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Google does not know multilingual people exist
By Thom Holwerda on 2017-11-26 22:57:58

It's time to address a longstanding issue with Google, and as these things often go, it has to do with Silicon Valley not knowing multilingual people are a thing.

A long, long time ago, searching for stuff on Google in different languages was a breeze. If you typed www.google.nl in your address bar, you went to Dutch Google. If you typed www.google.com, you went to English Google. If you typed www.google.de, you went to German Google. You may notice a pattern here - the country code determined your Google Search language. Crude, but effective.

Years ago, however, Google, ever on the lookout to make its users' lives easier, determined, in its endless wisdom, that it would be a great idea to automatically determine your search language based on your location. Slightly more recently, Google seems to have started using not your location, but the information it has on you in your Google account to determine the language you wish to search in when you load Google Search, and on top of that, it tries to guess your search language based on the query you entered.

Regardless of whether I go to www.google.nl or to www.google.com, Google standardises to Dutch. The language menu in Tools is entirely useless, since it only gives me the option to search in "Every language" or "Only pages written in Dutch". When I type in a longer, clearly English query, it will switch to showing English results for said query. However, with shorter queries, single-word queries, brands, or other terms that might transcend a specific language, Google simply doesn't know what to do, and it becomes a game of Guess What Language This Query Is Parsed As.

As I've detailed before, Silicon Valley doesn't get out much, so they don't realise hundreds of millions of people around the world lead multilingual lives, speaking and searching in several different languages on a daily basis. Many Americans speak both Spanish and English on a daily basis, for instance, and dozens of millions of Europeans speak both their native language as well as English. Especially younger European generations have friends from all over the world, and it's likely they converse in today's lingua franca.

Of course, for me personally, the situation is even more dire. I am a translator, and especially when working on more complex translations, I need to alternate between English and Dutch searches several times a minute. I may need to check how often a term is used, what it means exactly, if a technical term is perhaps left untranslated in Dutch, and so on. I need to be able to explicitly tell Google which language to search in.

In its blind, unfettered devotion to machine learning and artificial intelligence, Google has made it pretty much impossible for me to use, you know, Google.

Meanwhile, DuckDuckGo has a really neat little switch right at the top of its search results, which I can click to switch between English and Dutch - I don't even have to retype the query or reload the site from the address bar. The dropdown menu next to it gives me access to every single other language DuckDuckGo is available in. It's difficult to overstate how this feature has turned web search from a deeply frustrating experience into the frictionless effort it's always supposed to have been.

This tiny, simple, elegant little feature is what has drawn me towards using DuckDuckGo. I'm willing to accept slightly less accurate search results if it means I don't have to fight with my search engine every single day to get it to search in the language I want it to.

I will continue to harp on Silicon Valley for barely even paying lip service to multilingual users, because it frustrates our entire user experience on a daily basis. To make matters worse, virtually all popular tech media consist of Americans who only speak English, assuring that this issue will never get the attention it needs.

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