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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.”