Google’s cultural imperialism

Google logo in stars and stripes

OK, the title is a little dramatic but I stick by the sentiment.  Google made changes to its search results today that are biased towards American sites in the UK results pages.

I’m no Google hater, in fact I’m a keen user and despite knowing that their results are little, if any, better (and sometimes worse) than other search engines, I find it difficult to change my habit of checking there first.  I also use and like many other Google products regularly and carry an Android phone.  Google is well embedded in my life.

So, on the same day that Google took a stand against China for it’s freedom of speech failures, it also decided that American English is the correct version of English and that your results should be given in American first.  Even on Google.co.uk when searching from Buckingham Palace.  I haven’t actually tested that but presumably.

So, a search for “utilisation ratio” (no, I don’t know what it means either) shows the following:

Utilisation v's utilisation

and provides the results for the American spelling, “utilization ratio” rather than the British English version, “utilisation ratio”.  But I typed with an “s”, why on earth would you assume I meant with a “z”?

Now, it’s good that Google tells us what’s going on but what is the point of insisting on American spelling?  Isn’t this just further filling the UK search results with less relevant foreign pages?

As has been well documented by the likes of DaveN, SearchCowboys and Kevin Gibbons, Google often includes irrelevant foreign sites for searches that require local results.  Even now the famous “tennis court hire” search on Google.co.uk produces 40% Australian results on the first page.  Okay, so there are probably more tennis courts for hire in one suburb of Sydney than the whole of the UK but that doesn’t matter, Google should aim for a top ten that shows the best ten local results. There may be searches where a couple of foreign options might be okay but “tennis court hire” isn’t one of them.  In the event that someone in the UK wants to investigate hiring tennis courts in Australia, they’ll probably specify that fact.

I digress. The “utilisation ratio” example doesn’t always hold.  For example Google doesn’t even think twice about “coloured contact lenses”, “aluminium windows” or “moustache pictures” before providing only UK spelling results.  It seems to be only terms with words ending in “-isation” that Google has decided to give the US version of and even then not for all of them. I’ve not figured out a definite pattern but it may be to do with the number results with a particular spelling.

Here’s a good one – type “urbanisation in the UK” into Google.co.uk and you get results for “urbanization in the UK”

Here are the urbanization results:

tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0006462.html
amazon.co.uk/Vikings-Ireland-Settlement-Trade-Urbanization/dp/1846820936
environmentandurbanization.org/eandu_details.html
h-net.msu.edu/~urban/teach/syllabi/morris1995meth1.htm
ensembles-eu.metoffice.com/cost/Exeter_Workshop/Presentations/Fei_Chen.ppt
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization
eandu.poptel.org.uk/
unhabitat.org/content.asp?typeid=5&catid=7&cid=2599

and here are the urbanisation results:

geography.learnontheinternet.co.uk/topics/urbanisation.html
environment.guardian.co.uk/flash/page/0,,2166176,00.html
uk.reuters.com/article/idUKL1929467820070330
independent.co.uk/environment/creeping-urbanisation-could-destroy-rural-england-in-30-years-506066.html
coursework.info/AS_and_A_Level/Geography/Human/Population___Settlement/Urbanisation_L110737.html
amazon.co.uk/tag/urbanisation
emagister.co.uk/revision_urbanisation_courses-ec170182305.htm
ft.com/cms/s/0/91d82880-f02b-11de-833d-00144feab49a.html

I removed the BBC results that appear on each page for ease of comparison.

I’m not sure about you but I can see straight away from the URLs that the second set of results are much better – quality newspaper articles and authoritative UK sites against Tiscali and an Amazon book about Vikings in Ireland?  At least it’s Amazon UK I suppose.

“parking offense” and “parking offence” are interesting as Google serves up different results but doesn’t seem to notice that they are just US/UK spelling variations.

Bottom line is I don’t understand what the point of this change is, if someone could explain it I’d be forever grateful.

In its defense, I’m sure Google didn’t mean to cause any offense so perhaps there’s no need to chastize it ;-)

  • http://www.colinasquith.com Colin Asquith

    It is interesting, as it seems very cultural even within the UK. If you look at wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_spelling they show that it’s only recently that we’ve moved to -ise, but also that some people still use it. Maybe it’s not enough to know the UK rules on spelling, as our rules are so difficult.

    You would argue that -ise is more common now though, maybe you could have an OED option in your settings :-)

  • Richard Falconer

    I have to admit I always presumed the difference was more clear cut than that. I like the OED option idea – there are all sorts of strange languages in Google’s settings – Klingon, Elmer Fudd etc. so maybe it’s not too far fetched…