Up until recently, French users were mainly offered pornographic search results when entering the word »lesbienne« in Google’s search mask. A phenomenon that did not occur with words such as »gay« or »trans«.
The normative force of search engine results has long been a problem for search engine operators. On the one hand, they naturally want to show their customers what users are most likely to be looking for when they start their search with certain terms. On the other hand, language is such that words always have several meanings. To make matters worse, the search interest of people can be very different. So how do you supply the mainstream without alienating umpteen other interests behind a term or leading them away from their goal?
For some terms, Google therefore intervenes in the algorithm and steers its visitors towards informative pages and word explanations. This approach is all the more important when it comes to socio-political or socially relevant terms.
Google France and the word »Lesbienne«
In France, however, some terms had probably been overlooked and thus many users were upset against the company. The search for »lesbienne« led users mainly to pornographic offers, while searches for »gay« or »trans« primarily steered them to informative pages. Searches on other terms within the context of homosexuality also reliably led to LGBTQ topics, and Google displayed its own pride banner during Gay Pride Month. With the word »lesbienne1 this was apparently overlooked.
Activists suspected discriminatory intentions and referred to the normative, reality-shaping power of the factual. Those who always find only pornographic representations when using the search term »lesbienne« associate the word in a different way than other words. In particular, the Twitter account @SEO_lesbienne and the French news site Numerama highlighted the problem. The omission, however, was apparently a specific oversight by Google France. The omission did not exist in English versions of the search engine.
Interfering with the algorithm
Numerama wanted to take the problem as an opportunity to take a closer look at how the de facto monopolist’s search results can have an effect. The news portal is convinced that the problem entails »enormous social consequences«.
However, contact with Google was pleasingly uncomplicated. The news site quickly got in touch with Pandu Nayak, Google’s VP for quality control of search engine results. In a short statement, Nayak said: »We are aware that there are problems like this, in many languages and different searches. We have developed algorithms to improve this research, one after the other.«
After all, the problem also concerns more common words like »girl« or »teen«. According to Nayak, the aim is to ensure that words that may have pornographic connotations receive preferential treatment for informative sources in search results in the future. However, there is also a risk of unwanted overreaction. Ultimately, it could result in pornographic results being discriminated against. A difficult balance, that such a key company like Google can hardly master permanently at all.