Are Google Searches The Best Way To Highlight Discrimination Against Women?

un-google-autocomplete-adsThe United Nations is continuing its admirable and proper work of highlighting discrimination against women around the world; but, is using Google’s autocomplete feature the best way to do it?

UN Women, a UN entity formed in July 2010 that focuses on gender equality and women’s rights, revealed a new ad campaign this week that “uses genuine Google searches to reveal the widespread prevalence of sexism and discrimination against women.”

The ads, presumably designed for print media, show Google autocomplete searches that begin with phrases like “women shouldn’t,” “women need to” and “women cannot.” Each ad places some of the autocomplete phrases over a woman’s mouth. (Google’s autocomplete suggestions typically show 10 results, but each UN ad shows four.)

UN Women says it got the autocomplete suggestions from Google searches back on March 9, 2013. Here are two of the ads:

UN-Women-Ad-3_495x700 jpg

UN-Women-Ad-1_495x700 jpg

The ads are undeniably effective at making the UN’s point. AdWeek called them “powerful,” and Mashable said the ads reveal horrifying sexism.

But are Google autocomplete suggestions actually a reflection of what’s undeniably a serious problem?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

As search nerds, you and I know that autocomplete is based on actual searches that people are doing, not on the content of Web pages (as some coverage of the ads has said). What we don’t know — and what no one can know — is why are these suggestions coming up?

In some cases, it’s possible that the search phrase isn’t being typed by someone with a discriminatory attitude toward women, but by students or other researchers that want to learn which religions, for example, don’t allow women to be bishops. Or they might be researching which countries still believe that women shouldn’t vote, or used to have laws/rules that kept women from voting. In other words, ask yourself: Do all of the things I search for reflect my own beliefs, or are they sometimes phrases that I don’t believe or support, but am trying to learn about for some reason?

I’m making a very semantic argument here, and the general public — to whom these ads are targeted — probably doesn’t care why these are some of the popular searches on Google — they just care that they are, and realize that they shouldn’t be. That, ultimately, is what makes them effective.

For what it’s worth, you can flip the table and do similar searches using “men” instead of “women” — like this one for “men cannot….”


Men cannot be feminists? Men can’t multitask? Men cannot be trusted? Men cannot live without women? Certainly not as troubling as the “women” searches, but not a shining picture of what society thinks of men, either.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features | Features: Analysis | Google: Suggest | Google: Web Search | Search & Society: General | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • studiumcirclus

    Auto-complete overly sensationalises negative bias and doesn’t necessarily correlate with popular opinion. For example, type in “Michael Jackson is” and one of the top returned results will be “Michael Jackson is alive”. Most people don’t believe this to be true, but people love to Google controversies and negativity.

    Remember that whilst auto-complete is a reflection, it’s not always a reflection of popular opinion! I do agree it’s a bit bad though…

  • Samantha Longford

    Men cannot urinate??

  • Jennifer

    “Or they might be researching which countries still believe that women shouldn’t vote”
    Personally I’d use the phrase “where can women not vote” rather than “women shouldn’t vote” if I was reasearching this. I even did a quick check and the former does give me much better results for this premise.

  • JamesChambers123

    These adverts are a load of rubbish, seriously, if auto-correct / auto-suggest is the best thing we have to show discrimination we all need to give up right now. Not only that but many of the images in the pictures are doctored and have eliminated results that don’t prove their point, e.g. “Women should” also brings up “Women Shoulder bags” and “Women Shoulder Tattoos” but those are left out from the above images.

  • Kayleigh Herbertson

    Anyone looked into the numbers these terms are being searched? After all, if these searches reveal a global sexist culture then they should have thousands of searches. I miss Google Keyword tool…

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