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New search feature reveals common biases

Quentin Hardy, Matt Richtel, Nov 26, 2012, NYT: 20:07 IST
Former German first lady Bettina Wulff is suing Google for linking her name with terms such as “prostitute” and “escort.” AP
There are the questions you ask friends, family and close confidants. And then there are the questions you ask the Internet.

Search engines have long provided clues to the topics people look up. But now sites like Google and Bing are showing the precise questions that are most frequently asked, giving everyone a chance to peer virtually over one another’s shoulders at private curiosities. And they are revealing interesting patterns.

Frequently asked questions include: When will the world end? Is Neil Armstrong Muslim? Was George Washington gay?

The questions come from a feature that Google calls “autocomplete” and Microsoft calls “autosuggest.” These anticipate what you are likely to ask based on questions that other people have asked. Simply type a question starting with a word like “is” or “was,” and search engines will start filling in the rest.

People who study online behaviour also say the autocomplete feature reveals broader patterns, including indications that the questions people ask of search engines often veer into the sensitive and politically incorrect.

“Your search engine is your best friend, and you talk to it about everything, even things you might not talk about to your real best friends,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search industry.

“It’s a way that search engines reflect society.” One category of question comes up with puzzling frequency in autocomplete: whether a certain person is gay.

Is Elton John gay? Is Paul Ryan gay? Is Michael Bloomberg gay? The question pops up often, too, when starting searches about George Clooney, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, actress Ellen Page, Genghis Khan, several cartoon characters and even the pope.

This line of questioning is so commonplace that a simple query on Google beginning with “is” can result in autocomplete predicting that you are about to ask, “Is Frank Ocean gay?” Do the same with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and it often fills out the question, “Is Robin Roberts gay?” Although these questions do not pop up every time, they do appear with surprising frequency.

Nick In’t Ven, senior program manager at Microsoft’s Bing search engine, said that the returns reflect the collective curiosities of its users (and that similar results turn up on Google). He could not say how many times people have to type in a question for it to dominate the feature but said that for popular single terms, like “Facebook,” it is well into the millions.

Search engine experts said they cannot rule out that the phenomenon is the result of some bug in the system, but they added that it seems very unlikely.

“We base it on experience, what users have asked about around the world,” In’t Ven said. “We’re trying to reflect the world’s collective intentions.” If people wonder whether other people are gay, “that is the collective intention, and we abide with it.”

In’t Ven added that he and his Microsoft colleagues have often discussed some of the strange questions. A few months ago, they became interested in the frequent inquiries from search engine users about cultural stereotypes.

Type “why are Americans” and the autocomplete choices include “fat,” “stupid” and “patriotic.” For “Chinese,” the autocompletes include “skinny,” “rude” and “smart.” If autocomplete is any indicator, search engine users regularly wonder if Jews are smarter and whether African-Americans are better athletes.

In a statement, Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi, a Google spokeswoman, wrote: “The search queries that you see as part of autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of all Web users.” She declined to give an interview about autocomplete but added in her note that Google tries to accurately reflect the diversity of what is on the Internet, good or bad.

There are other possibilities for why these questions yield impolitic results.

One is the nature of language. Questions beginning with “is” might be more likely to lend themselves to asking about someone’s sexuality than questions beginning with, for example, “where.”

Another explanation for the autocomplete patterns could be some meddling by pranksters trying to game the system. That can happen with search engines. Recently, Bettina Wulff, wife of Christian Wulff, a former German president, asked Google to cease suggesting terms like “prostituierte,” after her name. Google refused, saying that the terms had been individually typed in many, many times.

The development of the autocomplete feature reflects the insatiable demand for speed among computer users. A reason the search engines offer the service is to cut down on misspellings, so Web pages can be delivered more quickly and accurately.

But another is to help people just feel as though things are moving faster, saving them the time of typing a few extra words. In an experiment several years ago, Google found that people reported more happiness with search even when the results were delivered a few milliseconds faster, at a rate below what the conscious mind can perceive.

Since then, Google and Microsoft have spent billions on returning faster searches to impatient users. So what might explain this apparent fascination with people’s sexual orientation?

Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University who studies gay issues, said that the frequency of such inquiries is a symptom of the politicised nature of homosexuality.

For instance, he said that people who are gay or who favour gay rights might be looking for allies and like-minded people, while people who oppose such rights might be looking
to demonise someone, whether a politician, athlete or actor.

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