Google’s “racial profiling” issue hints at invasive ad targeting

Google’s “racial profiling” issue hints at invasive ad targeting

5th September 2012

Yesterday Google was once again on the receiving end of bad publicity. An article in the Telegraph, one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, appears to show that Google uses racial profiling in its advertising algorithms.

A year ago a Huffington Post article appeared to show racial profiling at work in the ads Google shows alongside emails in Gmail. The Telegraph replicated this experiment recently in the UK, and it reports similar findings:

“The results were stark, and similar to the original experiment – for example, an email sent by “Robert Howe” saying “Need Cash” gets foreign exchange solutions for business advertised to him; the same email sent by “Segun Akinkube” gets offered Payday Loans. Neither of the ads repeated in each other’s preferences; Segun & Robert got completely different ads served to them, when all other factors were the same.”

Unsurprisingly, Google denied the charges brought forth by the Huffington Post last year, stating rather emphatically that the HuffPo article “…relies on flawed methodology to draw a wildly inaccurate conclusion. If Mr. Newman had contacted us before publishing it, we would have told him the facts: we do not select ads based on sensitive information, including ethnic inferences from names.” It has yet to issue a statement regarding the Telegraph’s new study.

The advertising system in Gmail is generally assumed to be similar to that of AdWords. It provides contextually relevant ads based on the contents of the emails you are reading.

But these two anecdotal studies potentially reveal a much deeper level of targeted advertising, presumably based on demographical information derived – however inaccurately – from a person’s name.

If that sort of targeting is real – and the studies seem to suggest it is – then we might need to re-evaluate what we think we know about Google’s ad targeting systems.

I would find it hard to believe that Google would stop at making assumptions based on a person’s name. There is after all a much greater wealth of data Google can rely on in Gmail and other platforms.

Potentially Google can analyse your entire email history in Gmail, and construct a frighteningly accurate picture of who you are, what you like and don’t like, and your regular habits and activities. That would allow Google to show you some pretty tightly targeted ads, which you are then exceptionally likely to click on.

As Google makes most of its money from those clicks, it’s not unreasonable to assume Google is doing whatever it can to optimise its ad targeting system to maximise clicks.

If I were Google, making educated guesses about a person’s demographics based on their name, when such an abundant source of much more accurate data is available, would be pretty low on my priority list.

Racial profiling may be the tip of the ad targeting iceberg. Google knows a lot more about you than just your race – and it might be using that data to make money. Whether you are OK with that is up to you to decide.

Update: Google has now responded to the Telegraph’s article, stating: “We do not use names to serve ads. We do not use racial, ethnic, or sexual orientation to serve ads. Our system uses terms in the content of an email on the assumption that the user may be interested in ads on the same subject. For example, if someone mentions ‘Eid’ in an email, our computer algorithms would assume the person could be interested in Eid-related ads.”

This seems a simple re-iteration of their statement last year, and fails to address the issues uncovered by the Telegraph and the Huffington Post.

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Written By
Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.
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