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When the Crowd is Racist at Google

I am torn by this issue, and admire Google’s consistency and transparency about it

If you search Google Images for “Michelle Obama” (no quotes), the first image you’ll see is a poorly photoshopped picture of her as an ape.

You’ll also see a Google Ad on that page that links to Google’s explanation of why such a blatantly racist photo is the top-ranked one at Google Images. It says, after assuring us that Google does not endorse such images: “Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site’s ranking in Google’s search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query.”

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, Google is taking a principled stand by not inserting its own political/cultural views into its engine. It’s also avoiding an endless squabble if it were to start hand-manipulating the results.

On the other hand:

  1. Google’s algorithms are undoubtedly tuned by looking at the relevancy of the results. If they come up with a new wrinkle, they check it against the results it returns. So, the algorithms are already guided by Google’s own sense of what are good, useful and relevant results. If they tested a tweak of their ranking algorithm and it turned out always to put all the porn and pro-Nazi literature on top, Google would judge that algorithm as faulty. So, Google is already in the business of building algorithms that match its idea of what’s useful and relevant. When those algorithms occasionally turn up racist crap like that photo of Michelle, why not improve the algorithm’s results by intervening manually?
  2. Google as a business and as a cultural force aims to give us useful results. That’s more important to the value of Google Search than the purity of its algorithmic approach. A photo of Michelle as an ape cannot reasonably be construed as the most useful result of a search for photos of her. So, fix it. (And, yes, I’d say the same if searches for “George W. Bush” ranked as first a photo of him as a chimp or as Hitler.)

Although the bulk of this post argues against Google’s position, let me say again that I am torn by this issue, and admire Google’s consistency and transparency about it.

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David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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