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The limits of Google

May 4, 2010

I’m sure you’ve all had them, those searches that bring people to your blog by accident. Well, let me rephrase that: as far as Google is concerned it makes good sense, but you know the poor searcher at the other end of the keyboard would not agree.

Smiling cartoon face

Cheesy? (Courtesy: Mohamed Ibrahim, via

I just have to share with you one that came to me yesterday. The search was:

Why do my gums smell cheesy?

“What the?” I thought. It’s obvious why the “gums” got to me but the rest? So I did the same search in Google and sure enough my blog was listed as hit no. 4 – and it’s there because in my post on The lady in the van I included a quote that has the words “a cheesy smell”. Nowhere are “gums” mentioned in that post, except of course in my blog name.

I often wonder to what degree Google uses proximity in its search algorithms – not a lot it seems*. It is this sort of thing that should tell the world that we still need librarians. Google is great – don’t get me wrong – but I cringe a little when I hear people say that they want to find things just like they do in Google. When time is money (or is short, in any way), Google on its own can be a frustrating beast.

Oh, and do you want to know what no. 6 in the hit list was? It’s “My boa smells” from Constrictors Forum. It refers to a boa that might have “cheesy nasty smelling junk on his gums“. To find this junk, though, you have to “hold him gently behind the neck and use your thumb to pull his lip down GENTLY”. You learn something new every day … thanks Google!

* DISCLAIMER: There are ways to refine the search in Google using asterisks but it’s not very sophisticated. If you Google  (ha!) “Google proximity searching” (with or without the quotation marks), you will find some interesting discussions.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2010 12:43

    This is not doing happy things for my nausea. Yesterday my blog was found via “deap person you want to meet” and “what does gelato mean in Florence???” I’m pretty sure gelato means the same thing in Florence as anywhere else in Italy/the world…

  2. May 4, 2010 17:35

    People are always Googling knitting patterns on mine or weird ones like ‘Rabbit Stew’ , a phrase I used when I knitted ‘Peter Rabbit’. It’s a bit disconcerting isn’t it?

    • May 4, 2010 18:16

      LOL Steph … I think you should but a Rabbit Stew recipe on your blog just to help them out? If I knew why gums had a cheesy smell I’d tell ’em!!

  3. May 4, 2010 18:24

    Looking through which searches let to your blog can be funny at times, but sometimes they’re pretty ridiculous. Your post makes me wonder how the person who searched on cheesy smelling gums thought when he came across your blog.

    • May 4, 2010 18:48

      Iris, I wondered why s/he even clicked once it was listed because the Google listing made it clear that it was Alan Bennet’s The lady in the van!

  4. May 4, 2010 21:38

    As somebody who is terrified of snakes, that information is really quite gross! The google search terms are funny to read but it also makes me sad. I remember I included the name of a cocktail I had (‘booty call’) and suddenly I had all these adult search terms. What a shock they must have had when they arrived at my blog!

    I just read your selection on Kim’s blog and your selection is very similar to what I would have picked. Coincidentally, I also only picked up Drylands yesterday when I saw it on the shelves. Working in film and sound libraries sounds very interesting!

    • May 4, 2010 22:24

      Thanks Mae. I’m enjoying other people’s blog search examples. Love your “booty call” one.

      I’m glad you like my selections that Kim posted. I hope you enjoy Drylands…well, I’m assuming you haven’t read it before? I am just re-reading Astley’s The multiple effects of rainshadow and will post on it soon. Love it all over again.

  5. May 5, 2010 00:53

    I once got a hit from someone searching for “Lonely boys in Prague”. I forget which post, I think it was probably the one on Jarmila, which is at least set in Prague.

    Sadly, I suspect they were disappointed by what they found. On the plus side, they may at least have found something to read while they continued their search…

  6. Kevin Neilson permalink
    May 5, 2010 02:54

    Errant searches vex me to no end! My personal favorite to date: “how to prepare wife for threesome” — which landed some enterprising husband on a page about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the hilarity of identity confusion between Sebastian and Viola/Cesario.

  7. May 5, 2010 09:17

    Max: LOL, you can only hope!

    Kevin: I wonder if he stayed long enough to learn that “music” not “threesomes” might be the food of love. (I do hope Google doesn’t search comments!!)

  8. May 6, 2010 17:59

    Its very important to learn the Google secrets (well they’re not secret at all, but most people don’t even know there is such a thing as “advanced search”). I get all sorts of things being searched for and ending up with me. As for snakes – well, I’ve never wanted to keep a snake as a companion animal!

  9. May 6, 2010 21:08

    My favourite for today is ‘anz army leave centres’
    Go figure!
    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers = ANZ leavelovers??)

  10. May 6, 2010 22:39

    Tom: True, though I must admit that I don’t always find Advance Search wonderfully helpful – at least in the preset options they offer – but there are also, of course, operators you can use to refine searches. It’s all a bit much for a lot of people though as you say…

    Lisa: LOL. Did you replicate the search to see how it might have resulted in their finding you? I do that every now and then (even though I can’t necessarily replicate it perfectly).

  11. May 12, 2010 00:16

    Isn’t fun to look at some of the crazy things that bring people to your blog? I always think, well, that person was definitely disappointed! Several years ago I posted a photo of my peony in full bloom and to this day have at least one search every day for peonies that brings someone to my blog.

    • May 12, 2010 01:14

      Yes, I love stories like that. I wrote a post on the biopic Coco avant Chanel. It had no hits for about 2 months after I wrote it, and then for the last 8 months, it’s had hits every day. I wonder if they’ll be still coming in a few years like your peony searchers?!

  12. May 12, 2010 19:28

    And today I have “Traffic ladies from Pyongyang” as a search.

    I think the only word from that sentence I’ve used on my blog is “from”…

    • May 12, 2010 23:29

      Oh that’s too funny. Have you tried replicating the search? Of course they may not have used American Google so you can’t be sure … but that’s what I do sometimes and it occasionally shows me how they found me. BTW Who are the “traffic ladies” do you reckon? Or, don’t I want to know?

      • May 13, 2010 01:03

        I misquoted slightly. It was actually “traffic girls of Pyongyang”. I’m afraid my courage is insufficient to put the words girls and pyongyang into the same search engine. The results could I suspect be difficult to explain either at work or at home…

  13. May 28, 2010 19:46

    I have to say that Google is pretty good at finding stuff if it is out there to be found. The cheesy gums search has relevant results in the top ten hits. The user wouldn’t have needed to know how Google works, or to use an advanced search to get an answer to his question. Perhaps he clicked on the link to your blog out of curiosity, after checking out the other links first. Google does use proximity searching in its algorithms but in this case, there was nothing to be found searching on the phrase “gums smell cheesy”. But now there is:)

    When the National Library was developing Trove, it aimed to create the same ease of searching that Google provides. Behind Trove’s simple search box are complex algorithms that duplicate some of the things librarians would do using an advanced search to make a catalogue sing and dance.

    So too does Google, with the searchable Internet, in as far as it can, given that a lot of content is still not available online.

    • May 28, 2010 23:03

      Fair enough Judith – but you know, you don’t want to totally spoil a story for the sake of the truth! And there are complexities to Google, as I understand it, that results in some sites rising higher in the list than others based on what they link to, what links to them, what hits they get? Must admit I have only researched this area superficially though. Meanwhile, I DO like Google rather a lot.

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