I've long suspected that Google's Auto Complete feature is influenced by more than just long term search popularity. Now, finally, I have correlation that supports my theory. Sure, as SEO Manager at Noisy Little Monkey I know that correlation isn't causation, but damn it, this is star-studded, action filled correlation we're talking.
Ghosts of Mars is a sci-fi action film released in November 2001, written and directed by John Carpenter. Crucially, this film was on TV over the weekend, which is why I’m writing about it now (and not in 2001 when it was contemporaneous). Science fiction is my jam, and the name “Ghosts of Mars” evoked in me the sense that the film would deal with profound mysteries about the history of our solar system, and our place in the universe.
In retrospect, the degree to which I misjudged the film’s title is nearly as comical as the film itself – rather than abstract hints about the history of the red planet, the eponymous ghosts of the title are literal ghosts. Warrior ghosts to be precise.
The movie itself is something special – it marries the budget and production values of an episode of the Power Rangers, with a preposterous roster of stars, including Hollywood hardman Jason Statham and versatile character actor Ice Cube.
Even the soundtrack is implausibly star studded, an original thrash metal score featuring, among others, Steve Vai, Buckethead and fucking Anthrax. Combine this with a trope-riddled plot with a pathological disregard for verisimilitude and there is no way I’m not watching the rest of this film, just to catalogue its every hilarious moment.
Before I tell you more about the plot, I’ll demonstrate exactly why this is relevant to SEO and digital marketing in general. Ghosts of Mars was by all accounts an abject failure. It boasts a gentleman’s 21% on Rotten Tomatoes and bombed at the box office. I’ll be honest, until I looked it up, I was completely convinced that this was somebody’s first job in the biz, and was quite genuinely impressed that the pimply faced teens behind the production had managed to secure both Mr Cube and Jason Statham for their first foray into film-making. There is no buzz surrounding this movie – it has not made it into the pantheon of pop culture references or found itself a second life as a cult classic.
Yet when I tapped in “gh” into my phone’s browser on Saturday, “ghosts of mars” and “ghosts of mars imdb” popped up in Google’s search query box, courtesy of the autocomplete feature. That’s less than three characters. (I actually checked this on every device in my house immediately afterwards, to verify that it was universal).
This screen grab was done after the fact + on desktop, but you get the gist...
There are a lot of things that are emphasised to death in this industry – Google’s Autocomplete functionality is rarely one of them. We hear a lot about keyword rankings, about Query Deserves Freshness, the knowledge graph and structured data. Autocomplete occurs before any of these mechanisms are invoked, even before one has even hit the enter key to submit their search query.
Natasha Henstridge plays lady-cop Lieutenant Melanie Ballard, a member of the Martian Police Force sent to bring Mars’ “most notorious criminal” - Ice Cube – to justice. Instantly, I can point out two things I love about this:
- The film is quick to point out that Mars is a matriarchal society, (so that’s why that there cop character had them funny lump things on his chest) a notion quickly undermined by the fact that a) it’s clearly a dystopian shithole and b) the power structure is composed entirely of dominatrix lesbians who order all of their clothing from leather fetish magazines, which is what I imagine a 14 year old boy thinks of when he pictures a matriarchy.
- Despite a circumference of 21,344km, Mars is apparently considered only one municipality, with a single police force simply named the “Martian Police Force”. Thankfully, the criminal world is equally unified, with the unchallenged consensus that Mr Cube is the most notorious criminal on the entire planet.
Google’s page on the Autocomplete function is hastily and diplomatically worded: (with a few choice words, you can get Autocomplete to show some really repugnant sentiments courtesy of the human race)
“The search queries that you see as part of Autocomplete reflect what other people are searching for and the content of web pages.”
If you’ve spent any time following Google’s various innovations, you’ll have no doubt come across their increasing focus on so-called “implicit search signals” – Google knows that sometimes there’s more to what you want than just the words you’re saying and hoovers up every bit of incidental information it can to better catalogue every aspect of our lives in order to achieve world domination serve the query, which means it takes into account your time of day, your location, your personal history, your device, and so on.
This manifests itself in such a way, that when Ghosts of Mars aired on Saturday afternoon in the UK, it was accompanied by a flurry of searches by stunned and delighted viewers that we can see here on Google Trends. This tendency has then influenced the autocomplete to the degree that it is able to suggest “ghosts of mars” within two characters
Here’s what it looks like when I do the same thing now.
I suspect 6 characters is because we’re still riding high on Ghosts of Mars fever.
Lieutenant Ballard’s job doesn’t go smoothly. Soon after she subdues Ice Cube, the planet falls under siege to an army of warrior ghosts, the last remaining vestige of an ancient Martian race of Noble Warriors. The dead Martians are able to possess human subjects, turning them into mindless combat thralls, which adds a much needed paranormal element to this science fiction film. Cube and Ballard are forced to work together to fight their way across Mars surface against an easily surmountable onslaught of putties haplessly possessed foes. Thankfully, the thralls themselves are curiously inept and neither the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere nor the 30 µSv per hour of solar radiation they are exposed to as they run helmetless across the open Martian surface seems to cause them much of an issue.
The salient point here is that Google is sensitive to real life events in ways that continue to surprise me. In my opinion, this underlines the importance of marketing your business in a holistic way. The marketing you do online and your day-to-day business are not isolate – they are linked in ways that may surprise you. Seemingly unrelated activities such as events, conferences, offline marketing or innocuous incidences within the workplace itself can potentially have a knock on effect on your position online. What you do in the real world will directly affect your online profile. There’s no substitute for hard work. Except for floating a giant blimp above the city of your choice, emblazoned with your company name, of course.
I didn’t quite catch what Jason Statham was supposed to be doing in this movie, but in one scene he gives a suggestion on how to best build a makeshift pipebomb. He also nearly has sex with Lieutenant Ballard at one point but they get interrupted, so that’s something.
Since the time of writing, I have come across a better example. Lets take a look at what Google suggests in an incognito window for the letter "d"