Who, What, Why: What is 'ungoogleable'?

Google sweets

The word "ungoogleable" has been removed from a list of new Swedish words after a trademark spat. But it raises the question of what can and can't be found with a search engine.

Today Google appears to be the font of all data.

The idea that something can't be found online is strange enough to have spawned its own adjective.

The word "ungoogleable" is in the headlines after a dispute between the search engine giant and Sweden's language watchdog.

The Language Council of Sweden wanted to include "ungoogleable" - or "ogooglebar" - in its annual list of new Swedish words. But it defined the term as something that cannot be found with any search engine.

Google wanted the Swedish translation to be changed to refer only to Google searches, and the Council opted to remove the word altogether to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

The spat raises the question of just what "ungoogleable" means. Or more specifically, are some things still impossible to find with a search engine? And if so, is it a deliberate strategy?

To be ungoogleable might be a blessing or a curse.

The answer

  • Some search terms still deliver too many results to pinpoint the right person
  • Some people may employ deliberate tactics to stay hidden - for example, a band name might use a symbol to be harder to find

A firm that chooses to call itself 367 may be shooting itself in the foot - people searching online will probably encounter a lot of bus routes before they get to the company.

It's a similar story for an academic with a common name trying to promote research. Being called Mark Smith, for instance, might bring up thousands of other Mark Smiths online.

But others may actively seek to be ungoogleable.

The internet, unlike humans, has an almost flawless memory. That is why it's so useful. But it can also be embarrassing.

Imagine the person who has been photographed in a compromising position at university and had the picture posted online. What happens when they try to get a job as a lawyer? For this very reason there are firms that promise to move people down search-engine lists.

Ungoogleability increasingly means privacy, says Cameron Hulett, executive director of digital marketing company Undertone.

"There are firms managing people's online reputations. Ungoogleable is the extreme form - you are not just managing it you are removing it altogether," he says.

Then there are online networks that act like auction sites for people trading in drugs, erotica and other forbidden items.

Websites such as these use software to create anonymous networks. And with questionable sites that are accessible, a search engine might decide to withhold access to users.

Who, what, why?

Question mark from original drawing for Television Centre

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

But the desire to be ungoogleable goes far wider than that. Prof Ralph Schroeder, from the Oxford Internet Institute, points to democracy activists in China who may need to operate an anonymous website to escape a crackdown on their activities.

Or it might be as simple as a pub quiz wanting to prevent cheating.

Trying to outwit Google's search capability has been popular for a while. A Googlewhack is two words that elicit only one result. The comedian Dave Gorman wrote a book about it after noticing that a phrase on his website "Francophile namesakes" only delivered one result.

Nowadays most people using Google will respond to the promptings of Google Autocomplete. So stumbling upon a Googlewhack is less likely.

Paywalls are another factor. Used by academic journals and newspapers such as The Times and Financial Times they restrict what users can easily find via google.

For some, being ungoogleable is about being unknowable. It's about preserving one's mystique.

Irene Serra chose the name -isq for her band deliberately to make it hard to find online.

Irene Serra, singer of -isq Irene Serra: Wants to make her band difficult to find online

As it contains a hyphen, it cannot deliver an easy result. The band have a website but they don't want it to be too easy to find.

"We didn't want to give everything away straightaway," says Serra. "If you want to hear about us you'll need to try just a little bit harder. And then when you do actually find us online we have lots in place."

It also allows them to easily keep control of all the domain names.

Seb Mower, a search engine optimisation consultant, says that even supposedly ungoogleable things can usually be found. Most people use Google in haste. But a bit of thinking can often turn up the correct result.

For instance, the band -isq will appear third in the list on Google if speechmarks are put around the search term.

Where Google really struggles, he says, is to show pictures of text. "If you wanted all the back issues of the Times, none of that information would be indexable."

For some, it seems, being ungoogleable is an unfortunate state of affairs. For others, the ignorance of Google's algorithms is bliss.

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