Google apologises after advert portal linked Black woman with sexually explicit content

Sanjana Varghese
Friday 24 July 2020 14:15
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Google has been criticised this week after it emerged that its ad buying portal led to terms related to explicit content when anyone typed in “black girls”.

It also does the same if you type in “black boys” although it doesn’t if you type in “white boys”.

This may sound strange if you’ve never used Google’s ad portal – essentially, it’s the part of Google’s advertising system called the Keywords Planner, which helps anyone who wants to buy an ad to choose which search terms to associate with their advertisements.

Marketers online use the tool to decide what keywords to buy ads near – for example, if a marketer wanted to buy ad space for their new artisanal gin venture, they would type in “gin” or “artisanal gin”. But they may also want to be associated with keywords such as luxury, high class, expensive, and so on.

The Markup, an investigative tech website, found that typing in “black girls,” “Latina girls” or “Asian girls” returned keywords suggestions which were mostly sexually explicit and pornographic in nature.

Shortly after The Markup contacted Google about the issue, Google seems to have blocked results from any terms combining a race or ethnicity being returned at all.

A spokesperson also said in a statement:

The language that surfaced in the keyword planning tool is offensive and while we use filters to block these kinds of terms from appearing, it did not work as intended in this instance.

We’ve removed these terms from the tool and are looking into how we stop this from happening again.

As The Markup also points out, this system means many advertisers would likely avoid those keywords, leading to a situation where people in those categories may not be served ads, and find it harder to access products marketted towards them.

Google has come under fire for racism embedded in its algorithms before – as far back as 2012, Safiya Noble, a professor, found that even searching for “black girls” in Google’s search engine brought up porn websites in the top results, as well as other sexually explicit content.

Speaking to The Markup, LaToya Shambo, who’s the CEO of Black Girl Digital, a marketing firm, pointed out that the ad portal’s word association was more about the rest of the internet than it really was about Google, although argued that they should change their Keywords Planner algorithm.

“There is just not enough editorial content being created that they can crawl and showcase,” she said. “But in the same breath, content creators and black-owned businesses should be creating content and using the most appropriate keywords to drive traffic.”

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