Uninformed Opinions Thanks to Google’s Sexist Autofill

I don’t often combine work and private life when it comes to writing for my blog.

In fact, this is the first time I am doing this but it is because I feel compelled to do so as it is my area.

There has been this ad campaign by the UN displaying the sexist autofill Google provides its users when typing in half a sentence.

Google is SEXIST!

Seeing the suggestions, I imagine the first group of people will shout that Google itself is sexist as the suggestions are anything but supporting of women’s image. It suggests that women should stay home, be controlled and more awful things that women should, shouldn’t or can’t do.

Google collects data and suggests words to complete a sentence based on the most popular searches related to the incomplete phrase. So no, Google isn’t sexist, nor does a sexist man sit behind it and adds new phrases to its database to convert innocent men into misogynist pricks who try everything to oppress us women folk. It simply tracks everything you search for in Google, calculates the popularity of certain phrases and suggests this autofill for better user experience.

Got that? Ok.

Society is Full of Sexist Men!

The second group will now shout that yes, Google isn’t at fault but society is. It is concrete proof that our society thinks less of women than of men and that sexism is a real issue. You know, that is all correct, sexism is real and still exists and anyone denying it seems to not really observe much in our culture as sexism can sometimes be incredibly subtle but woven into our every day.

But in this instance it is a false representation, simply because it focuses on one metric only, that of the most popular searched phrases and takes it at face value.

The reason why we cannot use this data and conclude that internet users are sexist is because we have no idea about the intent of these searches.

People search for all sorts of things and with Google being smarter and smarter at providing the most relevant results (just have a look at Google’s Hummingbird update improving long tail search results) people searching for “Women should stay at home” are not necessarily sexist pigs. No, they are searching for websites where this very phrase appears. This can be in theory the title of a blog post, of a book or an infamous quote.

We do not know what the searcher was looking for when they put in the phrase. The only way we could possibly shed light on what one searcher might have been looking for is by checking the traffic of the resulting websites and comparing the traffic and bounce rate of the pages (bounce rate will tell you whether the page clicked on was what someone was looking for, if it wasn’t, they will leave straight away and the bounce rate will be high, if it is a low bounce rate, the result was relevant).

Let’s say Jezebel runs an article about how a famous actor was heard saying that “Women should be controlled” and how ridiculous this statement is and defending women’s rights.

Now imagine this has become a hot topic and the news page gets a lot of exposure through social media. People might have even heard of that incident but only remember the quote that was apparently said, they will try and search for a news article and put in “Women should be controlled” as this is the only thing they remember.

Google will spit out the news article where this quote appears in the headline and people will click and stay on the website. Google knows, this was the right result, data is collected.

Now imagine a few months later, everyone has now ranted about this story, gave their 2 cents and the actor has since apologised, the info is still in Google’s database though. It will still think that that phrase might be the sentence someone is looking for when months later someone types in “women should…” but everyone kind of forgot about that article but instead, it becomes the centre of a women’s rights campaign.

This is just an example how the data can be skewed and cannot give accurate results or any “insight” into the underbelly of society.

Despite what people may think, the results you see when you google anything aren’t live results. They are in the Google index and within seconds Google will find the matching results pages for the query.

The Reality

Apart from explaining how Google works,has anyone actually looked at the results of those queries?

“Women should stay home” will give you this:

google search result

Women should work in SEO, clearly

As you can observe yourself, the first page is full of news articles about people making this outrageous statement. You know why it is on the first page? The data of those websites collected by Google in relation to that phrase is the most relevant to what a searcher is looking for. So people googling the phrase are most likely be looking for news articles. What does this prove? Oh, only that searching for a sexist statement doesn’t mean society is sexist. Yeah, just that.

And if you want to see some irony, I suggest looking at this result for “Women shouldn’t have rights”

google search results

Women shouldn’t believe everything they read.

Oh, the first result is the Ad campaign showcasing the sexism of society. This happened because it is a hot news topic and thanks to the ad campaign, I guess a lot of people have actually googled those terms to see for themselves and as you may guess, this is all information Google will collect and for months, maybe years to come, they will now DEFINITELY end the sentence to “Women shouldn’t…” with “…have rights” well done internet.

I also circled a result further down the page where the title “Why women shouldn’t have equal rights?” is found because Google also does phrase matches where results will be shown where the words of the search term is included but maybe not in the exact order, FYI.

So What’s The Deal?

The point is, news and websites are more likely to report on controversial topics like sexist remarks and less likely about how “Women can drive” or “Women should have rights” because they aren’t news articles. This means those statements are less frequently searched for.

Now, I by no means would ever claim that society isn’t riddled with sexism and that we don’t have a huge problem with this, however what makes me outright furious is when people do not research properly or air their opinion without having checked the facts.

This ad campaign should use real examples to promote and support women’s rights as using data like this and shape it to fit their purpose will only discredit their organisation.



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