ask Google why Minnesota, Illinois, New York are so liberal. They want to know why Indiana and Pennsylvania are so conservative. And Wisconsin is apparently a political puzzlement because both words show up in autocomplete. Only Indiana produces Republican as a popular search phrase. Minnesota and Illinois score with Democratic.
It’s not unusual to find conflicting words in auto completes for the same state.
People want to know why Wisconsin is stupid and awesome, why Ohio is depressing and awesome, why Michigan is boring and awesome, why New York is dirty and awesome, why Pennsylvania is weird and great, why Quebec is stupid and important, why Illinois is boring and corrupt.
How boring can you be if you’re also corrupt?
Ontario is puzzling. It produces only two search suggestions. Perhaps “overlooked” should be one of them.
I don’t want to read too much into this. Autocomplete is a little more complicated than simply a list of the most popular searches. Results can vary by physical location of the searcher. Your personal search history can affect them.
You can read more about auto complete nuances here.
At best, it reflects what people wonder about. At worst, it can lead to incorrect stereotypes and assumptions.
For instance, speaking as a fan of the Cotton Bowl-bound Michigan State University Spartans, I can assure you that “Why is Michigan so bad at football” reflects frustrated fans of the University of Michigan, and not those of the entire state.
But it is sort of fascinating. I mean, what prompts people to search out “Why is Pennsylvania so haunted.”
David Poulson, is the associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University and the editor of Great Lakes Echo where this column first appeared.