Are SERPs biased? How Common Stereotypes Affect Results (and Marketing Efforts)

We love Google. And as a business person and a tech-savvy professional, I can’t live without asking Google anything I can think of. I know the internet isn’t always the best source of information – but it’s so fast and easy it’s almost impossible not to use it.

The problem is when we get too comfortable with the simple information of our SERP without double-checking that information. We read what the algorithm thinks is useful to us. As a result, we become more prone to fall into implicit bias, half-truths, or misinformation.

Does Google and their SERPs lead to more bias? In this article, we’ll see how this algorithm, when not used correctly, can reinforce our unconscious bias (and what responsibility we have as marketers, SEO professionals, and content producers).

What is implicit bias?

According to perception.org, implicit bias describes attitudes toward people or associates stereotypes without being fully aware of it. Some examples are associating crime with blacks or weakness with femininity without noticing.

These prejudices can be positive or negative and can come from any person. However, individuals are more than stereotypes and sometimes do not reflect the nuances of being human.

It should be emphasized that gender is not the only thing that can trigger unconscious bias. Others may include:

  • The race
  • Religion
  • Political ideology
  • Age
  • Social classes
  • nationality

And yes, we see stereotypes affecting marketing efforts even today. Let’s dive into it.

What must search engines do about this problem?

The other day I was looking for a picture of the president. It was very curious to me how the main result was male presidents. I had to specify that I was looking for a president who would be a woman.

On the other hand, when I typed “hairdresser” into the search engine, the results page showed mostly images of women.

This is what I am trying to explain when I talk about how these prejudices are present in our daily lives. Even in a simple Google search.

This concern about how SERPs reinforce bias is not new. In 2013, UN Women released a campaign called “The Autocomplete Truth”, which showed how the autocomplete feature suggests some stereotypical ideas.

On the other hand, the writer Safiya Noble, in her book Algorithms of oppression shows and critiques how search engines play an important role in reinforcing stereotypes.

Among all these, the author talks about how Google has a history of racism. In a quick example, she showed the results that appear when you enter “professional hairstyle” related to white women with straight hair and “unprofessional hairstyle” related to Afro or black women.

In recent research using word embedding trained on massive Internet text corpora, words representing the concept of “people” (e.g. “someone” or “human”) were more often co-occurred with terms for “men” than for “women”—demonstrating a male bias , which manifests itself collectively among individuals in society.

Unconscious bias and marketing decisions

As I said before, bias is everywhere. Including our marketing approaches. Even some experts admit that prejudices can make us bad marketers. This is proof of how our mind can play against us and lead to lost conversions.

However, there are companies that are trying to combat this common disbelief and are actually reaping good benefits from it.

A simple example. According to Facebook data in Brazil, at least 85% of ads originating from the automotive industry feature only men in protagonist roles. In an effort to bring more diversity to the ads, Jeep in Brazil decided to show both women and men enjoying an adventure in one of their new cars.

The campaign actually performed well, increasing brand awareness by 28 points between ads that featured both genders.

Another good initiative has been taken by Pinterest, where the algorithm tries to bring more variety to its searches. Google itself has recognized the power of words and released an inclusive language tool that tries to consider some gender-specific terms. For example, when you type “policeman,” the engine suggests “policeman” instead.

Although in previous cases we are talking about social networks and more human decision-making. When it comes to SERPs, we have other factors like artificial intelligence and algorithms.

The sad thing is that data and technology can be racist. It may sound very paradoxical, since both are supposed to be objective and exact sciences.

However, let’s not forget that data and technology are created by humans and are also prone to their own bias, even as they build artificial intelligence.

As Search Engine Journal author Carolyn Lyden said, “Algorithms and machine learning are only as good as the information we feed those models.”

Fortunately, as marketers, we have the power to change our minds, expose our biases, and take action. If we reveal our own prejudices, we can perceive when something is just a stereotype and does not represent reality.

How to reduce bias

It is not easy to fight against the algorithm, even though Google has tried to reduce biases in SERPs, there is still a long way to go before we have bias-free technology.

But there’s one or two things we can do to make it better – after all, we’re the ones feeding the content to these algorithms. Check out the top tips below:

First of all, start from yourself

Let’s be clear: bias doesn’t make us a bad person, but we should be more determined to recognize our biases. The next time you find yourself stereotyping a person, think, “Why do I think that?” or “Is it true?

Consider that no one can be reduced to a stereotype. Every person is full of nuances, personality traits and different environments.

When searching (or surfing for information), always try to gather information from different sources. Try to step out of your filter bubble and make sure the content you receive doesn’t contain racist or sexist ideas.

Make your content inclusive

Remember that the algorithm and machine learning are guided by the information we give them. Unfortunately, I’m not a Google engineer, so I can’t directly work on improving the SERP algorithm.

But as content creators, there are many things we can do to make the internet a more inclusive place. Our own language can be a good place to start. Inclusive communication can reduce gender assumptions and exclusions.

Also, analyze how you represent diversity in your own images. Do they show diversity correctly? Are you reinforcing stereotypes in your visual communication?

Remember that a leader can be of any gender, ethnicity or nationality. Try to represent these nuances whenever you can.

Unfortunately, we still live in a very unequal world and it will take hundreds of years before we can talk about true equality. But we must keep our hopes up and take seriously our role of shaping minds.

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