Study: Are Public Record Ads Placed On Google Racially Biased?

google-zipperA study published by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney claims that companies placing public record ads linked to people’s names through Google may use language that reflects racial bias, though why this happens is unclear.

The study found that ads associated with black identifying names were more likely to have ads with the word “arrest” in them than ads that were associated with white identifying names. From the study:

A greater percentage of ads having “arrest” in ad text appeared for black identifying first names than for white identifying first names in searches on Reuters.com, on Google.com, and in subsets of the sample.

The study involved 2,184 names considered to be either black or white, based on a specific approach outlined in the study. Searches were conducted for these names at Google and Reuters, which shows search results and ads from Google. On page twenty of the study you can see the ad delivery results.

Most of the ads were placed by one particular company, Instant Checkmate. The report asks at the end:

Did Instant Checkmate provide ad templates suggestive of arrest disproportionately to black-identifying names? Or, did Instant Checkmate provide roughly the same templates evenly across racially associated names but society clicked ads suggestive of arrest more often for black identifying names?

For its part, Instant Checkmate claims it didn’t try to skew them in any particular way. The report notes:

During a conference call with the founders of Instant Checkmate and their lawyer on December 21, 2012, the company’s representatives asserted that Instant Checkmate gave the same ad text to Google for groups of last names (not first names).

Is it down to Google? Google told us this:

AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling. We also have a policy which states that we will not allow ads that advocate against an organisation, person or group of people. It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.

So that’s a no.

Postscript From Danny Sullivan:

It’s possible that Instant Checkmate is providing various type of ad templates to Google and letting the algorithm decide which to show more frequently for certain types of searches. If so, then the racial bias of searches might be reflected. If searches on “black names” are more likely to get clicks if the word “arrest” next to them, then the algorithm might show that more often.

However, that wouldn’t be the algorithm itself having a racial bias. That would be it having a “conversion” bias, if anything. It’s the same that happens if multiple ads templates are submitted but one has the word “free” in the ad copy. If that ad pulls more clicks, then it might get shown more frequently.

It’s also difficult to impossible to know whether, if this happening,  it is searches by blacks or whites that are influencing the changes. It could be that blacks are searching for “black names” and more likely to click on ads if they have “arrest” next to those names. That would influence the results for everyone, since at the time of delivery, Google doesn’t know the race of someone searching. It could be that this happens when whites are searching for “black names.” A combination could also be involved.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdSense | Google: AdWords

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About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • RyanMJones

    So, I’ve done work for one of those companies advertising in that space before. Their method of bidding on names was to do an export from their arrest record database, then filter those terms and import them into their paid search. Perhaps it’s not Google that’s racist, but our criminal justice system?

  • RyanMJones

    also, does anybody find the concept of having “black” and “white” names racist in itself?

  • http://twitter.com/aaronwall aaron wall

    This is a case of selection bias becoming reality.

    Names that are more ethnic sounding often tend to come from broken families where children have poorer upbringings:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_dismal_science/2005/04/a_roshanda_by_any_other_name.html

    “What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black
    name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself.

    The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn’t the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes.”

  • Alfred Ingram

    Bias is less and less a matter of intention and even less does it present consciously. The real important thing isn’t what did they mean to do, but, was anyone harmed, did anyone disproportionately benefit, and, if so, how can we fix this. That seems to be completely missing while everyone assesses blame or denies any bias at all.

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  • http://www.dekh.com/members/profile/13 Harsh Bawa

    It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.
    The image search results of some of the names as mentioned in the report were actually very surprising.

    What search criteria did Instant Checkmate specify?

    Are ads randomly delivered?

    Do ads rely only on thefirst name?

    How would Google know the race of someone when somebody uses Google?

    These are some of the questions I would like to get an answer.

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