More on the Google AdWords Controversy

A reader named Desmond Lawrence writes from London with further commentary on our “How Much Does Your Name Matter” podcast — specifically, about Harvard computer scientist Latanya Sweeney‘s research which found that online searches for people with distinctively black names was 25% more likely to produce an ad suggesting the person had an arrest record – regardless of whether that person had actually been arrested:

So when I was listening to your podcast on “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” I was surprised to hear about Latanya and her story about these Google Ads that were being served.
Now as much as the company Instant Checkmate would like to say that they are not at fault here, I can guarantee that I know what has happened with their AdWords campaign.
When you set up an AdWords campaign you tend to do a fair bit of research. From there you will build a campaign around Broad match, phrase match or even exact match.
You can also do a thing called Dynamic keyword insertion. Now this is where I would suggest that Instant Checkmate went wrong. If you place the Dynamic keyword call code into an ad, it will place the keyword that has called the ad into the ad, thus increasing the effectiveness of the ad.
For example
Keyword = Chocolate
Ad=  buy{Keyword:Chocolate} at cost price
Search query  = Chocolate truffle
Ad called = buy chocolate truffle at cost price.
Now this would mean that the keyword would have to be placed into the ad in order to call the rest of the search query.  Or with other forms of code  you can directly call keyword from your keyword cache. But it means that you would have to have a keyword in the cache.
This is a common beginner’s mistake that a lot of online marketing companies make when setting up their keyword query strings. They don’t double-check the keywords to ensure that the keywords are not going to be biased. In this case because of the type of ad the was being advertised, I would most definitely say the fault lies with the advertiser as it is their responsibility to not advertise discriminatory statements or campaigns.
As a qualified AdWords professional, who works in a digital market as head of digital for Skills Team, I find it severely irritating and insulting that there are jokers out there that would allow firstly advertising campaigns to go live without ensuring that it will not offend people, but instead encourage people to buy into the product (which in large part is Google AdWords — as if people continue having negative experiences with AdWords, it will drive paid marketing out as people won’t trust it).  Also that they do not test the campaigns extensively to see how the ads are responding and appearing.
To be honest, it’s time to name and shame advertisers like this.
Kind regards
Desmond Lawrence
Skills Team Ltd

I don’t have the ability to judge the validity of Desmond’s assessment. For the record, here’s a line from the podcast regarding Instant Checkmate’s response:

Instant Checkmate didn’t respond to our query but an official statement from the company about Latanya Sweeney’s study says: “Instant Checkmate would like to state unequivocally that it has never engaged in racial profiling in Google AdWords, and that we have absolutely no technology in place to even connect a name with a race.”


I think it says more about what we're searching for, than whether these companies are purposely engaging in racial profiling.

Ali Syme

That isn't how dynamic ads work - it shows keywords you've already entered, not the search queries (unless they are equal to keywords already selected)



So... his assertion is that the company came up with a list of stereotypically "black" names and bought searches for background checks for all of them, meanwhile hoping that no one would find out that they did so? Really?

Milton Recht

Having looked at Sweeney's paper, there is not enough information in the paper to determine if the results of the paper are biased by her own previous searches on Google. Google maintains a search history, which is different than a browser search history and Google has a procedure for turning off its use.

From Google, "Google Web History saves information about your activity, including pages you visit and searches on Google, as well as information about your search results (including personal results.). Over time, the service may use additional information about your activity on Google or other information you provide us in order to deliver a better experience."

"Basics: Search history personalization
By personalizing your results based on your search history, we hope to deliver you the most useful, relevant content for your search. Search history personalization is just one of the ways that we show you more personalized search results"

Sweeney had a protocol of clearing caches, removing cookies, etc. before each search, but there is no mention of turning off Google search history, which is stored at Google. Turning off Google history does not remove its contents. it just stops the addition of new information. Turning off history does not stop personalization using previous history.

Google has a procedure for turning off personalization.

" click Disable customizations based on search activity. (Because this preference is stored in a cookie, it'll affect anyone else who uses the same browser and computer as you)."

Furthermore, the setting is stored locally and clearing caches and removing cookies could result in restarting the existing Google history, Google personalization and its use in going forward searches.

Google states, "If you've disabled signed-out search history personalization, you'll need to disable it again after clearing your browser cookies. Clearing your Google cookie clears your search settings, thereby turning history-based customizations back on."

Sweeney began by clearing cookies, etc., which restarts Google search personalization.

Several browsers have an incognito setting, which hides the identity of the user and if Sweeney did not use the incognito setting in her searches, then her results might be different if she had.



I wonder: has anyone ever checked to see if those ads - racially biased, offensive, or whatever - actually work? (I can certainly see how - conceptually - learning algorithms with no built-in bias could produce biased outcomes.) Or are the advertisers just throwing out money in the belief that "If we advertise, they will come"?

As far as being offensive, can we do something about all those "one wierd trick..." ads? They're certainly offensive to the intelligence :-)

Ali Syme

Let me clear this up

If you want an ad to show for "chocolate cake" then you select "chocolate cake" as a keyword then create an ad with Chocolate Cake in the title. If you want to then show an ad for "low fat chocolate cake" you'd need to add that as a keyword and then make ANOTHER ad with "Low Fat Chocolate Cake" in the title.

What Dynamic Keyword Insertion does is save you having to make a lot of ads. So you put your keywords in and have one ad that will show one of the keywords you've chosen.

It will NOT show whatever the user searches for, unless what they search for is the same as one of your keywords

Whatever appears in that title is there because it was a keyword selected by the advertiser - Google doesn't edit sponsored results.

John Doe

Isn't much of advertising racially biased? I mean McDonalds has specific commercials for Suburbans than for Latino, than for Black, than for urban, etc.

Since blacks are statistically more likely to have criminal records would it be wrong for a criminal record search company to target black audiences (or at least black search subjects)?

This is not trying to debate why blacks have higher levels of criminal record (i.e., poverty and social causes are the real reason, not race).

My name is Dan

Does anyone remember the eBay controversy in 2005? It even took the big companies a few years to sort out these troubles:

Larry Kim

I've been working in search marketing for over 10 years. I read the harvard research "study" and thought complete rubbish.


Anecdotal evidence suggests there may be more: nothing special about using Chrome's Spanish-language interface in Europe, but get online from a US IP address and, sure enough, you instantly get flashy banners offering to let you see your arrest record.