Racial bias suggested by search engine study

Posted on February 12, 2013


The results of a new study into search engine queries has revealed that there is “significant discrimination” according to perceived race by many online adverts. The news raises important questions for those working in search engine optimisation.

The research has been carried out by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, who focused on queries that were requested through Google. In her report, Sweeney said that names traditionally associated with black culture were more likely to return criminally associated adverts.

When running queries with names such as Kareem, Keisha and Leroy, ads were returned with links to websites advertising criminal records checks for example. The term “Arrested?” was often also associated with returned adverts.

Commenting on the findings, the associate professor of computer science, technology and policy said:

“There is discrimination in the delivery of these ads.”

She also went on to say that the likelihood of the results in the study being determined by chance alone, was less than one per cent. However, Sweeney was reticent about blaming popular SEO tool Adsense.

Google was also keen to stress that it “does not conduct any racial profiling”.

Instead, Sweeney raised the suggestion that the findings are indicative of society’s own “racial bias”. Noting that the algorithms used by Google adapt to meet the habits of users, she said the profiling in place could simply be a reflection of societal prejudices.

However, she also called for technology to counter possible online discriminations. With its rules of advertising preventing ads from advocating against groups though, the search giant will likely also claim this is already being done.

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