Over the years Google has seen its share of controversy. From European user data investigations to patent disputes, the corporate giant has been accused of nearly everything out there. And yet, at no time has the company, whose motto famously is ‘Don’t be evil” been accused of discrimination. So you can imagine everyone’s surprise as a recent study has discovered significant racial bias in Google search and, most importantly, Ad results.
Google has been accused of racism before though the charges were preposterous. However the current Harvard study led by Professor Latanya Sweeney has more credibility after having found that ‘significant discrimination’ occurs in AdSense results, with people who have overtly ‘black’ names, like the good Professor herself, being a lot more likely to get advertisements for criminal record search services.
Of course the paper doesn’t prove that Google is targeting African-Americans with racially profiled ads. Indeed, it doesn’t even try to prove this. It just shows that there is a significant bias brought forward by overall views in society and search behavior by similar class cohorts. The ads are there because, generally speaking, the interest is there. Google ads simply reflect society and its inherent biases.
And the bias has been proven to exist. There is a well-established literature on the subject of ‘black’ names and the impact they have on potential job opportunities but while there is little that we can do in the real world, online the option of modifying the results does exist. Google has a history of omitting and penalizing ‘unwanted’ content in its search pages and every SEO professional makes a living by modifying SERPs in order to rank certain results better.
Of course, modifying a SERP is one thing and AdWords results are another. Yet just like Google removes unsavory links from it search results it has a strong policy banning everything from ads on torrent and hacking or gun and ammo sites to pornography. They also have a policy banning biased content. Expanding this last one to include racially targeted ads can be done without a big shake-up in Google policy.
And there is a second front to the problem. While general results pages represent one side of the story and can be used in the line of argumentation linking racism to what people actually search for, the very fact that these results appear on top of the page as promoted links reflects poorly on Google. After all, the top spot on a SERP is almost the Internet equivalent of a Super Bowl ad. How would America react if the NFL accepted money to display a racist ad in the half time show?
Google isn’t a start-up anymore. It’s a huge multinational company so it cannot afford this type of bad publicity. In cases of sensitive racial, sexual and ethnic contexting it would be better to act pre-emptively to avoid this type of story. Ratings and AdWords need policing and algorithm adjustments to avoid these pitfalls.
Mara Fuchs is a US-born, Europe based doctoral student who worked for the better part of a decade in a Search Agency before pursuing a career in academics. She still blogs on search and marketing related topics occasionally.