As if it weren’t enough to worry about an employer looking you up on Facebook, digging through all those humiliating pictures your jerk-friends from university won’t take down. Now you might have to be worried about what Google ad results pop up when someone searches your name—depending, of course, on what your name is.
A recent Harvard study shows that a “racially associated name” is more likely to result in advertisements that suggest the person you searched for has a criminal background.
Professor of government and technology at Harvard, Latanya Sweeney, discovered that typically black names are more likely to yield ads about arrest records than names that are typically white.
When Sweeney typed her name into Google, the result provided an Instant Checkmate ad that said, “Latanya Sweeney Arrested?” Other winners of the arrest-record ad game on Google include DeShawn, Darnelle, and Jermaine.
More traditionally Caucasian names—your Jennifers, your Samanthas, your Jills—had results that were far less inflammatory. The sites studied were Google and Reuters.
Of course searching for different terms will yield different results, but it seems unlikely that the ad results are so random that African-American names get different treatment than white names. Google ads are based on keyword searches, and the advertisers bid for the keywords. (Like when you search “flower shops,” the highest flower shop bidder gets that top ad). So the ad results show what advertisers think people are searching for, and what they believe will be the most relevant to the user.
It might also reveal the biases of people who are Googling names. Advertisers won’t buy those keywords if they aren’t relevant. Googlers might have some influence over the ad results, but who exactly are all these people searching for criminal records?
Equally confusing is that Google seems to have no safe-guards over racially-charged ad-results. Different keyword searches will garner different results, but it doesn’t justify different names—ones that are obviously linked to minority races or cultures—yielding explicitly negative results.
It would be akin to me Googling my own name and Indian matrimonial site Shaadi.com coming up as a suggested ad alongside a coupon for Bollywood movie rentals. Which has indeed happened to me and my weird, not-white name. It was both irrelevant and perplexing.
There’s a significant difference between searching for something when you live in Calgary and getting ads for the Stampede that summer, and searching your own Chinese name and getting ads to buy calculators online.
Even if the ads have some separation from Google, they are the bearers of the content. They have a great deal of responsibility in ensuring that the results brought up—even advertisements—aren’t discriminatory, racially determined or flat-out racist.
And if advertisers think that these name-based results are the most relevant they can be, they’re probably wasting a lot money.
Above: The Google Doodle for Martin Luther King Day, 2011. “Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the most significant figures for equal rights in America, envisioned a day where children will “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This famous line from his address at the Lincoln Memorial was the spark that inspired this year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday”
Image credit: Google