Understanding and Addressing Google Autocomplete Reputation Issues

Google Autocomplete (formerly known as Auto-Suggest) provides searchers with suggestions about what they might be looking for prior to them completing a given query. These suggestions might be neutral, positive, or very negative, which gives Autocomplete a powerful role as a “first impression maker.”

Google doesn’t publish data about the number of visits prompted by Autocomplete, so it’s impossible to say how many people follow its direction each day. But even if this is a small number, and even if the majority of users aren’t following Autocomplete’s suggestions, they are seeing them, which means your client may be suffering from what might be termed “Autocomplete impression-based brand damage.”

Autocomplete is useful as a diagnostic tool because it gives PR professionals a quick way to see whether a client may have a serious PR problem that’s muscled its way into search behavior.

And understanding how Autocomplete works gives PR professionals a way – not an easy one but at least a course of action that can be planned and budgeted against – to repair such brand damage.

How are Autocomplete’s contents determined?
Autocomplete’s ability to predict queries is based on historical search data. Google states that “Autocomplete predictions are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement. The algorithm is based on a number of objective factors, including how often others have searched for a word. The algorithm is designed to reflect the range of info on the web. So just like the web, the search terms you see might seem strange or surprising.”

Here’s the bad news: if your client has an Autocomplete problem (for example, seeing the word “scam,” “cheat,” “lawsuit,” “divorce,” “embezzlement” or other negative term listed among the suggested terms), there’s no “silver bullet” you can use to solve it. The reason that these terms appear in Autocomplete is because people — possible lots of them — are using them in search queries, and Google’s software — in its usual impersonal/robotic way — is simply reflecting this fact.

Obviously, there’s no way to prohibit people from searching using these terms; the only way to address the issue is to encourage searchers to search for your client’s brand terms without using such modifiers, and that means changing how the world thinks about your client, a battle that may have to be waged on many media channels.

This is not to say that the specific application of certain SEO tactics will be ineffective in influencing the entries that appear in Autocomplete. Research published by Brian Patterson in 2013 identifies three variables influencing Autocomplete:

  • search volume
  • social media mentions
  • general web content

While items 1) and 3) will usually be very difficult to influence, producing more social media mentions isn’t hard to do, nor is making sure that social media profiles are complete and up to date on any and all platforms maintained by the client.

Can Autocomplete Be Directly Influenced?

Several online reputation management agencies claim to be able to directly influence Autocomplete, but are very tight-lipped about the exact tactics they use. It appears their remedy includes paying people in different locations around the world to perform enough positive or neutral searches to displace any negative autosuggestions in the suggestion queue. Another tactic often used which hasn’t been flagged by Google is to use links that point to specific Google searches in anchor links inserted in web pages or social posts.

For example, the URL below, which combines the brand Monsanto with the modifier “good,” will, if clicked, launch a Google search page with these two terms included:


Including this URL as in an anchor link will, if clicked enough, begin to influence Autocomplete results. At the same time, however, it’s easy to see how embedding multiple links similar to the above in web pages could be regarded by Google as a “grey hat” manipulative technique deserving of censure or penalty.

Key takeaways: Google Autocomplete

  1. Google Autocomplete is a valuable monitoring tool for PR pros to evaluate the general state of opinion about their clients on the Web
  2. Autocomplete has great potential to convey an immediate impression about your client’s name or brand, positively, negatively, or neutrally, based on what it chooses to use to complete queries. These choices are generated by historical search behavior, social signals, and the content of web pages.
  3. If your client has an Autocomplete reputation issue, you’ve got a difficult chore ahead, because you can’t stop people from using whatever searches they want to use or publishing what they want to publish about him/her. If budget allows, apply some PPC spend to inject messaging into SERPs, but don’t expect this will necessarily alter Autocomplete (there is no evidence that Google uses signals from its advertising platform to inform Autocomplete).

Social media signals have an influence on Autocomplete, so any steps you can take to change the conversation about your client on Facebook, Twitter, et al will influence Autocomplete results in your client’s favor. Applying budget to influenceable groups and individuals on social platforms can accelerate favorable opinion changes that — over time — will be reflected in Autocomplete.

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