IT’S been called Planet Earth’s hive mind – a predictive algorithm that offers a window into what people really think.
The unsparing honesty of Google’s autocomplete feature offers an insight into public perceptions of anything and anyone.
Type “Why is Edinburgh so . . .” into Google, and as well as “popular” and “haunted”, the search engine’s predictive technology provides a mixed bag of suggestions, guessing you are about to ask why the city is so expensive, windy or dirty.
The suggestions are the work of Google’s algorithms, which seek to save internet users time by offering the most searched-for options.
The picture it offers of Edinburgh is not entirely flattering, but should we be worried?
Online visibility expert Andrew Burnett thinks there is at least some cause for concern.
People are not coming up with this from nowhere. You can spend all the money you like saying that Edinburgh is this, or Edinburgh is that. But if the reality is different then that’s it.Andrew Burnett
The software, he says, represents something close to the “wisdom of the crowd” – and tourism leaders should be concerned about why such perceptions exist.
He said: “It’s all algorithmically done. They are suggestions to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for. It’s probably something that Edinburgh’s tourist board would like to focus on.
“It’s about perceptions. These are coming up because people are searching for that. So if you give people something different to search for, something positive, then the search patterns will change.”
He said city leaders needed to highlight the positive aspects of Edinburgh if they wanted to change ideas.
“There’s a reason why people are searching for these things,” he said. “People are not coming up with this from nowhere. You can spend all the money you like saying that Edinburgh is this, or Edinburgh is that. But if the reality is different then that’s it.
“It’s kind of the wisdom of the crowd. If you have lots of people that are saying X, then you are likely to believe that.
“With [the dirty example], maybe that’s a reality we need to change as opposed to a perception. I’m on Cockburn Street, and when you look at the communal bins they are always overflowing.”
Edinburgh isn’t the only city to get a rough ride from Google’s autofill function. Typing in the same question, Glasgow’s suggestions include poor, rough, violent and dangerous, while Aberdeen is branded expensive, grey and cold.
But John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, is relaxed about the influence of the suggestions.
He said: “Visitors genuinely considering a trip to Edinburgh will focus their attention on the reviews, recommendations and experiences on sites like TripAdvisor, social media channels, travel blogs and destination travel features, that carry the most gravitas and insightful content.
“It’s for that reason the city’s official website, ThisisEdinburgh.com attracts over 100,000 unique users every month.”
A Google spokeswoman said: “Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically determined based on a number of factors – including popularity of search terms – without any human intervention.”